My Thoughts on the Mormon church’s New Youth Program

The Old Youth Program

About one year ago, my church announced the decision to drop boy scouts and personal progress. Listening to this news, I breathed a sigh of relief only wishing this news had come earlier. My son was about 13 at the time and technically could have had his eagle by then. Realistically, most boys squeeze in their Eagle project right before the age deadline at 18 years old (I have no data to back this up, just anecdotal experience), and my son was basically on track to do this if he wanted to do it, but with this announcement, he had a year to finish up or find another scout troop to finish.

Honestly, though, scouts within the church is usually at best half-baked. The leaders have been called into these positions from within the congregation, mostly untrained, often without their own boys in the program, many not all that far removed from being youths themselves. They are busy with their own lives. And the scouting program is crazy complicated with complicated requirements for badges and advancements. When done well, the program can be enormously valuable, but I’ve never seen it done well, mostly I’ve seen it done barely at all.

And that was my son’s basic experience. Even though he attended scout camps, many of the campouts, and the weekly activities, he did not advance. I complained about this sad fact and he eventually progressed to his Star and probably could have gotten Life, but not long after the announcement, we dropped it. The program was barely operating and my son basically lost whatever interest I tried to inject into him.

Something New

The church youth program has been on a holding pattern ever since with promises that a new program would soon replace it. That new program was introduced last Sunday, although I expect more details are still to be forthcoming.

Based on what I know right now, they pared down the youth program so much I’m not sure it’s worthy even to be called a program at all. Perhaps more meat is still to come, but it basically boils down to the youth working out goals along the four quadrants modelled after Jesus’ youth life described in Luke 2:52.

And Jesus aincreased in bwisdom and stature, and in cfavour with God and man.

Following Jesus’ example, each youth should set intellectual, physical, social and spiritual goals and then the youth program should organize to assist the youth accomplish these goals. In other words, just do whatever you want but make sure the youth have some voice in it, and make sure the activities enrich and develop each youth in ways that are relevant.

This all sounds great. I believe this “program” has the same goals previous programs did, but without the prescriptions, awards, and complications. But it also removes the oversight, the progress tracking and the infrastructure. It’s easy to see how this could devolve into just playing basketball every week which looked… awfully similar to my own youth experience – I ended up playing a lot of basketball.

These youth program changes, though, got me thinking about what precisely do I want from my church’s youth program. What I want may be different than what my children want and likely different than what other parents may want or need from church programs. But my desires are quite modest.

What I Want From a Youth Program

Deep friendships with others on the same spiritual path, with the same spiritual goals, within the same spiritual framework

I’m not sure whether or not my children will end up staying within Mormonism, statistically, it’s likely that at least half of my kids will leave.. But I want my kids to develop a spiritual life, a faith in God and a knowledge of their religious heritage. Mormonism has been my gift to them, I’d appreciate it if they would accepted the gifts within it even as they struggle with the challenges that come along with it as well.

The other day, one of my son’s friends shared dinner with us. He talked about how he had set goals to go on a mission, get married and have a family of his own. Milestones deeply important within Mormonism. Within the rigors of a college prep academic life and in secular culture writ large, our society has emphasized career over everything else. Our economy and associated markers for success have focused primarily on economic status, income and career. Societally speaking, we’ve run into some serious ditches along the way. I think our religious marginalization has something to do with some of the dysfunction we’re currently experiencing.

I think the church has been long set up to provide the contextual framework for deep youth friendships. Growing up, many of my closest friends were Mormon. Mid-week activities, Sunday meetings, weekend adventures, just getting youth to interact together regularly, that’s really all you need for friendships to blossom. Time has always been a big part of Mormonism.

Spiritual Mentors

Teenagers have a love/hate relationship with their parents. Raising kids takes a village. Being surrounded by caring adults, providing a lot of different kinds of role models, but each of them vetted for their deep commitment to love, service, kindness and spiritual connection. My wife and I have all kinds of gaps. Having other adults in my kids lives is a gift.

My kids are already involved in a lot of activities. They have teachers, coaches and advisors providing mentoring and support along academic, athletic and artistic dimensions. They need spiritual guides as well. People to model deep prayer, meditation, knowledge of the scriptures.

Mormonism has seminary that provides much of this, but it’s early and teenagers need more sleep. I wish seminary could be reduced to a 15 minute morning devotional, share a scripture and a thought, and then gather together to pray and be still for a moment of silent contemplation. I’m not sure how this would work for teenagers, but I think in the long run, this kind of spiritual practice minutes before the beginning of school would be much more valuable than dragging kids out of bed, making them sit at a desk, trying to pound through the scriptures.

And That’s Basically It

I don’t think our youth program really needs to be complicated. As our society has become more complicated, I see that our church is simplifying. I think that’s good. Let soccer leagues provide soccer. Let school provide school. Let music teachers teach music. The church should provide spiritual mentoring and training and that requires faith, some regular time, and a deep devotion to our young people.

So, I support the new church program, because it’s not really a program. Just get together and do stuff.

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