The noisy sturm about Elder Holland notwithstanding, I believe Elder Yoon Hwan Choi gave the sleeper hit talk of this past General Conference. His address was a simple narrative of personal revelation and how Christ can enter the lives of our youth. More than this, it was an example of how we as lay clergy ought to approach our sermons. I’d like to look at his sermon, both in terms of its message and its form. I’m not doing any deep textual analysis, just taking an informal look at Choi’s story, his lessons and his structure.
The central narrative is indeed extremely simple: as a young bishop, Elder Choi took under his wing a group of loud youths. With the help of a missionary and some others, the troublemakers slowly emerge as powerful young men in the gospel. The rest of Elder Choi’s talk is spent exploring the principles and lessons that these young men internalized as part of their growth from boys to men. But while this story is very plain, it works well in Elder Choi’s talk for two reasons: first, it is a true story, and second, it is told in loving terms with an attention to detail that shows real care. For example, Choi relates that the boys are taught to sing in a triple quartet, and he gives us the name of their group: the Hanero Quartet, which means “be as one.” Choi consistently refers to the singing group with this Korean name, preserving for us a sense of realism and cultural exoticism.
Elder Choi’s principles for these young men can be summed up fairly easily: 1. Obey the Lord — and Church leaders — even when you don’t understand the reasons why commandments are given, and 2. Faithfully attend your Church meetings. That’s it!
Although Elder Choi chooses to make these two principles the most explicit lessons of his talk, there are a few others implicit in his address — indeed, acting isolation the two lessons he outlines are doomed to fail. If we are to save our youth, it will take more than obedience and attendance to meetings. What else did Elder Choi and his youth group do?
First, the adults pondered and prayed — and as Elder Choi indicates, it wasn’t to solve the loudness like the youth were some sort of problem, but rather there appears to have been a genuine motivation to help them, to befriend them and succor them. I wonder whether prayers to God on behalf of others are more effective when our motivation is truly altruistic.
Second, the adults opened their homes and lives to the youth, without precondition. Choi notes that “the boys visited our home almost every weekend and even on some weekdays. We fed them and taught them.” Other Church leaders sang with the boys and took them to various activities. In short, there was a concerted effort to provide a social framework and a network of trusted adult figures.
Third, the adults love those youth. It’s clear that youth are quick to spot pretense and false acts; the minute that a teen realizes that he or she is thought of as a service project, all efforts become likely to fail. So Elder Choi and the other local leaders can say, without guile, “priesthood leaders became like their fathers and leader’s wives became like their mothers.” He implores us, “let us love our boys although some of them are loud boys.” Elder Choi preaches a love that transcends our own selfish preferences, a love that loves even those who do not reciprocate. It is a powerful message.
Elder Choi does not end his talk with this narrative and the central principles of his talk, although such would be a typical structure. Instead, he spends some time looking at the broader impact these youth have had, relating how Choi’s own son was motivated to increased activity by the successful example of the Hanero Quartet. It’s an effective technique, because the example is drawn from Elder Choi’s personal life, and it shows the extent of the promise of helping the youth; ultimately it stabilizes the community as a whole and perpetuates good behavior in future generations.
Elder Choi’s talk is not a Neal Maxwell talk (or an Elder Holland talk, for that matter); it is rather brief and to the point. As such it may serve as a model for our own speaking. If we can use real, heartfelt stories, keep our morals to one or two talking points and show that our lesson can have some real-world impact, we may be well on the path to becoming better speakers ourselves.