In one of our ward councils recently our Young Women's president expressed concern about participation among the youth of our ward.
It's not a new concern, certainly. Anyone who has parented teenagers has worried about how to keep his kids active in church, hoping they'll somehow find that spark of testimony that will propel them to those decisions that will bless their lives in a lasting way.
And most of us who have been there understand that there's no easy answer and there are certainly no guarantees.
A number of years ago, during my service as bishop in a ward that had a fairly large group of young men, we had a summit meeting of sorts with everyone who had anything to do with young men and boys from age 8 – 18. We were concerned about the drop out rate and wondered what (more) we could be doing to stem the tide. (I should point out that we did not discuss young women in this meeting, because we had seven in the ward, all of whom were quite active, but I suspect we could have had a similar discussion about young women and reached similar conclusions.)
We – bishopric, Aaronic priesthood advisers, scout leaders, Primary teachers & leaders, and a few interested parents – gathered for a Saturday morning. We reviewed programs, scriptures and stories of rescues (from the oft-told stories of the rescued handcart pioneers to a dramatic military rescue of a soldier behind enemy lines). We taught ourselves again of the value of these young people and the need to do whatever could be done to reach them.
A sizable portion of our meeting was brainstorming in small groups to generate ideas of what to do next. Everything was on the table from how we organized our scouting activities to assigning adult mentors to rethinking home teaching companionships to the way we collected fast offerings.
My biggest learning from the day was about the value of friends. It seems the kids who did the best had friends at church, and it seems those friendships helped to reinforce positive choices. It wasn't universally true – some kids who seemed to have good friends at church still made poor choices – but particularly for teenagers it seemed critical to have friends who reinforced what the kids had learned at home and at church.
That lesson bore itself out with my own kids over time. Those who had close friendships at church that reinforced the gospel teaching our kids were getting at home stayed truer and tended to make better choices. Those who didn't have those personal connections at church drifted away more easily and found it harder to hang on while waiting for the fire of testimony to ignite.
As I listened to our Young Women's president and to the discussion that followed, I thought about the tough road our kids face. From their parents they see an example of gospel service and the attendant blessings, but there are many other messages they see as well. At some critical times, a parent's voice is not the first one they hear. Or want to hear.
Of course the challenge is how to encourage those friendships. One of the most unnatural acts (especially for kids) is to be "assigned" to make friends.
I welcome your thoughts.