SALT LAKE CITY -- Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints delivered spiritual guidance aimed at strengthening members' faith amid a world of temptation and immorality and reaffirmed the faith's opposition to gay marriage during a church conference Saturday in Utah.
Many church members had been bracing for more announcements of change during the two-day conference because church President Russell M. Nelson has made a flurry of moves in his first year at the helm. Those decisions included the surprising repeal Thursday of 2015 policies that banned baptisms for children of gay parents and labeled people in same-sex marriages as sinners eligible for expulsion.
But through the first three sessions Saturday, faith leaders instead focused speeches on how members can become better followers of the faith. During an all-men's session Saturday night, Nelson encouraged men to be better husbands by making their wives a higher priority than watching sports.
"Your first and foremost duty as a bearer of the priesthood is to love and care for your wife. Become one with her. Be her partner," Nelson said. "Make it easy for her to want to be yours. No other interest in life should take priority over building an eternal relationship with her."
Neil L. Andersen, a member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke about the importance of one of the religion's signature proclamations that states marriage should be reserved for relationships between man and a woman and that a person's God-given gender is an essential part of a person's eternal identity.
"If we pick and choose what we accept in the proclamation, we cloud our eternal view," Andersen said.
He acknowledged that not all church members fit within the proclamation's boundaries and seemed to suggest there is room for LGBTQ members by offering an example of a gay member who follows church teachings to not engage in same-sex relationships to remain a faithful member.
"Some will say, 'You don't understand my situation.' I may not, but I testify that there is one who does understand," Andersen said. "There is one who, because of his sacrifice made in the garden and on the cross, knows your burdens. As you seek him and keep his commandments, I promise you that He will bless you and lift the burdens too heavy to bear alone."
The Utah-based faith widely known as the Mormon church has long opposed gay marriage and same-sex intimacy. But it has spent much of the last decade trying to carve out a more compassionate and welcoming stance toward LGBTQ members.
The conference brings about 100,000 people to Salt Lake City to watch five sessions in person. Millions more watch live broadcasts and livestreams.
Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian-born member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, cited Nelson's recent remarks about a world with "rampant immorality and addictive pornography" as he told members to root their families in the teachings of Christ and never reject family members or friends who stray from the correct path.
"Fill your hearts with compassion, run to them, fall on their neck, and kiss them, like the father of the prodigal son did," Soares said.
Becky Craven, a member of the Young Women General Presidency, dovetailed on Soares' speech by instructing members not to fall victim to temptation and be diligent following the faith's teachings. Craven advised members to make sure they don't let modern fashion prevent them from dressing modestly, especially in worship settings.
"As a covenant people, we are not meant to blend in with the rest of the world," Craven said. "We have been called a peculiar people - what a compliment."
The Utah-based faith teaches abstinence from alcohol, instructs members to wait until marriage to engage in sexual relations and encourages a modest dress code. The faith opposes same-sex relationships. The religion, widely known as the Mormon church, also asks members to avoid coffee and hot drinks as part of its health code.
Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, issued a plea for members to openly discuss their faith with others in ways that feels normal and natural and embrace the proselytizing component of the faith. He said church members can share their faith through an act of kindness or by posting testimonials on social media.
Uchtdorf encouraged members to talk about the new shortened Sunday worship schedule, from three hours to two, or explain the faith's push for use of the full name that emphasizes the faith's belief it is the "Church of Jesus Christ." The religion is trying to end the use of previously accepted shorthand names "Mormon" and "LDS."
Church membership growth and the number of convert baptisms have slowed in recent years. The new total membership announced Saturday of 16.3 million marked a mere 1.2 % increase from 2017 — the slowest membership growth rate since 1937 according to independent church researcher Matt Martinich.
Uchtdorf advised members not to get discouraged by people who don't immediately accept an invitation to join, suggesting patience is key.
"If we interact with people with the sole expectation that they soon will don a white jumpsuit and ask for directions to the nearest baptismal font, we're doing it wrong," said Uchtdorf, referring to a baptismal ceremony for new members. "Some who come and see will, perhaps, never join the church; some will at a later time. That is their choice. But that doesn't change our love for them."
Nelson, 94, ascended to the presidency in January 2018 after nearly three decades in a governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve that helps the president lead the faith.
He launched a campaign calling on people to stop using the shorthand names "Mormon" and "LDS," severed the faith's ties with the Boy Scouts of America after a century, revised how leaders handle closed-door interviews with young people and changed rules to allow missionaries to speak with their families more often.
Quorum of the Twelve member M. Russell Ballard said Nelson is "carrying the Lord's work forward at a breathtaking pace."
"I worry that the spiritual purposes of these adjustments might become lost in the excitement about the changes themselves," said Ballard, adding later: "Let's not complicate things with additional meetings, expectations, or requirements. Keep it simple. It is in that simplicity that you will find the peace, joy, and happiness."