An alarming proportion of our young single adults are falling away from faithful activity in the Church. While many factors contribute to so many of our young single adults losing their grasp of the Iron Rod, here are six key observations:
While many factors contribute to so many of our young single adults losing their grasp of the Iron Rod, this document focuses on six, which are described in the following sections.
Our youth programs bring considerable structure and daily support to the lives of our young people. Scouting, YW personal progress, Duty to God, seminary, dedicated youth advisers and bishopric interviews twice annually keep our young people focused. Missions offer extensive structure. Through this structure, rail by rail, we lay tracks for our youth along which their lives roll. (As noted below, these tracks very often don’t lead our youth to the destination that parents and leaders intend.) When our young men and women graduate from high school, however, the track suddenly ends, and they enter an adult world in the Church where there is little structure to help them keep their lives straight. They become an elder amongst many Melchizedek Priesthood holders, or a single sister among many mothers.
Marriage generally brings structure and mutual support to young adults. The activity of those who have married, consequently, is significantly higher than for unmarried members of similar age and from similar backgrounds.
We strive to create in our young men an expectation that they will serve missions at age 19. We teach that a mission is a duty. We do not, however, focus with similar intensity during their teen years on the fact that marriage and parenthood are missions of similar urgency. Even as falsehoods about the missions of marriage and parenthood are being aggressively taught by the adversaries of God, there is inadequate discourse about them in most of our YM programs and in many of our homes during the very teenage years when those attitudes and expectations must be nurtured. There is too little emphasis on courtship and marriage—why and how to date, when and how to find and fall in love with a worthy woman, and how happy marriages are built. As a result, many of our young men reach their mid twenties not knowing how to fall in love and feeling little urgency to do so.
It would be foolish to expect our young men and women to uniformly fall in love before age 25. There always has been a distribution around the mean age of marriage, and some of our finest church leaders have married later. But the shifting of the average of this distribution to older ages at marriage is not a casual problem because, as noted above, marriage usually provides badly needed support and structure for young adult men. Think of what Satan has done. Even as he floods the world with alcohol and pornography and makes pre-marital sex acceptable and accessible, Satan has figured out that if he can cause our young men to delay marriage, he prolongs the period in their lives when they are most vulnerable to these temptations. Marrying sooner rather than later can be a matter of eternal life and death for our young men and women—an insight that Satan seems to have gotten long before we did.
If you simply count who attends Sunday meetings in our YSA wards, or who attends YSA activities in stakes where there are no YSA units, the women often outnumber men by 3:1. Where did the young men go? In one area of the church, about 40% of our young men and women of record are active at age 16. About 20% of our young men of record, aged 19-24, have served or are serving missions. Because we correctly hold honorable missionary service up as such a strong ideal, however, those who do not or cannot serve missions often feel that they don’t then belong in the Church. If a young man chooses not to serve a mission or isn’t qualified to serve, the probability that he will remain active is nearly zero. We fail in not sending them, and then we fail again when we do not have a way to catch them, help them build their faith, and stay active in the Church as adults.
This is the main driver of the 3:1 ratio. We unwittingly are causing our young men to feel that in not choosing a mission, they are choosing not to be active in the Church. Possibly more of our young women remain active into young adulthood because they don’t face such a stark fork in the road at age 19. A critical secondary driver of this ratio is that some of those young men who do serve missions are subsequently lured into inactivity because of factors 1 and 2 above. As a result there are not nearly enough active YSA men aged 24-30 for our faithful YSA women to marry. As a result, many of our YSA women become angry—even bitter—and fall away from activity themselves.
The fourth reason is that many youth leaders have framed incorrectly how to prepare our young men and women to become mature, converted adults. Having wards with a critical mass of youth, led by charismatic leaders who organize engaging youth activities is a good thing. Teaching doctrine with clarity and conviction is even more important. But Christ taught that if we really want our young people to find their lives, we need to give them profound and repeated opportunities to lose their lives for His sake while they are young—so that by age 18 they have learned to love to serve the Lord (Mark 8:35). We deny this opportunity to our youth when the backbone of our programs consists of adults serving, teaching, and providing entertainment for our youth.
Many fathers and mothers mirror the attitude of many youth leaders, measuring good parenting by the enriching experiences they give their children. They drive their children instead of expecting them to walk; and enroll them in so many enriching lessons, teams, and summer conferences that parents’ lives are consumed. (The term “soccer mom” was not in the dictionary a generation ago.) As a result, many of our young people grow up with a keener sense of self-interest than of duty to others or to God.
While we raise young men who play video games with extraordinary agility, many of them emotionally have not become adults by the time they reach their twenties. President Hinckley noted recently that women are now achieving more advanced levels of education than men. Immaturity might be a reason why many men in YSA groups preferentially date younger women. Because they feel they’ve achieved less they’re uncomfortable dating those of comparable age. Mission presidents see this in spades. They yearn for missionaries from farm families, because many of the missionaries who come from faithful suburban LDS homes have never independently labored under onerous responsibility.
A fifth factor is that many of those who are responsible for the spiritual health of YSA members generally know of their responsibility but they do not feel it. This seems true in nearly all regular wards, whether or not there is a singles ward in the stake.
A portion of our motivation to magnify our callings is intrinsic: the commitment comes from within. Another element of motivation, however, is extrinsic: pressure that is applied to us by the environment in which we work. Our YM and YW leaders feel responsible for the youth partially because they work in a system that extrinsically imposes that feeling upon them: Their weekly activities and lessons will flop unless they prepare and get enough kids there. Troubled marriages and welfare problems land on the bishop’s doorstep weekly, so he feels responsibility to help those members. Compassionate service problems grab the attention of Relief Society presidents. Elders quorum leaders feel pressure to recruit men to load and unload trucks with members’ furniture—or they’ll have to do it themselves. These things get done remarkably well. Part of the motivation is intrinsic. But there are also extrinsic mechanisms that cause these leaders to feel this responsibility: Extrinsic motivation, coupled with the intrinsic, results in action.
In contrast, the leaders of our geographic wards who are responsible do not feel responsible for YSA members. When YSA members decide to opt out of the Church, they simply stop showing up—and most leaders feel nothing. This is exacerbated by the mobility of YSA members. When they’re absent from church, does it mean that they moved, are visiting another ward, went back to school, inadvertently slept in, or decided to stop attending? In a church that is staffed by mortals, words in handbooks and names on membership lists can inform leaders of their responsibilities, but they do not provide extrinsic motivation. We may wish that words would do the trick, but they don’t. This is the fifth root cause of our YSA problem.
The Church’s records policy for singles units exacerbates this problem: it requires YSAs who choose to attend a YSA ward or branch to opt in, and then they must ask for their records to be transferred into the singles unit. This constitutes a de facto policy of allowing most of the YSAs who do not opt into the singles ward to opt out of the Church unnoticed.
Significant disagreement persists about the wisdom of singles wards. Some view them as the solution to this problem, while others view them as the cause of it. If we disbanded singles units and gave our bishops and Relief Society and Elders presidents complete and unambiguous listings of every YSA member under their stewardship, it would do little to solve the root cause of this problem. I suspect the data will show that the activity rates of YSAs in areas where there are no YSA units might be lower than where there are YSA units. The argument for YSA units is that they have bishops and Relief Society and Priesthood leaders who have greater extrinsic motivation to look after these members.
Fairly or unfairly, some view the purpose of YSA wards as to “meet, mingle and marry.” This reputation and culture attracts socially confident members. But that culture can intimidate and turn away the very members who are falling away from the Church—who often lack that confidence, or don’t share that purpose. If we ensure that the purpose of our YSA wards is known by all as providing all YSA members unique opportunities for leadership and service in the Kingdom—as places where they will come to love the Lord and love serving Him, we will attract more YSA members into full activity. And, more of them will marry.
The challenges our YSAs face are serious, but not insurmountable. We believe that through study, faith, prayer, hard work, counseling together and teaching each other, we can all learn how to better help our young single adults draw nearer to the Lord and find eternal companions—and that we will all find joy and peace as we build the kingdom of our Father together.