The summer brought a new experience for me: My first girl’s camp. My wife has been attending for countless years with our unending parade of daughters, but this was the first year that I was invited to attend under the safely vague title of “Priesthood Leader.” Apparently, that is Mormon speak for “someone who gives blessings, takes out the garbage, and makes sure there is fresh water for everyone.” In other words, I was one of four Camp Dads.
I wasn’t particularly excited at the prospect of going. Nature is overrated, and I’ve reached my zenith of “roughing it” when I lose the remote control. But unlike my abbreviated experience in Boy Scouts, this was more like a cheap hotel with a REALLY big yard. Most of my time was spent in air conditioning reading a book. Kind of like the other 361 days of the year.
Surprisingly, I had a good time. On a personal level, I made new friends, laughed a lot, successfully negotiated a hike up a hill (a bucket list item after dying a couple of times), and wound up the experience dressed in a tutu lip syncing to “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” (The Stake President has seen the video, and I still have my temple recommend, so don’t judge). From a broader perspective, I was able to see what a group of committed adult leaders can do to provide meaningful social, educational and spiritual experience to 12 to 17-year-old girls. Not all of it was up my alley—Dante never imagined anything as horrible as camp songs—but most of the girls seemed to find it an enjoyable and uplifting experience.
Near the end of the week, I was given an opportunity to share a short message with the girls from my own ward. I asked five of them to stand up. I told the group that I had been hearing all week about how much the girls loved each other, loved the gospel, and generally were just up to their eyeballs in Mormonism.
“But in six years,” I told them, “when all of you have graduated from high school, four of these five young women will no longer be active in the Church. Take a good look at them. Which four are you ready to lose?”
It was a somber moment. More somber, in my mind, because I was understating the truth. About 10% of young single adults are active. Regardless, my point was that if the girls hope to stay active in the Church, they need to get to nurturing their testimonies right now, because if they wait until later, they might already have exited the building…or, to be more symbolically accurate, have entered the great and spacious building.
I think that most Church leaders who are being honest with themselves recognize that the youth of Zion are faltering. That realization is reflected in program changes (such as diminishing the role of Boy Scouts, which I see as a move to “less tents, more testimony”), curriculum changes, the emphasis on graduating from seminary and institute, the lowering of the minimum age for full-time missionary service and so forth. Still, somewhere between the last years of high school and graduation from college, our youth are wandering into strange paths, with many of them unlikely to return.
Knowing that, I looked at the girls camp experience and was reminded of the lament of the Lord of the vineyard in Jacob 5: “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” I do not believe that the Church has failed in terms of effort. We have some wonderful programs in place to help youth progress from step to step in the gospel in preparation for missionary service and receiving temple ordinances. But something is amiss.
In part, the Church is suffering from the broader societal trends running against religious identification and participation. I think that exposure to misinformation or information without context through the internet also contributes to this, but I suspect that is more of a problem for older members of the Church rather than the youth. The current young people have been raised in a time of considerably more transparency and frank honesty from the Church than I was, so they are less likely to run up against something that the Church hasn’t already addressed.
My suspicion is that the problem is one of conversion and spirituality. My non-scientific sense of things from having taught youth for decades is that “I am a Mormon” doesn’t mean for some young people what we would hope it would mean. Identifying as a member of the Church isn’t translating into being spiritual sons and daughters of God and disciples of Christ. Social identification as a Church member simply does not have the same lasting hold on the heart as does devotion and discipleship to the Master.
This isn’t something that we don’t already know. The Lord has warned us repeatedly about the kinds of foundations on which we build our testimonies. The only firm and sure foundation is faith in Jesus Christ. He is perfect; every other option is flawed. We cannot build our testimony upon the notion of “I know the Church is true.” Aside from that statement being a grammatical mess, the “truthfulness” of the Church—meaning that the Church holds authority from God to minister among mankind and perform saving ordinances—is several steps farther along in the testimony construction project. We start with having a testimony of the divine and living Christ and developing an understanding and appreciation of His atonement for us. On that foundation, we lay other essential doctrinal principles: The restoration of the Gospel; the Book of Mormon; continuing revelation; essential ordinances; the temple; and on and on.
All of that, however, has to be firmly planted on the foundation of Christ. In my experience, that is what I hear too little of from our youth. Their testimonies too often neglect the reality of Jesus Christ and what He means for them personally. Their faith seems centered on something other than their conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our elder brother, and the author and finisher of our salvation. I believe that if Christ meant more to our youth, the chance of them faltering would be diminished. At that point, “Church” would be more than just a place to go; rather, it would be the place you go to find Christ. The Sacrament would become an essential and personal ordinance, a Holy Communion, rather than the name of a meeting. The Holy Ghost would be a companion rather than a concept.
Membership in a Church is something you do. Discipleship to Christ is something you are. Releasing one’s hold on the iron rod should be more than quitting a club. It needs to represent leaving the family and fellowship of Christ.
How do we move our youth towards deeper spiritual conversion? While the Church is moving in that direction, parents cannot expect Church leadership and youth teachers to do the heavy lifting. Such conversion most often will happen, if it happens at all, as the result of what is done in the home. What specifically we do in order to foster such conversion, I am not sure, but I can think of at least a place to start.
We adults in the Church need to provide better models of what a testimony means, both in terms of uttered testimonies and the testimonies reflected in our lives. We need to speak more of Christ, teach more of Christ, and rejoice more in Christ. Our spoken testimonies need to be more Christ-centered, rather than starting with the standard testimonial trifecta of “I know the Church is true. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God.” All of those things are essential to our testimonies, but we cannot omit the central truth of Christ’s reality, divinity, and redemptive role in our lives. If our own testimonies are insufficiently Christ-centered, then we need to engage in immediate and effective foundation repair.
In addition, we need to be more open in our informal discussions about our devotion to the Savior. Our youth should be able to clearly see that Church membership is part of, but not the essence of, our testimony of Christ. The promise of the prophet Nephi is that if we believe in Christ, we will believe in “these words,” meaning the Book of Mormon, as a direct result of that testimony. (2 Ne. 33:10). Too often we try to reverse the process. We cannot afford to do so. We have to start where the original apostles started: “We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:69).
We do so many great things with our youth, but we have to be cautious that great things do not take the place of necessary things. Prudence dictates that if we see cracks in our walls or ceilings, or if we notice that the doors in and out of the Church aren’t opening or closing as they should, then we check to see whether we have a foundation problem. I do not believe that we need new revelation or that the Church is fundamentally or fatally flawed. What I do believe is that we would be helped individually and collectively by adjusting our emphasis a little to ensure that our foundation rests on the Rock of our Redeemer. Only then will we be able to answer the question of shall the youth of Zion will falter with the hymn’s resolute response: “No!”