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Youth leaders divided their efforts as rain and a snow storm hit the Young Women summer camp. Some leaders worked outside the tent, struggling to keep the tent stakes anchored and to direct a stream of running water away from the youth, while others remained inside the tent, playing games and laughing with the young women.
Some might wonder why the leaders inside the tent weren't outside helping. But research confirms their efforts to build connections with the young women were just as important as those of the leaders who helped protect them from the physical storm.
Religious commitment of teens today springs from relationships, according to a recent BYU study.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, drew from in-depth interviews with 80 adolescents and their families. The families (of different faiths) were recommended by their religious leaders as people who are engaged in their religion. The entire family was interviewed, but researchers focused on the responses of the adolescents.
They found that the teens from the study feel connected to their religious communities in a variety of ways and those connections make all the difference. "Relationships matter to youth," said the author of the study. "Relationships are critical to how youth are experiencing their religion."
According to the researchers, there are many avenues or anchors to religious commitment. Those include connection of youth to traditions, their Heavenly Father, their faith denominations, their faith community members, parents, religious leaders and the scriptures.
For example, one 16-year-old Presbyterian teen in the study noted that the reason his faith is more "than just a crutch" is the friendships he feels at church — both with other youth and with youth leaders. "Religion has sort of taken on a new role in my life from being something just to turn to in a time of need to something that I really care about and I participate in just for the joy of connecting to the people I'm worshipping with," he said.
Study authors put it another way.
"Just like a tent is held down by many stakes, likewise our commitments in our religion are anchored by relationships, beliefs and behaviors that may seem different but all serve to give life to our religion," said the author of the study. "The small and simple things that foster relationships and make religion fun are important to our youth" (news.byu.edu/archive11-may-anchors.aspx).
The research confirms years of LDS teachings regarding youth, who increase their religious commitment as they participate in seminary, Young Men/Young Women programs, Scout camps, youth activities and youth conferences, to name just a few.
President Spencer W. Kimball listed many advantages to activities in the Church that are "wholesome and entertaining" and allow the youth to build connections.
"Group homemade recreation activities can be not only great fun but most beneficial," he said. "Firesides may create friendships and inspire the spirit and train the mind. Group picnics can discipline youth in gentle manners and fellowship and extend circles of intimate friends. … The properly conducted dancing party can be a blessing. It provides opportunities to spend a pleasant evening with many people to the accompaniment of music. It can create and develop friendships which will be treasured in later years" (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, pp. 289-290).
President Ezra Taft Benson said it is the responsibility of bishoprics and youth leaders to create opportunities for spiritual experiences and friendship. Then he stressed that building connections with the youth — that "saving souls" — will take much more than fun and activities. "It will take work, sacrifice, carefully planned spiritual experiences, character-building experiences, and work experiences. In addition, it takes leadership examples by [leaders] committed to teach, train, and inspire [youth] to reach beyond where they are so they may realize greater achievement" (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 220).
President Gordon B. Hinckley said one way to accomplish that goal is to structure youth activities that are "less concerned with fun and more with faith" (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley. pp. 712-13).
Just like the leaders working during the storm at Young Women camp, there are many ways to protect our youth from both the physical and spiritual storms of our day.
The most important is a principle taught by the Savior Himself: "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you" (John 15:12).
And we must succeed. "The future of the kingdom of God upon the earth, will, in part, be aided by [their] devotion," said President Thomas S. Monson, speaking of the youth (BYU Devotional, Feb. 27, 1968).
So when the storms of life are raging around today's youth, we should remember that one tent stake of protection lies in our ability to help them form connections — to other Latter-day Saint youth, their leaders, ward members, the scriptures and their Heavenly Father.