Thursday, January 6, 2011

Friends and Church Activity

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.


  1. I think a huge issue many kids face is the fact many church members have a tough time listening. They may hear--but hearing and listening aren't the same thing. There's a very strong temptation to assign reasons for inactivity, or outright leaving--you were offended, you want to sin, etc. But the fact is, the spectrum of human interaction is a lot broader than that, and usually, if you actually ask them, kids will tell you the truth. Take, for example, Prop. 8, an issue for many people. A lot of members, of all ages, would probably love to openly and honestly share their feelings--and, if those feelings were accepted, I think the fact of their acceptance would form stronger bonds with the church. The problem is, all too often, church members respond by "building fences"--e.g. chastising someone for criticizing Boyd K. Packer--and thus miss the opportunity. "Building fences", which, in most members' lives, has really just become a fancy way of saying "ostracizing those who don't agree with me", always has the opposite from the intended effect. If someone is honestly wrestling with an issue (e.g. should gay marriage be legalized?) judging them for doing so won't produce any positive result. It'll just make them feel judged, and reinforce their preexisting belief that the church has no place for them.

  2. Thanks for your comment, CJ. Of course I didn't intend this to become a Prop 8 discussion, but I take your comment about listening.

    I had a friend who was 10-15 years older than me who regularly engaged the youth in conversation - and listened to what they had to say. He did it not by assignment or because of a calling, but because he was a nice guy who knew the value of having someone show interest. It was a good example.

  3. My sons, growing up, tended not to have had friends at church despite rather large youth numbers, because (1) ward boundaries changes kept putting us in different wards, and (2) our family tend on the geeky side so that never-ending basketball (which is the male bonding mechanism of choice in our stake) wasn't really helpful.
    What was helpful was (1) adults in the ward who took time to attend school concerts and complimented our sons on their good work, (2) stake leaders who allowed our sons to attend the early morning seminary of their choice, and (3) local members who started a non-LDS Venturing Crew so that my boys could continue in Scouting (and bring their non-member friends both male and female) long after most LDS boys quit Scouting. (my personal opinion, after seeing the difference venturing makes for young people ages 18-21, is that YSA wards would be excellently served if they started a co-ed crew.)

  4. Coffinberry, those are great ideas. My boys benefitted from interested adults, as well. One son, in particular, still has lunch with an old home teacher whenever the son is in town, even though he doesn't attend church these days. The relationship was very meaningful.

    Interesting thought about the Venturing crew for YSA wards. I've never heard anyone suggest that before.

  5. I agree with your post in that it helps to have friends who are active. Teenagers tend to follow the example of their peers. Which makes it of even greater importance that the youth become leaders rather than followers, and that they lead by example.

  6. Paul

    Like the tone of your blog. Do you have an interest in the Word of Wisdom? Started a new blog focused on using the Word of Wisdom to be healthy in today's food environment. Any support would be appreciated. See
    Skip H.

  7. A really important things is not only having friends in the church, but having at least a few very key spiritual experiences with those friends. To create those spiritual experiences you will need to entice them away from the normal everyday distractions (YouTube, Facebook, Texting, Itunes, etc.). In our stake, one of the things they do is take the young men on a hike up Mt. Whitney.

  8. Brent, I agree that friendship alone is not enough. And kids are fortunate when there are activities that will allow them to bump up against the spirit often enough to finally recognize it.

    Adolfo, I agree there's value in the youth leading out. I'm grateful to see when our YM/YW leaders let them do that in the planning and executing of activities. I think that's a tough one for adult leaders who want things to be done "right", but it's a valuable skill for the youth to learn by doing.

  9. Friends can be such a help. In our YW group, it often happens that we get to an activity and instruct the girls to "quick! text everyone who isn't here!" It gets girls there.

    There is nothing like being wanted.

    I can't tell you how many times I'm needed- phone calls pour in about this committee and that calling- can you, will you, please help. . .and sometimes I just want someone to call- just because they want to hear my voice or do lunch.
    (And yes, I do try to make those calls, too).

  10. Leah, thanks for your comment. And what a great idea about texting! (So good to hear something positive about texting for a change!)

  11. I have a basic question. In the context of this post, what are "good choices" or "better choices" as opposed to "poor choices"?

  12. Andrew S, thanks for the question. I think I used the words "poor choices" and "better choices." I also used the words "positive choices."

    Poor choices were those that took kids further from the convenants they had made. Those may have been open acts of rebellion against parents or the church, or they may simply have been small things that still prevented those youth from feeling the spirit and drawing nearer to the Lord.

    Better choices are those that were better than the poor choices. And positive choices are also those that draw the youth closer to testimony, closer to the spirit, closer to their covenants.

    I know that every young person makes lots of choices each day, and some are more crucial than others. A choice to waste and hour watching TV instead of studying for a midterm may be a bad choice and a bad use of time, but it's not all that unusual until a young person learns the value of good grades and studying.

    But a choice that exposes a young person to the risk of addiction or pits that young person at odds with his loving parents or puts that young person at physical risk is certainly a poor choice.

    Generally good kids who had generally good kids as friends seemed more likely to bounce back from mistakes, or to avoid them all together.

  13. So, a person who grows up in the church but leaves is making a "poor choice." Prima facie.

    Ceteris paribus, who's making poorer choices: someone who stays in the church buthas some transgressions and sins...or someone who is clean-cut, but drifts away from the church?

  14. Well, Andrew, I'm not the judge. But someone who has made covenants and does not keep them is making a poor choice. Of course at the time of the experience described in my OP, I was a bishop, an agent of the church. So I was interested in both categories -- those who transgressed and those who left. While perhaps not always, those choices are often correlated.

    If one operates from the assumption that there are five saving ordinances that qualify us for exaltation (baptism, confirmation, ordination, endowment and sealing), then transgression and leaving would have similar effects in the life of a young person.

    Our goal was to do what we could to protect them from both.

  15. Suppose someone stayed (and pursued the five saving ordinances as you mentioned) in order not to upset his family/friends -- who have raised him and been raised with him to "assume" that these things qualify him for exaltation -- when these things (or other things related to church life) make him miserable.

    Is his duty just to be miserable for the duration of earthly life in the "assumption" that exaltation will be better? I.e., "endure to the end"? Or would that just be a "better choice" in every case?

  16. Hmmm. Not sure why you're so fascianted with the hypothetical.

    Each person can choose for himself. That's part of the Lord's plan for us. One hopes that pursuing the course revealed by the Savior through His prophets would lead to happiness.

    It certainly has so far for me. But I know others who have made different choices (poorer choices, in my view), I suppose because it has not be so for them.

  17. At least for me, it's because hypotheticals are a good way to find out how people think about issues that often *aren't* hypothetical (but with which a person may not have personally dealt, or at least with which a person does not think he has personally dealt).

    Anyway, I guess I understand.