This summer, I have had the wonderful opportunity to work as a counselor for the church’s Especially For Youth program. EFY is a week-long camp that the youth attend filled with spiritual lessons and fun activities. Being a counselor is a great experience. Not without challenges, but so rewarding in the long run.
As I look back on the summer, a few things have stood out to me. Mainly, some ways that we can improve teaching the youth of the church. They are amazing, but I am concerned that as their leaders, we are giving them what they need in their lives.
After much thought I have compiled this article. These are five things that I want to do better when around the youth, which are ultimately lessons that we can all apply.
1. We need to stop just saying that our youth are a chosen generation and start acting like it. With that in mind, we also need to be careful with how we teach the concept of a chosen generation. Often we hear that the youth are the chosen generation, which implies that they are the only ones. I remember as a youth being told the same thing, but now that I am older the younger youth are the chosen generation. Did I just lose my title? No. What we need to be telling the youth is that they are a chosen generation for this time, and are to be on the Earth now so that they can bless it in their own unique way. Every generation of youth since the 70s (and even as far back as 30 AD) has been the chosen generation, but more accurately all the youth are a chosen generation for their time.
That is a little pedantic, so back to my original point. We tell the youth that they are chosen and special but how often do we really act like it? In the same talk that we tell them that they are chosen, we will then lament that the youth seem to be falling away from the truths that used to be taught or are only just getting by on a spiritual level. The fact of the matter is that no matter what appears to be happening among the youth, they are well equipped to face the challenges of the day and are better people than most older church members think. Their challenges are far more difficult that we imagine, but somehow they are keeping their heads above the water. I was constantly amazed to see how well the youth are doing, and even those with problems or concerns are handling them in spiritually mature ways.
I fear that we spend too much discussion disparaging our times, and our youth are harmed because of it. We need to take an interest in what they are interested in. Instead of dismissing their concerns or likes outright, we need to make an effort to become involved in the lives of the youth, and let them know that they matter.
2. We need to be teaching the youth the full Family Proclamation to the World. This year at EFY, the counselors had the opportunity to sit with their kids and study the Proclamation. At first, I was worried about this activity, because I did not understand the Proclamation myself. I was concerned that any discussion about the Proclamation would turn into a discussion about marriage equality, which I was not eager to discuss with my youth. However, as I read through the document and studied it, I realized that it is far more than just about what defines marriage.
We have to teach the youth that the Proclamation is not an anti-homosexuality manifesto. In fact, the part about a marriage between a man and a woman is just a small chunk of the Proclamation. It is really about what we can do to build a Christlike home in our own lives. The Proclamation is a bulwark against indifference to the importance of a family and provides practical guides for members to build a family where children are reared in love and righteousness.
Too often the youth do not see the practical application of the Proclamation to their own lives, and older church members have done that to them. Whenever the Proclamation is brought up in gospel discussions, 95% of the time it is brought up with discussions about homosexuality or as a reason to oppose government legislation on marriage equality.
The problem with this approach is that it diminishes the effect of the rest of the Proclamation. Yes the family is under attack. But where is it under attack? Within the homes of the youth. The threats to the family that the youth need to be defending against is indifference to family structure and the lack of Christ centered focus that many homes lack, specifically in the church. These are what the Proclamation warns about the most, not the “threat” of homosexuality.
3. Young men need to be taught about self-worth just as much as the young women do. The church curriculum makes a big effort to teach young women that they are daughters of God and have a divine purpose. In fact it is one of the Young Women values that is emphasized throughout the middle school and high school years of a Latter Day Saint young woman. But for some reason, we do not put as much emphasis on this teaching with the young men.
Maybe it is because young men do not appear to have as many issues with it. The improper media representations of women are more obvious, but young men have nearly as many problems in the media. We tell the young women not to focus on their outward appearance, especially when watching unrealistic women in movies or TV shows. But why don’t we tell the young men that? They are just as damaged by the new crop of shirtless, chesthair-less, buff superheroes. How many lessons have you seen where young men are told to love their bodies the way that they are?
Or how about focusing more on the young men’s identity as sons of God? Instead of spending all of our time discussing ancillary doctrines or warning them about the dangers of pornography, let’s spend more time teaching them about what it means to be God’s priesthood holders. All other doctrines flow from there.
As much time as we spend with young women teaching them about the roles of a mother and warning them about improper media representations of a mother’s role, do we spend the same time with young men? Do they really understand what it means to be a father and husband in the kingdom of God? Do we spend the same time warning them about toxic media representations of fathers in the media?
Along those lines, why do we insist on perpetuating the teaching that the young women are somehow more spiritually in tune than the young men? I heard this so many times over this summer. We say those sort of things to make the young women feel good, but nobody considers the effect that this has on the young men. The fact is, young men have just as many problems with self-esteem as the young women do, yet we do not give it as much attention. The young men need to be taught about self-worth and their divine identity.
4. As we teach about the last days and the morals of our time, we need to be less apocalyptic in our discussions with the youth. Mormons like to focus on the idea of the world coming to an end. We like to talk about how the wickedness of our day is leading to the second coming. But focusing too much on that is damaging to our youth.
I got very depressed looking through the EFY hashtags on Instagram and seeing some of the things that the youth where posting. Quite a few posts had language along the lines of: “Living today is terrible, but at least I have EFY to keep me going.” That is a paraphrase, but I saw a lot of those sentiments. How sad is that? These youth are in their teenage years, some of the most fun times of their lives, but all they can think about is how much this decade is terrible because of perceived wickedness. And we have done that to them. We have shifted their religious view of this decade into an apocalyptic, horrible wasteland of wickedness.
Hey sure, things seem to be worse. But we only exasperate that perception by always discussion how hard and terrible it is to be alive today. Instead, we need to teach the youth to be happy with the modern era. It really is the best time to be alive! The church is everywhere, technology has increased their quality of life, they have more opportunities than any civilization in the history of the world has every had. That is awesome! And they need to realize it.
Enough of the depressing gloom and doom. Warn of wickedness, let them know what they can do, but do not get so worked up in wishing the Second Coming would come quickly that we do not let our youth enjoy their decade.
5. Most importantly, the youth need to be taught about the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That is the most important thing that you can teach them in any gospel setting, any testimony meeting, any lesson. They have to understand it, because most of them do not.
What they need to understand is that the Atonement has no boundaries. Too many youth feel like they have sinned past the point of no return. They are going to church and going through the motions, but deep down inside, they feel like it is all useless because they have sinned too much. Our constant teaching about the evils of sin has not been counterbalanced by equal teachings about the reality of the Atonement. And because of that, our youth believe in repentance without accepting the power of it.
For the youth, the most important thing that they can learn is that there is nothing that they have done that can not be dealt with using the Atonement. We can not place artificial boundaries where Jesus Christ did not place them. Now, they can not taught that the atonement gives them a free pass. But they also can not allowed to wallow in feelings of hopelessness and remorse. That is not the gospel. That is not what Jesus Christ taught. That is not what he died for.
So teach this doctrine more than anything else. They need to know about the Atonement more than anything. More than what sort of hugs are allowed in high schools, more than the signs of the 2nd coming, more than personal opinions about energy drinks and the Word of Wisdom, more than insipid lessons about media choices, more than tacit political lessons. In the long run, those things do not matter nearly as much as the reality of their Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ.
I loved working with the youth. EFY is challenging and difficult, but the pay off is extraordinary. Our youth are a treasure, and are doing amazing things. But applying the suggestions above, all church members can be able to raise ourselves to their level and be the leaders and examples that they need.