International Magazines: Why does the Church have a seminaries and institutes program?
Brother Christensen: Briefly stated, the purpose of the seminaries and institutes is to assist the home in cultivating and nourishing the divine nature of the youth of the Church.
IM: The seminary and institute program has grown very rapidly during the first few years it has been in the non-English speaking countries. Could you tell us a little about the extent of that growth?
Brother Christensen: The decision to take the seminary and institute program to the non-English speaking countries was truly an inspired one. In November of 1970, the Church Board of Education decided that seminaries and institutes should follow the membership of the Church throughout the world as rapidly as feasible. After considering the Church membership and the complexity of the seminary and institute program, we decided to move into the Spanish, German, and Portuguese-speaking areas of the Church. The challenges facing us were monumental: translating course material, finding bilingual personnel to teach in the various countries, getting material in and out of the various countries.
The first year was a real surprise to us. We had thought if in Guatemala, for example, we could get 200 students enrolled in the program the first year, we would have made a good start. Within three months, from March of 1971 to July, we had over 750 students in Guatemala. In São Paulo, Brazil during the first year, over 900 students had enrolled in the program. And Argentina and Uruguay had a combined total of 700 students.
The program is now established in 51 (and soon 55) countries involving 17 different languages. This year we had over 295,000 students throughout the world enrolled in the Seminary and Institute program.
IM: What types of programs are available through the Seminaries and Institutes?
Brother Christensen: Where geography makes it possible, the early morning seminary program brings young people of a ward or stake together for an hour before their regular classroom day.
Another basic seminary program is the home-study program. This program is designed for areas of the Church where there are few members. One of the greatest assets of this program is that formal weekday religious education study is available, even if there is just one person in the branch. Students in this program study primarily in their own homes. Then, on a Sunday or some other day of the week, they come together for class.
A teacher is called in each branch or ward where the home study program operates, and he meets with that group and goes over what the students have done. The teacher presents a motivational and inspirational lesson in addition to checking the materials, workbooks, or whatever the student has been working on. The student returns home with new assignments and new materials to work on during the coming week.
Usually, the home study program students will have what they call a Super-Saturday once a month. This is when students and teachers from within approximately a hundred mile radius gather to receive instructions from a professional teacher. Then while the students have activities under the leadership of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s programs, the professional teacher trains the teachers for the next month’s activities.
IM: What kinds of courses are available for study?
Brother Christensen: Courses in the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Book of Mormon and Church History and Doctrine are available on the secondary level. Also available for institutes are such courses as the Doctrine and Covenants, the living prophets and their teachings, courtship and marriage, and missionary preparation.
IM: Does the subject matter differ from the secondary to the college level or does only the approach differ?
Brother Christensen: The basic emphasis on both levels is on the scriptures and their historical context. Adults receive more in-depth background and exposure to the scriptures, while motivational ideas to maintain student interest are emphasized on a secondary level.
IM: How does the seminary and institute curriculum differ from that of the Sunday School?
Brother Christensen: The primary differences are in the format and delivery. In the auxiliaries of the Church, the materials that we produce are generally teacher outlines. The teacher is given whatever he needs to teach a group of students. In the seminary program, the materials received by the student during the week days involve him in daily personal study. And thus, the volume of materials needed is much greater in the seminary and institute program.
IM: What are some of the challenges you face?
Brother Christensen: Of course, maintaining quality while increasing quantity—and doing it efficiently and economically—is always a challenge.
Another major challenge is helping parents understand the program. We encourage parents to visit the classes or to talk with their children and find out what is involved. Usually, once parents get that kind of exposure, they are very enthusiastic about the program, and they make a concentrated effort to assure that their other children have the opportunity for that kind of study.
IM: Are there courses of study available on an adult level in which the parents could participate?
Brother Christensen: Institute programs are designed for adult level participation. Many parents purchase a self-instructional guide, which is available through the distribution centers. We have self-instructional guides available for all of the courses of study we teach—the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, etc. Any adult who chooses can receive formal, week-day, adult-level religious education.
We have institutes of religion adjacent to every college or university where we have enough LDS students enrolled. But we have thousands of adults who are not in schools, or whose schedules, even if they are in schools, do not permit them to be in a regular institute class. If priesthood leaders are interested and support an individual study program, then at the priesthood leader’s request or option we make the program available in that area. Our goal is to provide everyone an opportunity to study the gospel on his own level.
IM: What other benefits are available to parents?
Brother Christensen: Over all the years the institute program has been established, we’ve been concerned primarily with the student population. Now, we have developed our programs to include a wider adult audience. There is a need for all of us to study the gospel and strengthen our testimonies.
In areas where we have a preponderance of first generation members who don’t have a broad background in the Church, we see the most individual growth. Not long ago, I was talking with a father who had been converted three years prior to our conversation. He said, “Shortly after my baptism, I was called to be in the Sunday School presidency of my branch. I really didn’t have an opportunity to study the gospel during Sunday School classes. Now my teenage children who are enrolled in the seminary program are learning a lot more about the gospel than I know.” This father sought some additional helps to learn more about the gospel, more rapidly. He needed to keep up with the children in his home. The seminary and institute program provided him these additional gospel helps. These helps are particularly significant for the first generation members, but there is a real thirst among people in some of the long-established stakes to know more about the gospel.
IM: How can the priesthood leaders help motivate young people to enroll and support the program?
Brother Christensen: The important thing is for the Church Educational System and the ecclesiastical leader to work together for the religious educational good of the young person. Each leader should use his own special resources to help each student.
At the ward level, the bishop is assisted by his executive secretary. The same at the stake level. The executive secretary helps by making sure that educational items get on the agenda for bishopric, presidency, or high council meeting, so that whatever matters need discussion and ecclesiastical leadership or strength will be discussed.
We need to be sure that the priesthood leaders understand the concern that they ought to have for promoting the idea of week-day religious education. President Kimball through his “lengthen your stride” campaign has impressed many people—priesthood leaders, students, and parents—with their responsibility to study the gospel, and he sees the seminary program as an effective means of getting young people instructed in the gospel and strengthened in their testimonies. When this happens, the young men go on missions.
IM: What is the cost of the program for the individual?
Brother Christensen: The tuition is free. There are minimal student activity fees, and the student may be asked to purchase some of the materials he receives personally, such as books, textbooks, or study guides. Essentially all the student pays for is what he receives in activity or study help benefits.
Our desire is that no one will be prevented from studying the gospel because of cost. We want everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances, to have the opportunity to study the gospel. Once the Saints catch the spirit of the gospel, they find ways to provide their children with additional benefits.
IM: How can the child in a low-income family participate? Do you make individual exceptions?
Brother Christensen: Our hope is that every bishop or branch president would see that potential students received whatever assistance they cannot provide for themselves.
We also have a student-to-student assistance program called Project Share, and many students have raised thousands of dollars which are made available to help students who might otherwise be financially unable to participate.
IM: What are some lasting benefits of the seminary and institute program?
Brother Christensen: I have seen the growth of individuals, wards, stakes, and missionaries as students have followed the seminary and institute program. When President Augusto Lim of the Manila Philippines Stake was sustained as stake president, he said he was fearful for the continued existence of his stake, because of the lack of experienced leadership. In talking to him later, he said, “Now I find we have so many who have been through the seminary and institute program who know and can teach the gospel. The seminary and institute program has built leadership in our area.”
I also was in the mission president’s office in Peru some time ago, and he said, “We haven’t been able to get missionaries from North America for five months. A year ago we only had two or three Peruvians serving full-time missions; now we have 45 and we expect to have 100 by the end of this calendar year.”
Many more young people are serving as missionaries among their own people. In fact, in Brazil, over 50 percent of the missionaries are Brazilians. Consequently, the conversion ratios are higher. We have some good evidence that the seminaries and institutes have had a real impact on the young people.
We don’t claim all the credit. We have a lot of programs in the Church helping to train missionaries. And we have a prophet who emphasizes missionary work. But some interesting studies have been made in which missionaries from various parts of the world were asked, “What was the most significant influence to cause you to be in the mission field?” And a large portion say it was the seminary study of the gospel. If a young person studies the gospel, catches the spirit of it, and then hears a prophet indicate that he ought to serve in the mission field, he will respond. If he hasn’t studied the gospel, if he is not tuned to that kind of commitment, the prophet could have talked for 120 years like Noah did and not have a response. But when you have a prophet of God and a responsive audience, things really start happening.
I really get excited about what is going on. When the Church Board of Education decided in November of 1970 to expand into non-English speaking areas, they were really inspired. Today, we are reaping the benefits of that inspiration and working diligently to bring the benefits of week-day gospel study to increasing thousands.