Four Things Everyone Should Know about the Children and Youth Program

An Interview with Brad Wilcox by Brent R. Nordgren

Brad Wilcox (brad_wilcox@byu.edu ) is an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU.

Brent R. Nordgren (brent_nordgren@byu.edu ) is the managing editor of the Review magazine.

Nordgren: You were called as the second counselor in the Young Men General Presidency in April of 2020 as the world was closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that many places in the world are starting to emerge from quarantine restrictions, some ward and stake leaders are worried about the youth. Since you are a member of our faculty, we thought it would be timely for you to give us an update on the Children and Youth program. What should everyone know?

More Than a Goal-Setting Program

Wilcox: The last few years have definitely been difficult. At the end of 2019, the Children and Youth program made its entrance with high hopes and great fanfare. A few months later, COVID-19 restrictions sent everyone home, and some people forgot there was a new program. When I ask young people and adults, “What’s the Children and Youth program?,” the most common reply is something about goal setting. I say, “That’s a small part of it, but there is more.” The first thing everyone should know is that the program is more than goal setting. It has three main components: gospel learning, service and activities, and personal development.

Nordgren: Tell us about those areas.

Wilcox: If young people are learning the gospel in seminary, they are doing the youth program. If they are using Come, Follow Me as they study scriptures, they are doing the youth program. Tithing, patriarchal blessings, reading the For the Strength of Youth magazine, and ministering are all part of the youth program.

Service and activities are also vital. There should be camps for young men and young women each summer, FSY and youth conference on alternating summers, and service and activities throughout the year for youth and Primary children.

Nordgren: What is FSY?

Wilcox: The initials represent “For the Strength of Youth.” This is a weeklong conference patterned after BYU’s Especially for Youth (EFY). Young people are housed in dorms and overseen by young single adult counselors. The week includes workshops, dances, variety shows, and games. Youth engage in scripture study, devotionals, and a testimony meeting. EFY was highly successful in uplifting the youth, as demonstrated in a study conducted by Religious Education professors John Hilton III and Anthony Sweat showing that EFY tied with seminary as the programs that most positively affected youth testimonies.[1] The problem is that EFY was cost prohibitive for many teenagers and their families. Church leaders created FSY, a similar experience for youth internationally that has been extremely successful. Now they have determined to roll out FSY in North America as well. After two years of delays due to COVID-19 and the desire to allow local units to reconnect after a time of isolation, it will finally be offered this coming summer for approximately 150,000 youth across North America.

Focused on the Work of Salvation and Exaltation

Nordgren: Tell us about personal development, the third component of the Children and Youth program.

Wilcox: This component includes goal setting, but not goal setting for the sake of goal setting. That could be a little pointless. I asked a young man, “What is your physical goal?” He said, “Breathe.” This young man has already realized that you can set easy goals just to say you set goals. The goals we set in the Children and Youth program are about learning how to receive personal revelation and how to exercise faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Youth once looked at a book or manual and said, “What do they want me to do?” Now we want them to look toward God and say, “What do you want me to do?” If they listen, God will tell them. He will encourage them to set goals for themselves that stretch them beyond their comfort zones and lead them to him and to Christ for loving help and guidance. At the end of the day, the most important goal is to strengthen faith and commitment to Christ and accomplish his work of salvation and exaltation. The Children and Youth program is a tool to help us do that.

Nordgren: What do you mean by “work of salvation and exaltation”?

Wilcox: Old-timers like me remember people talking about the threefold mission of the Church, which was later expanded to the fourfold mission. Now those purposes have been elegantly phrased as the work of salvation and exaltation. We come unto Christ by living the gospel, caring for those in need, sharing the gospel, and uniting families for eternity (General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1.2, ChurchofJesusChrist.org). Don’t you love it? Youth can remember four key words: live, care, invite, unite. That’s the work they are doing—the same work we are all doing. The Children and Youth program provides processes and support to help youth wrap their arms around that. The program is so simple it can fit on one page. (See insert for a summary page of the Children and Youth program.)

Home Centered and Church Supported

Nordgren: It seems there is more emphasis now on involving parents and helping youth lead out. Am I reading that right?

Wilcox: Absolutely. This effort is centered in the home, where parents provide direction and support, and further developed at church, where quorum and class presidencies lead with adult mentoring. In the past at church, we have seen adult-led programs with youth involvement. Now we hope to have youth-led programs with adult support.

When it comes to having youth lead, too often we either throw them in the deep end of the swimming pool to fail or keep them in the kiddie pool by doing everything for them. One resource that can help us find the ideal middle of the pool is a series of leadership lessons found on Gospel Library (under Youth, Helps for Presidencies) or on the Church website (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/quorum-and-class-presidency-resources/resources?lang=eng). The lessons, which are intended to take only about fifteen minutes each, can be taught by an adviser or by the youth themselves. There are various lessons that teach young leaders how to prepare for and conduct meetings, counsel together about the work of salvation and exaltation, plan service and activities, and minister. A successful procedure for introducing these lessons has been for stake and ward leaders to encourage youth presidencies to meet weekly—in person or virtually—and include one of these lessons as part of their presidency meetings. By the end of five weeks, those presidencies understand what is expected of them and they continue forward with greater confidence.

Nordgren: Does the General Handbook say these presidencies should meet weekly?

Wilcox: It says “regularly,” but in too many cases “regularly” becomes rarely or never. Bishoprics and Relief Society presidencies typically meet weekly because what they are doing is important. Is the work of the youth less important? Short weekly meetings allow presidencies to bond, get into a productive pattern, and feel accountable to do what they have been called and set apart to do. Those youth have had hands laid on their heads and been set apart. We don’t want to inadvertently release them by doing too much for them. In one stake we encouraged youth presidencies to meet weekly and go through the leadership lessons. When we gathered them together at the end of the first five weeks, Brother Ahmad Corbitt, first counselor in the Young Men General Presidency, and Sister Michelle Craig, first counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, stayed with the youth in the chapel, and Sister Becky Craven, second counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, and I took the adults into the cultural hall to reflect on the experience. At the end of the meeting, Brother Corbitt asked the youth how many wanted to continue meeting weekly, and most of the hands went up. When Sister Craven and I asked the same question of the adults, very few hands were raised. If we are not careful, sometimes adults—as well intentioned as we are—can hold the youth back.

Nordgren: In the past, youth have been motivated to earn Eagle Scout awards or Young Women medallions. Is there anything like that in the new program?

Wilcox: Those awards have had their place; I’m proud to be an Eagle Scout myself. But it is time to help youth and their parents come to a higher level of intrinsic motivation. The new program has emblems of belonging—rings, necklaces, and so forth—that can be given to all participating children and youth in public settings. The only emblem of achievement is a beautiful Christus statue, which is meant to be given at home or in the bishop’s office as youth leave the program. It is a chance for the bishop, who has watched these young people grow and mature throughout the program, to honor, thank, and praise them individually in a small but special meeting with just the young person and his or her parents. Our Church leaders have been inspired to encourage youth to focus less on earning awards and more on learning to become like the Savior in every aspect of their lives. In the past, once the award was given, young people felt like they were done. Now we want to focus more on establishing righteous routines and holy habits that continue. President Steven Lund, Young Men General President, is fond of saying, “The ultimate emblem of belonging and achievement is a temple recommend. That’s what we want every young member of the Church to have.”

Focused on Faith and Becoming like Jesus

Wilcox: In the past we had lots of youth go through their respective programs, and yet some of our young single adults are struggling. Through it all, they never felt committed to Christ in such an enduring way that they would never think of stepping away from their covenant relationship with him and from the blessings of his Atonement and Church. Two years ago, if you asked members what the youth program for boys was, most would have said Scouting. For girls? Most would have said Personal Progress. Few members of the Church of Jesus Christ would have said Jesus. The Children and Youth program is all about helping young people connect with God and Christ in powerful and personal ways as they strive to be like them. We hope their testimonies of divine love and their desires to become lifelong disciples grow stronger every year.

Nordgren: Thank you. This has been helpful.

Wilcox: Thank you for reminding readers that—despite the setbacks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic—there is a Children and Youth program, and it’s just what our youth need right now. We are told Gen-Z is all about finding out who they are and belonging to a cause. I hope we can all help our young people internalize their true identities as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ. Let’s help them know they belong in the Church and can engage in the greatest cause of all time and eternity—the cause of Christ.

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[1] John Hilton III and Anthony Sweat, “Developing Teenage Testimonies: Programs and Pedagogy with Spiritual Impact,” Religious Educator 18, no. 2 (2017): 111–29.