In most respects, youth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are just like their peers of other faiths — they study, play sports, hang out with friends and use every type of technology available. They are an integral part of a generation of digital natives, the first generation with no memory of life before cell phones and the Internet.
But Mormon teenagers are also different from some of their peers. Many attend scripture study classes each morning before school and meet with other young Church members once a week outside of church. They often pray and read scripture daily. They also naturally turn to technology to explore their religious beliefs, posting and discussing videos and quotes from Church leaders on social media.
For Mormon youth, religion is not a Sunday-only affair, but part of who they are. So when Church leaders determined it was time to revamp the lessons taught to youth on Sundays, they knew they needed to provide tools for them to integrate their faith into their digital lives.
“Youth today face a never-ending stream of digital distractions that pull them in a variety of directions, many of which are destructive or unnecessary,” says Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The Church must play a significant role as a source of good for youth in a technological world. Our new online-based curriculum seeks, both through digital media and increased interpersonal interaction in and out of class, to help youth apply the teachings of Jesus Christ in their own lives.”
The curriculum, called “Come Follow Me,” focuses on providing teachers in the Church with resources to teach gospel doctrines as Jesus Christ taught. The title refers to Christ’s words in Luke 18:22 (see also Matthew 16:24; Mark 1:17; Luke 9:23). Teachers are asked to emulate the Savior’s way of teaching — loving and knowing those He taught, preparing by fasting and prayer, using the scriptures, sharing real-life examples, asking questions, trusting those He taught, inviting people to act, and being an example.
The previous curriculum was taught out of published manuals, and the lesson materials were the same for every congregation around the world. Manuals often did not include the most current resources and teachings. The new curriculum can be updated as new resources and teachings are made available, and teachers are asked to use the online resources to create a lesson tailored to the individual needs of the youth in their class.
Each month, leaders and teachers now select from an online collection of lessons those they think will best meet the needs of the youth in their congregations. It’s a curriculum designed to adjust to the youth, complete with videos, music and graphics accessible via a Church website and mobile apps.
Using the New Curriculum
Before being introduced earlier this month, the curriculum was developed and tested in pilot programs in congregations around the world, including 16-year-old Amy Jensen’s congregation in in Mission Viejo, Calif. Jensen says the videos in the new curriculum have helped her learn better.
“That’s how I understand, visually,” she said. “I’m able to pay attention and understand it more, and maybe watch it again if I need to.”
The digital tools are just one part of a more individualized approach to teaching in the new curriculum.
“‘Come, Follow Me’ has been adapted to the needs of the youth by harnessing multiple methods,” said Elder Christoffel Golden Jr. of the Seventy. “[It] will help the youth…to more deeply internalize the gospel in their lives.”
To help them better understand gospel principles, the youth are encouraged to teach lessons. Those who have say teaching their peers was challenging, but rewarding.
“You really have to [be prepared] in order to make it a successful class,” said Shaniel McCary, 17, a pilot program participant in Basin City, Wash. “So you’re preparing by asking Heavenly Father to be with you. You prepare as best as you can, and then when you get in there, He’ll handle the rest of it.”
The new curriculum places a heavy emphasis on youth participation as students and as teachers. The youth are asked to come to class each Sunday prepared to learn, to study scriptures and other teachings on their own, and to share what the gospel means to them with peers and family.
“We participate a lot more in discussions, and you learn more from each other,” said Jensen.
Tony Hernandez, a leader in an Orlando, Fla., congregation that was part of the pilot program, said it took a while for the new approach to sink in.
“In the beginning, the youth were sort of clammed up,” Hernandez said. “We live in a society where they would often rather text than speak, so asking them to share their thoughts didn’t go so well at first.”
But after a few months, the youth seemed to “click” with the new curriculum, Hernandez said. “The kids started getting involved, sharing and responding, and it became a really good thing for them,” he said. “They built camaraderie, and now they feel confident sharing their thoughts about the gospel. I love it.”
Darcy Chavez is also part of a pilot program congregation in Mission Viejo, and she said the new lessons helped bring her closer to the other youth.
“There are a lot more personal experiences shared in class, and as I’ve shared things, I found that other girls could relate, and I never would have guessed that they had experienced something similar,” Chavez said.
The lessons are posted as an outline, with references and links to scripture, videos and recent teachings from Church leaders. Since the lessons can be continually updated, youth will hear current examples of how Church doctrine may apply to their lives and problems.
“It makes us think how we can apply what we learn in Sunday School to our lives,” said Chavez. “It puts your life into perspective when you are at school and sometimes feel left out of things; the choices I make are because that’s what Heavenly Father has asked me to do.”
The curriculum also asks youth leaders to befriend, encourage and support youth in their personal spiritual devotion. These lay leaders are asked to be involved in the lives of the teenagers they teach and to try to understand their personal spiritual needs.
“Your responsibility isn’t just on Sunday; it’s getting to know [the youth], it’s getting to know what kind of things interest them,” said youth leader Brian Lloyd, who was part of the pilot program in Basin City, Wash.
“It’s so personal,” Chavez said. “My teacher prays every week about how he should teach us, to get inspiration about what we need to hear. When I hear him teach things that I’ve been praying about, that don’t necessarily even fit the lesson, it has really touched me and brought me closer to my teacher and to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
The youth who have experienced the new curriculum say it helps them serve each other.
“I think we’re pulling together now,” said McCary. “We’re not only trying to individually build ourselves up in the gospel, but we’re pulling each other along; we’re helping build each other up and carry each other with us.”
Chavez said that, as a whole, the new lessons have helped bring her closer to God.
“I feel more connected with my Heavenly Father in a much more personal way,” she said.
All Church Programs Seek to Strengthen Faith in Jesus Christ
As was mentioned earlier, Mormon youth differ from some of their peers because of the Church’s focus on daily religious devotion. In the Mormon view, being a follower of Christ means much more than attending church on Sundays.
For example, Mormon high school-aged youth are encouraged to enroll in four years of religious education (in addition to regular schooling) known as the seminary program. Mormon teenagers also participate in the Church Young Men and Young Women programs, where they meet in classes on Sundays for religious instruction and several times during the month for social activities — including service projects, sports, camping and dances. Young men and women are also given leadership positions within their respective organizations in which they learn to set goals, plan group activities and solve problems. The Church’s First Presidency has also created the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet for teens. The principles in this booklet — including honesty, clean language, regular exercise and obtaining as much education as possible — are rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ and encourage teens to take an active part in their religion and community.
The deep devotion of Mormon youth led one Christian author to write that "Mormon teenagers tend to be the 'spiritual athletes' of their generation, conditioning for an eternal goal with an intensity that requires sacrifice, discipline, and energy."
This devotion often continues into adulthood. A 2010 study from the Pew Research Center shows that Mormons score among the highest of all religion groups in their knowledge of Christianity, the Bible and other religious information. And a 2012 study from University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan concluded that active Latter-day Saints “volunteer and donate significantly more than the average American and are even more generous in time and money than the upper quintile of religious people in America.”
Whether it’s studying the scriptures in a Sunday School class or volunteering time and money to help those in need, everything the Church does aims to help people come closer to Jesus Christ.