I live in a community choked with churches. Our tiny beach town on the Atlantic Ocean contains three Catholic churches, each with a sprawling campus, and sanctuaries larger than a concert hall. My neighbor attends them all. She likes the Bible study at one, the mass at another, and the social events at the third. She thinks I am daft to travel 30 minutes up the road to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She reminds me that within five minutes of my house there are two popular Presbyterian churches, as well as an Episcopal and a Lutheran Church. There is a Kingdom Hall and a Jewish temple. Take your pick, she prompts me.

Of course, I wouldn’t deviate from my Faith, attending a church that didn’t teach the complete Truth. However, at times I am envious of my neighbor’s proclivity to flit from one Catholic Church to another, based on her desire to be with her friends. When she meets a new friend that attends a different church than hers, she simply goes to church with that new friend. She doesn’t have to move her records. She can still teach Sunday School. She never has to sit alone through a service. She goes where her “people” go.

It takes tremendous faith to adhere to the structure imposed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, structure, we may have all lamented at times.

The book, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, written by Eugene England, one of my professors at BYU, helped me accept that the structure of the Church can help perfect us just as surely as the doctrine. “The basic Church experience of almost all Mormons brings them directly and constantly into very demanding and intimate relationships with a range of people and problems in their assigned congregations that are not primarily of their own choosing but are profoundly redemptive in potential, in part because they are not consciously chosen.” (Why the Church Is As True as the Gospel p. 6)

This concept may be especially difficult for youth to understand and accept. They do not always attend church because it is “redemptive.” Too often they attend church because it is “fun” because they have friends there, or because they would like to be friends with someone there. (My girlfriend was a non-member when, as a teenager, she attended an LDS church looking for Donny Osmond. She didn’t find Donny, but she did find her future husband.)

When we tell youth that the purpose of church is not necessarily to hang around people we like but to hang around people we may not necessarily like, they, along with my neighbor, may think we are daft.

Splitting a ward may put youth in units with people they don’t like, or it may separate them from people they adamantly like. Often youth will bond with one another, forming dear friendships with in their own wards, and snap, out of the blue, their ward gets divided. Unlike the churches my neighbors attend, Latter-day Saints don’t just up and switch congregations to be with their friends.

More difficult still is the possibility that a unit will split and not only will the youth be deprived of meeting weekly with their dear friends, their new unit may not have any youth at all.

Because friendships are so very important to teenagers, it can be particularly challenging to lure a young person to church without the promise of friendship. Adults may be mature enough to accept the lesson Eugene England taught, that divinely appointed church units are redemptive. Youth may merely think they are restrictive.

How can we, as adults, keep our youth active when the things we have to offer them are not the same as what the world offers?   Certainly we do our very best to sponsor stake functions: firesides, athletic events, youth conferences, and to bring our youth together at seminary, EFY, temple trips, camp, etc. so youth can develop wholesome friendships. But how can we, on a weekly basis, help our youth discover the true redemptive nature of LDS units?

The New Era recently told of a young man from Immokalee, Florida who got tired of having only two young men in his branch.   “Every time I’d go, I’d see the other branches and all the youth in the stake, but from our branch, it would just be me,” Junior says. “Finally, I said, Why am I the only one here from Immokalee? I’ve got to open my mouth.” He invited a friend to church, who invited a friend, who invited his brothers, a cousin and a nephew. The young men’s program grew from one to 26.

Because of the divine structure of the Church, Junior learned to share the gospel. Rather than feeling sorry for himself because he had no friends in his ward, he got to work. (As Bryant S. Hinckley said, “Forget yourself and get to work.”)

The assigned congregations in the LDS church give us a greater opportunity to develop Christ-like qualities. Rather than attend church thinking, “What’s in it for me?” we learn to attend church thinking, “How can I contribute?” We stay in our own congregations because doing so helps us grow. It perfects us. In the words of my own youth leaders: Bloom Where You Are Planted.

When we are not surrounded by those who give us comfort and security, we are more inclined to look around and notice those who need our fellowship. Rather than show up at a ward party and dart directly for the seat reserved by our intimates, we scan the crowd for someone new to sit by, and in doing so, find a way to fellowship.

In a small unit every single person feels needed. Those we may not have associated with previously because they were so different, suddenly become valuable to us because associating with those who are different is better than not associating with anybody at all. Youth who may have felt like a cipher in a large ward become leaders in a small one.

Wards are divided in the first place for this very reason:   When congregations get too large, people fall through the cracks. When congregations are relatively small, people come out of the woodwork.

Youth get unparalleled attention in small units. One of my young woman was the only girl in her class on a particular Sunday. Rather than combine her class with another class, I encouraged her advisor to teach this single young woman. The girl’s parents later told me how delighted she was that the teacher took her on a walk, just the two of them, all alone, and how valued she felt.

My own son was the only 11 year old scout in our ward at that time in his life. Nevertheless, the bishop called Brother Cole as the 11 year old scout leader. Brother Cole came faithfully every week to teach just one little boy. Tanner adored his 11 year old scout leader. Tanner learned to light a fire with just one match and to handle a knife safely. As a senior in high school, when so many of the kids on his football team spent Saturday night getting drunk and high, Tanner spent it in our backyard, with a handful of his non-member friends, roasting marshmallows over a fire and playing root the peg.

“The Church is the instrument provided by a loving God to help us become like him, that is, to give us essential schooling–experiences with each other that can bind us together in an honest but loving community, which is the essential nurturing place for salvation.” (Why the Church is as True as the Gospel p. 15)

How wonderful it would be if we could teach our youth to become selfless leaders, learning to give rather than to get. It takes faith to accept that the size of our unit, whether large or small, is an opportunity to develop qualities we would never develop if we scampered around to whichever unit is popular at the moment. If our youth accept that the structure of the church can be redemptive, then when they grow up and their employment moves them to Immokalee, Florida, they will see it as an opportunity to contribute rather than to quit.


JeaNette Goates Smith is the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance, available at www.unsteadydating.com