“I just never felt like I fit in at church,” said a young woman attending an Especially for Youth program for the first time. Another young man added: “Even though I was a member of the Church, I rarely felt wanted or needed. I didn’t feel like I belonged.” Both of these young Latter-day Saint teenagers were describing a time when they had been heavily involved with gangs.
Like these two young people, everyone has a need to belong. As social beings, we naturally seek the security and protection of belonging to someone or something. And as Latter-day Saints—a covenant people who share a unique religious understanding and vision—we find strength and joy in fellowship and in knowing we are children of our Heavenly Father and are part of his great plan of happiness. Our testimony of the restored gospel and service in the Church can create in us a strong sense of belonging.
However, if the need to belong is not met in positive environments, for whatever reason, young people may seek less desirable groups, causing parents and Church leaders to become deeply concerned. How can parents and leaders help youth feel they belong?
One bishop, concerned that several of the young people in his ward were becoming heavily involved with negative groups at school, said: “I met with ward youth leaders to discuss the situation. We decided that rather than trying to convince them they shouldn’t want to belong to those groups, we would try harder to help them feel a greater sense of belonging in our group. If they could feel more acceptance and security as they attended church, perhaps they would not continue searching for those things elsewhere.”
The youth leaders suggested they hold more activities, but the bishop pointed out that while get-togethers and activities are excellent ways to involve the youth, simply having an activity does not guarantee attendance, and attendance does not guarantee that young people will feel included. “Without some careful planning,” the bishop said, “it is too easy to get through an activity without getting through to the youth.”
Here are some things parents and leaders can keep in mind when trying to help young people feel they belong:
Include youth in planning. A Young Women president in Wyoming identified a key to organizing youth activities that invite increased participation and foster unity: “Our activities have been much more successful since we encouraged the youth to take a more active part in planning and organizing them. They came up with great ideas like doing a service project at a local elementary school and having a progressive dinner. Because the ideas were their own, they really cared about pulling them off with style.” When offered opportunities to help, many young people discover that preparing for a youth conference, dance, or activity can be just as fun and beneficial as attending one of them.
Recognize diversity of interests. “I never go to any Young Men activity because all they ever do is play basketball, and I’m not that good at it,” one young man said. While many young people enjoy sports, if ball is all that is ever on the agenda some young people will feel excluded. Break up the toss-out-a-basketball routine by planning a trip to local areas of interest, going to a play, or introducing the youth to a variety of sports options. A Young Men president in California expected his young men to complain when he suggested they go bowling, golfing, or swimming for a change. “On the contrary,” he said, “they were excited to try something new.”
This Young Men president attempted to further involve everyone by sometimes playing sports in nontraditional ways. The youth planned an outdoor volleyball game with water balloons and a basketball game using child-sized hoops and miniature balls. The leader related, “Altering the way sports are played and making up our own rules helped less-athletic players to feel more comfortable and on equal ground with everyone else.”
Observe or create ward traditions. Few things foster a sense of belonging more effectively than carrying on traditions. The importance of traditions in a family setting is widely recognized. Events such as coloring eggs together at Easter or taking a child out for a special dinner when he or she is baptized and on other occasions foster unity between parent and child. This same kind of bonding can occur as local Church leaders involve youth in activities that become traditions. For example, one ward has a yearly come-as-you-are breakfast; another holds an annual cultural arts night.
One young woman, Stacie, recognized the value of such traditions when she moved into a new ward where she felt like an outsider. Her first few Sundays at church were challenging. She even told her parents she didn’t want to return. That very week her adviser called and invited her to an upcoming youth activity. Stacie recalled: “I was trying to think of an excuse, but the adviser said that every year they did a big dating game, and that caught my interest. I figured if they did it every year, it must be fun. So I went, and that was when things began to get better.”
Christmas caroling in December, a car wash in the summer, road shows in the spring, a special dinner when young men receive their Eagle Scout awards or young women their Young Womanhood Recognition awards—any activity that brings people together in wholesome fun and purpose can become a regular event.
Remember names. One youth leader said: “I attended a youth fireside with a guest speaker from outside our stake. I was impressed to see the speaker mingle and visit with the youth before and after the talk. He asked the young people their names and called them by name. This made each individual feel included and important. I decided that if a visiting speaker could make an effort to learn names, I could certainly try harder.”
This youth leader set a goal to learn the name of every young person in his ward and at least a few others whom he saw regularly at stake functions. “I tried some of the memory association techniques but didn’t find them as helpful for me as simply writing down names inside the folder I always take to church,” he said. “Then if I forgot a name during the week, a quick glance at my folder would refresh my memory.”
Our Heavenly Father knows us individually by our names. When he appeared to Joseph Smith, he addressed the youth by name (see JS—H 1:17). This is a wonderful pattern for us to follow in our interaction with young people.
Extend personal invitations. Phone calls and personal visits take more time than simply announcing the next activity over the pulpit, but personal invitations reach people and help them feel wanted. Rosa, a young woman in Texas, commented: “Even though I couldn’t attend the fireside because I was working, the fact that my Laurel adviser took the time to call made me feel special. I knew I was being thought about and remembered.”
Show approval. When we smile and give needed and deserved praise, even for small things, we help young people feel loved and accepted. Such approval feeds the spirit just as food feeds the body. A young man named Matthew, from Illinois, said: “I love it when leaders praise me for the things I have accomplished, big or small. Some people think you outgrow the need for that, but I don’t think anyone ever outgrows the need to be praised.”
My wife, Debi, has never forgotten an occasion in her teenage years when someone told her that in a meeting a leader had praised her for her dependability. That small comment made a real difference in Debi’s life.
In this day of social awareness, it is important for all who work with youth to be careful not to touch them in ways that might be misconstrued. However, we must not allow this concern to make us so distant that we neglect our teenagers’ deep needs for approval and acceptance. Handclasps and pats on the shoulder demonstrate acceptance, inclusion, love, and belonging.
Listen respectfully. Leaders can make an important contribution by being willing to listen when young people need to talk. Often youth consider a leader to be someone safe to talk to. Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the Seventy, first counselor in the Young Men general presidency, explained the “tremendous influence for good that a ‘third-party’ leader (a person other than an immediate family member or the bishop) can exercise in a youth relationship” (A Generation of Excellence: A Guide for Parents and Youth Leaders , 168).
When young people share their feelings, they are usually not seeking instruction or advice as much as they are seeking a sympathetic sounding board—someone who will listen in a nonjudgmental manner as the other person works through the problems of the moment. A young man, Paul, explained: “Sometimes my parents and leaders are too quick to offer advice when I begin to tell them what’s happening at school. They start to lecture and warn me to stay away from temptations. That makes me feel like not saying anything.”
Of course, there will be times when we are impressed to respond to their concerns by sharing our views and feelings that may be of great benefit. We would not want our silence to be misconstrued as support of improper behavior or attitudes. However, if for the most part we listen attentively and withhold comment until an appropriate juncture, we demonstrate our desire to be a true friend and build trust, which will open the way for effective communication later on.
Build on common interests. In our attempts to include young people, it is helpful to focus on common interests. One young man discovered his seminary teacher liked the same television reruns he did. Even though it was just a small thing, this common interest gave them a starting point for conversation when they saw each other. Making an effort to discover or develop common interests can make a big difference in helping young people feel included.
Obviously, there are times when we meet people in church with whom we have little in common. On those occasions we would do well to keep the perspective of one young man who said: “When we moved to our new ward, I found out the other guys like different music, school subjects, sports—everything. My mom was worried that I might start hanging around with the wrong groups at school just to have some friends, but I kept going to church—not for those guys but for God.” Members of the Church may have interests that vary, but we share a love for the Savior and a testimony of the restored gospel that unite us all.
Build spirituality. Young people are capable of rising to meet spiritual challenges. For a youth conference a few years ago, stake leaders took the young people to an amusement park and lodged them in a nice hotel. The next year they tried a different type of activity. Following the counsel of Church leaders, they decided to take the focus off entertainment and put it on experiencing true joy by planning spiritual workshops and service projects. At first the teenagers weren’t very excited about the change, but as the next year’s conference progressed, they began to see things in a new light. The testimony meeting at the end of that conference was far different from the one a year earlier when, as one of the leaders described it, “most of the youth just sat and giggled and poked each other.” This time, the young people were eager to express their joy at having served others and their love for Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
Focus on the Savior. Church members may enjoy the feelings of belonging that come from mixing socially with others at Church, yet similar feelings can be felt in many groups, clubs, or organizations. But besides feeling mere social acceptance, Church members can also feel a unique sense of spiritual belonging. In the scriptures we are assured that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep (see 3 Ne. 18:31) and that through faith and spiritual rebirth we literally belong to the Savior (see Mosiah 5:7).
Yet some young people lose this feeling of spiritual belonging if they fail to live up to Church standards. They may say, “I can’t go to church, take the sacrament, or pray anymore because I’m not worthy.” Personal interviews by parents and bishops or their designated counselors, Sunday lessons, and firesides are wonderful times for teaching young people about repentance and helping them focus on the blessings of the Savior’s Atonement.
One young man in Hawaii strayed from the Church for years before finally returning. At a testimony meeting he said: “I got involved in a lot of things I shouldn’t have in an effort to fit in with the popular group, but I always knew something was missing. When I finally repented and returned to full activity in the Church, I didn’t feel that void anymore. I came back, and through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and his perfect love, I know this is where I belong.”