SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church is stronger than ever, and young Mormons can feel confident marrying and starting a family despite legitimate concerns, the faith's leaders said Saturday.
Multiple speakers acknowledged the very real fears, challenges, trials and temptations confronting contemporary young Latter-day Saints throughout Saturday's three sessions of the 185th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Despite poor role models some have, the degradation of fatherhood and motherhood in popular media or reports of world trouble, failing families and attacks on marriages, LDS leaders said young adults can put their faith Heavenly Father's plan, in Jesus Christ and in the guidance of the Holy Ghost "to know how to create a home," as said Sister Linda K. Burton, the church's general Relief Society president.
That help is available because God ordained that a man and a woman should marry and establish families, and he wants them to succeed, said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Similar to the teachings of several other leaders, he also acknowledged "the sacrifices and successes of those for whom the ideal (family) is not a present reality."
During six hours of meetings that included news about church growth and the announcement of dozens of new church leaders, general conference was for much of the day the hottest trending topic on Twitter.
The church ended the year with 15,372,337 members, up about 290,000 from the year before.
Church members voted to sustain church leaders, including five new General Authorities, a new Young Men general presidency and a new counselor in the Primary general presidency during the Saturday afternoon session. (See story)
Five of the 20,000 people in the Conference Center for that session stood and opposed the sustaining votes for the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve and other general officers of the church. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency noted the votes and invited those who said "opposed" to contact their stake presidents.
Soon afterward, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addressed the questions and concerns some members have "as they seek to strengthen their faith and testimonies." He said other members should not be critical or judgmental but that those questions should with counsel with leaders and do everything to build their faith.
"Some have asserted that more members are leaving the Church today, and that there is more doubt and unbelief than in the past," he said. "This is simply not true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger. The number of members removing their names from the records of the Church has always been very small and is significantly less in recent years than in the past."
At the same time, there has been what he called "a dramatic increase" in the numbers of temple-endowed members with a current temple recommend, adult full-tithe payers and those serving missions.
"Let me say again," he added, "the church has never been stronger."
With another mention of challenges, Elder Cook asked, "How then do we deal with the harsh realities that surround us?"
Protection from today's and future storms includes righteousness, church ordinances and following Christ, he said.
"If the grim realities you are facing at this time seem dark and heavy and almost unbearable, remember that in the soul-wrenching darkness of Gethsemane and the incomprehensible torture and pain of Calvary, the Savior accomplished the atonement which resolves the most terrible burdens that occur in this life."
Families are also central to refuge.
"Our ability to stand firm and true and follow the Savior despite the vicissitudes of life is greatly strengthened by righteous families...," he said.
Young people concerned about marriage and children should recognize that men and women need each other, Sister Burton said. A man and woman complement each other, and by marrying and working together, they are stronger.
She quoted the church handbook, which says, “The nature of male and female spirits is such that they complete each other.”
President Boyd K. Packer shared personal stories about courting and loving his wife of nearly 70 years, Donna. The president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said young people have more to look forward to than they know.
"If you suppose that the full-blown rapture of young romantic love is the sum of the possibilities which spring from the fountains of life," he said, "you have not yet lived to see the devotion and the comfort of longtime married love. Married couples are tried by temptation, misunderstandings, financial problems, by family crises, by illness, and all the while love grows stronger.
"Mature love has a bliss not even imagined by newlyweds."
Several leaders explained the fundamental role of the family in LDS life and doctrine.
"The entire theology of our restored gospel centers on families and on ... marriage," said Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve. That is why, he said, marriage and family always will be important to the church.
That theology also sets Latter-day Saints apart from other faiths.
"What the restored gospel brings to the discussion on marriage and family is so large and so relevant that it cannot be overstated," Elder Perry said. "We make the subject eternal! We take the commitment and the sanctity of marriage to a greater level because of our belief and understanding that families go back to before this earth was, and that they can go forward into eternity."
A week earlier, during the General Women's Session of conference, Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, the General Young Woman President, said "LDS parents should teach their sons and daughters there is no greater honor, no more elevated title, and no more important role in this life than that of mother or father.
"If it is the Lord’s plan," she said, "it should also be our plan!"
Elder Christofferson delivered a detailed outline the centrality of the family in that theology, saying that because God ordained that parents should establish families, they enter a partnership with him and have his support.
"Nothing relative to our time on earth can be more important than physical birth and spiritual rebirth," he said, "the two prerequisites of eternal life."
President Packer and Elder Christofferson both spoke of the vital, sacred role of marital intimacy in God's plan. Part of that plan is for men and women to develop and demonstrate the ability to live his law outside his presence while in a body of appetites and passions.
"Could we bridle the flesh so that it became the instrument rather than the master of the spirit?" Elder Christofferson asked. "Could we be trusted both in time and eternity with godly powers, including power to create life?"
"The desire to mate in humankind is constant and very strong," President Packer said. "Our happiness in mortal life, our joy and exaltation, are dependent upon how we respond to these persistent, compelling physical desires.
"When entered into worthily, this process combines the most exquisite and exalted physical, emotional, and spiritual feelings associated with the word love. That part of life has no equal, no counterpart, in all human experience."
Elder Christofferson taught that Satan rebelled against God and his plan and his opposition is growing in intensity.
"He fights to discourage marriage and the formation of families, and where marriages and families are formed, he does what he can to disrupt them. He attacks everything that is sacred about human sexuality, tearing it from the context of marriage with a seemingly infinite array of immoral thoughts and acts."
Those who have made mistakes and committed sins, including exploring intimacy outside marriage, damage their spirits, President Packer said. However, through Christ they have a path back to complete happiness and purity.
"Unlike the case with our mortal bodies, when the repentance process is complete, no scars remain because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ," President Packer said.
Single men are inundated with false messages that being a "real man" means life "is all about me" and mocking messages that husbands and fathers are no longer needed, Sister Burton said.
"I plead with you to not listen to Satan’s lies! He has forfeited the sacred privilege of ever becoming a husband or father. Because he is jealous of those who have the sacred roles he will never fill, he is intent on making 'all men miserable like unto himself!'"
Elder Perry also acknowledged the difficulty in creating homes.
"It has never been more of a challenge to find a practical balance between employment, families, and personal needs than it is in our day," he said, adding, "In such a media- and internet-dominated world, it has never been harder to raise responsible children and to keep marriages and families together."
But he also said young people should feel reassured and comforted that marriage and family are still the aspiration of most people.
"Public opinion polls show that marriage is still the ideal and the hope among the majority of every age group," he said, "even among the 'Millennial Generation' where we hear so much about chosen singleness, personal freedom, and cohabitation instead of marriage.
"The fact is that strong majorities worldwide still want to have children and to create strong families."
President Packer and Elder Perry said the church intends to help.
"As a church, we want to assist in all that we can to create and support strong marriages and families," Elder Perry said. "It is because of our belief that marriages and families are eternal that we, as a church, want to be a leader and a participant in worldwide movements to strengthen them."
Elder Christofferson declared that LDS doctrine is that marriage and family are God's creation and "afamily built on the marriage of a man and woman supplies the best setting for God’s plan to thrive — the setting for the birth of children who come in purity and innocence from God, and the environment for the learning and preparation they will need for a successful mortal life and eternal life in the world to come."
"A critical mass of families built on such marriages is vital for societies to survive and flourish," he added. "That is why communities and nations generally have encouraged and protected marriage and the family as privileged institutions. It has never been just about the love and happiness of adults.
However, he said, "to declare the fundamental truths relative to marriage and family, is not to overlook or diminish the sacrifices and successes of those for whom the ideal is not a present reality.
"Some of you are denied the blessing of marriage for reasons including a lack of viable prospects, same-sex attraction, physical or mental impairments, or simply a fear of failure that, for the moment at least, overshadows faith. Or you may have married, but that marriage ended, and you are left to manage alone what two together can barely sustain. Some of you who are married cannot bear children despite overwhelming desires and pleading prayers."
In a footnote to his talk, he acknowledged that "people may be loyal to one another in non-marital relationships, and children can be born and raised, sometimes quite successfully, in other than a married two-parent family environment.
"But on average and in the majority of cases, evidence of the social benefits of marriage and of the comparatively superior outcomes for children in families headed by a married man and woman is extensive."
Raising a new bar
Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke directly to young Latter-day Saints, recalling a theme from a talk 13 years ago when he called for prospective missionaries to raise the bar on the preparation.
"What we need now is the greatest generation of young adults in church history," he said Saturday. "We need your whole heart and soul. We need vibrant, thinking, passionate young adults who know how to listen and respond to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit as you make your way through the daily trials and temptations of being a young Latter-day Saint.
"In other words, it's time to raise the bar not only for missionaries, but also for returned missionaries and for your entire generation."
He urged returned missionaries to "courageously repent" if necessary and not to shift their focus from serving others to focusing exclusively on school work or social activities.
"You single adults need to date and marry," Elder Ballard said. "Please stop delaying! I know some of you fear family formation. However, if you marry the right person at the right time and in the right place, you need not fear. In fact, many problems you encounter will be avoided if you are 'anxiously engaged' in righteous dating, courtship, and marriage."
President Thomas S. Monson, 87, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presided over all three sessions on Saturday but chose to speak only during the Priesthood Session. (See summary) In past years, he had delivered a welcoming talk on Saturday mornings.
"President Monson has chosen to reduce the number of talks he will deliver this conference," church spokesman Dale Jones said in a statement. "Over the years various formats have been used in general conference programs."
Elder Richard G. Scott, 86, of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, watched conference from home for health reasons, Jones said. President Packer, 90, who spoke Saturday morning, and Elder Robert D. Hales, 82, also stayed home for some sessions on Saturday.