BYU Women’s Conference
Be of Good Cheer; Children and Youth Is Here


Be of Good Cheer; Children and Youth Is Here

2021 BYU Women’s Conference

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Introduction

While Kalleen and I were on a mission in the southern United States, we learned about a family of five vacationing in Florida who one day decided to rent bicycles and spend a day riding through the Everglades. They put the youngest child in a carrier on the back of the mother’s bike and then set off together through the park. As they traveled along, the little seven-year-old son did what seven-year-old sons tend to do: he pedaled on ahead, leaving his poor family to try to keep everybody else together while still keeping him in view.

As the family crested the hill, with him up ahead, they saw their son picking up speed going down this little hill on the approach to a small bridge that spanned a stream. To their horror, they saw him hit a bump as he reached the on-ramp to the bridge and lose control of his bicycle, smashing into the bridge stanchion and flying over his handlebars and over the railing and into the shallow water below. And then it got worse. The water suddenly boiled, and a large alligator lying in wait in the murky water came to violent life, snatching the boy in his jaws and effortlessly pulling him underwater.

The father reached the bridge first. He vaulted from his bike and over the rail and into the murky water, where he wrestled the alligator to the surface so his son could get a breath. But he couldn’t force the massive jaws of this modern-day dinosaur open as he thrashed tooth and claw, pulling them both back into the water.

But by now the mother was on the scene. She set her bike down carefully, so as to not injure the baby in the carrier, and shouted orders to everyone as she then vaulted the rail into the water.

Well, the alligator had been doing just fine with father and son, but he had no idea what he was up against when mom arrived. She began pummeling him with such ferocity that, suddenly fearing for his own life, the alligator released his death grip on dad and boy, took a final snap at the mother, and then hastened his retreat into the murky depths. The family gathered themselves and then waded ashore, ready, clearly, for whatever the world may throw at them next.

Which is all to say there is nothing a mother would not do to save her children, which brings us to Women’s Conference, which brings us then to the Children and Youth program.

Last April, Brother Ahmad Corbitt, Brother Brad Wilcox, and I were called to the Young Men General Presidency. We were looking forward to being front-row witnesses to the rolling out of the new Children and Youth program.

And then the bottom dropped out. The program was swallowed up by a global pandemic.

Our simple assignment to change the culture of the Church nonetheless remained. After 100 years of Scouting—100 years of mothers driving kids to merit badge counselors, who were often other mothers; of mothers pushing their sons out the door for campouts; and of mothers leading anew each entrant onto the trail to Eagle—after 100 years we were going a different way together in order to prepare our youth for a different world.

As our presidency turned to calling a general board, which is now called our general advisory council, we had a strong impression that if we were actually going to succeed in changing the culture of the Church, we were going to need the full enthusiasm of mothers and women. Until the women of the Church adopt Children and Youth with the same ferocity with which they had embraced earlier programs in earlier times, our youth would never really see the full benefits of Children and Youth.

When we shared our vision of having women counsel with us, our partner General Officers—Presidents Cordon, Jones, and Bingham—agreed to lend us some of their council members from time to time to help keep us out of the ditch.

So we brought this combined super council together early on and described our dilemma: the Children and Youth launch had just contracted COVID-19, which hurled us into a new reality of remote leadership and training. It curtailed our normal patterns of fellowshipping, serving, teaching, and training. We explained to the sisters what they had already sensed, that the Children and Youth program did not yet fully exist anywhere in the world.

Worst of all, we sensed that among some members—youth and moms and dads—there was sometimes a sense of ambivalence toward the program. Some parents were asking themselves whether Children and Youth actually amounted to the highest and best use of time compared to alternatives such as extra time with homework, or extracurricular after-school programs, or tennis or music or dance.

With that background, the question we asked these “sisters on loan” was “how should we talk to women about this? How do we persuade mothers to support the Children and Youth program?”

Without a pause, Sister Salote Tukuafu from the Primary general advisory council said, “You can’t.”

“We can’t what?”

“Persuade mothers.”

“But won’t we have to? We don’t see how we can have this program succeed without them.”

She doubled down: “Yes. But you still can’t. The women of the Church are already overburdened, stretched, and not getting enough sleep. If you come in with something more for them to do, they may or may not be polite to you, but they won’t hear you.” And then she said, “We are going to have to tell them.”

“You?”

“Yes. They are going to have to hear it from us—from other mothers. This program is inspired, and it will work. It will make our children into leaders. It will build in them resilience. It will connect them with men and women of faith who will be role models. It will help them to know the Savior. And when all that happens, then mothers will start telling mothers that Children and Youth is bringing their kids to Christ, and that is all they will need to hear.”

Our purpose today is to tell you why we have such faith in the Children and Youth program, in hopes that you will gain your own testimony of it and then share it with each other.

Along the way, I will rely on the words of some women who we’ve come to love and trust—women who, like you, have spent untold hours on their knees bent over sometimes tear-soaked pillows, pleading for Heavenly Father’s intervention in the lives of sons and daughters, who they love.

First, the Children and Youth program is a powerful tool for home-centered Church.

You might be surprised to learn that the general women organizational leaders played a central role in crafting the architecture of the Children and Youth program.

Interesting to me is that it was at a Young Men Scout camp where I first met Presidents Joy Jones, Bonnie Cordon, and Jean Bingham, who at that time comprised the General Primary Presidency. Over the course of three years working together in that presidency, they spent, I think, a total of six weeks there in the wilds of New Mexico, studying how the youth program of the Church worked.

They were then asked to turn their faces to heaven, seeking inspiration as they played critical roles in the design and content of the new Children and Youth program.

And they helped design the program to be so simple. It is a resource to help families and individuals grow in faith. It cuts across all of the activities of the Church, personifying the ideal that everything we do in the Church amounts to one work.

Children and Youth has three areas of focus:

  • Gospel Learning: There are no surprises here. This means fully engaging in Sunday School, Come, Follow Me, seminary, and so forth.

  • Service and Activities: These are often midweek or Saturday sessions, planned by the youth, to be together helping each other progress along the covenant path. Hiking, camping, For the Strength of Youth conferences, and local camps and conferences all combine to create a very active program.

  • Personal Development: The program starts with a rich menu of ideas, but we encourage them to determine their own goals centered in the individual interests of the youth to help them prepare for life spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially.

The program also provides emblems of belonging. These emblems will mean different things to different youth, but “belonging” matters to us all.

Now, with that background, President Bingham taught the Relief Society that Children and Youth is an indispensable asset to families in building home-centered spiritual growth. Let’s hear her:

“As you saw and heard in the video, families are thrilled with the opportunity that this program has given them to become closer and to build both the testimonies and the talents of their children. Parents and extended families are key to the success of this effort. Now, when you think about it, parents’ most important role is to help their children to connect with heaven, to develop the gospel-based values system that will anchor them through the challenges in their life.”

The Children and Youth program provides structure for families to use as they strive toward home-centered personal development.

Former General Primary President Joy Jones told a delightful story of the power of Children and Youth when it focuses families on the covenant path. Let’s turn to her:

“Elder Gong, may I share a story about a young girl? She’s eight years old; her name is Nicole. She lives in the Philippines. She wasn’t a member of the Church and neither were her parents, but her older brother was. Their whole family was changed when they set a goal to read the Book of Mormon as part of the Children and Youth program. They are all now members of the Church and planning to go to the temple in a year.”

President Bonnie Cordon, now General President of the Young Women, spoke to why participation in the whole Children and Youth program matters.

“The happiest individuals are those who engage socially and spiritually in ways which positively build others by also building themselves.”

Sister Sharon Eubank, First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, summed up the important connection between women and Children and Youth. She said this:

“When moms, and aunts, and grandmas, and sisters talk, this is what we talk about: how to help the people we love experience Jesus Christ. We are all developing along the path in different ways. Nobody is exactly the same. The Children and Youth program acknowledges this and makes room for personal learning to grow into a deep love of Jesus Christ and His ways.”

Next, Children and Youth is a program designed for these unique times.

The Children and Youth program has been created because your children and your youth were born into this world at this unique time to engage in a great work.

About a year ago, President Nelson invited Kalleen and me into his office, where he called me to be the General Young Men President. As our heads were spinning over this totally unexpected turn of events, he stood and said, “You know, this is a very important time for the youth of the Church because it’s an important time for the Church. The youth will play a critical role in this wondrous time.” And he added, “You know I have invited them into the Lord’s battalions?”

“Yes, President Nelson. I know you have, and I know they are listening.”

“Well, it’s important that they do, because they are needed.”

I am paraphrasing only a little here, but he then went on to talk with great energy about the long-prophesied gathering that is taking place and the important work the Lord has for our youth to do. He spoke with a sense of urgency and great immediacy that they have been specifically sent to prepare for the Savior’s return.

The things President Nelson told us that day mirrored his talk to youth in June of 2018. On both occasions, he spoke with the voice of a seer. He said:

“My dear extraordinary youth, you were sent to earth at this precise time, the most crucial time in the history of the world, to help gather Israel. There is nothing happening on this earth right now that is more important than that. …

“This is the mission for which you were sent to earth.”

President Nelson chooses his words with great precision. When you reread that talk, you will see that he did not call them into the Lord’s youth battalions; he invited them. For them, it is a choice. He did not say they were the greatest generation, only that they had the capacity to be so. That too is a choice. These choices to join in the gathering will largely find place, if at all, in the Children and Youth program.

Children and Youth provides a place for the men and women in our children’s lives to teach and prepare them for the tasks of gathering and defending Zion.

Which is where you and I come in. If today’s children and youth were truly born “for such a time as this,” then so were we—you and I. So were their parents and leaders—born for a time when a generation is being raised up capable of fulfilling the prophecies of the millennia. “Capable,” as President Nelson has pronounced—capable as our young men and women affirm every time they think of the themes they memorize and recite—capable of preparing the world for the end of times.

This generation has unsurpassed capacity for the task but was not born with the knowledge and skills necessary to set about the regeneration of the world. They will need to acquire them from us. And sometimes we’re going to need to acquire them together.

There would have been no sons of Helaman without mothers who surely knew and without fathers who refused, at the very cost of their lives, to violate their covenants. Those leaders, placed by providence in their sons’ paths, enabled those 2,000 and a few to decidedly march into the maelstrom of a broken and divided society and save the freedoms of their nation.

In our day, it is you and I who were born to prepare them, to wrap their wounds, and to fit their hands to the task of Zion.

To the youth of the Church, President Nelson went on to say what he said last year in his office to Kalleen and me:

“So, now I am inviting every young woman and every young man between the ages of 12 and 18 in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to enlist in the youth battalion of the Lord to help gather Israel.”

That’s not language we hear every day. Most young men and young women know only vaguely what a battalion is. A battalion is a group of youth turned soldiers who become a highly trained organization specialized in specific disciplines that will allow them to come to the rescue when called upon.

President Nelson has invited our youth into the Lord’s youth battalions because, whether they elect to join the battalion or not, they are engaged in a war already. The war in heaven did not end in heaven. It is continuing here and now, and the youth of the Church are in need of the same defenses and weapons that defeated evil before the world was. The book of Revelation describes that premortal armory. It says simply that they conquered “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.”

Your young people need you to support Children and Youth because they actually need you.

In this world of giant opposition and Goliathian distractions, every one of our children is moving in and out of hostile territory, armed with the stones and slings we have provided them. Happily, when you and I set out to provision our youth with righteous power and confidence, those things tend to get inside us as well. Our youth need their mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, bishops, advisers, quorum and class presidencies, and every one of us to lend to their cause spiritual confidence and worldly wisdom. These are the assets that the women of the Church garner in abundance. You have seen stuff. And you have done stuff. And you, by the timing of your birth and your placement within these garrisons, have been called to the work.

Relationships with faithful members like you can be the most important faith factor in a young person’s life.

One of the most surprising and helpful things that we learned as a new presidency came to us from a multiyear Church longevity study that asked active adults what important things happened in their youth that helped them to identify as active members of the Church beyond their youth.

“LDS researchers have found that the development of an LDS religious identity largely depends on the quality of certain relationships. Young men who have strong, positive relationships with an active LDS family, peers, and leaders, which help them develop a relationship with their Heavenly Father, are most likely to stay active. Specific program elements—such as the Sunday curriculum, YM activity program, and Duty to God—may have little effect independent of those relationships.”

The kernel of this finding is surprising: those youth who grow up to identify within themselves as active members of the Church—as members of the crew rather than as tourists that are just passing through—tell researchers that more important than the quality of the activities, more important even than Sunday School lessons—and I have the Sunday School General President here; they are very important—was the formation of positive relationships with active leaders who helped them develop a relationship with the Savior and with their Heavenly Father. It is about those second witnesses, about our young people’s ability to find them.

No one ever left the Church because they did not know how to tie a square knot or kick a field goal or play the bassoon, or because they did not have a certain calling. They often do leave when they have not found a guide who can help them find the Savior.

Now, of course there is value in developing excellence in worthy secular pursuits, but those pursuits alone will not be enough to defend and empower them when questions of the soul go unanswered. When those moments arise, as surely they will, then their most urgent need will be to bring faith and power to the words that follow: “Through the power of the priesthood and in the name of Jesus Christ, I bless you …”

So, where in the physical world are these relationships and human bonds that are built to last best created? Not surprisingly, it has been in programs like Children and Youth. Even now, suppressed by the effects of masks and lockdowns, much can be done, and more will be done, to bond our youth and their leaders together with the Savior through common experience. Beginning already, and increasingly as the pandemic cools, relationships are best deepened in sensory-rich, high-adventure settings, in service projects working shoulder to shoulder with their leaders, in seminary and Sunday School and quorum classes where they will come to respect and love their leaders and fellow Saints, who they will come to know love them and who will have helped them to lead.

Importantly, forming these critical relationships is often not connected to highly successful activities. When I was 13 or 14 years old, my own Young Men group was bonded together with our leader on a California snow encampment. We got to the place, and as we slept in the very first snow that many of us had ever touched, it started to rain and sleet in the middle of the night, seeping into our tents and saturating our sleeping bags and clothes, leaving us all soaked to the bone, drenched, miserably freezing, and nearly hypothermic. After building a pathetic fire in a snowbank from wet wood that would not melt a snowflake, we eventually huddled together into a drafty crew-cab pickup truck and barely escaped with our lives as we headed home before the sun had even fully risen. That activity was a disaster—except that the most important things that could have happened did happen. We came to know that we could do hard things—even that—and that we could trust each other and that we could trust our leaders. As time went on, those leaders helped us along the covenant path. When they said “missions matter,” missions came to matter more to us, to me.

With the Spirit of the Lord on our side, such trust and relationships can happen anywhere when the right combination clicks together. They can form in an instant—in a conversation, in a passing kindness—but they’re like catching lightning in a bottle: someone has to be there at the right moment, and that means they have to be there a lot or they may miss it. They often form best in the outdoors, away from the distractions of technology and civilization.

Don’t you let anyone sell the Scout trailer. The plan is for them to do more camping now, not less. If somehow the trailer did get sold, then it was time for an upgrade anyway. So let’s do that—and in time to start wearing it out this very summer.

These critically important connections can grow there, but they also grow in places like midweek service and activities where associations are deepened into trust, doing fun things—and sometimes doing meaningless things—and in doing service and engaging in the work of salvation and exaltation. Wednesday nights at church, or on Zoom, are about more than the activities. They are about building connections and relationships with bishops, quorum leaders, their own peers, and others who may come to have more spiritual influence over your children, for a time, than even their parents—those very parents, like you, who stand ready to jump into the jaws of alligators for them.

The Apostle Peter describes our world as featuring Satan as a roaring lion roaming the land to devour.

The parable of the sower speaks of our modern world, where, when seeds of spirituality are sown, even to our own children, their reception will sometimes be dry and stony and like trampled byways. It is a lion-infested, stony, spiritually arid, hard-edged, and trampled world we send our kids out the door into each day, where they will need to carry themselves as lions. The Children and Youth program will provide them—if they are consistently there—water and nurturing through friends and leaders. Maybe not every week—but often.

Children and Youth builds faith in Christ by putting youth and children on the road He travels.

We are finding that the program is building faith in Christ, even as we adapt to the strictures of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, we held an informal focus group in northern California. We asked quorum and class presidents what they had observed after holding weekly presidency meetings. A 14-year-old unmuted her microphone before we even finished asking the question and said, “I feel closer to the Savior.”

“How so?”

“Because when I started thinking more often about how to help my friends become closer to Him, I came closer to Him too.”

To navigate these confusing times, the world and the kingdom of God need leaders—leaders like this 14-year-old, who, having found joy in His service, will go on to serve all of her life. Children and Youth is the Church’s leadership training program.

If we don’t make them leaders now, then they will go out into the world as what? As followers. And followers will follow anyone off of any cliff.

Children and Youth is a program for our times.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught us during the October 2020 general conference that “this virus did not catch Heavenly Father by surprise.” That means that it was no accident that the Children and Youth program was introduced at a time when our minds were being prepared for important change through the months of lockdown.

It seems that often when there has been great change, the Lord first does remarkable things to prepare the members. Lehi’s family languished on the ocean before taking on a new world. Before the Nephites moved past the law of Moses, there were three days of darkness. Before God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to young Joseph Smith, Joseph thought he would die while enveloped in darkness. Before the western migration, there was Zion’s Camp. We have all been surprised at the time-released launch of Children and Youth, but like a long-lasting medication, this therapeutic slow release will doubtless reveal reason and purpose. The Lord is up to something good, something big, something amazing.

Another reason our youth need the constancy of the Children and Youth program is that in this fast-changing world, they are suffering from a mental health crisis, and the gospel, as applied through the disciplines of this program, provides support to sound emotional health. The personal development goal-setting activities bring balance to a youth culture that is manifestly out of balance. The benefits of setting and accomplishing diverse goals—accomplishable goals, direct goals, appropriate goals—provide them with the nurturing successes as they grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”

One of our mental health experts, Dr. Sheldon Martin, recently spoke with our presidency about youth and mental health. He said:

“The best way to help youth improve their mental health is by engaging them in the Children and Youth program because of the consistent emphasis on growth in a variety of areas.”

That’s a formula for good mental health. He went on to say:

“Children who understand the wonders of the covenant path will not be looking for off-ramps. Through Primary and Children and Youth, the covenants and milestones will be clear to them, especially when life gets confusing.”

In an article scheduled for publication in the Liahona magazine, Dr. Martin states in a bold headline, “[Children and Youth] [is] a pattern for growth and mental and emotional wellness.” He concludes that it makes sense that improved mental health contributes to improved spirituality, but research is showing the reverse is also true: improved spirituality improves mental health.

Conclusion

The Children and Youth program places our loved ones’ and our own feet firmly onto the covenant path. It shows us what a life on the path looks like and feels like, qualifying for covenant blessings through promises understood and kept.

The Children and Youth program reaches deeply into the resources of the ward to bless youth. The single sisters and single brothers of the Church have had great experience and instructive lives and career paths. The rising generation needs you to serve as guides along the covenant path. Do not underestimate the motivating influence you can be in the lives of many who are groping for role models and mentors. Within my own family we have a still-single favorite uncle who does amazing work in our extended family as a stabilizer and a voice of faith and love.

A very real danger of not fully and enthusiastically supporting Children and Youth is the unintended message we would send to our children that the Church is simply a buffet where we can simply pick and choose which practices and commandments we want to follow and somehow opt out of the rest without consequence.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke to this when he said:

“What in you is merely casualness about Christianity may, in your children, become hostility; for what you have not defended, your children may reject angrily.”

Satan works so hard on us—on parents and role models—because when we falter, he can crush our children and bewilder our youth. But it is good to note that the Savior is not merely a little bit more powerful than Satan; He is infinitely more powerful and infinitely capable of extending protection and healing and power to find joy and share it with others. Like the sons of Helaman, our sons and daughters will accumulate wounds and injuries in serving and in living. That they will face hard days makes it all the more imperative that they learn from you that “he will take upon him their infirmities, … that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people.”

The Children and Youth program will further introduce your sons and daughters to that truth as it introduces them to Him.

I testify that your efforts to embrace the Children and Youth program will bless your life and the lives of your children.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.