You Missed the Teenagers!

Two vignettes illustrating what is arguably our best shot to keep our youth actively engaged in the faith:

I. There is a family in the ward that is preparing their house for sale in preparation for a move. The dad, who spoke in sacrament today and told this story, was out of town when a huge delivery of soil and peat moss arrived and, coincidentally, the basement flooded. He finally made it home from the airport pretty late last Wednesday night, just as a large group of youth from the church were leaving. They were chattering, excited, and couldn’t wait to show him their handiwork, both with the basement and the lawn. These kids did a great job, and were deservedly proud.

The next morning when the dad went outside he was met by the (non-LDS) woman who lives across the street, who greeted him with an excited “You missed the teenagers!” She recounted in awe the swarm of teenagers that came, and like bees in a beehive went to work doing what had to be done, working as a well-oiled machine. This woman was in awe at what she was seeing, and had never seen anything else quite like it, and she was effusive in her praise of these young people.

II. I am involved in local Public Affairs, and yesterday I received an e-mail reporting on the Church’s involvement in helping to clean up from massive tornadoes that came through the area recently. Coincidentally, this event also took place last Wednesday. The Rockford (IL) Stake coordinated these efforts. They had 250 (!) people show up, which was far larger a group than was anticipated. They divided among four projects. Attached to the email was a cache of pictures, and I looked through some of them. I immediately noticed two things: (i) a preponderance of the participants seemed to be young people, and (ii) these kids were smiling and happy and seemed to thoroughly enjoy this opportunity to help those who needed it.

The confluence of these two events made an impression on me, and so in GD today I opined that if we are really interested in keeping our young people as engaged Saints committed to the faith into adulthood, we need to involve them in these kinds of service opportunities. Lessons will fade away over time, but doing good for others in this kind of a direct way is something these young people will remember vividly for the rest of their lives.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    For sure.

    Lived cummunal Mormonism is the kind that gets down in your bones and stays with you.

  2. I’ve found that because they grew up during globalization, millenials tend to be more aware of their privilege than past generations and more willing to jump in serve (ie want to change the world). YMMV

  3. I agree with Kristine A that today’s youth and young adults really want to make a difference in the world, but more and more people today (especially teenagers) don’t have ties to a church to hook them up with meaningful service opportunities.

    I’m not a teenager (I’d be flattered if you thought so, though), but I have a handful of non-religious friends that ask me to invite them to any service-related activities at church because they have a hard time finding those opportunities on their own.

  4. Many, many years ago when I was a teen and before the older teens graduated and left me as the only LDS kid in church and high school for three years until I graduated, we did service projects all the time. We did non members and members. I miss those times and types of activities. The adults participated also, especially during the holidays, helping really poor families. Then service seemed to go by the wayside for many years and is now making a comeback. From my perspective.

    Where I live now service projects are very rare by individual wards and even by stakes. The only thing going on are the Eagle Scout projects.

  5. After Hurricane Sandy I went with a group of teens to help with repair. The work wasn’t all fun, and we got up before dawn to make it to NY, but there were several points where the teenage boys were able to tear down walls with heavy tools. They were truly delighted to be able to do that — one even said, “whoever didn’t come is missing out!”

    All this to say — Amen!

  6. J. Stapley says:


  7. Way to choke me up, Kevin.

    We all want to render *meaningful* service, I think. My generation might bore younger people with talk about working on the welfare farm back in the day, but that work was to that generation what service projects like these are today. We don’t want to merely go through the motions or to be put to work doing something that might as well not be done. But to do something that is genuinely helpful, that requires effort and coordination and that lets us leave somebody better off when we go away than they were when we came — we all want that.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, Ardis. Kids want to make a genuine difference, not go through the motions on “make work” type projects. (I too remember working on the welfare farm back in the day; it has been decades since we had one of those in this area.)

  9. So let it be written, so let it be done.

  10. I think the leadership of the church is aware of this as well, with the 2015 Mutual theme: “O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day” (D&C 4:2), which is a huge shift in focus from perfecting self, to looking outward to help others.

  11. I was just recently released as YW President in my ward. Not all my girls were active. Not all dressed modestly. Some hated Girls Camp, some didn’t like activities, some didn’t have much of a testimony. But they all were genuinely passionate about meaningful service and expressed many times that they felt it was the most important part of being a member of the Church.

    Whoever doesn’t get to work with the teenagers of the Church is missing out.

  12. Alpineglow says:

    Clayton Christensen speaks passionately about this being they key to keeping single adults in the church. It is the only time I have ever heard someone speak about singles and thought ‘yes, you get it.’

    Stop patronizing us by believing you have to entertain us. Start seeing us as people with skills and contributions the kingdom needs. Then we might have a reason to stick around even if church no longer fulfills our social needs.

  13. Happy to report that our YM presidency organises service activities once a month. Those are the activities my son attends.

  14. John Mansfield says:

    Not just youth. My father was baptized at age 59, but was seldom more than marginally engaged with religious life. After he retired, though, he was given a bishops’ storehouse assignment, over a dozen hours a week, that he attended to faithfully. Our church callings generally are long on teaching and leading and talking.

  15. Amen. I’d emphasize the importance of the word “meaningful” when talking about service. Delivering cheesecakes and spending hours scrapbooking love-bombed notes (instead of actually talking to someone) are often seen as meaningless busy-work. And while clean-up crews, moving crews and yard crews can be extremely meaningful, the relevance needs to be felt and understood as this type of work can quickly lead to burn-out. I sometimes cringe at seeing the yellow ‘Mormon Helping Hands’ shirts all the time, realizing that the skills of those wearing the shirts (doctors, nurses, attorneys, painters, plumbers, computer experts, contractors, business leaders, farmers, teachers, etc.) are quite clumsily applied, under-utilizing at times talent that is more needed, but also more difficult to coordinate. But, at least helpful work is getting done, so we all take a broom and get to work.

  16. well said Kevin — thanks for this great post!

  17. As a teenager I usually wasn’t all that ecstatic about spending a large chunk of my Saturday pulling weeds out of someone’s lawn or serving food at a soup kitchen. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t get the kind of overwhelming joy and fulfillment that seems to be described here. If anything I just liked being with my friends.

    Of course, when a whole group of us landscaped someone’s lawn I never really talked to the home owner personally, they would express their gratitude to the group but the leaders would converse with them if any communication needed to be done. At soup kitchens being shy myself I didn’t really go talk to the people we were serving beyond what was necessary to help them. So I guess I never had a connection with those I was serving.

    On the other hand, if anyone ever sought me out to get help with their computer, or needed my music skills or something else I was qualified to do I jumped at the bit to help and serve. Large service projects never did that for me though.

  18. Heather Mecham says:

    What a great reminder that our youth want to do things that provide meaning to their lives! Great stories, thanks for sharing them.

  19. I’m inactive now but I remember on my mission (95-96) requesting for more service time because filling up the two hours was very easy. I thought my time spent doing service would be more enjoyable to me and help show the church in a more positive light when compared to tracting. But every time I asked it would be rejected. My personality is more service oriented and I have gone to a few service projects in my inactivity when I know about it. However, I decline to where the yellow advertisment vest.

  20. Hmmm. Just think how much service could be rendered if everyone faithfully did their home and visiting teaching. Or, have we come to view it as “merely go[ing] through the motions or to be put to work doing something that might as well not be done”?

  21. stephenchardy says:

    I’ve thought a bit about the issue of using our youth and missionary programs to generate needed service. It’s easy to conclude that by providing service rather than sermonizing that our message will be more effectively communicated. Our missionaries could be invigorated by providing aid to those in need. There is even a scriptural basis for this: The sons of Mosiah spent much of their “missions” providing service, and their opportunities to preach the word occured within that setting. Ambitious and effective service, as noted in the OP, helps those in need, but also helps us as the servers. We feel more validated, and it seems that we enjoy the chance to do something other than sit in council meetings and discuss behavioral problems or mundane issues such as a church-cleaning schedule.

    It is hard, though, to find appropriate and meaningful service opportunities. Ask any stake leaders, for example, who have tried to find a service project for a stake activity involving 200 or more youth. It isn’t easy.

    There are considerable practical impediments to implementing church-wide service in a regular and systemic way. For example, we could decide to have our youth paint the homes of people in need. That would provide a needed service; it would help build our own community; it would “let our light shine.” (The homeowners, or some local estibalishment, or even the church could provide the paint, while we provide the labor.) However, such a project could result a loss of income for home-painters, or at least a perception of such. And there would be a number of liability issues that would need to be worked out. It just wouldn’t be easy.

    This would be especially true in devloped countries. We have 85,000 missionaries world-wide and a large number in Europe where “tracting” and preaching are both not very popular and are ineffective ways of spreading the word. Perhaps we could have these thousands of missionaries provide service instead. Finding an appropriate venue, however, would be difficult, and possible impossible. It isn’t hard to find a need. It would be hard to meet that need. Take Paris for example. Anyone who has been on the Metro knows that it is filthy, even disgustingly dirty. However, I am certain that if we unleashed the hundreds of missionaries in France to clean the Metro, that we would meet stiff resistance from the unions that are charged with cleaning it. I don’t think that the city of Paris (by this I mean the municiple leaders) would be happy at the thought of mostly-American kids cleaning up their mess. It’s not a picture or image that they would want to be part of. Then, again, you can image those city leaders worrying about liability. What happens when a sister or elder slips and hits their head on the pavement. Who will pay for that?

    It might be easier to provide community service in developing countries. Might.

    Natural disasters provide a pefect venue for service because the need is immediate, undeniable, and without (to some degree) fault. So it is easy to accept the service. I believe that these events do not build our Mormon-community as much as they reveal them. These occasions give us the chance to show that organized religion can work. We can mobilize quickly and we are naturally organized in units with respected leadership and vision.

    But translating those occasional disater-related success stories into a long-term church-wide service effort isn’t easy. The best venue for long-term meaningful service, as mentioned above, is careful and comprehensive home and visiting teaching, where needs are met quietly, sensitively, and effectively.

  22. Jack Hughes says:

    Like Bryan S., I never really drank the Kool-Aid of service projects as a youth. I’m an introvert, so massive-scale service doesn’t get me excited the way it does for others. I learned to find joy in service later as an adult, helping others in individual or small group settings, and in ways that were meaningful to me. I strongly oppose the idea of “work for the sake of work” which seemed to underlie much of my youth and missionary service experiences.

    Among my negative experiences with service as a youth:
    -For youth conference (which had way too much advance hype anyway) we spent most of a Saturday in safety vests picking up trash on an embankment. Not a bad thing in itself, but where I come from, this sort of activity is the exclusive province of juvenile offenders and DUI convicts. Basically we felt like prisoners, since we did not choose to be there and we had no way of leaving on our own. FAIL.
    -For a YM activity we were brought to our wealthy stake president’s sprawling backyard to install sod–something he could have easily paid professionals to do, so it felt disingenuous to be used as free manual labor to landscape his yard, for the exclusive enjoyment of his family. To his credit, though, we did get to use his swimming pool and tennis court afterward.
    -We spent a day clearing an overgrown yard of a neglected house. This would have been a worthwhile project if the owner was an enfeebled widow. But it was just another ward member who bought the distressed property as an investment and was trying to fix it up and flip it. Exploiting free labor toward making a profit for himself…MASSIVE FAIL.