In a time where technology has advanced to the point where students from all over the world can gain a low-cost education online without leaving their homes or countries, why, then, is it so important for Brigham Young University, and other Church schools like it, to exist?
Why does the Church spend hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain physical higher education campuses, faculty and staff?
As BYU President Kevin J Worthen has explored and more fully understood the doctrine of gathering, the answers to these questions have become more clear.
The doctrine of gathering has become a focal point of President Russell M. Nelson’s ministry, President Worthen taught in a Sept. 10 BYU devotional on the Provo, Utah, campus. The work of gathering scattered Israel is “the greatest challenge, the greatest cause and the greatest work on earth,” he said, quoting President Nelson’s devotional address to youth in June 2018.
While this gathering, which involves all of God’s children on both sides of the veil, is “stunningly broad,” said President Worthen, it is also “remarkably focused” on a specific purpose: to invite all “to come unto their Savior, receive the blessings of the holy temple, have enduring joy and qualify for eternal life,” he said, quoting President Nelson.
Gathering seems to have been part of God’s plan since before the earth was created, President Worthen said. He shared how Joseph Smith taught that the principles and laws of the priesthood are “predicated upon the gathering of the people in every age of the world.”
Even before the Israelites existed, Adam gathered his posterity together in Adam-ondi-Ahman, one of the reasons being to provide instruction to them.
“Thus, from the outset, education has been one of the main purposes of gathering,” President Worthen said.
Physical proximity is essential to education, he said. But in a time when advances in technology have made physical gathering less necessary to convey information, the educational charge at BYU is broader than simply that.
“As our mission statement makes clear, a BYU education focuses more broadly on the ‘full realization of human potential,’” President Worthen said. BYU’s goal is to provide an education that is “spiritually strengthening, intellectually enlarging, and character building, leading to lifelong learning and service.”
“It is that kind of holistic education, which I believe is greatly enhanced — or made fully possibly — only by gathering together in one location.”
President Worthen shared how in 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke in a BYU devotional address on the advantages of gathering at BYU. President Hinckley, the Church president at the time, had recently spoken to a gathering of institute students at another university.
President Hinckley posed the question, “What do you have here that for the most part is not found elsewhere?”
For example, President Hinckley noted, BYU has a dedicated faculty who are both “at the forefront of knowledge in their fields of expertise, and also rock-solid in their faith in and commitment to the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” President Worthen said.
Other universities have faculty who are involved in cutting edge research, and institute faculty who can teach the gospel effectively. But BYU is unique in that its faculty is involved in world class research and committed to the principles of the gospel, President Worthen said. This includes those “outstanding” members of the faculty who are not members of the Church, but who “support and live in accordance with those principles.”
President Worthen urged students to “take advantage of your opportunity to interact with this extraordinary community of disciple-scholars who have been gathered here in this compact society for your benefit.”
Another observation President Hinckley made was that BYU students belong to wards and stakes comprised mostly of other students. “There is no competition to get into social fraternities, and yet there is every opportunity for sociality,” President Hinckley said. “Here, every student stands on an equal footing.”
Wards carry a built-in support system available in close proximity to help students deal with inevitable challenges that will arise.
Membership in these wards and stakes “also gives you the opportunity to serve others, an important aspect of the kind of character development that is a critical part of your education,” President Worthen said.
President Hinckley also noted the presence of a temple near campus. And since 2016, there are now two temples in Provo, Utah. This close proximity gives students the opportunity to grow spiritually while working unselfishly in the interests of others.
President Worthen invited students to take full advantage of the two nearby temples. “It will refine and elevate your educational experience in important ways.”
Finally, President Hinckley shared that students at BYU agree to keep the Word of Wisdom. In addition to helping students avoid the problems associated with alcohol which are prevalent at many other college campuses, keeping the Word of Wisdom means “that the power of the Holy Ghost may distill upon you and bring you an increased knowledge and understanding of the things of the Lord,” President Hinckley said.
The blessings of living the Word of Wisdom can be reinforced and strengthened by being part of a community committed to the same standard, President Worthen said, encouraging the students to help other students keep that promise.
The real goal of a BYU education is to make its students into true disciples of Jesus Christ. “And that process is enhanced by gathering together,” President Worthen said.
“You are not here by accident,” he said in closing. “You have been gathered here by God. Whatever your background, whatever your talents, whatever your challenges or perceived weaknesses, you are a vital part of this gathering, who has something to gain — and something to offer — from your interactions with those around you.”
President Worthen’s wife, Sister Peggy S. Worthen, also spoke at the devotional, sharing how more than 200 BYU students, technical crew and staff managed to put on the BYU Spectacular in China in May despite enormous setbacks.
Upon arriving in Beijing, the crew learned that much of their stage equipment had been delayed in Los Angeles and would not arrive in time for their shows in Beijing and Xi’an. But with a great deal of persistence, innovation, use of Google Translate and late nights of work, the crew managed to find replacement equipment and props.
“Although the challenges were unexpected and difficult, no one involved seemed to have any doubt that they could make it work,” Sister Worthen said.
As she observed the “cheerful optimism” the cast and crew had while meeting these great challenges, she wondered, “What allowed them to succeed at such a high level despite the considerable adversity they faced?”
First, they were glued to their mission with a laser focus.
Second, “they did their utmost to make the necessary adjustments,” she said.
Third, they acted as if there was no alternative. “They believed that the show had to go on no matter what. And so it did.”
During the new semester, students will face setbacks and challenges. “In such situations, remain glued to the mission — to your quest for perfection and eternal life,” Sister Worthen said.
“Do your utmost. Do the best you can. And then act as if there is no alternative but to succeed.”
This last part might seem like the most difficult step of all, “But with the light of the restored gospel, you will come to see that because of Christ, there is no need for an alternative,” Sister Worthen said. “Ultimate success is guaranteed because of Him.”