JD Wood grew up a member of the Church but wanted to investigate Christianity for himself. He went from church to church, searching for something that felt right, until he decided to take the missionary discussions. “I didn’t feel that it was about numbers with them. They really respected what I was doing in my search,” he says.
JD and the missionaries found each other as part of an effort in the Chicago, Illinois, area to activate and fellowship young single adults. Many other young people there have also returned to activity through this effort. They have the constant love of their families and Church leaders and the friendship of the young single adults in their branch to help them as they start coming back to church.
Leaders in the eight Chicago-area stakes saw a growing need to focus on this group, so under the direction of the Area Presidency, they organized a “search and rescue.” The effort began in October 2002 with the challenge for every stake to locate and contact all the young single adults on record within its boundaries by Christmas—only three months away. It was a tall order, but it was largely accomplished through the efforts of many bishops, priesthood leaders, Relief Society leaders, home and visiting teachers, missionaries, and other ward members.
“It’s like many other things in the Church,” says Marvin P. Evans, president of the Buffalo Grove stake and the one assigned to oversee this effort. “A sincere, honest effort with faith usually nets some pretty good results.”
Of the 25,000 Church members in Chicago, about 3,000 are young single adults. Only 600 of that number were actively attending church before the effort began—a much lower activity level when compared with other age groups in the area. “We concluded there was a real opportunity to focus on young single adults, to reach out to these young people and invite them back,” President Evans says.
Under the direction of the stake presidencies and with help from local Church Educational System coordinators, welcome packets were created which included information on times and locations for Church and institute classes and activities. Members visiting the young single adults gave them these packets and asked them to complete a short survey to better assess their needs. The survey helped members gather basic information such as permanent addresses, how long the young adults planned on staying in the area, and if they were in school or where they were working.
“The survey was just a tool,” says James Linford, the Buffalo Grove stake high council representative with responsibility for the young single adults. “The real process was talking to these people and going out and meeting them.” The process has been effective, he says. “Those who have been found are saying, ‘Church members do care.’ So they do come back. And it has worked. I think it’s because we’re doing what we were asked to do by our prophet.”
The knowledge that every soul is of worth is what moved these Saints from their comfort zones to seek out those who were not enjoying the full blessings of their membership in the Church. The search-and-rescue effort was supervised by the bishops of each ward, and much of the legwork was done by inspired and caring members.
President Evans explains: “It was very much a principle-based approach. We really wanted each bishop to let the Spirit direct him in terms of who would be the best person to contact a given young single adult, to give that individual the best chance of being found and brought back into activity.”
The institute program is another resource the stakes have drawn upon. When contacted, many of the young adults were invited to attend institute, and enrollment has greatly increased. Nancy Jackson, the institute stake supervisor, says that once the young single adults are invited to institute, they keep coming because of the Spirit they feel there when others share their testimonies. “All the programs in the world can’t give them that, but the institute program invites them and brings them in so they can partake,” she says. “Once they partake, they don’t want to lose that again in their lives. You watch the faces. There is weeping, and there’s joy in others’ eyes. And people linger after class. They don’t want to leave. They want to stay and rejoice in that feeling. That’s really what this effort is all about.”
The success stories of the Chicago area’s search-and-rescue program are numerous—but some people have declined the invitation to come back. President Evans says that although the search is largely complete, the rescuing process is far from over. He’s not giving up on anyone.
More than 200 of the young single adults who were not attending church have become active, making a 33 percent increase in sacrament meeting attendance and Church activity among the single adults since the search-and-rescue effort began. The statistics are encouraging, but the members know the objective is to get to know the person behind the number, says JD.
Sarah Lynn Alderfer is another member of the Buffalo Grove young single adult branch who is finding great meaning in this effort. Sarah was baptized less than a year ago, and, she says, “This effort has given me a sense of responsibility and a sense of worth. Being able to focus on all these other people and to give of myself really strengthens me—to see one of them come back into activity is very rewarding.”
Sarah, along with many others in the singles branch, has spent hours looking for and visiting other young single adults to let them know they are cared about and needed. President Evans says: “We discovered and continue to discover how readily many of these young single adults come back when invited in a sincere way. There’s some feeling of testimony in their hearts.”
The Chicago stakes have come a long way, but the members realize there is much more work to be done. The work is slow and demanding, with the miracles of quick returns to full activity being rare. Leaders in each stake keep working at it, though, and at the same time they are making sure they do a better job of keeping young single adults active in the first place.
Robert Ripley, president of the Buffalo Grove young single adult branch, says young single adults are difficult to keep track of because they lead relatively transient lives, moving frequently with life changes such as going to school, going on missions, and getting married. Another reason they sometimes become less active, Brother Linford adds, is a lack of knowledge on the part of soon-to-be young single adults that institute is a valuable program and that they are welcome in the adult classes of the Church.
“We’ve got to reach out to them,” says Sister Jackson, “and make them feel we want to be their friends and that there is a place for them.” She says each ward needs to step in and make the young single adults feel a part of the ward family.
As they come to recognize what they need to do to encourage young single adult activity, the stake presidencies and bishoprics in Chicago have committed to have an active young single adult committee in every ward. And at each seminary graduation in each stake, graduating seniors are being encouraged to attend institute.
Another way for ward members to put their arms around the young single adults, President Evans suggests, is for bishops to interview every young single adult annually. “If we would just do that one thing, I believe we wouldn’t lose very many,” he says. “We just need to be vigilant about focusing on each one and taking advantage of opportunities to stay in touch with them.”
It is also helpful for home ward bishops to see that when their members leave for college or work, they have the name of their new ward and bishop, the location and times of meetings, and information about the closest institute.
All this might seem like a lot of work—and it is. But ward leaders and members are happy to do it. President Evans points out that as large as the Church gets, it will always function on a branch or ward level. “And that always gives us the ability, through priesthood leadership, to reach the one.”
As one of those touched by the loving efforts of his own family and his ward family, JD is enjoying his activity in the Church. He and others in the Chicago area stakes know that the worth of a soul truly “is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10).
“There are tens of thousands … in this Church whose hearts are touched and who are brought back into activity by a great sense of concern, a quiet expression of love, and a challenge to serve from bishops and others. But there are many, many more who need similar attention.
“This work of ours is a great work of redemption. All of us must do more because the consequences can be so remarkable and everlasting. This is our Father’s work, and He has laid upon us a divine injunction to seek out and strengthen those in need and those who are weak. As we do so, the homes of our people will be filled with an increased measure of love; the nation, whatever nation it be, will be strengthened by reason of the virtue of such people; and the Church and kingdom of God will roll forward in majesty and power on its divinely appointed mission.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “What This Work Is All About,” Ensign, Aug. 2002, 7.
The eight Chicago-area stakes completed a few basic steps to implement and maintain their young single adult search-and-rescue effort:
After recognizing the need to focus on the young single adults and receiving instruction from the Area Presidency, the stake presidents organized the search and rescue in the wards with the help of CES coordinators.
The search began with an invitation to bishops to have every young single adult contacted within a three-month time period. Welcome packets, including a short survey, were created to aid the contacting members in this process.
A database for tracking the young single adults was created and updated regularly.
When a contact was made, the young single adult was asked to complete the survey and invited to church, an activity, or institute.
If the young adult decided to accept the invitation, he or she was fellowshipped. If he or she decided not to, the member who made the initial contact continued to help the young single adult feel welcome.