It is not important if institute students meet in a renovated villa in Budapest, Hungary; in small rooms constructed on an existing LDS meetinghouse in Guayaquil, Ecuador; or in the new 114,000-square-foot facility that will be built adjacent to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
What is important, said Bryan Weston, Church Educational System executive assistant, is that all college-age young single adults have a "good place for gathering" wherever that may be.
It is not enough for young people to attend weekly religious education classes, he explained. They need a place to associate with other LDS young adults. They need a place to make friends, encourage each other and find a spouse. They need a place where they can "strengthen one another in the gospel."
That's the motivation behind plans announced Aug. 18 to construct the Church's largest institute building near the University of Utah campus. The project, which will replace an existing institute building at 1800 East Campus Drive and two nearby chapels, is one of numerous indications of an explosion in institute enrollment worldwide. There are 285,250 students attending more than 1,968 institute programs; the Church maintains 321 institute buildings.
Paul K. Browning, director of the University of Utah institute, said eight years ago only 2,800 students were registered in his program. Presently more than 5,000 students attend at least one class.
Ralph Swiss, director of physical facilities and real estate for the Church Educational System, said increasing enrollment is mandating the need for new institute facilities worldwide.
"The Church is growing, there is the story," he said, explaining that when he started his job 15 years ago there was one institute building in the Philippines. Today, 34 dot that country.
Brother Swiss said CES is preparing to begin the design process of nine new Latin American institute buildings. Officials hope to build twice that many buildings in Latin America next year, he said.
And that is just the beginning. Projects are under way in Moscow, Russia, and throughout Asia. A building was completed a few years ago in Fairbanks, Alaska that state's first and this summer in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Brother Weston said as soon as enough students are participating in an institute program to justify a building, CES officials set out to find them one. When possible, LDS meetinghouses are utilized.
The benefits of an institute building are numerous, he continued. For example, 195 students were gathering once a week in a rented building a Lima, Peru. Then they determined to meet more often and utilize the building more than one night a week. Word spread that institute was the place to be. Enrollment jumped from 195 to 1,136 in 10 months.
"If there is action, if there is friendship, they want to be where that is," Brother Weston said.
He said institute is becoming more important that ever before, as an estimated 60 percent of the baptisms in the Church are young adult age. He added that a study conducted by CES in South Africa indicates that when new college-age converts get involved in institute there is a 70 percent chance they will stay active in the Church.
Often young adults attending institute are the only members in their families. Others learn about the Church, about leadership and service, by participating in the program. They all find support from one another, he said.
Brother Browning said four factors have contributed to the recent growth of institute worldwide.
First, he explained, Church leaders are emphasizing institute on every level. "Bishops and stake presidents have an increased awareness," he said.
Second, because Church schools, including BYU, cannot accommodate every young Church member, many Latter-day Saints are getting an education elsewhere and taking advantage of institute.
Third, he said, the emphasis for institute changed in 1993 when the First Presidency determined all single young adults, age 18 to 30, should participate. That year enrollment, which before 1993 focused mainly on young adults attending school, jumped from 178,612 to 202,920 during the 1994-95 school year.
Fourth, he said, more and more young people are reaching out to their peers, inviting them to attend institute. "Many students come here because of the social and spiritual atmosphere that they find," he said.
They can participate in an institute choir or play table tennis between college courses. They can do family history research or eat lunch with one of hundreds of LDS students. They can study the scriptures in an organized way.
"Their college life is so blessed by attending institute," he said.
Brother Browning looks forward to 2002 when the new institute building near the University of Utah is expected to be completed. It should accommodate an enrollment of up to 10,000 students, and will include two separate wings connected by a glass-enclosed atrium walkway. Each wing will have a chapel for Sunday worship as well as a multipurpose area for sports or other student activities.
Most important, said Brother Browning, the building will be filled with LDS young adults seeking companionship and drawing strength from one another. It will be, he said, a good place for gathering.