The first weekend of April and October are big days for my family—and for other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes mistakenly called Mormons or the Mormon Church). They kind of feel like holidays. Because on those weekends, the entire Church membership gather for general conference, when the prophet, apostles and other Church leaders speak. Meetings are held in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, which was built specifically for this purpose, and are broadcast throughout the world.
I have tried to make general conference memorable for my children—and not just because there are five 2-hour meetings spread over the two days. We usually watch all the sessions at home. So we stock up on candy to play general conference bingo and print out puzzles and note-taking helps in preparation to hear the voice of the Lord through His servants. Speaking of the conference center, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said,
Here on these grounds, you see families of all sizes coming from every direction. Old friends embrace in joyful reunion, a marvelous choir is warming up, and protestors shout from their favorite soapbox. Missionaries of an earlier day look for former companions, while recently returned missionaries look for entirely new companions (if you know what I mean!). And photos? Heaven help us! With cell phones in every hand, we have morphed from “every member a missionary” to “every member a photographer.” In the midst of all of this delightful commotion, one could justifiably ask, “What does it all mean?”
… It will mean little or nothing unless we find Jesus at the center of it all.
How do we find the Savior in the joyful commotion of general conference? Let’s find out.
The Lord’s Church
The first place to find the Savior in general conference is in the structure of the Church—which is His Church. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught,
Absolutely basic to our faith is our testimony of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who under a divine plan was born in Bethlehem of Judea. … There is no other name given among men whereby we can be saved (see Acts 4:12). He is the author of our salvation, the giver of eternal life (see Hebrews 5:9). There is none to equal Him. There never has been. There never will be.
And Jesus Christ is the Head of His Church. President Russell M. Nelson explained,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints … is neither a democracy nor a republic. His is a kingdom—the kingdom of God on earth. His is a hierarchical church, with ultimate authority at the top. The Lord directs His anointed servants. They testify to all the world that God has again spoken. The heavens have been opened. A living linkage has been formed between heaven and earth in our day.
That supreme authority is supported by a firm foundation following an organizational pattern established anciently. Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone, with Apostles and prophets and all the gifts, powers, and blessings that characterized the Church in earlier days. (See 1 Corinthians 12:28.)
As the ancient Book of Mormon prophet Nephi taught,
… We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins (Nephi 25:26).
And this they do at general conference.
Gathering of the Saints
General conference is a worldwide gathering of Latter-day Saints. Some Church members attend in person, others at home or in church buildings via satellite, TV or the internet. And this is been a foundational element of God’s Church. Elder Robert D. Hales taught,
… Adam gathered his posterity and prophesied of things to come. Moses gathered the children of Israel and taught them the commandments he had received. The Savior taught multitudes gathered both in the Holy Land and on the American continent. Peter gathered believers in Jerusalem. The first general conference in these latter days was convened just two months after the Church was organized, and conferences have continued to this very day.
With a worldwide membership of more than 16 million, the Church can feel vast. But it is unifying to meet together twice a year at general conference. President Henry B. Eyring said,
Gathered in this meeting, which stretches across the world, are millions of disciples of Jesus Christ who are under covenant to always remember Him and serve Him. By the miracle of modern technology, the separation of time and of vast distances vanishes. We meet as if we are all together in one great hall.
As the Lord taught the early Saints of The Church of Jesus Christ,
… Where two or three are gathered together in my name, … behold, there will I be in the midst of them—even so am I in the midst of you (Doctrine & Covenants 6:32).
But conferences are about more than getting together. Latter-day Saints gather to learn of God, feel of His spirit and be edified, uplifted and taught. President Eyring continued,
… Even more important than our gathering together is in whose name we do so.
To Be Taught by the Spirit
Latter-day Saints gather in Christ’s name to learn of Him at general conference. There are five sessions: two general sessions during the days on Saturday and Sunday, and one Saturday evening session. The April evening session is for the men who have been ordained to the priesthood. In October, the evening session is for women and girls ages 8 and older. President Thomas S. Monson said,
… We have come here to be instructed and inspired. … Many messages, covering a variety of gospel topics, will be given during the next two days. Those men and women who will speak to you have sought heaven’s help concerning the messages they will give.
Both speakers and those hearing the messages are taught by the Spirit. At the beginning of one general conference, President Eyring counseled,
Today my message to us all is that there will be a precious opportunity in the next few days to choose to have our hearts softened and to receive and nourish the seed. The seed is the word of God, and it will be poured out on all of us who listen, watch, and read the proceedings of this conference. The music, the talks, and the testimonies have been prepared by servants of God who have sought diligently for the Holy Ghost to guide them in their preparation. They have prayed longer and more humbly as the days of the conference have approached.
They have prayed to have the power to encourage you to make the choices that will create in your heart a more fertile ground for the good word of God to grow and be fruitful. If you listen with the Spirit, you will find your heart softened, your faith strengthened, and your capacity to love the Lord increased.
Finding the Savior in General Conference Messages
Speakers are called and asked to deliver a message, but they are not assigned a topic. (In recent years, a few apostles and other Church leaders have been asked to discuss changes in policies or programs.) Elder Hales taught,
These conferences are always under the direction of the Lord, guided by His Spirit. We are not assigned specific topics. Over weeks and months, often through sleepless nights, we wait upon the Lord. Through fasting, praying, studying, and pondering, we learn the message that He wants us to give.
Some might ask, “Why doesn’t the inspiration come more easily and quickly?” The Lord taught Oliver Cowdery, “You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right.” Conference messages come to us after prayerful preparation, through the Holy Ghost.
Elder Andersen explained,
At times the central idea may come quickly, but the content and details still require enormous spiritual climbing. Fasting and prayer, study and faith are always part of the process. The Lord wants no pretense diminishing His voice to His Saints.
Church members are also asked to come to general conference prayerfully prepared to hear the words of counsel offered. Elder Hales said,
We study out in our minds what we need and desire from Heavenly Father, and we pray to understand and apply that which we are taught. As the time for conference arrives, we sacrifice other activities, “lay[ing] aside the things of this world, [to] seek for the things of a better.” Then we gather our families to hear the word of the Lord….
To Sustain the Prophet and Apostles
Another aspect of general conference is that members of The Church of Jesus Christ have an opportunity to sustain the Lord’s prophets and apostles during the Saturday afternoon session. At a recent general conference, Elder Ronald A. Rasband said,
This afternoon, each of us will raise our right arm to the square and sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not a mere formality, nor is it reserved for those called to general service. To sustain our leaders is a privilege; it comes coupled with a personal responsibility to share their burden and to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
President Nelson said,
Our sustaining of prophets is a personal commitment that we will do our utmost to uphold their prophetic priorities. Our sustaining is an oath-like indication that we recognize their calling as a prophet to be legitimate and binding upon us.
And it is a recognition that we follow the prophet because he is called of God. Elder Neil L. Andersen taught,
We embrace President Nelson as we would have embraced Peter or Moses if we had lived in their day. God told Moses, “I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.” We listen to the Lord’s prophet with the faith that his words are “from [the Lord’s] own mouth.”
Those who raise their hands in objection are invited to speak to their stake presidents (who are leaders of stakes, or a group of congregations) about their concerns.
Following the Prophet
Among the messages we hear at general conference is the counsel to follow the prophet. This is not blind obedience, but a willingness to obey the commandments and teachings of God. Elder Andersen explained,
Why are we so willing to follow the voice of our prophet? For those diligently seeking eternal life, the prophet’s voice brings spiritual safety in very turbulent times.
We live on a planet clamoring with a million voices. The internet, our smartphones, our bloated boxes of entertainment all plead for our attention and thrust their influence upon us, hoping we will buy their products and adopt their standards.
The seemingly endless array of information and opinion remind us of the scriptural warnings of being “tossed to and fro,” “driven with the wind,” and overcome by the “cunning craftiness” of those who “lie in wait to deceive.”
Anchoring our souls to the Lord Jesus Christ requires listening to those He sends.
The prophet’s mission is to lead people to Christ. We follow the prophet because he follows the Savior. Elder Andersen continued,
The prophet’s voice, while spoken kindly, will often be a voice asking us to change, to repent, and to return to the Lord. When correction is needed, let’s not delay. And don’t be alarmed when the prophet’s warning voice counters popular opinions of the day. The mocking fireballs of annoyed disbelievers are always hurled the moment the prophet begins to speak. …
Don’t be surprised if at times your personal views are not initially in harmony with the teachings of the Lord’s prophet. These are moments of learning, of humility, when we go to our knees in prayer. We walk forward in faith, trusting in God, knowing that with time we will receive more spiritual clarity from our Heavenly Father.
Finding the Savior
The messages from general conference point us directly to Christ. But listening to the speakers is just the beginning. We get the most out of general conference in the days, weeks and months that follow. Elder Andersen taught,
I testify that in this conference we have heard the voice of the Lord.
We should not be alarmed when the words of the Lord’s servants run counter to the thinking of the world and, at times, our own thinking. It has always been this way. I am on my knees in the temple with my Brethren. I attest to the goodness of their souls. Their greatest desire is to please the Lord and help God’s children return to His presence.
The Seventy; the Bishopric; the General Presidencies of the Relief Society, the Young Women, and the Primary; and other auxiliary leaders have added tremendous inspiration to this conference, as have the beautiful music and the thoughtful prayers.
There is a treasure chest of heavenly direction awaiting your discovery in the messages of general conference. The test for each of us is how we respond to what we hear, what we read, and what we feel.
So where do we find the Savior in general conference? In every aspect of it. In the music, the prayers, the words of the speakers and the voice of the prophet. Elder Andersen said,
A prophet does not stand between you and the Savior. Rather, he stands beside you and points the way to the Savior.
We see that firsthand at general conference. And we come closer to the Savior as we study the messages that point us to Him.