Noting that his testimony is strong and always has been, Lincoln Dewey traced his attendance through a BYU student ward, a residential ward, and a young single adult ward in Washington D.C. He is now in the elders quorum presidency of yet another singles ward.
In some wards he felt lost in the crowd. He watched Church leaders and other ward members come and go; during a six-year period in one ward he sustained five bishops. Wedding receptions, he said, began to feel more like funerals because he knew he wouldn't see those friends in the same way again.
On Easter he turned 30. In a year he will have to move on.
Now he reflects on life in young single adult wards. "At one point you realize this is the Church and not a dating pool," he said.
His experience is typical of the thousands of young adults in the Church who are seeking their place in the Church of Jesus Christ. Responding to an informal Church News e-mail survey, more than 90 young single adults shared gratitude for the Church, faith in its teachings and appreciation for their leaders. Many also questioned their place in a "family Church" where they are constantly reminded of the very thing they are seeking, but do not yet have.
Embrace the Church
Larry Nelson, a professor in the BYU School of Family Life, said the Church has the structure to help young adults through the transition between adolescence and adulthood.
Those who embrace the Church, its culture and teachings become the epitome of the positive effects the Church can have on individual lives, he said. Some flourish in the effort; others flounder.
"Those who are flourishing tend to embrace their religion wholeheartedly," he said. "They value the relationships, they value the opportunity for service and growth. They value the insight, perspective and teachings. They value the guidance and direction."
On the other hand, those who are floundering, just don't see everything the Church has to offer them, he said. "They see it only as a social connection or meeting place."
Brother Nelson said the problem with not being completely active in the Church during this time period is that young single adults are robbing themselves of some "very necessary components for their development."
• The first is a support system, he said. By not coming to Church they don't have someone — such as a young single adult adviser or institute teacher — giving them encouragement. "If you take advantage of the Church structure, you instantly have a support system," he said.
• Next is a righteous peer group. Not being active in the Church "changes your peer group," he said. "You are more likely to align yourself with a peer group that is also struggling."
• Third are opportunities for growth. A person learns new skills as he or she serves in various Church callings, he said. "You grow by having to put someone else's needs ahead of your own."
• And finally, he said, is spiritual strength. "You are removing yourself from settings where the Spirit can give a person inspiration and strength."
However, Church leaders who work with young single adults acknowledge that attending a singles ward also has its challenges.
Most important, said Geret Giles, bishop of the BYU 100th ward, is the turnover. Particularly older young single adults, he said, don't automatically connect with the ward. They have attended numerous wards in the past and have become "numb to turnover."
"They hesitate," he said. "They are slow to connect. They are jaded. They say, 'I am going to be your friend, then you are going to move away."'
This sense of numbness impacts cohesion, unity and a sense of belonging — all the things that really make a ward work.
Second, he said, is discouragement. Young single adults "are discouraged about how long it is taking to get through school. They are discouraged about not dating, not marrying."
Many, he said, live away from home and their immediate support network. "They are not getting a lot of support," he said.
Single in a family Church
President David L. Buckner of the New York New York Stake — which includes four young single adult units — said many see the Church as a gospel of families and aspire to that. Therefore, he said, it is challenging and discouraging to not have a family.
One of the greatest challenges his stake faces with this demographic is the "difficult transition from a young single adult ward to a conventional ward," he said. In a singles ward there is a demographic of commonality, he said.
In addition, he noted, young adults are raised in a Church of benchmarks; marriage is a natural benchmark after missions. When it doesn't happen "their hearts break," he said.
The best way to navigate the time period is to focus on the gospel, he said.
President Bucker said the young single adult demographic has two wonderful assets:
• The first is the ability to mobilize and serve. "In terms of building the kingdom, there is so much potential." One ward in his stake, for example, completed 2,007 hours of service last year.
• The second is the ability to mentor. "They have the fire and the power to bear testimony," he said.
He spends as little time as possible talking about what young single adults don't have. "Sometimes, we spend so much time thinking about who we are going to build the kingdom with that we forget to build the kingdom."
Robert McKinley, bishop of the Vista 6th (YSA) Ward, Vista California Stake, and a former stake president, said he thinks all members of the Church need to focus on personal worthiness and service.
Young single adults have idealism, energy, and a "lack of baggage" that can match few in the Church. "There is tremendous power here," he said. "The only negative is that people are doubting them and not expecting much of them."
• Next: Young single adults and finances.