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Discipleship is NOT a Spectator Sport

Elder Brent H. Nielson Seventy Presidency
February 14, 2023 11:15 AM

"As disciples of Jesus Christ, discipleship is not a spectator sport. . . . When we see people in need, we need to respond. When we see people who are struggling, we need to help. That is what disciples do."

Discipleship is NOT a Spectator Sport

Elder Brent H. Nielsen
Ensign College Devotional
February 14, 2023
Assembly Hall
Temple Square

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. It is a pleasure to be with you today. We are grateful to have neighbors with Bruce and Alynda Kusch. In fact, today I’m going to talk a little bit about our neighbors. And you’ll notice that as I do that the Savior was asked, “but who is my neighbor?” Our answer is Bruce and Alynda Kusch. That’s who are neighbor is. They live right across the street from us and we’re delighted to be here with them and with all of you.

We are so proud of you for all that you are accomplishing here and for the decision that you have made to continue to get a good education. I just want you to know how much we love you. I’m always instructed to bring the love of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve and I share that with you this morning. I was just in a meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve this morning and we express our love to you and thank you for your faithfulness and thank you for your devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My hope is that we can talk about an important topic that will or may bring enlightenment to all of us about how we respond as disciples.

As I begin I would share with you that we have become in the world today spectators. The World Cup just concluded recently and I noted on line that over a million people watched the World Cup. Can you believe that. A billion people watched that. Just two days ago we had a big event in the United States that they call the Super Bowl and there were 113 million people who watched that. We have become a generation of spectators. People who watch. People who are always looking to see what others are doing and I would like to talk to you about our discipleship.

I begin by sharing with you what I consider to be the landmark talk to the young adults of the Church just this past year when President Nelson spoke to you about choices for eternity. My wife and I listened to that talk and as soon as President Nelson completed his address, my wife turned to me and said: “That was Samuel the Lamanite on the wall.” I agreed with her. President Nelson taught us what we needed to know and he talked to us about our identity. He said that our identity is we are children of God, that we are children of the covenant, and finally that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. I love that because it helped me understand my identity and what I needed to be focused on.

Today, I would like to focus on number three, our role as disciples of Jesus Christ and maybe begin by talking about what a disciple is. The Bible dictionary teaches us that a disciple is a pupil or a learner. You all know about that. That’s who you are right now as you attend Ensign College. It’s a name used to denote all followers of Jesus Christ. That’s who we are. We are followers of Jesus Christ. We are His disciples. As we follow him, we call that discipleship. And so today I would like to talk to you about our individual discipleship.

I would first ask you if you and I are disciples of Jesus Christ, what does discipleship look like? If I were trying to figure out how I can be a disciple or what that might look like in my life, where would I turn to figure that out? Of course, the most important source is the Savior Himself. He was asked by a lawyer, in fact it say: “[A] lawyer came tempting him.”

I share that with you because I was a lawyer for 29 years and I often am grateful for these lawyers who came tempting him because some of the good things in the New Testament came because lawyers did that. They weren’t always the best folks around. A lot of the good information we have from the Savior came because a lawyer came tempting him asking him: “Master, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life.” And the Savior shared with him the two great commandments: “That should love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . . This is the first and great commandment.” And then he said: “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.” [i] And we’ve been taught recently that we don’t reverse those two commandments, that the first one is to love God and the second one is to love our neighbor.

Here is the interesting thing that happened. Right after the Savior said that, this lawyer said to him: “But who is my neighbor?” And the Savior gave the most amazing answer. He started to tell him in Luke, Chapter 10, that a man went down from Jerusalem to Jerricho. If any of you are familiar with the geography, you will know that Jerricho is below sea level. Jerusalem is high above sea level. He says that a man went down from Jerusalem to Jerricho, symbolic of you and me as we come down from heaven to this earth. And then the Savior said that he fell among thieves.

Now I want to share with you quickly the Bible video for just a minute that depicts this amazing event that the Savior describes because the Savior mentioned in this parable of the good Samaritan that a priest, a priest in the church, walked by this man, A Levite walked by this man who fell among thieves. And then a Samaritan helped him. Let’s just watch this great depiction.

Bile video, “The Good Samaritan.” [ii]  

After the Savior concludes that parable, he turns to the lawyer and said: “Who was his neighbor?” The answer, of course, was the good Samaritan who helped him.

It is interesting that in our day, Timothy said: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. . . . For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy.” [iii] And from the Doctrine and Covenants: “And in that day shall be heard of wars and rumors of wars, and the whole earth shall be in commotion, and men’s hearts shall fail them.” [iv]

So I wonder what that looks like for us as current latter-day disciples of Jesus Christ? And as I look around the world today, can I share with you what I see sometimes? This is one of the things I see. This wasn’t necessarily a temptation for my generation because when I was a young man growing up, we only had one channel on the television and it was in black and white. So we didn’t have a lot of screen time like you do. This is an interesting thing for you and I to ponder today as all of us are involved in using technology and I have to say that this is one of my favorite things. I love my phone. I love what it can tell me and what it can teach me but we need to think carefully about what it means for our discipleship.

During COVID, my wife and I figured out what binge watching was and maybe you did too. I love this little cartoon. It says: “Are you still watching?” And he says: “I’ll always be watching.” We have a tendency to spend our time doing things that don’t require us to do any action at all.

This is perhaps the most interesting one I wanted to share with you because it has a lot to do with the parable of the good Samaritan. I read that there have been sociological studies of our generation where they have learned something that they call “the bystander affect” which is rather than engaging with people around us, we have a tendency to just be engaged on our phones. It goes to an even more difficult level when people use a smartphone to film rather than to help. In fact, I think you would all agree with me that in our day, in the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest, if he had had a smartphone with him, would probably have filmed this man lying in the road and he would have shared it on social media. “Do you know what I saw on the road from Jerusalem to Jerricho? Look what I saw.” And the Levite priest might have shared that. Using our smartphone to film rather than to help. You see, discipleship is not a spectator sport. It requires you and it requires me to act.

And so I share with you this interesting scripture out of the Book of Mormon. This is the Book of Mormon inside of the Book of Mormon. It begins in chapter 1, verse 1, with this. “And now I, Mormon, make a record of the things which I have both seen and heard, and call it the Book of Mormon. . . . And about the time that Ammaron hid up the records unto the Lord, he came unto me, (I being about ten hears of age. . ..” [v] Now I want to just stop about there. I want you to think with me about what is happening here. This is a really unique experience. Ammaron has a record. What record does he have? He has the brass plates of Laban. He has 1st and 2nd Nephi, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon, Mosiah, Alma, 3rd and 4th Nephi, Mormon, Ether and Moroni. He’s got all those records and he is about to give it to a ten-year-old. Am I the only one that is concerned about that? I have a ten-year-old grandson and I think he is pretty cool but I am not sure I would give him the plates of Laban. But Amaron trusts Mormon and he goes on to tell us why he trusts him. “And I began to be learned somewhat after the manner of my people) and Amaron said unto me; I perceive that though art a sober child, and art quick to observe.” [vi]

I would say to all of you today that disciples of Jesus Christ are quick to observe. Instead of looking down, we are always looking up. We are looking to see who it is that we can help. We are looking to see what it is that we can do to share the gospel. We are looking to see what we can do when others are in need.

There is probably no better example that I know of personally than my wife, Marcia. I’ll never forget an experience in one of our sacrament meetings when one of our sons was passing the sacrament and Marcia was sitting in the middle of the row. It was fast Sunday and our son was passing the sacrament. She could see that he started to look like he was wavering a bit. He hadn’t eaten that day and she could see that he was getting unsteady on his feet. He started to fall and she jumped clear through the middle of the aisle and caught him before he fell. It was a miraculous thing. We called her supermom because of that. She was quick to observe.

When she and I go to stake conferences or on mission tours, Marcia is always looking and she’ll say to me: “I think we need to visit with that missionary. It looks like he or she is struggling.” A disciple of Jesus Christ is always quick to observe wherever we go.

I share this interesting scripture. This one is fascinating to me because for many years I read this but I didn’t realize that Lehi, as he teaches his sons and daughters about agency, talks about two different types of creations. Let’s see if we can identify those. “And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for these is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.” [vii]

Let me see if I can tell you how I understand that scripture. This podium here is made of wood. It used to be a tree out in the forest. When the lumberjacks went to cut this tree down, did the tree raise its limb and say: “Choose me. I want to be in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.” Did the tree choose to be here? It didn’t. Was the tree created to act or to be acted upon? Clearly acted upon.

When you went to eat your banana for breakfast this morning, did anybody’s banana say: “Don’t eat me today?” Mine didn’t. When God created the banana, did he create it to act or to be acted upon? Clearly acted upon. All of God’s creations, no matter where we look, were created to be acted upon, except you. He created you to act. It is critical for us to understand that as disciples of Jesus Christ, that is why we came to this earth. That you and I would come and exercise our agency and act when we see things that need to be acted upon.

You are all familiar with this great scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants. “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” [viii]

When Marcia and I were raising our children in Twin Falls, Idaho, she attended a BYU education week. One of the speakers that talked at the education week was sister Mary Hales, the wife of Elder Robert D. Hales. Sister Hales actually just passed away a few weeks ago. She was an incredible teacher. At this BYU education week, she taught something that really helped us in our family. In a few simple words, this is what she taught. We go to church to give, not to get. We go to church to give, not to get. She talked about her experience as she would walk in through the chapel door before sacrament meeting. And when she arrived through the chapel doors, she would look to see who in the congregation was sitting by themselves. She looks to see who needed help during sacrament meeting because they had a number of children. She would look to see if there was someone new here that I haven’t seen before because she knew she was going to church to give, not to get.

As she went to her relief society or Sunday school lesson, if it wasn’t quite as good as she had hoped it would be, she would raise her hand and try to help the teacher. After the lesson she would go up and compliment the teacher and thank them for their preparation. Thank them for their effort because she went to give, not to get.

So you can imagine in our family when anyone said: “Mom or dad, I don’t get anything out of Sunday School.” Do you know what we said to them? That is because we don’t’ go to get. Did you think we went to get? We actually go to give.

Discipleship is not a spectator sport. We go to church to give. I can tell you as the young wonderful people of this church, our rising generation, that when you go to church to give as you know, the heavens open. The Lord blesses us in ways we can’t imagine. He helps us become who we need to become. And we become his true disciples.

James said it this way: “But be you doers of the word, and not hearers only , . .” And this last phrase is the one that I perhaps miss the most in my life. He says: “deceiving your own selves.” [ix]

So let me tell you what that looks like to me. Many times in my life I have woken up on a Sunday morning. I went to my leadership meeting. I went to sacrament meeting. I went to Sunday School. I went to priesthood meeting. Check, check, check, check, and check. I got it done. I spiked the ball in the end zone. I did it. And guess what. I was deceiving myself because I had just gone to a lot of meetings. And James teaches us that we need to be doers of the word, not hearers only. And when we think that, we deceive ourselves.

To me this is one of the most powerful teachings of the Savior. He said: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” [x] The Savior was teaching us that if we will do the will of the Father, we will know if the doctrine.

Sometimes I will hear someone say: “You know what. I don’t really like missionary work, to do that.” And they usually haven’t ever done it. If you want to learn about missionary work, you actually have to do it. If you want to learn about the temple, you have to go to the temple. If you want to learn about serving other people, you actually need to serve other people.

“If any man will do the will of the Father, he will know if the doctrine.” They will understand it. They will know we have to be doing.

I want you to know that there has never been a better time to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ than today. And to give you just a few brief examples, I would share with you that when I was a senior in high school and I went to my seminary class, they had a picture of all twelve temples of the church in front of my classroom. All twelve. I had to memorize all twelve for my test. I had to know where they all were. Imagine doing that today with the 300 that are existing or that have been announced with many many more to come.

They gave me my group sheet. You all don’t even know what that is. It was this long piece of paper where I put my four generations. They would tell me that we were going to do the work for everyone that had ever lived. I was a cynical teenager and was like, I don’t think so. We only have twelve temples. Look at my group sheet. But you and I have seen the future. We have seen the announcements by President Nelson of all of the temples across the earth. Like I said, many more to come. You and I can go to the dentist office and while we wait for the dentist, I can get a name to take to the temple on my smartphone. This is incredible.

The Lord teaches us in Moses 1:39: “This is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” And I like to add: “And He will not fail.” He is going to do it. And you and I are beginning to see how that can happen.

We live in an amazing time. When I was a young man, I remember coming to Temple Square. We have fifteen thousand missionaries. They were telling us this was the most missionaries we have ever had. Fifteen thousand. There were three million members and we all thought: “Wow, this is as good as it gets.” And now, when we are almost seventeen million with almost sixty-five thousand missionaries now, it’s amazing to see.

There has never been a better time to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ than today. Our ability to help people all around the world as President Oakes reported to us in our last general conference, is amazing to see. And so I hope you can see that as disciples of Jesus Christ, this is an amazing time to live and you will have a great desire to want to participate as active participants as we continue to move this work forward across the world.

Nephi said this, and all of you have this scripture memorized: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things that the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” [xi] Those words, “go and do” are critical for us. I like how Nephi said it.

Disciples of Jesus Christ, that’s who we are. That’s our identity. “Wherefore, you must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” [xii]

Do you remember the question the lawyer asked the Savior? “Master, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Nephi taught us, right? We press forward with a steadfastness in Christ.

I say to you, this amazing, rising, generation of the church, you are going to see things that I could never imagine happen, not only in this world but in the church of Jesus Christ. I would say as Joseph Smith says in the 128th section: “Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward . . . Let your hearts rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” [xiii]

So, I end how I began. As disciples of Jesus Christ, it is not a spectator sport. Although this (referring to smartphone) is an amazing tool. Although it is something we can use, there are a lot of other activities that we can be involved in. You and I need to be really good at this. When we see people in need, we need to respond. When we see people who are struggling, we need to help. That is what disciples do.

I hope that as we think about the teachings of the Savior, I hope that as President Nelson has helped you and helped me understand our identity, that as disciples of Jesus Christ, that we will move forward with faith in Him, knowing that with Him, we can accomplish anything.

Again, I share our love with you. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for who you are. Thank you for the wonderful work that you are accomplishing here at Ensign College. We love you.

I bear my witness to you that God lives, that he truly is our father, that we are His and He is ours, and that the Savior Jesus Christ is our Savior and our redeemer. I love him. I am grateful for his teachings. I bear my witness to you that we have living prophets and apostles on the earth today whom I sustain with all my heart and I share that with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[i] Matthew 22:37-39
[ii] Luke 10:29-36
[iii] 2 Timothy 3:1-2.
[iv] D&C 45:26.
[v] Mormon 1:1-2
[vi] Mormon 1:1-2
[vii] 2 Nephi 2:14
[viii] D&C 58:27
[ix] James 1:22
[x] John 7:17
[xi] 1 Nephi 3:7
[xii] 2 Nephi 31:20
[xiii] D&C 128:22

About the Speaker

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Elder Brent H. Nielson

Elder Brent H. Nielson was sustained as a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 4, 2009. He previously served as an Area Seventy in the Idaho Area. Elder Nielson has served as a counselor in both the Pacific Area and Philippines Area and as the Philippines Area President. He served as the Executive Director of the Missionary Department from 2015 to 2020. Elder Nielson was named a member of the Presidency of the Seventy on August 1, 2020.

Elder Nielson attended Brigham Young University and received a Bachelor of Artsdegree in English in 1978. In 1981, he received a Juris Doctorate degree in law from the University of Utah. He practiced law in Twin Falls, Idaho, for 29 years. Elder Nielson has served in numerous Church callings, including full-time missionary in Finland, ward Young Men president, bishop, high councilor, counselor in a stake presidency, stake president, and Area Seventy. Brent Hatch Nielson was born in Burley, Idaho, USA, on December 8, 1954. He married Marcia Ann Bradford in 1978. They are the parents of six children.
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