I’ve been catching up on General Conference, since I was unable to experience the April broadcast. The other day I was listening to President Eyring’s talk, “Help Them on Their Way Home,” and a particular line caught my attention: “[T]he family has the opportunity at the start of a child’s life to put feet firmly on the path home.” Pres. Eyring goes on to say,
Many bishops in the Church are inspired to call the strongest people in the ward to serve individual children in the Primary. They realize that if the children are strengthened with faith and testimony, they will be less likely to need rescue as teenagers. They realize that a strong spiritual foundation can make the difference for a lifetime.
The reason this caught my attention is that I have been having an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine about how wards are staffed. She thinks that too much emphasis is placed on the youth programs at the expense of Primary, which is actually more important because, in her opinion, if a child is given a firm foundation in the gospel during those years, not only is he less likely to “stray from the path” as a teenager, but if he does stray as a young person, he is more likely to come back when he is older. I think her argument makes enough sense. Certainly there are stories in the scriptures that would support this thesis (if you’re into that sort of thing), notably Alma the Younger, who rebelled against the church as a young man, but later remembered the teachings of his father (you know, after being visited by an angel and being so affected by the experience that he fell to the ground as though he were dead–typical adolescent stuff), as well as Enos, whose righteousness wasn’t anything to write home about until he had his all-night prayer session after remembering the words of his father. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the importance of parental (or other adult) influence in the formative years. I just thought it was interesting that my friend would consider Primary that much more important than the youth program, as I had never given much consideration to either program’s relative importance.
I honestly don’t know whether or not Primary is more important than Mutual, Young Women/Young Men, MIA, or whatever we call it. (What do we call it?) I have noticed that the Primary board is frequently poached to staff the youth programs, at least in every ward I’ve ever been in. Usually the “best people” (you know who I’m talking about, brothers and sisters) are called to serve in YW and YM, while the Primary is always scrambling for teachers. The teenage years are rough, and we worry about losing our young people–especially when they’re so close to adulthood, when they will finally have the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not they’re going to go to church. It’s hard to blame the ward leadership for pulling out all the stops for the youth program, in a last-ditch effort to cement a young person’s testimony before free will reaches its full potential.
If my friend’s thesis is correct, though, we shouldn’t be wasting so much angst on the teenagers. We should minister to them, of course; we should minister to everyone. But if the formative years of 0-8 are really the most crucial, that is, theoretically, where we should focus much of our energy. I don’t have any particular percentage in mind–heck, I’m not even fully converted to the idea–but I reckon at the very least we should not be poaching Primary for the sake of some snot-nosed teenagers, who maybe don’t need as much attention as we think they do.
I really wouldn’t know. Myself, I didn’t really enjoy Primary or Mutual. I didn’t like Primary because I didn’t like to sing. Mutual was better than Primary insofar as there was less singing, but other than that, I could take or leave it. (Or rather, I could have taken or left it, but you know what I mean.) I went to church on Sunday, and I went to seminary, but I didn’t go to Mutual activities. I know that my youth leaders had angst over my non-attendance at youth activities. I know that many of my adult peers now worry about young men feeling alienated from the church if they don’t enjoy scouting and young women feeling alienated from church if they don’t enjoy makeovers or modesty fashion shows or whatever it is the girls are doing these days. I know that I didn’t feel particularly engaged in church on any level as a teenager, but I especially did not want to spend my Wednesday evenings playing volleyball in the gymnasium and I most particularly especially did not want to go to any box-lunch socials. (Please.) My YW advisers worried about my lack of participation; I reckon they thought it was a reflection of my testimony, or lack thereof. I did lack a testimony in those days, but it had nothing to do with the activities the church was offering. I doubt very much there was any sort of activity they could have planned that would have made any difference in my enthusiasm for the gospel.
I did feel alienated from the church as a young person, and especially so as I became an adult and spent more time thinking about the philosophical problems I had with Mormonism. I was culturally engaged with the church–I considered them “my people”–but all of my close friendships were made outside the church. Eventually I did gain a testimony and became very involved in church as an adult, but whether or not that transformation was due to that firm foundation provided during my Primary years (when my parents still held regular Family Home Evenings–COINCIDENCE???), I really couldn’t say. It didn’t seem to be at all relevant at the time, but what do I know? I was so young when those adults were planting the seeds of salvation in my mind.
All of this is on my mind because I’m currently concerned with disaffected Mormon adults, not rebellious adolescents (of any age). I am thinking particularly of adults who were raised in the church, went to Primary and Mutual, served a mission, came back and were active for a while, maybe even several years, and then, for whatever reason, lost their will to be Mormon anymore. (There are as many reasons, I’m sure, as there are people.) I’m thinking of people who accepted the gospel on faith as children but ultimately could not maintain that faith as adults. I was raised in the church, but I found God as an adult–and I lost Him again as an adult. Because of the stage of life I was in when I lost my faith–married with children, in a committed Mormon family–I was highly motivated to find my way back to a state of grace within the church rather than outside of it, but not every disaffected Mormon adult shares my situation and not everyone would find that situation sufficiently motivating.
On my personal blog I once had a discussion about instilling values in your children via religion as opposed to some secular method, and one of my secular readers said something to the effect that the threat of eternal damnation, i.e. endless suffering as punishment for rejecting a particular belief system, compromises a child’s free will. How can you honestly expect a child to make a rational, free choice when the fate of their immortal soul is at stake? I think there is some validity to this argument. The first time I considered the possibility that there was no God, I felt as though the ground had opened up beneath me; I did not want to stare into that abyss. The prospect of gambling on something so consequential is terrifying. On the other hand, lots of people do it. They grow up believing in God and in a particular theological system because that is what they’re taught, but eventually they question it and decide it is not for them, and it’s not a decision made out of fear. Often people stay out of fear, but they don’t usually leave out of fear. I guess I just wonder what makes these people different. Was their foundation not firm enough? Or is it just that pesky free will rearing its ugly head again?
As I said before, there are as many reasons as there are people, and when Pres. Eyring talks about putting a child’s feet “firmly on the path home,” I don’t imagine that he is talking about a fool-proof (or doubt-proof) scheme, just generally effective principles. Still, sometimes you train up a child in the way he should go and he still manages to depart from it. (Doesn’t seem quite fair.) But I digress.
Since I started out pitting Primary against Mutual, perhaps I should satisfy everyone’s need to take sides or tell me that it’s a false dichotomy. So even though I understand that God wants us to minister to all of His children, regardless of age, I will ask you all what you think makes more sense: focusing on the foundation when they’re young, or on the rescue effort when they’re older? Do you buy the theory that people raised with a firm foundation need less rescuing, and more to the point, do you buy the theory that people raised with a firm foundation who leave the church have the seeds of their eventual return planted in that foundation? How does religious indoctrination work? How does it not work?
[Note: The title of this post is facetious. I thought it was funny. If you don’t think it’s funny, I’m sorry. Please send your angry cards and letters to Steve Evans, c/o the admin address on the sidebar.]