Editor’s note: This is one of two articles about Innovate Institute. Read the second article here.
Group seating. Floor-to-ceiling whiteboards. Peer-to-peer discussions. Digital experiences via social media.
These are just a few examples of ways the institute program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is innovating to better meet the needs of today’s young adults.
“We’ve done a lot of research and audience listening, a lot of focus groups and surveys of young single adults around the world, to better understand the impact and blessing of institute and also the changes we could make with institute to make it better at meeting their needs,” said Chad H. Webb, Church administrator of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion.
Research conducted in 10-plus countries with more than 1,000 young adults — some who were attending institute and some who were not — showed four main areas in which institute could be strengthened:
- Relevance: Young adults want to learn how the gospel of Jesus Christ fits in their lives today. They want to find answers to their questions and talk about issues they face.
- Belonging and purpose: Young adults want to feel welcome, safe and included. They want an environment of support and encouragement where they can have social opportunities and feel comfortable inviting their friends. They also want to belong to a cause and do something that makes a difference.
- Accessibility: Young adults want more options to fit their schedules and needs, such as shorter courses, online offerings and additional times and locations.
- Conversion: Young adults want institute to be a place where they can feel God’s love. They want to feel connected to Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, each other, their instructor and the program.
Several ideas within the four areas have been tested in recent years as part of the Innovate Institute initiative. Ideas that have proven most successful are being rolled out in areas across the world, Webb said.
“Those things that we’re trying seem to be working. We have more young people coming this year to institute for the first time than we’ve had in a long time. And there’s a revitalization and a new interest in institute, and some really exciting things are happening.”
And the innovation is only beginning, he added. “We’re still learning. We’re still trying new things. We’re going to continue to listen to young people and continue to innovate and find new ways to meet their needs.”
The Church News spoke with Webb and other representatives from Seminaries and Institutes of Religion to learn more about Innovate Institute and the four areas of impact.
With the rise of the internet and social media, Generation Z and millennials are living in a complex, digital age, said Rebekah Ellsworth Kimball, manager of student services. They are dealing with circumstances and issues that are different from previous generations.
Young adults today are asking questions like: “How do I apply this to my sibling who identifies as gay?” “How do I respond to what my friends are saying on social media about Joseph Smith and polygamy?” “How do I deal with faith questions when I feel like I’m being judged at church?”
For Ellsworth Kimball, “Innovating institute is the recognition that the institute of today needs to serve our rising generation in a different way.”
In other words, “This is not your parents’ institute; this is today’s institute,” she said.
One of the ways teachers are helping institute feel more relevant is by allowing students to directly share their experiences and ideas with others. Instructors are also encouraged to invite peer-to-peer conversations in their classes, as this often helps students socialize their experience and make their time in institute feel more on their level.
Another way institute is trying to be more relevant to today’s students is by offering new courses. One example is a course on repentance and forgiveness, using the book “The Divine Gift of Forgiveness” by Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Another is a course on applying faith when facing gospel complexities, using the book “Faith Is Not Blind” by Elder Bruce C. Hafen, emeritus General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Marie K. Hafen.
Local field tests allow teachers to seek approval to pilot other new courses based on their students’ needs and report their findings back to Church headquarters.
“We also aligned the curriculum with ‘Come, Follow Me’ so we’re emphasizing more courses that align with that,” Ellsworth Kimball said.
Another innovation is local adaptation of courses, she added. “This allows local faculty to change the length or timing or order of the curriculum or title of the course, whatever it does to make it more locally relevant. It’s not just one size fits all.”
Belonging and purpose
Keith J. Burkhart, director of the student services division, remembers sitting knee to knee in interviews with young adults who feel like they don’t fit in at institute — not only institute but in any Church setting. Some had experiences of asking a vulnerable question and everyone in the room turning to look at them, or being told to wait until the end of class so the teacher could finish the planned lesson.
Though not directly communicated, the message they heard was “don’t bring that up.”
“So the belonging piece [of Innovate Institute] was really, you have to create this environment where people feel safe and comfortable and they can come in and bring their friends,” Burkhart said.
Ryan J Wessel, registrar for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, said in meeting with institute teachers, “We found that out of a desire to be loyal and faithful, we found ourselves maybe too often only praising the ideal and subconsciously disallowing an exploration of the realities of life.”
As a model of how teachers can better cultivate an environment of conversion and connection for their students, Wessel pointed to 2 Nephi 31:3: “… for [the Lord] speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.”
“Whether that language is the language of online, the language of the environment that you teach it in, the language of … the types of things that you talk about, the way you ask your questions — this can really do a lot to put you in line with how your students would understand the gospel and reach them a lot more,” Wessel said.
Training has been conducted to help teachers learn how to foster an environment of understanding and support, even as they teach the truths of the gospel. For example, in teaching the doctrine of eternal marriage, teachers were encouraged to be comfortable with and allow time for individuals who struggle with personal fears or difficult family issues. To encourage a feeling of belonging requires those issues to be discussed in a safe environment.
In addition to holding teacher training on how to better empathize with and respond to questions, the Innovate Institute team began remodeling classrooms to introduce a less formal feel.
Group seating rather than front-facing rows allowed for more student interaction and collaboration. Rolling TVs replaced projectors, discouraging the overuse of PowerPoint presentations. Floor-to-ceiling whiteboards were added for students to use. In some cases, wall carpet was removed, bright paint was added, and lighting was improved.
The less formal physical environment nudged a different teaching style and a more student-centered classroom experience, helping to foster an environment of belonging.
Along with a desire to belong, Burkhart said the research with young adults also revealed that they want a purpose and a cause. One solution is offering more service opportunities.
“We’re looking at partnering with JustServe, things like that, where we have a menu of items for them to select,” Burkhart said. “So, they don’t just come and take a class. They have all these things that can meet their needs in different ways.”
Institute teachers have long believed that a face-to-face experience is superior to an online experience, Wessel said. “Through research and experimentation, we found that that’s not the case.”
Institute began offering online courses in 2019, and the number of students enrolled is growing quickly.
Wessel said data shows online courses are becoming increasingly appealing to nontraditional institute students, such as young mothers, those who live in an area without many Latter-day Saint young adults, and individuals not currently participating in the Church.
The Innovate Institute team also found that for many young adults worldwide, the traditional 14-week institute course that begins and ends with an academic semester isn’t ideal.
Institute began testing workshops, or minicourses, based on students’ needs and interests. In one area, for example, a six-week workshop was held on managing stress and anxiety. Additional workshops are beginning in other areas.
To further increase accessibility, the Innovate Institute team has experimented with digital experiences via social media. Some teachers use closed-group messaging apps to continue in-class conversations outside of class. Efforts have also been made to offer institute classes at different times and in more locations.
These efforts to strengthen the relevance, belonging, purpose and access of institute are critical to helping increase the number of young adults who experience institute. But they won’t lead to deep conversion by themselves.
In a recent worldwide broadcast to seminary and institute teachers, in a message titled, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Astonishing,” Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy and commissioner of Church education, spoke about the importance of conversion in the teaching process.
“[E]ven our inspired efforts to ‘Innovate Institute’ will fail if we miss this central focus,” Elder Gilbert said. “We have encouraged you to increase the relevance, access and belonging in your teaching. But these noble efforts risk becoming ‘secondary questions’ if they fail to include the anchor principle of conversion to Jesus Christ.”
Research shows that institute has a significant impact on church attendance, scripture study, prayer, temple attendance, feeling the Spirit and building testimony.
The Innovate Institute team found that young adults want to connect with God and with others. They want an opportunity to deepen their faith and testimony throughout the week.
Webb explained: “As we innovate, there are some things that will not change. We will not lose track of the core of what makes institute a wonderful experience for our students. We will continue to teach the restored gospel as found in the word of God, in ways that invite the Holy Ghost and build faith in Jesus Christ.”
He then pointed to President Russell M. Nelson’s recent message on strengthening one’s spiritual foundation in Jesus Christ: “The Lord has declared that despite today’s unprecedented challenges, those who build their foundations upon Jesus Christ, and have learned how to draw upon His power, need not succumb to the unique anxieties of this era.”
The future of institute
Innovate Institute, Wessel said, is not “a blip in the road.”
“It’s a new culture. It’s who we are now, as we take the enduring truths of the gospel and fit them to the language and needs and style of the current generation.”
In an ever-evolving landscape where people change and communication styles change, Wessel said, “the beautiful thing about the Church of Jesus Christ is we call ourselves ‘living,’ which in my mind means changing and adapting to speak the language and meet the needs of the current situation.”
And these changes are working, Burkhart said. “We have data that shows we actually made a difference. … I think we hit something. We’re on to something that is going to make a difference. We’re being responsive to what we’ve heard from our audience, we’ve listened to them. And we’re going to try and modify it.”
All while not losing the central purpose of institute. Webb stated: “We’re innovating how we interact with our students, but not changing who we point them to. In a world of commotion, Christ remains our constant.”