So I understand we have a problem retaining our young adults, who tend to go inactive once they leave the youth program and transition to being adults in the church. The good news is that I don’t think we are any worse off than typical Christian churches; for all I know, we could be better off. (Somebody who has read a study should tell me.) The bad news is that I’m not sure there’s much we can really do about this problem. I’ve observed a lot of conversations about this issue, and of all the explanations that are given for why our young adults stop going to church, the one that seems to get mentioned least often is the one that is the obvious, most-likely culprit: young adults, at least the ones who are not living at home and don’t have parents to force them to go to church, would much rather sleep in and do whatever the heck they want on Sunday than go to church. I mean, who wouldn’t? Have you ever skipped church before? It’s kind of awesome. It’s like having another Saturday, one even freer of obligation. (I have noticed that Sunday is the one day of the week my non-church-going friends and acquaintances always have available. Always.)
When I first left home, I continued going to church mainly because I was scared and lonely. I was certainly not any more religious than other eighteen-year-old Mormons I knew. When I went to college a year later, it was clear across the country from my family, so I was still a little scared and lonely, but as time went on and I made more friends at school, I became much less scared and lonely. I was the only Mormon at a Baptist college and the local ward had no people my age or even close to it (except for a handful of youth, who I was too old and mature to hang out with); it hardly had any people at all, actually. Possibly the only reason I continued going to church was that I was contrary and stubbornly clung to my Mormon identity, if only to stick it to the Man. It’s the same reason I continued to vote Republican even after moving to the Pacific Northwest. I’m just that way.
But most of the believing Christians I knew at college (and there were a lot them) did not attend church while they were at school. Even though they’d been raised as weekly church-goers, even though they occasionally said, “I should really start going to church again,” being on their own meant they were free not to go to church, and most took advantage of that freedom. Blame it on laziness or apathy–or how boring church is–but that just seems to be the way young adults roll. Obviously, some young adults stop going to church because they have become disillusioned with their religion and no longer believe the doctrines. I don’t know what percentage of non-church-goers they comprise, but I would be surprised if it was larger than the percentage that just doesn’t feel particularly like going. In any case, I’m not sure how much we can do to prevent disillusionment, either. In my observation and experience, that’s pretty much another way young adults roll.
HOWEVER, we can’t just throw up our hands and say, “Okay, the young people are going to be inactive once they’re freed from the shackles of Mom and Dad–maybe they’ll come back later, maybe they won’t, we’ll just have to wait and see,” because that would be fatalistic and that’s wrong or something, so we still have to figure out how we can keep our young people going to church even when they don’t have to. For the purposes of this post–which I have taken my sweet time getting to, you may have noticed–I will focus on how we can ease the transition of our young women from Young Women (they really need to come up with a more interesting name for this program) to Relief Society–because I’m a girl and this is what I know. (Sorry, dudes. But you probably stopped reading at the title, so what am I apologizing for?)
Historically, when people have hand-wrung in my presence over the problem of young adult women not feeling comfortable in Relief Society, I’ve suggested the radical step of actually calling women under the age of 55 to serve in Relief Society. I know, it’s crazy, but let’s just think outside the box for a minute. In many of the wards I’ve been in, even women in their thirties feel too young to be in Relief Society. It seems common practice for relatively young adult women to have Primary callings, while slightly (slightly!) older adult women serve as Young Women leaders, and Relief Society is where you go to die. Just kidding about that last part–the library is actually where you go to die–but you see my point, I think. And don’t tell me this isn’t the case in your ward–I know it isn’t the case in every ward. I’ve lived in wards where that wasn’t the case. Obviously, in student and Young Single Adult wards, this isn’t the case. But in those wards where this is the case, it should probably stop being the case, if we want our young women to feel like Relief Society is for them.
So far I have identified the following obstacles to young (female) adult activity: 1) awesomeness of sleeping in and doing whatever you want on Sunday, 2) lack of personal testimony and 3) preference for hanging out with people in your age/stage-of-life demographic. Have I left anything out? I’m sure someone will tell me. In the meantime I’m just going to move on.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any ideas for how we can make church more exciting than napping or jet-skiing or hanging out at the mall or whatever those wayward whipper-snappers are doing. Let’s not even go there, as it will only make us ridiculous. The fact is, young adults will come to church if they want to (whether they feel like it or feel obligated), and since we have no control over a person’s faith or how guilty someone will feel about not going to church, the most we can do is make church a welcoming place that does more good than harm, and hope that people will develop spiritual growth and self-reliance as a pleasant side-effect.
I am not much of a statistics person, and I am especially not a looking-up-the-source-of-statistics-just-for-a-blog-post person. But I tend to believe stuff that makes sense to me, so when I heard someone in church quote a study that said the young LDS people most likely to be active as adults were those who consistently engaged in personal prayer and personal scripture study, I thought, “Well, duh.” It’s easy to be all religious while you’re being spiritually hazed at EFY or Trek. When you get to be a grown-up, you have to manufacture your own Holy Ghost Experience. The earlier you learn how to do this, the better off you’ll be.
I’m not arguing against EFY or Trek because that would be curmudgeonly and pointless. And nitpicking aside, I think that the Personal Progress program as it is now constituted is fine for encouraging girls to learn the gospel and develop their individual testimonies. The thing I would tweak is how we do the YW hour on Sunday. Our Young Women are, what, thirty years overdue for new lesson manuals? (Yes, I know an update is in the works; so’s the Second Coming.) Assuming they ever get them, they should not only (hopefully) focus on things that are most relevant to contemporary young women, but they should be designed the way RS manuals are–for student use, not just for teachers. Yes, I am suggesting that young women be given their own lesson manuals they can misplace, forget to take to church and never open, just like grown-up women do. The point is not to change human nature (and certainly not teenage human nature), but to change our mindset. Even if the Mia Maids are still just sitting there looking bored, at least they will know that this is, ideally, not just another hour to passively absorb gospel factoids. They’re supposed to be prepared and participating. Invite girls to give lessons or mini-lessons themselves. The primary purpose is not to develop good public speaking/teaching skills that they can use later in life (although hopefully they will), but rather to get them discussing the gospel as peers–just like adult women do in Relief Society (you know, when they’re not just sitting there looking bored).
While young women are in Young Women, we should be preparing them to attend the temple and for membership in Relief Society. We already talk a lot about the temple and temple worthiness. I understand that recent years have brought more emphasis on preparing to receive one’s endowment, in addition to all the marriage talk. That’s a good thing. Not that I have anything against marriage talk–marriage and motherhood are a big part of adult life for most women, so it makes sense to talk about those things. Marriage and motherhood do not comprise all of adult life, however. (It only seems that way sometimes.) And most of what will best prepare you for marriage and motherhood is the same stuff that will prepare you for adult life in general; therefore, I’m in favor of increased talk about adult life in general, and for women in the church, adult life means being part of Relief Society. We need to talk more to our young women about Relief Society.
Young men are typically ordained to the priesthood and start taking on its attendant responsibilities when they are twelve years old. Young women aren’t ordained to the priesthood, and, contrary to popular belief, there is really nothing else that’s like the priesthood or comparable to the priesthood. No, not even motherhood. Let me say that one more time: Motherhood is not like the priesthood. You know, I bolded it and everything, and I still feel like I need to say it again. But I’ll refrain for the time being. (Don’t make me break out the caps lock!) There is no female analogy to the priesthood, and there’s no point pretending that there is (unless your point is to annoy Sister J). Men have the priesthood; women don’t have the priesthood. Men have priesthood meetings and responsibilities within their quorums; women have Relief Society meetings and responsibilities within Relief Society. Young men need to prepare for a lifetime of priesthood service; young women need to prepare for a lifetime of Relief Society service.
In my current ward, the Young Women and Relief Society have joint opening exercises once a month, just like the menfolk do with their “priesthood meeting.” For a while we tried doing this every week–to make it even more after the manner of priesthood meeting or perhaps for consistency’s sake, I don’t know–but we had to stop for reasons that were never disclosed. I suspect inconvenience or some whim of the Powers That Be. It doesn’t really matter because while I think this is a completely innocuous practice, I suspect it doesn’t make a lick of difference in terms of the young women feeling integrated with the Relief Society. It’s just ten minutes of crowding into a tiny space once a week to make announcements that aren’t applicable to half the people half of the time. It isn’t love. It also isn’t Relief Society.
There is sometimes the suggestion that Young Women should be paired with adult women for visiting teaching assignments, just as young men have home teaching assignments. (It’s been ages since a young man has been to my house in a home teaching capacity, but I assume they still do that.) I don’t think this is a bad idea; theoretically it makes sense, if you want to prepare young women for Relief Society, because visiting teaching is a big part of Relief Society. There are, however, some practical difficulties which make it maybe only a good idea in theory, not so much in real life. Part of this has to do with the difficulty of matching up teenager schedules and adult schedules, but most of it has to do with the differences between visiting teaching and home teaching. Discussing those differences is beyond the scope of this post, which is already way too long. Suffice it to say that I think it might be more useful to implement a visiting teaching-like program within Young Women. Young women already do “secret sister” and “big sister/little sister” type things as special events, as part of Girls Camp or just for (leader-initiated) fun (at least they did when I was young); something like that could be a regular part of Young Women and perhaps be more beneficial than assigning young women to adult visiting teaching routes.
However, there ought to be more interaction between young women and adult women. It is fairly common to invite Laurels (sometimes all the young women) to certain Relief Society activities-formerly-known-as-homemaking-meetings, but these are usually “events,” and “events” are less useful than habits. It might be useful to open up certain small Relief Society interest groups (such as book clubs, or other groups that meet regularly–not the toddler playgroups) to Laurel-age girls. Yeah, they may not be particularly interested in hanging out with old ladies; we’ve been over that. The point is to make them welcome, not to force the issue. Have more YW activities that involve other adult women, not just YW leaders. Invite non-YW leaders to guest-teach a lesson on Sunday or teach a class for a weekday activity. Again, I realize stuff like this already happens, with varying levels of “success.” The point is not to reinvent the wheel, or to be “successful,” but to do more things with the mindset that we are preparing young women to be in Relief Society.
Lastly (yeah, I know, the Second Coming is also nigh)–young adult women will feel like they belong in Relief Society if we treat them like they belong there. Young adulthood is necessarily a time of transition and lots of changes. Many of the young women in your ward will leave home, whether for college or some other reason, when they graduate high school and not become permanent members of your Relief Society. That doesn’t mean there’s no point in getting to know them or letting them be useful. If they do end up staying in your ward, you should definitely get to know them and let them be useful–preferably in Relief Society. They are not just young single adults; they are your Relief Society sisters. While they are in Young Women, they are your future Relief Society sisters. Think on that, and let’s talk about what we should do about it.