We can help more of our young people remain faithful if we address the root causes of why they are falling away. The following proposes three actions that should be taken in YM and YW programs, priesthood and Relief Society curriculum, and in the structure and policies of our YSA programs.
Our YM/YW leaders need to take responsibility for helping to solve the YSA activity problem because it is on their watch where the inactivity of most less-active YSAs originates. We fool ourselves if we think we can empty the pool of inactive young single adults by re-organizing the YSA program. We need to shut off the flow into that pool. These specific initiatives can result in significant improvement.
If one of our young people reaches age 18 with little commitment to live the commandments, it generally isn’t because we didn’t offer rides to church or throw enough fun activities for him. Rather, it is because his parents and ward leaders didn’t give him the opportunity to find his life by losing it for the sake of the Savior. Children whose parents are giving them regular opportunities to serve and sacrifice to help others and build the Kingdom of God are at less risk. But we must give important, meaningful responsibilities in the Church to those young people whose parents aren’t regularly creating for them these opportunities. These young men and women need to have learned to love serving the Lord by the time they have finished high school.
The bishop’s counselor responsible for youth programs should lead this effort. It entails listing those young men and women who aren’t losing their lives for the Savior, and devising for them responsibilities that help them feel important and needed. We began teaching this principle four years ago in one area of the church. There is now strong evidence from those who have followed it that following this principle helps significantly in keeping at-risk young men and women, including those who already have slipped into inactivity, enthusiastically committed to the gospel. Some have done this by revisiting the paradigm that sitting in a 40-minute Sunday School class is the best way for 16-18 year-olds to learn and become committed to the gospel. Instead, they use that time to teach them how to teach. They then assign young men to serve as nursery workers and young women as assistant primary teachers. After these apprenticeships, they give them full and independent responsibility. The Welland Ward of the Hamilton Ontario Stake has a policy to call each priest as a ward missionary, assigning each as a companion to another priest. They attend weekly ward missionary correlation meeting, and reserve one evening each week to teach lessons to investigators and new and less-active members. In the last 5 years, 24 young men have turned 19 in that ward. Twenty-three have or are serving missions.
We noted above that parents and youth leaders are laying tracks for our youth, rail by rail. If the young adult destination we’re targeting is to have them be committed to serving the Lord and each other, and to be capable of teaching with clarity and testifying with conviction, we need to put down tracks that take them there.
Many leaders and parents of youth covet large wards that have enough young people to comprise the critical mass needed for keeping our young people strong. Never have the Savior’s yearnings for our youth included this wish, however. Rather, He would say that for our youth to become strong and to find themselves spiritually, we need to provide for them a critical mass of opportunities to lose their lives for the sake of His gospel. This is the critical mass that is critical.
We must arrest the trend amongst our young adults to marry later in their twenties. A generation ago, dating and marriage were more explicitly taught in Priests Quorum. I remember being taught how to dress, to show respect to and behave around girls, how to invite a girl on a date, what good dates were, and how dating led to marriage. We had priests quorum socials to which we were expected to invite dates. We actively discussed how to prepare to be a good husband and wife, and what to look for in a prospective spouse. Many mission presidents of that generation would advise their departing missionaries not to delay marriage. The expectation of dating and timely marriage was ingrained in us.
Even as society teaches today’s young people to “hang out” rather than to date and marry, however, I fear that we in the Church are cooperating in this movement by scaling back our teaching that marriage is a mission. Of 150 lessons in the three Aaronic Priesthood manuals, there are three lessons on marriage, none on dating, one on fatherhood, and four on respecting women and their role. (The three Young Women’s manuals, in contrast, have five lessons on marriage, three on dating, and 13 on being a wife and mother.) If we’re serious about our young men making the right choices about marriage at the right time, we must stop abdicating to society the responsibility of teaching the mission of marriage to our young men.
We lose almost all of our young people who graduate from high school and “stay local,” living in home and neighborhood environments where there is little support for staying active. We can spot most young people who are at risk of this outcome quite early. The bishop’s counselor for youth programs should take specific responsibility to develop for each of these vulnerable young men and women a specific, written plan to ensure that by their senior year they are academically, socially and spiritually qualified to be admitted to one of the BYU campuses. Their YM and YW advisers need to be charged to carry out this plan. BYU isn’t on the critical path to faithfulness for all of our young people. But for those who otherwise would likely fall through the crack if they stayed local, it is a crucial destination.
We began teaching the principles of member missionary work about ten years ago in one area of the church. Finally, phrases such as “we succeed when we invite” and “we can’t judge in advance who is prepared” are becoming part of our vocabulary – pervasively believed and practiced. We need to begin teaching the principles of parenting in a similar way – over and over, year after year – so that principles such as “give your children regular opportunities to lose their lives in the Savior’s service;” “ask your children to help you fulfill your callings and assignments,” “What’s the destination of the tracks you’re laying?” and “marriage is a mission” are a part of our vocabulary and culture. We cannot, given the society in which we live, assume that even active, temple-worthy young parents understand how to raise children whose faith is sufficiently robust.
Here are three possible changes to our young single adult programs.
It is helpful to think of our young men and women as investigators: As teenagers they are deciding whether the Church is true, and whether to commit themselves to lifelong membership or not. Graduation from high school and the YM/YW program is an event that in some ways is comparable to baptism in the life of a convert. It is the beginning of a very different stage of life. This suggests, then, that at this juncture they too need friends, responsibility, and nourishment in the good word of God. Even if parents and youth leaders lay tracks towards the destination of faith and commitment to service, if the adult programs don’t meet those tracks at the border with continued tracks, many precious lives will tumble off the rails.
We have seen amongst new converts that many of them slip away quickly after baptism because they just don’t feel like they fit in the Church. They have not been prepared to accept responsibility, and we have not been prepared to give them responsibility. Our remedy for this in the missionary effort is to prepare them as investigators to accept responsibility, and to have a custom-configured calling ready for each new convert at the time of baptism. Similarly, our bishops ought to meet with each of our young men and women on the Sunday before high school graduation and give each a calling that will constitute a path for spiritual growth, leadership development and for feeling needed in building the Kingdom of God. Many young men who are dangerously ambivalent towards the Church at this juncture in their lives would be sent on a very different trajectory if, the Sunday after high school graduation, they began serving as a counselor in the elders quorum presidency. Young women at this point would similarly be sent in the right trajectory if they were called to teach Relief Society. Returning missionaries would not face such a difficult transition to civilian life if, instead of languishing for months without a significant and structured calling, there were demanding responsibilities waiting for them upon their return.
Providing opportunities to lose their lives is most important for those young men who are not headed towards missions. When a young man is on this trajectory at high school graduation, the youth leaders typically give him up, and the elders rarely take him in. At the time in their lives when these young men need most to be needed, we give them the least attention.
In the stream of working papers we have considered over the past five years, we have taught ourselves that the pattern God always has followed in staffing His kingdom on earth is to call the simple and weak, and then to transform them into great, powerful leaders. We have urged ourselves to call new members and those who are less active and presently not worthy or qualified to positions of important responsibility. I now urge that we add our young men and women and our young single adult members to this list of potentially mighty servants of God. Perhaps the reason why so many of our best adult leaders come to feel burned out in their church service is because we don’t burn in the next generation of leaders.
God’s track record in transforming the simple, the young and the weak into people of great power is quite impressive. The ranks of those so transformed include Enoch, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Alma the Older and Younger, Peter, Mormon and Joseph Smith. Orson Pratt was called as an apostle at age 24. As He did with Saul, God made each of these into a new man, giving each a new heart (I Samuel 10:6-9). The rub in calling the young, the simple, and the weak into positions of responsibility, of course, is that we need to trust God. We need to trust that He is able to do in our day what He did in the past.
If the calling of our young people into these positions displaces many of the capable, committed and experienced adults who now occupy them, what might become of them in the Kingdom? They could become Christians. They could use their commitment and maturity to magnify less structured assignments that today get done very poorly in our wards – serving, for example, as ward missionaries. Rather than being asked to “think outside the box,” these proven adult leaders can be tasked to “think outside the building,” focusing on bringing into the Church those who do not yet belong, with keeping new converts active and bringing previous converts back into the fold. Ours would be a much larger, stronger church if we would shift the backs upon which we place various burdens.
Many of us are hobbled by a misconception that if someone is inactive he has no interest in spiritual growth and service to others. We therefore seek to appeal to him with entertainment: “Come join us because we do fun and interesting things.” The world mounts tough competition for this offering, and therefore there typically is no compelling reason for most less-active YSAs to join in.
It is a safer bet to assume that many of those who are not now active still have a deep need to be needed in a noble cause. We must build our YSA units and our stake YSA programs on priesthood and compassionate service, missionary work, and activation. Such YSA units offer several dimensions that appeal to less active YSAs: Spiritual growth tailored to their needs; true service to other YSAs; and building friendships and relationships via activities and service together. Most important, there are bishops and other leaders who feel greater extrinsic motivation to reach out to those who are marginally active or are slipping away, than do geographic ward leaders.6 We must make two changes, however:
In stakes with YSA units we should gradually move away from the “opt-in” policy for membership records, towards an “opt-out” policy instead. The present policy creates uncertainty about who is responsible for individual YSA members, and it leaves responsibility for most inactive YSA members with the bishops who feel the least extrinsic pressure to focus on them. We should move gradually in this direction by asking the singles unit bishops every quarter to consult with each geographic ward bishop, and then to pull the membership records of one or two less-active YSA members from each ward into the YSA ward – where concerted efforts to bring these young people into activity can be a key focus of YSA ward members and leaders.
Ultimately, when we truly have built the culture envisioned above in these YSA units, we should expect all YSA members in the stake to have their membership records in the YSA ward. Leaders of that ward should hold orientation meetings with high school seniors to help them see how deeply there are needed in the Church, and to show how much service, love and growth they can expect when they join. Where circumstances warrant, of course, we must allow individual members to opt out of the singles ward, putting their membership records in their geographic ward.
The purpose of YSA Wards is to cement the feet of their members in the gospel of Jesus Christ, by giving them meaningful opportunities to serve, teach, lead, and strengthen the faith of others. If the cultures of our YSA units have this focus, more members will participate enthusiastically and we will succeed in bringing back more of those who are falling into inactivity. We must ensure that if a self-focused social culture exists in one of these units, it is replaced with an outward-focused culture of seeking, serving and strengthening other YSAs. The Savior offered a cultural litmus test – a sense of true north – towards which our single adult leaders must continually aim: “By this shall all men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 17:37). A culture consistent with this litmus test must be so strong in our YSA units that every member can recite what it is, where it came from, and what they must do individually to reinforce this mission of their ward.
We will create more opportunities for our YSA members to find and fall in love with faithful LDS partners if we help more of them take the Savior’s yoke upon them, pulling together to help those who are weak. Rarely should they be called to serve alone. If we give them more meaningful opportunities together to lose their lives for the sake of the Savior, more of them will find their lives – and find the right person to marry as well. Consider this insight, which I have distilled from a letter I received about what leaders in a BYU stake have done:
A recently released president of a BYU stake who had served previously as bishop in that stake, followed the principles described above. He learned through a survey that the typical member of his ward felt he (or she) had fewer than ten friends in the ward. Many members did not even know those in their own home evening group well enough to call them “friend”. He had felt his members were very active socially, but he learned that most members of the ward dated very infrequently, if at all. He posited that helping them find friends by playing together wasn’t working because individuals have such divergent interests. Giving them opportunities to work and serve together, however, could unite them in common purposes, and thus give ward members many more opportunities to forge friendships.
In contrast with conventional wards, YSA wards have many more adults eager to serve, and many fewer conventional callings. Most singles wards respond by creating trivial jobs such as song book coordinator so that they can say everyone has a calling. To solve this problem, this bishop created two elders quorums and three Relief Societies in his ward. Immediate benefits began to be realized from more members having a meaningful calling that required both training and an opportunity to return and report. Elders and Relief Society presidencies concentrated on ministering to their members through home and visiting teachers – each of whom they could personally interview each month, because the quorums and Relief Societies were small.
Next, this bishop created councils to address the missions of the Church and challenges in the ward. Friendships aren’t forged when working alone, so he wanted each member to serve on a council with 5-6 other members, working arm-in-arm helping others. Councils became adjuncts to the elders quorum and the Relief Society presidencies in bringing ward members to Christ. The councils are: Activities, Friendship, Gospel Teaching and Leadership, Home Evening, Institute, Missionary, Music, Publicity, Service, Spiritual and Temporal Welfare, and Temple & Family History.
The result of this structure was that indeed every member of his ward was serving with other members in a meaningful calling. The number of friendships in the wards increased dramatically. After this bishop became stake president he asked all wards in his stake to adopt this system. Home teachers in that stake consistently have fulfilled over 90% of their monthly assignments – very high for BYU. And these were visits from the home teachers, not presidency members or home-teaching supervisors. And quite remarkably, the number of marriages in his stake was consistently above the average of the other BYU stakes – a confirmation that while social opportunities are important, the best opportunities to know, respect and love others arise when we work together towards a common goal.
The principles underlying the achievements of this BYU Stake are directly applicable to our singles wards and branches. But they should be applied in every stake’s YSA program. God will bless those YSA members whose eye is single to His glory (D&C 59:1) – which glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of all men (Moses 1:39), not just those other active YSAs members who attend activities. We must give our YSAs the responsibility to labor not alone, but together in councils to bring immortality and eternal life to others. If we do, then those that they convert, reactivate and strengthen will be the treasures of our young single adults – and where their treasure is, there will their hearts be also (Matt. 6:21).
I do not think that leaders of our YSA units should regard following this principle as an option. We have an urgent responsibility to follow it. Think about what the ratio of three women to one man in our YSA groups truly means to two-thirds of the young single adult women over whom God has given us stewardship. Most of these two-thirds will either never marry, or will marry a less-active or non-member. An entire generation is at great risk. The already fragile self-esteem of many of these women takes a beating when there is no prospect of marriage. The leaders of most of our YSA groups and units carve up the limited number of conventional callings into small pieces, and then try to give every person a “calling.” Many of these entail working individually at one of these narrow tasks. This further hits their self-esteem, when priesthood leaders signal to them that the need for them in the Kingdom of God is limited. If instead we will follow Elder Ballard’s counsel as implemented in the example above, these YSA women and men can work together to accomplish broad and noble purposes. If led in ways that help them succeed with the missions of their councils, their sense of self-worth and of being needed in the Kingdom of God will grow. These activities also can constitute a mechanism to bring back some young men from inactivity and unworthiness.
If you are in doubt about the urgency of this challenge, let me give you a suggestion. Follow the Ghost of Christmas Present into a YSA activity or sacrament meeting in your stake. Sit on the stand, and look into the faces of the young adult women in the audience. Realize, as you do so, that each of these is a daughter of God, and of earthly parents just like you. Then ask the Ghost of Christmas Future to take you to a typical activity of the single adults over age 30 in your stake. Then write in your journal how you feel, and what you intend to do about it.
Coordinating YSA activities on a regional scale creates more opportunities to meet and feel the strength of other YSA members. These activities can be large regional events held three or four times each year, as well as “exchanges” involving two or three YSA wards or groups that would happen more frequently.
Each of our stakes is in a different situation with respect to the issues raised in this working paper – so we each need to formulate our own plan of action for strengthening our young single adult members’ grasp of the iron rod. Each plan, however, needs to account for these factors:
May God bless each of you as you and your colleagues prayerfully determine what the Lord would have you do.