Stephen Marsh’s post on Vanishing Communities a few weeks ago got me to thinking about the vanishing church culture of my youth.
In the 1970’s, during my teenage years at church, I had a wonderful time. This was a time of YM/YW activities that didn’t have to have a “Priesthood Purpose” . We played basketball, went golfing, chased the girls in the ward (literally and figuratively), went to trips to Los Angeles including a NBC studio tour and saw the filming of the sitcom “Sanford and Son”. Went water skiing, snow skiing, and anything else we could think of. We did road shows, and had church sport leagues, with regional games that included overnight road trips and sleeping in a hotel. We wore bell bottom pants, and tried to grow our hair long (much to consternation of our very conservative bishop!)
I had a wonderful group of guys that I grew up with from Deacons until we all went our separate ways for missions all over the world. We enjoyed blessing the sacrament, because the sacrament area was separate area from the podium, and the Bishopric could not see you when sitting down. The “priesthood” was not dismissed after the conclusion of the sacrament, and three of us would sit up there away from our parents, take our shoes off and relax, listened to football games on a “transistor” radio and ear buds, and overall had a good time. All eight of us in our priest quorum went on a mission. Nobody drank or smoked pot (this was the 70’s!), none of the YW got pregnant, we just had a good time. Two have died, but the 6 remaining are active in the church.
I don’t see our YM having such a good time like this anymore. This community of my youth is gone. Where is the fun at church? Does this explain why the church is hemorrhaging youth at an alarming rate? There are no sports in my stake. They go to Youth conference and fake treks once a year, but nobody looks like they are having fun. “(Young) Men are that they might have joy”
Could the church have prevented this? Is it just a product of our times? Can it be fixed? Can we bring back the fun times? Or are those halcyon days of the 70’s gone forever?
I remember road shows when I was little. And volleyball, softball, and basketball in YW. It was certainly more fun.
That is a good question. I realize that the church is not a social club, but for most people it doesn’t offer much else. There is no community to be a part of in service, in fellowship. Think back to all the discussions and talks about quorums and community. It seems that the definition of priesthood has mutated to exclude fellowship and community — something that was a core use by John Taylor (for example).
For some, they have a rich community as a part of being part of the Church. I listen to leaders talk about the community they have with each other. They often miss that they exclude everyone else when they talk that way and that the current structure of the church denies that community to anyone else.
Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that until just now.
I’ll have to reflect.
Of course this could have been prevented. There is so much focus on things that don’t matter they have squeezed the life out of the youth programs. I have 4 kids and none of them ‘enjoy’ the activities. Your story does a great job that community is what is important. The utterly boring focus on principle over community is not helping stem the tide.
Let’s back up to primary age. When I was a kid, my parents were inactive, but I was willing to walk two miles from school to primary, then the 2 1/2 miles home. Primary was fun. It was 1 1/2 hours of fun songs, games, lessons, and activities.
Fast forward twenty years to when I was raising my children. I had to take them literally kicking and screaming to church, because my normal children found it boring, and my high functioning autistic child found sitting for three hours to be torture. None of them like primary because the fun songs had been replaced with reverent Sunday appropriate songs. The activities of making things out of salt clay, or glueing together a model of Bethlehem out of construction paper were not possible in the shortened lesson time and Sunday clothing. Going out to play chase games (with a gospel theme) wasn’t possible because we would disturb the Sunday worship of others. I hated teaching primary, after having taught the weekday version, so how could I not see that my children also hated it.
When they hit YM/YW, I was still forcing them to go to all meetings. I didn’t understand that what I had found fun was just plain old boring to them. Sure, I could see that the church had changed, but I didn’t comprehend how much it had changed.
Now, funny thing, I don’t have to worry about grandchildren leaving the church because their parents all left upon hitting adulthood.
I agree Church used to have a lot more activities that were just for fun. When I served in the bishopric I tried to bring a little of that to our ward and was always over ruled by the Bishop and other counselor. Everything these days has to have some spiritual purpose. Young people want to have fun. if they dont find it at Church, they will go somewhere else. That being said, I think young people are leaving the church for more substantial reasons than this.
I came of age in the 80s and early 90s. We still had road shows and Stake musicals and other fun activities. Nowadays, my boys like scouts and camping, but that’s about it. The Stake also does fun activities occasionally, but they’re not that often.
You asked, “Could the church have prevented this?” My cynical answer is “Didn’t the prophets see this coming?”
As for whether or not this can be fixed, it absolutely could be, but I don’t foresee any major programming changes while my grandfather’s generation is running the show.
I’m sure things would be different if tithes stayed in wards. Bishoprics could budget their needs, send a portion to the real estate corporation and a more generous one to other less fortunate wards in their larger vicinity or directly to Bishops’ Storehouse operations and other genuinely charitable pursuits.
I don’t think local Bishoprics could do a worse job of assigning priorities and they might do a whole lot better to maintain vibrant, charitable and functioning communities.
I totally get what people are saying but there is another side to it also. My girls craved activities that had real meaning, that helped them get closer to Christ and figure out how to live the gospel. They hated YW because all they did was”fun” stuff with no purpose. If they were just going to have fun they would rather do that with their friends than their “forced” friends at church. One is still active the other left the church because partly (there are lots of nuanced intertwined reasons) because she found another church that managed to have fun *while* taking about Christ. She used to say they talk about Christ and how to follow him at all their youth activities and still manage to make them fun. How come what should be the true church can’t seem to manage that? We could. We just don’t.
I think too often we think it is an either /or situation. It can either be uplifting gospel orientated or it can be fun. I think we short change our kids. So many of them crave both.
It seems like what is consdered fun has also changed. When I was a kid going to a primary play day was hugely exciting especially if there was water or games something like that. But now those types of activities can’t compare to watching Netflix or playing computer games or chatting with friends on one’s phone.
Plus church activities such as roadshows and sports teams can’t compete with what communities are doing. I’ve got kids in community plays and competing at State levels in their Hobbies. The church can’t equal that. There’s also a sense of needing to be involved in activities that look good on College admissions. None of the church stuff really even applies.
About a year ago, our Stake youth put on a performance of Saturday’s Warrior that bowled me over. When they first announced to the youth they were going to do this, I felt that the youth would not be into this at all. This was something their parents enjoyed, and was probably going to be seen as being old and trite and as a sop to the old fogies. But it turned out magnificently. I was involved early on in helping out at singing rehearsals for the chorus numbers, and it’s always hard to see in the earliest moments if the activity is going to stand a ghost of a chance of turning out as well as hoped for. I’m sure that adult leaders spent way more of their free time getting this to where it eventually got than maybe they had originally planned on, but it ended up being every bit as professional as any other version I had ever seen.
If they could do stuff like this on a regular basis, I imagine the youth would be ready, willing and able to join in as often as the adults would let them.
It’s not just the kids or youth. Look around the meetings on Sunday. Is anyone enjoying themselves? I’d give anything to be able to read minds during Sunday meetings. Just knowing what I think about to keep from going crazy while someone is droning on and on makes me curious about what everyone else is thinking.
Lehcarjt pretty much has it right. I’ve been involved in YM for the past decade in one way or another, and at 14, I’m convinced there’s literally nothing we could do as a group that didn’t involve too much time or money that was more interesting to them than video games or whatever they did to veg at home. Kids are way more heavily scheduled now, and they’re doing a lot of interesting things, and they’re either too busy or too tired. It’s not a church problem either. It’s a generational problem.
We did have an awful lot of fun in the deacons/scouts. That’s before all the high school stuff kicks in.
I am convinced that they are doing a lot of “studying it out” and that some times the answers may be complex.
As others have mentioned, I see my kids time WAY more stretched than I ever was. It isn’t uncommon for my kids to go to bed at midnight or later, get up at 4:45 to get ready for seminary, and then get home at 8 or 9 PM after practices. Sometimes this was more than one night a week. If a youth also tries to hold a bit of a job it can get even harder.
I am an old dog and I remember our youth activities were generally just fun. I had some great leaders that I still keep in contact with today. I remember being a leader not too many years later and having most of our activities squashed by the bishop because each activity had to have a “priesthood purpose”. It was quite frustrating for me and for the young men. Some young men stopped coming as they said they felt like, “If I don’t get a thrill out of reading the BOM, then church isn’t for me.”
I was too focused on academics in high school to attend mid-week church activities. The family that introduced me to the church was the same way, and they told me how much grief their kids got for putting school and “college applications” first. It certainly paid off for all of us, as we each got accepted to competitive colleges and also were able to rely on each other in a mini-community of shared goals. (We’re all also still active.)
Now that I’m a parent, my biggest wish is for my daughter to have a small cohort of academically-driven kids to hang out with. Through sheer dumb fortune it turns out one of the kids in her primary class is also in her gifted program at school, and the gifted cohort will remain as a group throughout high school. They don’t need to all be best friends (maybe they will be!) but the idea that there’s already a group of smart kids who embrace nerdiness and hopefully will make good choices is comforting to me.
We’re in a fairly small ward so it’s pretty likely both these girls will be YW leaders when they get to that age. I’ll be interested to see how they choose to prioritize things, and I’ve got their backs either way. If they help to develop and run engaging, interesting programs that both appeal to them (and others) and are good for “college applications” then great! If they have boring or uninspired programs forced on them and decide they don’t want to make time for them on Tuesday evenings, I’ll support them.
Reading this post, one word came to mind over and over: nostalgia. I don’t mention that in an attempt to invalidate the message. I very much appreciate this post, which like my 80s/90s childhood, seems to come in the context of large stakes and robust wards. Despite plenty of painful memories from my Mormon youth, my nostalgia for that era has remained constant. Of course, nostalgia isn’t just about clinging to the good memories. It’s all about the bittersweet.
I appreciate the comments that speak to the pull between secular and sacred over the finite amount of available time. I was a theatre kid, and I generally don’t remember difficulty balancing that with church activities. Oddly, I feel like I often had better experiences at church dances than at school dances. So there seem to have been times I felt safer at church youth gatherings than at school gatherings. But my experiences gelling with other kids tended to be similar whether at church or school: mixed. Some buddies. Little popularity. Not much interest from girls. The usual shy chubby artsy boy stuff. Some of my Aaronic priesthood peers stayed active. Some did not. The outcome does not seem to have been directly/solely correlated to how involved they were in their youth, or to what extent it was enjoyable. Hard to say.
My hope is whether kids are getting them at church or somewhere else, they are having the types of experiences and bonding that will result in a healthy nostalgia which fuels a desire to pass on as stable as possible a community experience to the next generation. Thanks for the post, Bishop Bill.