A 2005 study by the University of North Carolina found that Mormon teenagers outperformed their peers in other faiths in nearly every category. They were less likely to participate in activities that were dangerous, such as premarital sex or drug use, they did better in school, and they had a better outlook towards the future. They were more likely to stay in the faith their parents belonged to and they were better able to discuss the doctrines of their religion and to express their testimonies of it.
These results are not surprising when we evaluate the way Mormonism treats teenagers. The Church provides guidelines for parents that help them overcome the challenges of adolescence and also offers many unique support programs for them. The skills and values taught the teenagers provide the best possible outcome for keeping teens safe while teaching them to be contributing members of society.
Mormon is a nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon teenagers are considered important and contributing members of their religious community and play a critical role in its success. They are given many opportunities to serve others, to lead, to teach, preach, and pray. While they have their own programs, they also play a role in the congregation.
In most churches, only the pastor has the opportunity to lead public prayers and to preach. The Mormons have a lay church and so everyone in good standing can do the types of things normally done only by a clergy member. For instance, the bishop (lay pastor) does not give the weekly sermon. Instead, members of the congregation are invited to speak. Each service features two to four speakers who give brief sermons. Anyone twelve or older can be invited to give a sermon in the main worship service, known as Sacrament Meeting. Teens speak for five minutes, while adults speak for ten to fifteen minutes, depending on the number of speakers. Most Mormons speak about once a year. By the time a teenager has the opportunity to speak in Sacrament Meeting, he has many years of public speaking experience behind him, since children give two and a half minute sermons in their own program beginning at age three.
The public prayers given at the beginning and end of each Sacrament Meeting, as well as in each class, activity, or social event are also given by members of the congregation, rather than by the bishop. A teenager can be invited to give one of the prayers in Sacrament Meeting, and again, they began doing this in the children’s program at age three.
Teenage boys can receive the priesthood at age twelve. This does not denote the way priesthood operates in most other churches. It is not a full-time job, but is a specific way to act in God’s name under certain circumstances. Teenagers prepare and serve the Sacrament (communion), help care for the building, and serve church leaders as needed through their priesthood service. The girls often participate with the Relief Society, the adult women’s auxiliary, in various service projects as well.
Having a critical role in the adult community builds their skills and self-confidence. They mingle with adults and have the opportunity to interact with and train under experienced adult leaders, who provide role-modeling for adult behavior. It helps them to see themselves as an important part of the overall congregation, not a segregated portion tucked away in the youth wing.
Teenagers do, however, have their own programs, some of which have undergone dramatic changes in recent years. Because the age for voluntary missionary service has been lowered for both men and women, teenagers require more preparation so they are prepared to serve soon after high school graduation. These missions last eighteen to twenty-four months and take place full-time far from home and family. They are unpaid opportunities to serve others and to focus outwardly and on their faith.
Teens lead their own youth programs under the shadow leadership of adults. This means they plan their own weekday activities, but experienced adults guide them by teaching them leadership skills and asking questions. “What problems do you think your class is facing? What activity would help them solve those problems?”
Sunday classes are now taught using a discovery method. Teachers act more as mentors. A topic is featured for the month and a website that can be updated as new resources or issues arise offers a number of questions the teens can address on the theme throughout the month. The teens help to choose what they will learn about the topic and they inform their teacher if they feel they would like to study the week’s topic for another week. Teachers point the teens to resources and then let them research the topic on their own. The students then teach their peers what they learned from their assigned resources. They are expected to ask and answer questions, rather than relying on the teacher to do all the answering, to act on what they learned, and to continue their study at home. This gives them greater responsibility for their own learning, teaches them to put what they learn into the real world, and to research their own gospel concerns. They are becoming more self-sufficient learners and preparing to hold great responsibility when they are adults.
Mormons don’t believe the teen years should be a holding pattern, nor do they believe it must be a time of risky exploration and non-stop fun and self-gratification. They teach their teens that they are valuable contributors to the adult world and then provide them with the skills needed to make a difference.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.