The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convened its semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City on Saturday for the faith’s more than 16 million members to hear instructions from their top leaders.

Apostle Ronald A. Rasband: Promises, promises

Apostle Ronald A. Rasband addressed the importance of making and keeping promises.

“Our Savior Jesus Christ is our great exemplar when it comes to making and keeping promises and covenants. He came to earth promising to do the will of the Father. He taught gospel principles in word and in deed,” Rasband said. “He atoned for our sins that we might live again. He has honored every one of his promises.”

Keeping promises “is not a habit,” the apostle said in the afternoon’s concluding speech, “it is a characteristic of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

And, Rasband said, “When we keep promises to one another, we are more likely to keep promises to the Lord.”

Seventy Jorge M. Alvarado: Be an example

Jorge M. Alvarado of the Seventy spoke about the importance of parents setting an example for their children.

“We cannot assume that our children will learn to love the gospel on their own; it is our responsibility as parents to teach them,” the Puerto Rican native said. “For spiritual growth to occur, our children need to learn to exercise their own faith by making righteous choices. God has given our children the gift of agency. As parents, we need to encourage them to use that agency righteously so they can grow in their understanding of the ‘why’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

God wants to give his offspring “all the blessings reserved for his faithful children,” he said. “As we help our children learn how to use their agency wisely, our righteous example can inspire them to make their own righteous choices.”

Seventy L. Todd Budge: A purposeful life

L. Todd Budge of the Seventy told his listeners that “the good news of the gospel is not the promise of a life free of sorrow and tribulation but a life full of purpose and meaning —a life where our sorrows and afflictions can be ‘swallowed up in the joy of Christ.’”

In today’s world, “monster waves of death, physical and mental illness, and trials and afflictions of every kind break upon us,” he said. “Yet, through faith in Jesus Christ and choosing to trust in him, we ...can have light continually whether above the water or under the water. We can have the assurance that God never does cease to blow us toward the promised land.”

Sunday school President Mark L. Pace: Boosting Bible knowledge

Mark L. Pace, general president of the faith’s Sunday school, praised members for embracing the church’s new home-based study of the New Testament, called “Come, Follow Me.”

The effort, which was launched in January, has produced positive results, Pace said.

“After nine months of this worldwide scripture study effort, what do we see? We see Latter-day Saints everywhere growing in faith and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “We see individuals and families setting aside time throughout the week to study the words of our Savior. We see improving gospel instruction in our Sunday classes as we study the scriptures at home and share our insights at church. We see greater family joy and unity as we have moved from simply reading the scriptures to studying the scriptures in a profound way.”

It is “strengthening our conversion to Jesus Christ and his gospel. We are not simply trading one hour less in church on Sunday for one hour more of scripture study at home,” Pace said. “Learning the gospel is a consistent effort throughout the week.”

Seventy Ruben V. Alliaud: The Book of Mormon brings God’s power

Ruben V. Alliaud of the Seventy, who is from Argentina, told how he stayed with an uncle in the United States who had promised not to convert him to the church. But Alliaud found a copy of the Book of Mormon in the home, and says reading and praying about it converted him anyway.

“I came to know by the power of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon was true,” he said.

Alliaud encouraged members “to allow the power of the truths of the Book of Mormon to find us and embrace us once again” and promised that “it will do so if we allow it.”

He added, “Jesus Christ himself is the Lord of lost things. He cares for lost things…. In the end, nothing is truly lost to him.”

Apostle David A. Bednar: Beware of Satan’s disguises

Apostle David A. Bednar compared lessons he learned by watching cheetahs attempt to attack a herd of tapis, an African antelope, to how Satan assaults souls.

He said a cheetah’s coat acts as a beautiful disguise that makes it almost invisible in African grasslands.

“In a similar way, spiritually dangerous ideas and actions frequently can appear to be attractive, desirable or pleasurable,” he said. “Thus, in our contemporary world, each of us needs to beware of beguiling bad that pretends to be good.”

He added, “In a paradoxical period when violating the sanctity of human life is heralded as a right and chaos is described as liberty, how blessed we are to live in this latter-day dispensation when restored gospel light can shine brightly in our lives and help us to discern the adversary’s dark deceptions and distractions.”

He also noted that “a brief moment of carelessness or inattentiveness could invite a swift attack from a cheetah.” So he encouraged alertness and never taking a first step in a bad direction.

He learned it is wise to know the intent and tactics of the enemy.

“Lucifer seeks to frustrate our progression by tempting us to use our bodies improperly,” he said. “He attacks us through our appetites. He tempts us to eat things we should not eat, to drink things we should not drink, and to love as we should not love.”

Apostle Dalln H. Oaks: What is official doctrine?

Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, urged members not to speculate about unknown conditions in the spirit world after death but rather “trust in the Lord.”

“Many members of the church have had visions or other inspirations to inform them about how things operate or are organized in the spirit world, but these personal spiritual experiences are not to be understood or taught as the official doctrine of the church,” he said. “And, of course, there is abundant speculation by members and others in published sources like books on near-death experiences.”

Official doctrine, Oaks said, comes jointly from the 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Oaks repeated a previous statement by fellow apostle D. Todd Christofferson that “not every statement made by a church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole church.”

The First Presidency member also referenced a previous talk by apostle Neil L. Andersen, who said doctrine "is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk.”

Oaks pointed to the family proclamation, a 1995 document signed by the top two governing bodies of the faith, as carrying more weight. It says, for instance, that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

The apostle drew criticism from LGBTQ advocates — and especially transgender Latter-day Saints — when he told high-level church leaders Wednesday that the "intended meaning of ‘gender’ in the family proclamation and as used in church statements and publications since that time is biological sex at birth.”

On Saturday, Oaks described some of what is official doctrine about the spirit world.

“What we do know about the spirit world is that the Father’s and the Son’s work of salvation continues there," he said. “Our Savior initiated the work of declaring liberty to the captives, and that work continues as worthy and qualified messengers continue to preach the gospel, including repentance, to those who still need its cleansing effect.”

He said he received a letter from a woman who was about to marry a widower, and she wondered if she and the first wife would share a home in the next world or have separate dwellings. Oaks, who is on his second marriage after his first wife died, told her simply to trust in the Lord.

“Remember that God loves his children and will surely do what is best for each of us,” he said. “ ... There is so much we do not know that our only sure reliance is to trust in the Lord and his love for his children.”

He counseled, “Let us not teach or use as official doctrine what does not meet the standards of official doctrine. To do so does not further the work of the Lord and may even discourage individuals from seeking their own comfort or edification through the personal revelation the Lord’s plan provides for each of us.”

Apostle Dale G. Renlund: Be all-in with the gospel

Apostle Dale G. Renlund discussed the importance of full-fledged commitment to Christ’s gospel after joining the church.

“Being ‘converted unto the Lord’ means leaving one course of action, directed by an old belief system, and adopting a new one based on faith in Heavenly Father’s plan and in Jesus Christ and his atonement,” Renlund said. “This change is more than an intellectual acceptance of gospel teachings. It shapes our identity, transforms our understanding of life’s meaning and leads to unchanging fidelity to God.”

Conversion starts “with an unwavering commitment to God, followed by making that commitment part of who we are. Internalizing such a commitment is a lifelong process that requires patience and ongoing repentance,” he said. “Eventually, this commitment becomes part of who we are, embedded in our sense of self, and ever present in our lives. Just as we never forget our own name no matter what else we are thinking about, we never forget a commitment that is etched in our hearts."

He decried “a halfhearted commitment to our covenants will not guarantee us anything.” Believers may be tempted “to equivocate,” the apostle said, “... but an ambivalent commitment to our covenants will not open the door to the sanctifying power of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

Young Women leader Michelle D. Craig: Seek God’s guidance

Receiving God’s direction requires creating time and space daily to hear his voice, said Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, the first female speaker at this weekend’s conference.

“The distractions and noise that fill the world and our homes and our lives can make it more difficult to hear his voice,” she said. “These distractions can so occupy our minds and hearts, that we leave no room for the gentle promptings of the Holy Ghost.”

She said that God speaks in a still, small voice, so “you and I need to draw close to hear him.”

Craig added, “Just imagine what would happen if we were as intent on staying connected with heaven as we are on staying connected to Wi-Fi! Pick a time to listen for God’s voice every day. And keep this sacred appointment with exactness, for so very much depends on it!"

Apostle D. Todd Christofferson: Serve God despite the mocking

Apostle D. Todd Christofferson described the rewards in obeying divine commandments.

“We live in a hedonistic age when many question the importance of the Lord’s commandments or simply ignore them,” Christofferson said. “Not infrequently, people who flout divine directives such as the law of chastity, the standard of honesty, and the holiness of the Sabbath seem to prosper and enjoy the good things of life, at times even more so than those who are striving to be obedient. Some begin to wonder if the effort and sacrifices are worth it.”

Believers “who seek to uphold the Lord’s standard in dress, entertainment and sexual purity,” he said, sometimes face “merciless attacks in social media and in person.”

It is often “the youth and young adults among the saints, as well as women and mothers, who bear this cross of mocking and persecution.”

Being obedient doesn’t mean a life free of pain.

“There are trials and tragedies that could interrupt our joy,” Christofferson said. “But as we strive to overcome these challenges with the Savior’s help, it preserves both the joy we feel now and the joy we anticipate.”

Young Men President Stephen W. Owen: Be wary of tech

People should take time each day to disconnect from the world and connect with heaven, said Young Men General President Stephen W. Owen.

He said smartphones and other modern technology can be blessings in many ways, but “they can also distract us from the most important connection: our connection with heaven.”

He told of a stranded deer heard that was fed hay. It filled the animals’ stomachs but didn’t nourish them and they died. “Many of the messages that bombard us in the information age are the spiritual equivalent of feeding hay to deer — we can eat it all day long, but it will not nourish us.”

Seventy Terence M. Vinson: Focus on eternities

Terence M. Vinson of the presidency of the Seventy urged members to be “be committed — to be, as we say in Australia, ‘fair dinkum’ about living the gospel.”

The Latter-day Saint leader quoted a recent Latter-day Saint returned missionary, who said, ““What we need here is less Wi-Fi and more Nephi!”

Being fully immersed in and committed to the church “doesn’t mean that we will be continually enveloped in blessings or always have success,” Vinson said. “But it does mean that we will have joy. Joy is not fleeting pleasure, or even temporary happiness. Joy is enduring and is founded on our efforts being accepted by the Lord.”

He recommended that listeners review their priorities and see “the futility of prioritizing things of no eternal consequence above the things of God?”

There is “no treasure, nor any hobby, nor any status, nor any social media, nor any video games, nor any sport, nor any association with a celebrity, nor anything on earth,” Vinson said, “that is more precious than eternal life.”

Apostle Jeffrey Holland: Put Christ at the center

Excitement about new church initiatives and announcements mean nothing unless members remember that Jesus Christ is at the center of it, apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said in the first speech Saturday.

“Consider the swirl of bold initiatives and new announcements in the church in just these recent months,” he said. “As we minister to one another, or refine our Sabbath experience, or embrace a new program for children and youth, we will miss the real reason for these revelatory adjustments if we see them as disparate, unrelated elements rather than as an interrelated effort to help us build firmly on the Rock of our Salvation,” another name for Christ.

“Surely,” he said, “this is what President Russell M. Nelson intends in having us use the revealed name of the church.”

Holland recounted the biblical story of a blind mind who asked what a commotion was and was told that Jesus was passing by. He yelled out for his blessing, even as others tried to quiet him.

Like that man found Christ at the center of commotion, Holland said that “in spite of everything else this conference tradition may offer, it will mean little or nothing unless we find Jesus at the center of it.”

Similarly, he said people just learning about the church often are a bit overwhelmed by some of its unique elements from dietary restrictions to self-reliance supplies, pioneer treks and digitized family trees — and chapels called stake centers, where he said they may expect a fine charbroiled sirloin.

“As our new friends experience a multitude of new sights and sounds," Holland said, “we must point past the hustle and bustle and concentrate them on the meaning of it all, on the beating heart of the eternal gospel — the love of Heavenly Parents, the atoning gift of a divine son, the comforting guidance of the Holy Ghost, the latter-day restoration of all these truths and more.”

He concluded, “In case you may be striving to see more clearly and find meaning in the midst of a multitude of opinions, I point you toward that same Jesus and bear apostolic witness” that he lives, and that he is not only passing by but also is “coming to us, stopping beside us, and making his abode with us.”

This weekend’s conference comes amid many big changes in recent years announced by President Russell M. Nelson — including this week allowing women, not just men, to serve as official witnesses in church ordinances in its temples and at baptisms.

Also this week, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s First Presidency, dramatically altered the conversation with transgender members of the church, saying God created humans as male and female, who are defined by “biological sex at birth.”

Earlier this year, Nelson reversed a policy that had deemed same-sex married couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baby blessings and baptisms.

Other recent changes include lowering the ages that some male youths may be ordained to priesthood offices; reducing the length of Sunday services from three hours to two; urging use of the church’s full name; restructuring “home and visiting teaching” into “ministering”: eliminating local-congregation high priest groups; restructuring bishop youth interviews; and adjusting temple ceremonies to include more gender-inclusive language.