From Mormonism's 1830 birth to the 21st century, missionary work has been the faith's "identifying feature," President Thomas S. Monson told the all-male priesthood session Saturday night.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 65,000 missionaries who will be returning home within two years. Some of their replacements, the 85-year-old leader said, might be sitting in the audience at the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City or watching via satellite.
"Young men, are you ready to respond?" Monson asked. "Are you willing to work?"
He proposed a four-pronged "formula" to prepare future missionaries: "First, search the scriptures with diligence; second, plan your life with purpose (and, I might add, plan your life regardless of your age); third, teach the truth with testimony; and, fourth, serve the Lord with love."
"Ultimately, there is no substitute for love," Monson said. "Successful missionaries love their companions, their mission leaders and the precious persons whom they teach."
Several other speakers also mentioned missionary work.
Tad R. Callister, of the Presidency of the Seventy, noted the "dramatic increase in the spirituality and leadership skills of young men during their mission years."
Callister suggested three reasons for such growth: "We trust these young men as never before; we have high but loving expectations of them; and we train and retrain them so they can fulfill those expectations with excellence."
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the governing LDS First Presidency, described the four gospel titles Mormon men carry: son of God, disciple of Christ, healer of souls, heir of eternal life. But, he said, while Jesus' atonement is "meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same."
"Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God," Uchtdorf said. "This line of thinking leads some to believe that the church wants to create every member from a single mold that each one should look, feel, think and behave like every other."
Such sameness, he added, "would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father."
Apostle Robert D. Hales bemoaned the way society has spiraled away from "God-given doctrine, principles and commandments...[while] the standards of Christ and his church have not moved."
He urged the young men not to let others dictate their behavior.
"A true friend doesn't ask us to choose between the gospel and his or her friendship," Hales said. " ... A true friend strengthens us to stay on the straight and narrow path."
He counseled that God would stand with members if they stand with the faith even if they take some "heat" for it.
"We may experience misunderstanding, criticism and even false accusation," Hales said, "but we are never alone."