Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The "Disconnect"

Last night Patsy and I enjoyed a spontaneous and unscheduled visit from two dear friends at our home.  Two middle-aged women with growing families were lamenting their experiences with peers who have left the Church for a variety of reasons, and they asked us what they could do if anything to reclaim them. 

I was reminded of a letter I was invited to write to a member of the Seventy several years ago in answer to his question, "What can the Church do to help the youth?" What follows was my answer then, and to our friends last night.  The names have been changed for obvious reasons.

What would the rest of you say? I'd love your feedback. . .

September 20, 2003

Dear Elder Nameless:

Thanks so much for a delightful lunch hour (or two) the other day. It was a great treat for me, and particularly to be with you and to discuss the things we did. Your generous invitation to give some thought to the question, “What can the Church do to help the youth?” only seems simple on its face. There are many facets to the face, and I will touch on only five or six in what follows. It’s always a little disconcerting for the foot to counsel the head, but I will attempt it at your invitation. If I had more time, other possibilities might suggest themselves but I’ll take a swing at some things I’ve thought a lot about in recent years.

In truth, this is a “fabulomundo” Church, the only true and living Church upon the face of the whole earth with which the Lord is pleased. (D&C 1:30). It’s hard to improve on what I see as near perfection in terms of organization and inspiration from top to bottom. We are a well-governed people, and we sustain the servants whom we believe God has raised up to lead us. The Church is true, that’s the best part of the story (and it just gets truer every year). Does the Church have any rivals that can match its growth, its vitality, its awesome power among even the simplest member whose devotion and dedication is hard for an outsider to fathom? Sometimes with the onslaught of negative press (like the Main Street Plaza conundrum for example), we hunker down and forget to remember just how magnificent and supernal this marvelous thing we call “the Church” really is. There are so many moving parts, how does it continue to hum along with such intricate precision? I submit the answer is because this is God’s Church, not ours. So what will follow are relatively minor alternations – a nip or a tuck here and there. Don’t mistake some rather direct story telling as criticism. For the most part, as I told you at lunch, what’s not to like?

“What Can the Church Do to Help the Youth?”

I have to assume by “the Church” you mean “the Brethren” and the local leaders and teachers.

“Help the youth do what?” is where I started. What would we wish for the youth of the Church as their leaders? Wouldn’t the “gold standard” goal be the preparation of another generation (or two or three or more) for the Second Coming of the Savior? Wouldn’t we collectively wish all the youth in the Church would accept the promise of eternal life? Wouldn’t that be the unerring test against which all suggestions for improvement might be pitted?

One could argue that’s simply too lofty, too ethereal, or too grandiose to attempt. If we accept the premise, however, that ZION can ultimately accept no compromise with the world and its ways as we move inexorably closer to our inevitable date with destiny as a Church, why shrink from lofty thoughts now?

I take my cue directly from the Prophet. President Gordon B. Hinckley will go down in the history of the Church as having presided at and dedicated more temples than any of his predecessors (perhaps more than all of them combined). That’s the strongest indicator I can point to that the direction of the Church from here on in to the final wrapping up scenes before the Savior’s coming will be focused as never before on making the ordinances of eternal life available to as many of God’s children as the outreach of the Church can sustain worldwide.

That much said, all of which I believe with all my heart, some years ago when I was serving as a bishop our stake conference visitor was Elder William R. Bradford. He drew a graph on the board.  Elder Bradford was willing to accept the assumption that since the Restoration the Church has generally been on higher moral ground than the world, but he warned we too were slipping, in effect mirroring the world’s steady decline. He challenged us as local leadership to reverse the disturbing downward trend in moral relativity. That was 1988, fifteen [now twenty-two] years ago.

In the years since that presentation, I have observed a discernable acquiescence (dare I say indifference?) by local Church leaders, generally speaking, to Elder Bradford’s warning. Recently my sixteen-year-old daughter sadly offered this comment in reference to a friend, “Cindy (not her real name) went to her bishop for an interview to confess some things she had done with her boyfriend and her bishop told her if they weren’t having sex he didn’t want to hear about it – she only needed to talk to him if they were having sex.” Further, my daughter repeated the popular catch phrase in current vogue among her peers, “If it’s oral it’s moral.” And we parents wonder if the escapades of the previous occupant of the Oval Office have had any residual impact? The loss of outrage seems to thrive even in the Church.

I strongly believe this is not a problem unique to my microcosm, but is at least widespread in the Salt Lake Valley where I have several contacts with local leaders too. A friend who recently completed five-and-a-half years as a bishop lamented, “As I looked at the pictures of the youth on the wall of my bishop’s office, I realized two-thirds of my young women had experienced pre-marital sex and half my young men were deeply involved in pornography.” I suspect similar stories are legion in number, and I have only cited a few.

Closing the Gap on “The Disconnect”

At lunch we spoke about what I called “the disconnect” between the moral standards outlined in the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet and the actual behavior we are witnessing in the trenches among the youth in the Church. I realize this might come off as sounding near heretical, but bear with me.

Elder M. Russell Ballard is at the forefront of a new initiative – “raising the bar” for missionary service. Rather than something “new,” it has the feel to me of yet another “retrenchment” into what the Lord has required all along. The exercise of our free will and the accountability for our individual choices is at least as old as the pre-existence.

Some examples of the “disconnect:” 1) When my son who now serves as a missionary in Brazil recounted with his friends on graduation night how many in their high school senior class population of nearly 120 had not had sexual intercourse during high school, they counted less than ten girls and less than twenty boys – and that statistic in a predominantly homogenous LDS community! 2) We routinely have young men return early from missions to clear up pre-mission moral transgressions. 3) Just yesterday I talked to the mother of a young man not in our stake. He is preparing to leave again after a year’s wait, when “some things he didn’t clear up before he left” were disclosed after three weeks in the MTC. 4) Returned missionaries who were once faithful and faith-filled leaders in their missions come home and completely leave the Church (four in our stake in the last year that I know about).

How does the Church close this “disconnect” gap? Do the leaders at the local level understand WHY this disconnect exists? I believe too much reliance on “For the Strength of Youth” is merely a modern reincarnation of the ancient law of Moses with little power to inspire the youth of the Church today. If my informal non-scientific “polls” among my acquaintances are any indicator, the current approach is failing to achieve the desired outcomes.

I’m guessing here (I can only make assumptions until someone confirms to me how it actually happened), but maybe local leaders in the Church indirectly produced “For the Strength of Youth.” In observing the youth in their wards and stakes falling off the strait and narrow path, local leaders must have been crying out for help. I would guess the phone banks and in boxes at Church headquarters were lit up with calls and letters from local leaders demanding that the General Authorities “give us some guidance so we can tell the youth what to do.” In other words, it was a complete capitulation that as modern Israel we couldn’t handle the consequences of more freedom, so we reverted to having someone else (the General Authorities) tell us what to do in every circumstance the local leaders could imagine.

I wonder if the creative genius behind “For the Strength of Youth” wasn’t something like a modern replay of what happened anciently when Israel demanded that the prophet Samuel appoint a king to rule them:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. . .
[Samuel then spells out in detail what a king would actually do to them, all of which sounds like descriptions of slavery, and still they were not dissuaded]
And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD.
And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. . . (1 Samuel 8:4-22, emphasis mine).

So maybe (I can only surmise) the modern Church took steps to “hedge up the way” by outlining acceptable behavioral standards, because the people demanded it. Perhaps the General Authorities simply responded out of love to the demands of local leaders who assumed an “encyclical” from 47 East South Temple would solve everything. There is so much more comfort, it would seem, in being told what to do than having to accept individual accountability that leaves no one to blame but ourselves. In 1990, it would appear we took a big step backward.

In 1980, twenty-three years ago [now thirty!] when the consolidated meeting schedule was first introduced, the possibility of failure was raised. I believed at the time this was a monumental address portending the very conditions we observe in the Church today. It was delivered at General Conference by Elder Dean L. Larsen, then serving in the Presidency of the Seventy. In part he said:

. . . The existence of laws, regulations, and procedures has never been sufficient to compel men to obedience. Productive obedience comes through the exercise of free will. Elder Albert E. Bowen of the Quorum of the Twelve once said:

“It is a truism that no law is any better than the people who administer it. Howsoever well framed a law may be or however worthy its purpose, it can degenerate into utter futility unless wisely administered by those sympathetic with its purposes” (The Church Welfare Plan, Sunday School manual, 1946, p. 115).

. . . Today we are being encouraged to accept greater responsibility for the allocation of our time, for our spiritual development through personal and family study of the gospel, and for giving loving Christian service. We must be willing to respond to this new challenge. Our willingness to accept this added accountability will exert an influence that will reach far beyond our Sunday worship service and religious life.

Unless we retain a vibrant desire to be free, and unless we understand and practice the principles that give life to essential freedoms, we have little reason to hope they will endure. If we allow ourselves to accept dependency and regulation and to cease valuing independence and self-accountability, then we are vulnerable to the forces that destroy freedom. If righteousness is judged primarily by the degree to which one responds to programmed activity, then a condition develops within which opportunities for progress decline. The resulting tragedy affects the mortal potential of man and has a profound effect on his eternal possibilities as well. [HOW PROPHETIC!!]

Programmed behavior cannot produce the level of spiritual development required to qualify one for eternal life. A necessary range of freedom and self-determination is essential to one’s spiritual development. With an understanding of correct principles and an intrinsic desire to apply them, one must be motivated within himself to do many good things of his own free will; for, as the revelation says, the power is in him wherein he is an agent unto himself (see D&C 58:27-28).

. . . In his concluding remarks at the April 1979 general conference, President Kimball said:

“The basic decisions needed for us to move forward, as a people, must be made by the individual members of the Church. The major strides which must be made by the Church will follow upon the major strides to be made by us as individuals. …

“… Our individual spiritual growth is the key to major numerical growth in the kingdom” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 82).

I rejoice in the spirit and intent of this instruction from a living prophet. I see in it the purposeful effort to preserve our individual accountability in the context of our Church membership and religious life.

When members of the Church exercise self-determination in their application of gospel principles they need not relax in their compliance with these principles. In fact, optimum progress can only occur when conditions are ideal for it, and these conditions must include the necessary degree of freedom and self-accountability. Anything less will guarantee stunted spiritual growth.

We must understand that as freedom for unrestricted development is enhanced, the possibilities for failure are also increased. The risk factor is great. The ideal cannot be achieved otherwise. Celestial attainment can be reached in no other environment.

We have inspired leaders today who are reconfirming the fact that there is no ultimate safety in programmed security where others assume accountability for our direction and performance. [I believe this sentence strikes at the heart of the entire matter.]

Those who insist that a Church program exist for every contingency and need are as much in error as their counterparts who demand that government intervene in every aspect of our lives. In both instances the ideal balance is destroyed with a resultant detriment to human progress.

These are essential truths which our leaders are reinforcing for us today. These are challenging truths. They demand much of us. They press us to make our lives better by our own initiative and by our own efforts. They make no unconditional promises. . . (Dean L. Larsen, “Self-Accountability and Human Progress,” Ensign, May 1980, 76, emphasis mine).

Elder Larsen warned us about relying on “the law,” but as a Church we ignored the message. Rather than risk failure in behavior among our youth we reverted to “tell us what to do, give us behavioral standards, we welcome the bondage of the law because we worry the youth are not ready to live in the Spirit.” Once I even had an earnest young woman blurt out in a question/answer session in a fifth-Sunday combined presentation, “So tell us, can we drink Coke or not?” What a sad self-imposed indictment on ourselves, and how tragic in light of Elder Larsen’s prophetic warning.

Even as late as this month’s Ensign, there is a profound First Presidency Message from President Faust, who reminded us again:

The challenge Jesus issued was for people to replace the rigid, technical “thou shalt not” of the law of Moses — needed by the spiritually immature ancient children of Israel — with the spirit of the “better testament. . .” The New Testament is “a better testament” because so much is left to the intent of the heart and of the mind and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This refinement of the soul is part of the reinforcing steel of a personal testimony of Jesus Christ. If there is no witness in the heart and in the mind by the power of the Holy Ghost, there can be no testimony. (James E. Faust, “The Surety of a Better Testament,” Ensign, Sept. 2003, 3, emphasis mine).

Despite these specific invitations to live the higher law, sacrament meeting after sacrament meeting in recent years since 1990, has lauded the merits of the pamphlet, as though measurable and observable improved behavior were the end goal we were seeking. The youth in the Church are symbolically whipped week after week with “shoulds” from the pamphlet. We shifted responsibility from ourselves as teachers and leaders at the local level, and defaulted to “this inspired pamphlet.” Except from a select few local women leaders, rarely do I hear true doctrine, however. The underlying “WHY” doctrine is always conspicuously absent in these uninspired sermons. President Packer has observed that teaching true “. . .doctrine can change behavior quicker than talking about behavior will.” (See Boyd K. Packer, “Washed Clean,” Ensign, May 1997, 9). I believe the proper indictment rests not with the General Authorities, but with the members – so few of whom understand and can teach true doctrine.

When the respective presidents of the Young Men and Young Women’s organizations were interviewed by an Ensign staff writer following the introduction of the new pamphlet, I invite you to look for even one underlying true doctrinal principle that buttresses their endorsement. (See “The Lord’s Standards Haven’t Changed,” Ensign, Sept. 1991, 7). Both mention how welcomed boundaries are by the youth, but the minute you go down the path of defining acceptable behavioral standards the unintended consequence is that some imaginative young people will begin to parse meanings and immediately move to the outer markers.

I always thought what I’m now going to share with you was nothing more than an urban legend, until I received a phone call from a young married woman in my ward one Sunday afternoon. Enough time and distance has passed that no one would guess her true identity, and I have long ago forgotten her name and face (the blessing of diminished memory).  She asked if she could come to my office for an interview. I had spoken in sacrament meeting the week before about the principle of repentance, and when she arrived she poured out a story through sobbing and exquisite pain that stunned me. While a student at BYU, she along with two of her single friends and three other single young men had gone to Las Vegas for a long weekend. When they arrived they paired off and went to a marriage chapel on the Strip and each couple was “legally and lawfully wedded.” They engaged in unrequited and unrestrained sexual activity for four days and nights, then as they were leaving Las Vegas went back to the same marriage chapel and had all three marriages annulled. They took an oath of silence – they agreed never to discuss the matter again. They convinced each other it was all perfectly legal in every way.

Five years later and after the birth of her second child, the agony of her secret was too heavy to carry any longer. She had gone right to the edge of the “legal definitions” of her covenants, had peered into the abyss, then had slipped over the edge. Something I had said in my talk the week before had finally helped her muster the courage to come forward and begin again. So that’s the danger, I believe, of even making the attempt to establish comprehensive behavioral standards – why not teach that the Holy Ghost may truly govern people’s spiritual lives instead?

Why do I know how much power this approach of living by the Spirit can have in people’s lives? Because I have witnessed its power to change and influence for better the lives of those who are closest to me. What follows is merely the latest in a long list of examples that could be cited. I told you about a dear family member’s current incarceration in a federal prison. He is excommunicated presently, but cannot wait for the day of his rebaptism. For my birthday he sent along a letter that included these hopeful lines:

". . . I feel like I'm truly seeing the gospel again with new eyes, and in answer to the blessing I was given the Spirit has not been withheld. In fact, I believe that the Spirit flows more deeply now that my vessel has been cleansed. I can't wait for a renewed life and membership in the Church. I'm not done yet, Dave. I know that the Lord still has more for me to accomplish, and perhaps that work will require the lessons I've learned in order to fulfill it properly. . ."

It is my belief his lessons in the Spirit came relatively late in life in part (he is ultimately accountable) because of his perception he was subjected to a heavy-handed behavioral emphasis in his home growing up.  That might explain my obvious prejudice and passion for this topic.

When outward appearance matters more than inward purity, you can bet the cleansing of the vessel when it finally comes will be attended with unimaginable firepower!

May I paraphrase what Paul taught? (See the JST):

O foolish [Mormons], who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the [“For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet], or by the hearing of faith?
Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by [teaching from some modern-day reincarnation of the law of Moses]?
[Paul then teaches that Abraham’s hopes and dreams of having posterity were fulfilled because of his faith, not the observance of the law of Moses that came 430 years later.]
. . . Is the [pamphlet] then against the promises of God? God forbid [it was conceived with the best intentions in the world to help guide the youth]; for if there had been a [pamphlet] given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by [the pamphlet without the need for anyone’s faith being exercised].
But the scripture hath concluded all under sin [because the pamphlet cannot possibly begin to list every single bad human behavior into which fallen mortal people will display, and none can live the demands of the pamphlet perfectly which is why we have a Savior], that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
But before faith came, we were kept under the [standards as set forth in the pamphlet], shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed [we relied on the pamphlet to guide our youth, and we forgot it’s really the Holy Ghost that must guide them].
Wherefore the [pamphlet] was our schoolmaster until Christ, that we might be justified by faith [so isn’t it about time to move on and truly “raise the bar” by teaching Christ’s perfection, not our own failed attempts at the perfect observance of behavioral standards?].
But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster [let’s burn the silly pamphlet and teach Christ and the need for our faith in his perfection instead].
For ye are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ [and as such are heirs to the promises made to Abraham through faith].
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
And if ye are Christ's then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (JST Galatians 3:1-29, emphasis mine).

What is the true doctrine? Nephi said it best: “. . . if ye will enter in by the way [baptism], and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and there will be no more doctrine given. . .” (2 Nephi 32:5-6, emphasis mine). I believe ALL THINGS really means ALL THINGS. A “should” from the quiet whisperings of the Holy Ghost is very different than getting “should on” by an uninspired youth leader on Sunday armed with a pamphlet.

We can only close the gap in the disconnect, I believe, by teaching and emphasizing the true doctrine of Christ. At the highest priesthood echelons in the Church there is marvelous encouragement and instruction along these lines, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But the danger now is that spiritually lazy and unconverted local leaders and members of the Church (if my premise is correct) have insisted upon the creation of a pamphlet that closely resembles “more than” the doctrine of Christ. It seems “a sandy foundation.” In this next passage, the Savior has just finished speaking to the Nephites during his first appearance among them. He has spoken about doing away with contentions over the points of his doctrine, carefully enunciating what he calls “my doctrine” in these words:

And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
And whoso believeth in me and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.
And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and I bear record of it from the Father; and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
. . . And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.
Therefore, go forth unto this people, and declare the words which I have spoken, unto the ends of the earth. (3 Nephi 11:32-41, emphasis mine).

Then in our dispensation the Lord again reiterated this simple idea to the Prophet Joseph:

And this I do that I may establish my gospel, that there may not be so much contention; yea, Satan doth stir up the hearts of the people to contention concerning the points of my doctrine; and in these things they do err, for they do wrest the scriptures and do not understand them.
Therefore, I will unfold unto them this great mystery;
For, behold, I will gather them as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if they will not harden their hearts;
Yea, if they will come, they may, and partake of the waters of life freely.
Behold, this is my doctrine — whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.
Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.
And now, behold, whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
And now, remember the words of him who is the life and light of the world, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Amen. (D&C 10:63-70, emphasis mine).

Sometimes it seems the very gates of hell are opened wide and are prevailing against our youth. Perhaps like Alma we need to try the merits of the word of God (see Alma 31:5). President Benson, as we observed over lunch, certainly challenged the members of the Church to embrace The Book of Mormon. It isn’t like we haven’t already heard how to help the youth at least a gazillion times.

Conversion to the true doctrine producing real conversion power among the youth centers on the doctrine of Christ. The Book of Mormon prophets describe the doctrine of Christ in many places, perhaps best summarized by Moroni at the end in these words:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.
And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot. (Moroni 10:32-33, emphasis mine).

True spiritual conversion among our youth depends not upon the behavioral standards of the pamphlet, rather upon the “iffy” statements where we must act upon our faith in Christ’s perfection. It suddenly strikes me as odd that I am even writing all this down. It reminds me of exactly what we agreed over lunch – that President Packer is already attempting to teach this to local Church leaders. So what do we need to do to close the gap on the “disconnect?” Simply implement what our inspired leaders whom we sustain as Prophets, Seers and Revelators are already teaching. There is no need for something new – we already have everything we need.

Priesthood Interviews

One of the great privileges granted by God to the natural patriarchs (fathers) in the Church is the authority and power (based upon our worthiness) of the priesthood to be used in our homes. Fathers may interview and bless their posterity routinely as called upon or as inspired to exercise those priesthood powers. Indeed, in the days of Moses the prophet lamented, “. . . would God that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). Rather than look to the leaders of the Church for guidance in everything, the Restoration assures all may share the power of the priesthood with the only restriction being faithfulness.

However, not every home has a priesthood holder, so the Church makes ample provision for surrogate “fathers” in the form of priesthood leaders for the widows and orphans. The Church at the general level can help the youth by teaching local priesthood leaders how to interview and bless those whom they serve. Sexual abuse and other forms of abuse are routinely overlooked or ignored, and I discovered as a bishop of young married students that when marriages were failing those failures could often be traced to sexual abuse suffered by the wives in their teenaged years. Sexual promiscuity among young people is often the outgrowth of the sexual abuse they have suffered at the hands of trusted men in the Church. Young men who are immersed in pornography are routinely pronounced worthy by bishops who have no clue about how to be helpful. The bishops can be encouraged to become better watchmen on the towers, I believe, and thus help their youthful parishioners more.

Open-ended essay type questions are useful in priesthood interviews, such as, “Emily, how would you describe your testimony?” or, “John, how’s your girlfriend?” or, “Susie, what do you think is the biggest problem your friends face at school?” or, “Sam, describe the circumstances when pornography last touched your life.” It is no longer enough to ask simple “yes” or “no” questions like, “Are you morally clean?” or, “Do you say your prayers at night?” or, “Do you read your scriptures?” or, “Do you have a testimony?”

Asking open-ended questions, then listening carefully by the Spirit is the key to effective and meaningful progress in the testimony building of our youth. It’s in these sacred settings that local leaders can do so much more to teach and encourage the youth in their discipleship, but the leaders need far more training than what they are apparently getting in order to facilitate an increase in true spiritual conversions among today’s youth.

Bishops for the most part understand their authority, but some have not come to embrace the power associated with their calling by employing the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit in their work. The Church can help the youth by teaching the bishops and stake presidents how to interview by encouraging these leaders to immerse themselves in the scriptures where they will discover the doctrine, and the Spirit of the Lord will serve them well in spiritually discerning the needs of their youthful members.

A bishop recently told me he had handed missionary papers to a young woman in the hallway at the ward building. He said she “was worthy in every way.” She was processed as a prospective missionary and her call received without so much as even a quick “hello” inside the bishop’s office. Imagine what an impact that bishop could have had in that young sister’s life if he had taken some time to teach her about the endowment, and had actually prepared her spiritually for her missionary service. Even if he assumed she were worthy, what if she were one of the many victims of undisclosed abuse I had to deal with as a bishop later on? What if careful interviewing and gentle teaching could have resolved whatever hidden and underlying stresses or strains she might have disclosed if given the chance with a trusted and sensitive priesthood leader? I’ve just described how another dear family member received her mission call. She left for her mission last Monday morning. She said as she recounted how it had happened, “It’s okay, I had you,” but in my heart I wondered, “What if?”

When she arrived at the MTC, she was assigned to a roommate who had been to the temple for her endowment only three days before entering the MTC, and whose bishop had given her no clues about what she would encounter there. She confided she was confused and negatively impacted by her first temple experience. She was a lost soul as she began her mission. If this is “raising the bar,” there is still work to do among the bishops!


If the Church wants to help the young men of the Church “raise the bar” and achieve greater spiritual preparation for their future lives, I wonder if the time hasn’t come for Scouting to be de-emphasized if not eliminated. As I told you over lunch, I am absolutely convinced the Young Women are head and shoulders above the Young Men in the direction of their program. It should surprise no one this is true. As a casual observer, the spiritual leadership of the women’s organizations in recent years seems light years beyond the priesthood. The Young Women are not fettered with the Girls Scouts, why should the Young Men be fettered with the Boy Scouts? I wonder if Scouting may actually be retarding rather than enhancing the development of young men. That said, Scouting may be a “sacred cow” that won’t get gored. President Hinckley hinted that everything (including Scouting) gets looked at:

". . . we know that the administrative load is very heavy on our bishops and stake presidents, as well as some others. An awareness of that fact has led the Presidency and the Twelve to hold a number of meetings, some of them long and interesting, in which in effect we have taken the Church apart and then put it together again. Our objective has been to see whether there might be some programs we could do away with. But as we have analyzed these, we have not seen much that could be dropped. To drop one is like giving away one of your children. You haven’t the heart to do it." (Gordon B. Hinckley, “To Men of the Priesthood,” Ensign, Nov. 2002, 56).

So for the moment it may be a settled question. Even this weekend as I was writing this letter to you, more assurances of its health came out in print:

"I think there’s no question that at this period of time the relationship between the Church and Scouting is on solid ground. We have had a great relationship with Scouting. . .
"There are rumors that the Church is planning to part ways with the Scouting program. Can you address that? It’s a pure rumor. . ." (See Elder F. Melvin Hammond, LDS Church News, September 20, 2003, 5).

I realize it is our Church almost single-handedly that supports and sustains the Boy Scouts of America. Could we really give it up as the globalization of the Church continues? What if the moral issues attacking Scouting (like gay issues and “Duty to God”) become an impasse in the years ahead? They seem to be settled for the moment, but the moral onslaught will continue.

Elder Bradford explained to me that when the Church finally has the missionary manpower to enter mainland China, we will do so armed only with the basic elements of the gospel, not the full-blown Church menu of programs. What he said in essence was that Lord Baden Powell simply wouldn’t fit into the overseas suitcase in the years ahead. Aren’t we already moving in the direction of eliminating Scouting in parts of the world where its introduction is impractical?

Perhaps in future years Scouting will join Church basketball as more jetsam and flotsam from the ship of ZION is tossed overboard as it sails on into the darker nights and stormy seas ahead. The key, I believe is to develop an approach inspiring young men to catch the vision of what the scriptures offer BEFORE they reach the MTC, modeled more closely after what the young women are doing. Cooking, camping and hiking merit badges are often touted as ample justification for mission preparation, so I guess Scouting is tantamount to the only true gospel among its adherents. But after all isn’t it just “another gospel” like Sigma Chi or Pi Kappa Alpha? (Too harsh? Paul didn’t think so – see Galatians 1:6-12). I realize this is something of a paradigm shift, and I suspect it will not occur overnight, but we might someday view it as eliminating a desirable but unnecessary option. Until then, I will pray for more enlightenment on its relevance with the gold standard goal of paving the way toward eternal life.


That leads me to the next obvious area where the Church could help the young men. The curriculum in Aaronic Priesthood quorum meetings and Sunday School needs a more specific targeted approach to mission preparation (and I don’t mean “fluff lessons” on grooming, dating, dressing, etc). I’ll never forget a son sending me a quick desperate e-mail after one week in the CTM in Sao Paulo with this question: “Dad, what does the ‘Apostasy and Restoration’ mean?” ZING! I felt I had failed utterly in my duty as his father to teach him.

I absolutely LOVE that manuals are getting smaller every year. The instruction must include more familiarization with the scriptures if we expect the youth to be prepared to outline their own missionary lessons when they reach the MTC, and to truly teach by the Spirit. Two missionaries were in our home just last night (one out a year, the other fourteen months). I’ve done many splits with missionaries over the years and know how to compare those who are prepared with those who are not. It was obvious how sincere they were, but their teaching skills and familiarity with the scriptures were sadly lacking. I’ll just leave it at that. 

[It had nothing to do with me, but I note Preach My Gospel and True to the Faith were introduced within a year of this letter -- purely "coincidental," but it was nice to think I was on the same wavelength as those receiving the revelation for their introduction].

Such focus and directional positioning is lacking currently. This, of course, presupposes we have enough teachers within the ranks of the Church to fill the positions and effect the changes. Raising the bar for our sons and daughters who desire to serve as missionaries is one thing, but it must begin with inspired and converted adults who can teach and lead the way. It will be essential in the years ahead to raise the bar for instructional materials and teachers, if we as a Church are to meet Elder Ballard’s mandate. Having taught the Teacher Development course, Patsy and I have used Elder Gene R. Cook’s Teaching by the Spirit with great success among our students – every teacher in the Church would do well to study and embrace its contents. I know these things do not happen overnight, but make no mistake the Church is on the right path – these are relatively minor mid-course adjustments and improvements I’m suggesting, not a “throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater” approach.

Reverse Engineering

Years ago when I was traveling and consulting among multi-national manufacturing companies, I was surprised how widespread industrial espionage was. A company would often buy a competitor’s product, then take it apart piece by piece to figure out how to improve their own offering. They called it “reverse engineering.” The end product could be observed and declared desirable, then by working backward to today these companies would improve dramatically and in a short time what otherwise would have taken years to discover through trial and error.

Wasn’t it Stephen Covey who suggested that it was a good idea to start setting goals by starting with your funeral? The idea was to ask yourself what you wanted people to say at your funeral, then work backward to today. Then you simply live your life from that point to fulfill your hopes for how people will remember you. I can’t help wondering if we couldn’t do the same thing in the Church as we focus on what the Church could do to “help the youth.” If the end goal is to produce true disciples of Christ who are spiritually converted in the days of their impressionable youth, could we find ways to reverse engineer our collective efforts today in such a way that we could ensure better spiritual outcomes in true conversions? Could we frame the vision, perhaps, by doing a better job in describing what ZION might look like someday, then asking ourselves as a Church how we might get from here to there spiritually?

When I posed this question about what the Church could do to help the youth to a respected stake leader of young women, her response was how appalled she has become over the lack of true spiritual conversion among women in the Church who are her peers. Her “disconnect” observations included women in her circle who were having abortions, women who were sexually deviant because of lifelong patterns of sexual abuse, and women who had “opened the door to sin” again and again until they had eventually succumbed.

When asked what made the difference in her own life and the life of her husband, her comment was, “We decided early on in our marriage what was acceptable and what was not by the guidance of the Holy Ghost, then we have tried to follow the counsel we received prayerfully and sometimes at great sacrifice.” That’s true conversion, I believe.

When I asked her to then “reverse engineer” her current adult perspective into the lives of her young women, her answer was simple – “We need to help our youth leaders understand that the criteria for conversion is more than who shows up for activity night on Tuesday night.” She smiled and then said, “I’ve been accused in my own ward of being a ‘lax mother’ because my daughter isn’t at Mutual every activity night. I’ve had to help our leaders try to understand there’s more to it than the attendance rolls.” Of her daughter, she said, “Amber (not her real name) doesn’t need the Church to entertain her – she already has enough of that in her life – we need to support her spiritual desires to be faithful.” I believe it was Elder Neal A. Maxwell who said, “Instead of feeding the sheep, we have become adept at merely counting them.” How sad that among her best friends in high school she is not always able to find peer commitment for shared beliefs.


1. Teach and involve the youth in undiluted true doctrine from the scriptures.
2. Train for more effective interviewing at the local level.
3. Continue to think about what we could accomplish as a Church without Scouting.
4. Continue “tweeking” instructional curriculum with a focus on scriptures (less is more).
5. Reverse engineering with the end goal of eternal life in mind – then work backward to today.

The Church at the local level can and must fix it if it’s broken. When I think of “the Church” in the question, “What can the Church do to help the youth?” it seems to me the leadership of the Church at the highest levels is right on target. I completely sustain President Packer’s efforts. I love that we are finally becoming The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints, and we can be assured that the Church was never truer than it is right now. What I have outlined above is only a way to continue the vast improvement that is building – truly the momentum is all on our side right now. Hundreds of temples dot the globe today. Who would’ve thunk it even five years ago? Clearly, the Prophet is thinking long-term into fulfilling the future goal of eternal life I outlined up front. The failure to implement in the Church at the local level is where the “disconnect” is occurring. Maybe it’s always been the same problem since the Garden – God keeps sending true prophets among His children who ignore them. He is soooooooo patient!

Thanks for the invitation to ruminate some. As a letter this is way too long, and I apologize for that. What’s the old expression? “I could write a book.” Sorry, I nearly did! Feel free to use this in any way that might be useful to you or scrap it.

Best wishes,

David B. Goates

1 comment:

  1. The introduction of the new youth curriculum is the precise fulfillment of my longings and recommendations from this letter from 2003. None can say we are not led by true prophets.