The Mormon experience is about being part of a community that seeks to follow Christ in a covenant relationship. The community aspect is more than just the theoretical understanding that we are all brothers and sisters of a Heavenly Father who, as Paul said, is the Father of our spirits (Heb. 12:9-10). It means we are active participants in our congregation, the "ward," where we all have opportunities to serve one another in unpaid callings ranging from leaders like bishops and Stake Presidents to teachers, choristers, clerks, counselors, Scoutmasters, etc.
The most ubiquitous calling in the Church may also be the most important: that of the home teacher for men, and the visiting teacher for women. These callings are generally extended to every active and some inactive adult members of the Church. These callings assign pairs of men or pairs of women as companionships responsible for a number of other people. The home teachers, for example, typically are assigned to three or more families or individuals and are asked to visit them monthly and watch out for them. It is a program felt to be at the core of the LDS experience, and one of the most important ways that we fulfill our commitment to follow Christ. "Lovest thou me? Feed my sheep." Home teaching is all about feeding one another, sometimes literally, but usually spiritually and through fellowship.
In one common scenario, an adult Melchizedek Priesthood holder and a younger Aaronic Priesthood holder (a Teacher or a Priest, often age 14-18) may be assigned as companions to visit perhaps three or four families. They should go monthly and see how the family is doing, provide a spiritual thought or lesson, or provide service. Good home teachers really bless the lives of their people, but it's always a challenge getting members to really live up to the potential of the sacred calling of home teacher.
A basic discussion can be found in the article "Home Teaching" by R. Wayne Boss in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.2:
Each ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assigns priesthood holders as home teachers to visit the homes of members every month. They go in pairs. . . . The home teaching program is a response to modern revelation commissioning those ordained to the priesthood to:
"teach, expound, exhort, baptize, and watch over the church . . . and visit the house of each member, and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties, . . . to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them; and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking. . . ." [D&C 20:42-54]
In 1987 Church President Ezra Taft Benson identified three basic guidelines to be followed by home teachers:
First, Church leaders are to encourage home teachers to know as well as possible the people they are called to teach. Home teachers need to be aware of individual attitudes, interests, and general Welfare, working closely with the head of each family to meet the family's temporal and spiritual needs.
Second, the Church expects home teachers to deliver a short monthly message. When possible, messages are to come from the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. Leaders are to instruct home teachers to prepare intellectually and spiritually, giving prayerful consideration to both the temporal and spiritual needs of each family as they prepare lessons. The companionship of the Holy Ghost is essential for successful home teaching, for "if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach" (D&C 42:14). The Church instructs home teachers, therefore, to pray together before each visit, invoking the blessings of the Lord upon the family, and, where possible, to pray with family members at the conclusion of the visit.
Third, home teachers are to magnify their callings (Jacob 1:19) by rendering devoted service. This includes visiting each family early in the month, by appointment, and making additional visits as needed.
Organizationally, home teaching provides a system for effective Churchwide communication. Through stakes, wards, and home teachers, Church leaders have a direct line to every member and have the potential, if necessary, to communicate quickly with the total Church membership, via the local priesthood leaders.
Effective home teaching makes significant contributions to members' lives. Alert, insightful home teachers find various ways of rendering service, such as providing recognition for achievements; informing families of Church activities; assisting during family emergencies, including illness or death; strengthening and encouraging less active members; and arranging transportation. They serve as resources and share the burden of support that would otherwise be carried by the bishop.
Home teaching is a crucible, of sorts. It is direct, fully engaged service and a genuine sacrifice in this busy world, even for those who (often mercifully) keep their visits short and efficient. It is a way to help those in need, to keep less active members tethered to their roots, to bring back lost sheep, to help families going through crisis, to provide the teachings of the Church to those who aren't coming, and to bless the lives of others in many ways.
For fathers who are raising young men, the experience of getting teenagers involved in serving others at personal level can help young people see the fruits of the Gospel more clearly and strengthen their understanding of their own faith.
Many of my most cherished spiritual experiences and even dramatic answers to prayers, some clearly in the category of miraculous, came not when I was praying for my own benefit or trying to, say, raise my 401k a few percentage points with my incredible but misguided faith in my lousy investment choices. The real miracles of the Gospel seem to come much more often when we are seeking the Lord's help to fulfill our duty in serving others. Home teaching for men, and visiting teaching for women (with women being assigned to minister to other women in the congregation), is much closer to heart of the Mormon experience that anything you'll read in the anti-Mormon blogs. Yes we have our weaknesses - and we even wear underwear, to the everlasting shock of some voyeuristic critics - but if you want to know what it means to be LDS, if you want to understand this religion, then you need to know how our faith in Christ translates into regular action in the lives of members. Home teaching and visiting teaching are a big part of the big picture of Mormonism.
If you're not LDS, the next time you hear the word "Mormon," I hope you will recall home teaching and our participation in the fellowship of Saints (Ephesians 2: 18-20). And if you are curious about our religion and know someone who's LDS, you'll sound a lot more knowledgeable by asking about their views and experiences in home teaching or visiting teaching that asking a question like, "How many wives do you have?"