Episode 171: The 2024 youth theme with President Steven J. Lund and President Emily Belle Freeman on becoming active disciples of Christ

Church News podcast focuses on 2024 youth theme — ‘I am a disciple of Jesus Christ’ — with Young Men and Young Women general presidents

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focus “Come, Follow Me” study on the Book of Mormon this year, the Church’s 2024 youth theme declares, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ” (3 Nephi 5:13).

This episode of the Church News podcast focuses on this theme with Young Men General President Steven J. Lund and Young Women General President Emily Belle Freeman. They are joined by guest host Ryan Jensen, Church News editor, to discuss discipleship and the strength of Latter-day Saint youth

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President Emily Belle Freeman: Because being a disciple and becoming a disciple means this is not going to be a year where you sit in the audience. This is a year where you rise up and you accept a call from the Lord to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to witness of Him and His words to everyone that you know. And I just love that thought of, “What level of participation do you want to have?”


Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 2024, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focus “Come, Follow Me” study on the Book of Mormon, the Church’s 2024 youth theme declares, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ,” which is found in 3 Nephi 5:13. This episode of the Church News podcast is focused on this theme.

We welcome Young Men General President Steven J. Lund and Young Women General President Emily Belle Freeman. They are joined by guest host Church News editor Ryan Jensen. I’m thrilled now today to turn the microphones over to them to learn more about discipleship and the strength of Latter-day Saint youth.

The Young Men general presidency, President Steven J. Lund, Brother Bradley R. Wilcox and Brother Michael T. Nelson.
The Young Men general presidency — President Steven J. Lund, center, Brother Bradley R. Wilcox, first counselor, left, and Brother Michael T. Nelson, second counselor — was sustained during the April 2023 general conference on April 1, 2023. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Jon Ryan Jensen: President Freeman, President Lund, thank you for being here. What an exciting time to be responsible for helping youth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to draw closer to the Savior. Thank you for coming today to talk about them.

President Emily Belle Freeman: Oh, we’re so excited to be here with you. And what a great topic as we look forward to what’s about to happen in 2024.


Jon Ryan Jensen: Before we jump into 2024, I would love for the two of you to look back at 2023 and share what you’ve learned. I know both of you have traveled to various parts of the world and seen Latter-day Saint youth and how they implemented the 2023 theme in their lives, in their families, in their classes, through their FSY experiences. Could you share a little bit with our listeners: What did you see from the youth around the world?


President Steven J. Lund: Well, you’re right; we have been kind of on the move. We spend most of our time right here in this building hunkered down, trying to discern what the young men and young women of the world need. But occasionally, we get sent out into the far-flung corners of the world. I was in Pakistan this summer, where we found faithful Saints there, hundreds of faithful 14- to 18-year-olds in an FSY conference, and that conference felt like every FSY conference I’ve been to, led by Pakistani young single adults who were acting as near-peer counselors and mentors to those young people. They sang the songs, they did the dances just like everywhere, in English and then in Urdu, so they kind of doubled down. That was amazing.

More recently, I was in Europe on assignment, starting in Hungary and doing a big sweep, ending up in Amsterdam, which was the mission of my youth, where I was able to talk to youth there and the missionaries that serve in the mission that I served in when I was 19 years old. And we’re finding everywhere in the Church remarkable levels of subscription around these themes, where they seem to know them, they’re ready to talk about them and they really are using them as a pivot to center their life around.


President Emily Belle Freeman: I had the opportunity to be in Africa recently. And I loved being with the youth there who wanted to talk about scripture and how the words of Jesus Christ are impacting their life and that that is where they are finding strength, is within the scriptures they are reading. And I loved sitting with them and teaching them and talking about what we had in common, which was the word of God.

I had another remarkable experience to go to Maui this year and visit with the two wards in Lahaina, who lost their homes. They lost everything. And to sit with them for one afternoon and talk about what that was like, what that felt like. And at the end of that conversation, I asked them if I could pray for something for each of them, what would they ask me to pray for? And to hear their genuine ask of, “Would you pray for courage for us? Would you pray that we would be safe? Would you pray that we would all be under the same roof again soon? Would you pray for the leaders who are trying to figure things out, that they will know how to get us back in homes?” and just these desperate prayers.

And then we got around the circle, and there was one boy — it was the week before general conference — and he said, “Pray for a temple for Maui.” And all the kids kind of gasped in that moment, and I stopped the conversation, and I said, “I’m so interested that of everything you would love prayers for, it would be for a temple in Maui. How many of you would want people to pray for that? And every youth raised their hand. They have to fly to go to a temple right now if they want to go to a temple.


And they said, “Will you please go home and tell the Prophet?” And I said, “Well, I probably won’t see the Prophet before general conference.” And they said, “Well, could you write a note and put it on his desk?” And I said, “Well, I also may not have an opportunity to put a note on his desk, but I will pray with you, and I will talk to as many people as I can.” But I said to the boy, who was praying, “There’s only six days till general conference, so I’m going to do as much work as I can in the next six months. But if by chance a temple gets announced in Maui this conference, then we’re going to know it’s your prayers that the Lord heard.”

And remarkably, his mom thought to record him watching conference when President Nelson read that list of temples, and it is the sweetest video you’ve ever seen, because President Nelson is going through, and he’s listing all of those temples, and he gets to the one that is going to be in Maui, and the whole family gasps, and a couple people scream. And that darling boy just sits on the side of the couch for a minute, and then you hear his mom start crying; you can hear it in the phone. And he just sits up so tall and scoots next to his mom and says to her, “It worked.”

And I love that that boy learned in the midst of that huge trial that his prayers were answered and that the one place that he knew would bring him strength in Christ, the temple, was the most important thing he could be praying for. And what a remarkable experience as we get to go all over the world and learn from these youth.

The Young Women general presidency — President Emily Belle Freeman, center, Sister Tamara W. Runia, first counselor, left, and Sister Andrea Muñoz Spannaus, second counselor — posing for a picture.
The Young Women general presidency — President Emily Belle Freeman, center, Sister Tamara W. Runia, first counselor, left, and Sister Andrea Muñoz Spannaus, second counselor. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Jon Ryan Jensen: When I hear you telling those two stories from Africa and from Hawaii, I hear you saying that you saw the promises of a Prophet fulfilled, because President Russell M. Nelson has been encouraging the youth and all members of the Church to be immersed daily in their scripture study. And so, you talk about the Saints in Africa and how much they are immersed in the word of the Lord to try and strengthen their faith in Him. And then you go to Hawaii, and you’re seeing that scripture study result in an increase in faith and desire to pray for what they really, really want deep down in their hearts. And those prayers are being answered. 

The experience, President Lund, that you shared of being in Europe and going back to where you served a mission, I can only imagine, for you, that brings back a flood of memories. Can you share a little bit of what that experience is like, to go back someplace where you have such a deep love, and what you’re seeing in those young missionaries as they go from studying and living by these themes, participating in FSY, to them being an ambassador of Jesus Christ?


President Steven J. Lund: You know, my experiences in the Netherlands and Belgium is something of a time-lapse photograph of the gathering. Back in the 1970s, when I served there as a young missionary, missionaries started flooding into northern Belgium — Flandria — in great numbers as inspired by the spirit of Elijah. The government allowed us to send missionaries where there hadn’t been missionaries before, and so we served in places where there had not been missionaries. We knocked on doors where they’d never heard the name Joseph Smith, never heard of the Book of Mormon. And now, coming back, there’s a stake there, a couple of stakes in Belgium now, that were there were four missionaries and maybe an investigator holding sacrament meeting, now there are wards that are present there. It’s just a very stirring thing to see the Lord’s hand.

Earlier in the summer, when we were in Pakistan, we met a boy there named Jobber John, who had been — 10 days before we got there, on the Fourth of July — he was walking home from school, and there was a skirmish, and a bullet strangely flew out of a crowd and went through his leg. He hits the ground, ambulances come, they get him to a hospital, they’re giving him infusions, they’ve got him on, you know, IVs. And his Relief Society president and branch president heard that he was there and arrived while he’s, you know, still in an intensive care kind of an environment. And trying to lighten the situation, the branch president said to him — you know, in Urdu, but said to him — “Well, I guess next Monday’s FSY conference will have to be postponed,” or something like that. And Jobber John opened his eyes wide, and he says, “Oh, no, I am determined to go.”

So now we show up a week later and met Jobber John, kind of limping around. His branch president had learned how to administer IV antibiotics in order to allow him to go, but on Monday morning, when that bus pulled out for a 12-hour bus ride to the FSY conference, he was there.


Jon Ryan Jensen: What a story. And there are stories like that that happen all over the world as you and your councilors go out. One of the things that stood out to me from your first answers, though, was that they all know the words to the songs that they sing as well. And they sing them in their language, and they memorize those so quickly. And I heard this week that this year, one of the songs that was played the most was the song “If You Believe,” and I heard that it has been streamed almost half a billion times, 451 million times that song has been streamed, in more than 30 languages.

When you see the Latter-day Saint youth singing those songs, do you feel that for them, that is an expression of their testimonies? Or is it just part of “Hey, we’re at FSY, so this is what we do”?


President Emily Belle Freeman: Yeah, I think for sure, this is an expression of their testimony. It’s a witness of what they believe. And there is strength that comes when we gather and worship together, particularly with song. As we sing those songs, you think about there is “Peace in Christ,” and you think about each of these songs that has come out over the years, and there is a connection point for youth all over the world when they start singing these songs.

And I can remember in Africa a couple weeks ago walking into a building, and there was a whole choir of youth. I will tell you this: No one sings like the Saints in West Africa sing. They are so powerful in song, and it doesn’t matter what song you sing; they are going to raise that roof. And in the Church that we were at, the boy playing the piano — it was an electric keyboard that he was playing — and the power kept going on and off, and on and off while these kids were singing this song. And you loved that he would be playing the piano, and everyone’s just singing, and then the power would go out, and he would reach behind him and grab a violin and start playing the violin. He would just pick it up, and the choir would just keep going. And when the piano came on again, he would dive back into the piano back and forth.

And I looked at these kids just celebrating with this music and wanting to praise the Lord. And that’s such a beautiful thing, when we praise the Lord through music. And I think it’s something this generation really connects to, is the power behind that music and the words that they sing as testimony, as witness, as praise of Him.

Young Women General President Emily Belle Freeman holds up one finger as she talks about her families “one thing” mantra during a Provo MTC devotional.
Young Women General President Emily Belle Freeman talks about her families “one thing” mantra during her devotional at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News,


President Steven J. Lund: Music really is a megaphone to this world. You know, it’s so interesting to see hundreds of millions of views, of listens, to so many of these songs. We don’t have that many members of the Church, so it’s going far beyond our gospel community, this music that inspires faith in Jesus Christ. So, it really is an important part of the gathering.

I was recently invited to come and speak to a youth choir. There were about, as I understand it, 1,200 youth getting ready to perform. And as the Young Men’s president, they had me come in and talk. Sister [Tamara W.] Runia came representing the Young Women, because President Freeman was conflicted. But I got up and looked at these faces of these young people who are performing a Christmas program.

And I said, “We learn so much from stories. Everybody loves a story. And stories teach us how to understand our lives and each other. Some of the greatest stories told are told through music. Think about what you’ve learned through ballads and even operas and so forth; great stories are told there. What you’re going to do tonight, though, is you’re going to tell a story through song. But this isn’t a story. This is actually history. These people really lived. These things really happened. These are real powers that can influence us all, and the way you sing this is going to help to drive those stories through music deep into the souls of people. So you really are doing Heavenly Father’s work as you go about singing.” That’s true of all of the work we do around the Church, through the music that amazingly talented members of the Church are producing that testify of Him.


Jon Ryan Jensen: I love it, too, because that is part of their opportunity to become disciples of Jesus Christ, when they can tell those stories, when they can share their testimony, whether it’s in word or through music, and that’s the theme for [this] year, is being a disciple of Jesus Christ. What are your hopes for the youth this coming year as they study the Book of Mormon and they learn to become disciples of the Savior? 


President Emily Belle Freeman: Well, we have talked about this so much. And this is something that has been part of our conversations with our presidencies, with our councils and even with Apostles, talking about: What is it going to look like to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ this year? And just thinking about what we were just talking about and the music, I go back to a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine a couple months ago. He is a very talented pianist. So good. Many of you probably have heard him play in places, and he’s just brilliant. And not only does he play the piano, but he can command an entire orchestra and even singers while he’s up there on the stage.

And I had been talking about a performance of his I have been to recently and what it was like to be in the audience, and how you just felt that whole experience move you. And I said to him, “Have you ever had that experience before?” And then he said the most interesting thing to me. He said, “I wasn’t meant to sit in an audience.” And right when he said that, I thought, “That is the most profound thing,” because he knew he was meant to be on the stage and orchestrating the experience.

And that’s something I’ve thought a lot about. In fact, I wrote it in the margins of my scriptures in 3 Nephi, Chapter 5, because being a disciple and becoming a disciple means this is not going to be a year where you sit in the audience. This is a year where you rise up and you accept a call from the Lord to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and to witness of Him and His words to everyone that you know. And I just love that thought of, “What level of participation do you want to have this year? And what is that going to look like for you as all of us become disciples in training and we learn how to walk that path of discipleship in higher and holier ways?”


President Steven J. Lund: President Russell M. Nelson has said, and continues to say, you know, under the weight of that prophetic mantle, that in times like these, we’re not going to be able to rely on other people’s lights, but that we’re going to need to get that understanding of who the Savior is and why we’re here, and why it matters that He was here, deep inside of us to find the courage and the direction and the confidence to step forward as His followers.

And so, we hope that through these themes, reciting the themes, memorizing the themes, having them be part of their front-of-mind life experience will help them to deepen their relationship. Heavenly Father is blessing them constantly. And these themes, we hope, will help them to become more aware of those blessings as they rain down upon them.


Jon Ryan Jensen: It’s a little bit of what President Freeman talked about in her general conference message: Using your light to light the way. You can’t give your oil to someone else, but you can use it to light the way to help somebody take that next step.

President Steven J. Lund: You’re right; I like to follow President Freeman’s script whenever I can.

Jon Ryan Jensen: I saw her slide that to you.

President Steven J. Lund uses his hands to tell a story at a Provo MTC devotional.
President Steven J. Lund, Young Men general president, tells the story of his daughter spilling a large container of orange juice on then-Elder Russell M Nelson when the latter was visiting the Lunds as they presided over the Atlanta Georgia Mission nearly two decades ago. President Lund spoke during the Provo Missionary Training Center devotional in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News


President Emily Belle Freeman: And I love as we think about the youth theme video for this year, that is one of my favorite parts of the video — and when you get a chance to watch it — but it’s going to start out with one boy playing the guitar on the steps, and it is going to end with a group of youth gathered together in the dark of night, putting these light — I don’t even know how you would describe them, but floating lights.

President Steven J. Lund: Should we be putting a spoiler alert out there?

President Emily Belle Freeman: Yeah, spoilers. Spoiler alert, everyone. These floating lights that they are going to put on this river that are just going to go out into the world, and there’s this one line in the theme song that says, “I will shine so the whole world can see.” And what a remarkable thought, to think: What if all of our youth all over the entire world, that became our call to action this year, is “I will shine so the whole world can see”? It’s just such a beautiful image, and I love that last little bit of that theme video as you think about those lights going out all over the world, and what does that actually look like for every one of us?


Jon Ryan Jensen: I think about a map and the places where you have been this year, the two of you, and think about that light on a hill in Pakistan, or Hong Kong — you were in one of the tallest buildings in Hong Kong earlier this year, President Lund — or a light set up on a hill in Sierra Leone or Ghana, again, back to Belgium, it’s a great visualization. And that light is also reflected in the logo for this year. Can the two of you share a little bit about the meaning behind that flame sitting in a hand?


President Steven J. Lund: Yeah, the meaning of logos is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? We can see so many things. But to extemporize a little bit, you know, that light is being held by a real hand. We don’t really create light as disciples of the Savior, but we do reflect His, and the whole world can see. It’s stunning to look back and see how the examples of a few people have influenced so many of us, and then our influence can go on and influence others.


President Emily Belle Freeman: I had the opportunity earlier this year to sit on the Mount of Beatitudes, the place where the Sermon on the Mount took place. And as I was sitting there, thinking about the words that took place on that hillside, there’s one line that talks about: Ye are a light on the hill (see Matthew 5:14). And I was with a tour guide who pointed out to me a city that is just across the way, called Tzfat. And he said, “This is one of the highest hills here in this area of the world. And it was very densely populated back then; in fact, it has been the whole entire time. And there is a thought that that city is what He would have referred to, because it’s at the very top of this mountain.” In fact, when you go visit, everything is up. You go up and up and up as you walk through this city.

But there’s something else interesting about that city: It’s known as a spiritual city. And it’s also known as the city that watches for the Messiah to come. That’s what that city is known for. And wherever you are in that little town, if you look up at night, you will see the lights from the city of Tzfat. And as I walked through that little town, I thought to myself, “I want to be this town. I want to be this light. I want to be known for my spiritual strength. And I want to be someone who is watching for the Messiah to come.”

And I love the thought that sometimes we read scripture and we think, “Well, was that for real, or where was that coming from?” And to know that as they sat on that hillside, and he maybe pointed up to that city that everybody was like, “I know about that city. I know about the spiritual strength. I know how they watch for the Messiah. I know how the lights shine at night. I could be more like that.” And that’s what I think of when I look at that logo, that hand holding that light up, is maybe we are that light. And the light that we hold up is Him. It’s Jesus Christ. And it’s the hope that He will come again. And it’s the hope for that spirituality that will fill our souls as we turn to Him.

Three youth wearing yellow Helping Hands vests place flowers on graves at the City Cemetery in St. George, Utah.
Youth from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — from left: Jackson Buege, 11, of Washington Utah; Rebekah Francis, 13, of St. George, Utah; and Travion Hall, 12, of Washington, Utah — place flowers in honor of mothers on a grave at the City Cemetery in St. George, Utah, as part of a community service project Saturday morning, May 8, 2021. | Nick Adams, for the Deseret News


Jon Ryan Jensen: That call to become a disciple and to follow the Savior like that makes this year’s theme even more unique than past themes, because that call is also included in both the Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women themes. I imagine that wasn’t just happenstance, wasn’t a mistake. So, is there something that you can share for the youth, for their leaders, for their parents, to help them see that strong tie between a youth theme that they likely share with each other every single week when they meet together, and this year’s theme, found in 3 Nephi?


President Steven J. Lund: Well, I could begin with the comment that these themes have a common beginning. It’s interesting, it’s miraculous, that the conversation of the day right now is about identity and discovering who you really are and what you’re all about. And just when that has become the conversation, the Twelve and the First Presidency have already put in place the statement that they’ve asked our youth to memorize and really come to internalize and understand: “I am a beloved Son of God, and He has a work for me to do,” is the way that Young Men’s theme. Young Women’s theme:

Presidents Steven J. Lund and Emily Belle Freeman: “I am a beloved daughter of heavenly parents, with a divine nature and eternal destiny.”


President Emily Belle Freeman: And just you think about what President Nelson has been talking so much about; we have to know those three identities about ourselves, that I am “a child of God.” I am “a child of the covenant.” And that third identity that he teaches us is I am “a disciple of Jesus Christ.”


President Steven J. Lund: And so, having our young people know who they are as they’re standing in this whirlwind of doctrine that goes around them and of ideas and of philosophies of men, to be grounded with that kind of knowledge is a very powerful thing.

Mormon said, “Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (3 Nephi 5:13). That “behold” jumps out at me every time I read it because — you know, it’s kind of a throwaway word in the scriptures, it seems like, but I don’t think it’s ever meant to be thrown away. It means, “This really matters, what I’m about to say.” It makes me think of Abinadi as he gets chased off from the city. And then, a couple days later, he sneaks in a side door, in disguise, and shows up in the middle of a courtyard and starts teaching the gospel. And then he says, you know, those words, you know: “God has told me, ‘Abinadi,’” you know, “‘go to work,’” you know. “‘Go say these things.’”

You know, in seminary class, everybody giggles about Abinadi and says, “He’s so silly,” you know. “Why is he wearing costumes?” I think that was an act of bravery that surpasses most prophetic utterances in the gospel. I don’t think that was an accident at all. He went in there to say, “I am Abinadi. I’m a prophet of God. I am here sent of God. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And what I have to say has to be said.” And I see that here too. “Behold, this matters. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God, the very Son of God,” just powerful words that ought to just reverberate through our souls.

Then, once you become a disciple, once you come to internalize that and come to represent Him, then you start living your life quite differently than you would otherwise.


President Emily Belle Freeman: I’ve been thinking a lot since I was sustained and began thinking about Young Women’s in a whole different way than I had before, that we have these youth for six years with us. They will go through this program for six years. I have a son who is just finishing medical school. He will have been in that program for six years. And at the end of that six years, he will have become something. He will have become a licensed and practicing doctor.

And I thought to myself, “OK, we have these kids for six years. What will they become at the end of that six years?” And as we’ve prayed about that and talked about that, what is our hope for these youth who will go through this program? What do we hope they become? And I love the thought that they would become a lifelong disciple of Jesus Christ at the end of this program, and that’s something we’re working toward defining and talking about, “What does that look like?” and “How can we help them actually become something in the years that they are with us?”

Young Men General President Steven J. Lund is interviewed at BYU.
Young Men General President Steven J. Lund is pictured during an interview at BYU in Provo, Utah, on Friday, June 3, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News


President Steven J. Lund: These annual themes aren’t necessarily created in sequence. They’re prayed about and conversed about endlessly, and yet, they fall into place, and there’s this interesting pattern. In 2022, we were memorizing and reciting “Trust in the Lord” (Proverbs 3:5), that we can trust Him. He sent us here. He’s not going to abandon us here. And then in 2023, with that trust, “I can do all things [in] Christ” (Philippians 4:13). So, the realization that I can trust Him, and that’s going to help me lead a better life, a happier life, a more joyful life.

And now, we’re, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (3 Nephi 5:13). It’s a powerful thing. Now that I’ve discovered who He is, why I’m here and how He will help me, I need to go out and share it with others.


Jon Ryan Jensen: President Lund and President Freeman, the youth theme, we’ve talked about multiple times, but I think a lot of members of the Church would love to know what the process is like that brings that about. What counseling is involved? Who makes this decision? Where does it really come from?


President Emily Belle Freeman: So, this is such a fun process if you are someone who loves the creative process and brainstorming, which I am a big fan of. So this has been one of my favorite parts of working up at the headquarters of the Church. And the theme begins just how you imagine it would. It begins with both presidencies sitting down together, and we’ve been prayerful before we come, and we bring a list of favorite scriptures to the table. And we sit around, and everybody talks about that verse and what they love about that verse. And then we’ll move to a different verse and a different verse. And I love the thought that we learned from Elder [Richard G.] Scott that scriptures can become like friends to you, and it feels a lot like that as we sit and talk about these favorite verses that we have. Those verses will eventually move up onto a whiteboard. President Lund will tell you I love a whiteboard.

President Steven J. Lund: Nobody’s better at it.

President Emily Belle Freeman: They’ll move up to —

President Steven J. Lund: You couldn’t have been born in another age when they didn’t have, you know, dry-erase whiteboards.


President Emily Belle Freeman: I love whiteboards. And we’ll put them all up on that whiteboard. And then our council members come through. And they mark on each of those verses the one that they feel like resonates with them. But also, our focus really is on the youth: What do they need? What will empower them? What will equip them? What will help them to become something this year, and so that happens.

President Steven J. Lund: And that little process isn’t about — it’s not an election, right? It’s about helping us to focus on what is resonating with people and getting, you know, that counseling together effect in place.


President Emily Belle Freeman: And people talking about youth from all different countries in the parts of the world that they’re from and what they’ve learned, which expands our vision. And then we bring in a team from the Church that works up there, and they come and sit down with us. And again, we are very prayerful with this group who — these are the music writers. These are the creators of the logo. These are the people who are going to make this theme come to life over the next year, and we will sit and brainstorm with them. And we’ll talk about, again, each of those different verses and what are the strengths and what could be pulled from those. We think about FSY in particular. We’ll think about what a girls camp would look like with that theme.

And so, there’s a lot of talking that goes in. And by the time that theme comes back to us and we’ve settled on the one verse, we start looking at what that song is going to be. I love we have — one of the people who writes most of the youth theme songs, he’ll come in that room and sit down at the piano with just one piece of paper. And he just plays what he’s thinking about and sings right there. It’s like we’re having our own personal concert. And you don’t hear it all built out with all the music. You don’t see it firsthand with the video that they have in mind. But it’s just Nik [Day] sitting at the piano, playing a little melody he’s come up with the night before, and there is a spirit of creativity that enters those brainstorm discussions. And it just is such a beautiful thing to watch all of those pieces come together.


President Steven J. Lund: So, we’re looking at the scriptures through all those lenses: What will this look like on the lips of young people standing in chapels reciting them? What will it look like when it’s portrayed in music? And how would these various ones, you know, come across differently visually, you know, what kinds of graphics, iconography would we attach to them, and so forth? So that’s all part of the process.

They’re all leading towards, ultimately, a recommendation going forward through the committees of the Church and into the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. Who decides what the theme is going to be? Well, you could guess that’s the President of the Church that makes that decision.

Sister Tamara W. Runia, President Emily Belle Freeman, and Sister Andrea Muñoz Spannaus, after being called as the Young Women general presidency during April 2023 general conference.
The new Young Women general presidency are Sister Tamara W. Runia, first counselor, President Emily Belle Freeman, and Sister Andrea Muñoz Spannaus, second counselor, during the 193rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 1, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News


Jon Ryan Jensen: So, then the theme is chosen, the members of the Church get to see what that theme is a few months in advance, and then planning begins for activities for the next year, whether those are the Young Women’s camps, Aaronic Priesthood encampments and monthly camps.

How do you envision, when you’re having those conversations, that the individual wards and stakes are going to implement that theme into the individual activities and camps that they will engage in in the next year?


President Steven J. Lund: It’s a great question, and the answer is in the question. Exactly what you said is what we envision, that stakes and wards will get together and prayerfully consider how, in their circumstances, given the ages and stages of the young people that they’re working with, how can these things make the biggest impact? We could come up with a play or a song or a lesson. Emily could write a lesson, you know, before we leave this room, that would be spectacular.

But it wouldn’t necessarily be attuned to the needs of every youth of the Church. And so, in those local circumstances, they will come up with revelation and inspirations about how to approach these themes. By focusing the minds of the young people and their adult leaders and their young single adult mentors on these themes, different answers will emerge everywhere that will specifically speak to the souls of their audiences.


President Emily Belle Freeman: And we love watching what they come up with. We love visiting those camps and hearing what they are doing all over the world to bring this theme to life. This theme is unique in the fact that, again, if we go back to 3 Nephi, Chapter 5, there’s an interesting part that Mormon does, where he sums up that whole thing after telling you he’s a disciple, and he has reason to bless Jesus Christ, and he’s seen with his own eyes, and there’s things that he just knows. And then there is this really interesting component that he teaches us in Verse 24, where he says, “And as surely as the Lord liveth, will he gather in from the four quarters of the earth all the remnant of the seed of Jacob.”

And there is this gathering component that I’m actually fascinated by here, because he says, “It doesn’t matter to just be a disciple. It doesn’t matter that I’ve witnessed things with my own eyes. It doesn’t matter my reason to bless, Jesus Christ, but part of being a disciple includes this gathering.” And it’s going to be gathering at church, and it’s going to be gathering for weeknight activities, and it’s going to be gathering at camps all over the world. And why are we gathering? Well, Mormon tells us. He says in Verse 26, “And then shall they know their Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and then shall they be gathered in.”

And I love that thought, that there is a reason for gathering together as disciples of Jesus Christ, as disciples in training. And the reason is so that we will come to know Jesus Christ. That’s why we gather, and that’s what we hope happens at every weeknight activity, in every seminary class, at every FSY, in girls camp, and when the boys go off into the mountains —

President Steven J. Lund: Doing whatever they do.

President Emily Belle Freeman: Yeah, doing whatever it is they do. “Please bless they don’t burn them down.” That’s what I pray every time my kids go. But the main purpose is “then shall they know their Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ.” And we hope that’s what camps look like this year. We hope that’s what weeknight activities look like this year, that this is a place, and this is a group of people, and this is a faith community where we come to know Jesus Christ, and there is nothing more important than that.


President Steven J. Lund: I’m so happy that we’re talking about camps here. As we came out of prior programs and then fell into COVID, the camping outdoor experience in the Church really suffered, you know. There wasn’t a lot that we could do. And there are a few people — and not a lot, as we studied this — but there are those who felt like, “Well, maybe that’s a thing of the past” and that we won’t be doing that anymore. And that is absolutely not the case. And so we’re very happy to see outdoor experience, getting young people out in those sensory-rich environments where they can feel the Spirit of God and where they can get outside of the little shoe box of social media and their little circle of friends long enough to discover that there’s a broader world with people who love them, and a God in heaven who’s taking care of them.

And so we’re hoping that this next year, 2024, will be that year when we’re fully back. If you’ve sold your camp trailer, there’s still plenty of time to go buy it back. And it was getting a little musty anyway, so it’s probably time to reequip that thing so that we can get our kids outside, into this ideal environment to build relationships with trusted leaders that often are that, you know, that lighthouse on the hill that will guide them through challenging times as they come to know that they are loved of them, and so forth. So, but to be thinking about the themes in terms of outdoor contexts and how we can teach the principles in those themes around a campfire and on a 50-mile hike or swim in a river is so important, and it will prove to be so valuable.

President Emily Belle Freeman takes a selfie with a audience member after a devotional in North Salt Lake, Utah.
President Emily Belle Freeman, Young Women general president, takes a selfie with a audience member after the Utah Area Parent, Youth and Leader Devotional at the Bountiful Regional Center in North Salt Lake, Utah, on Wednesday October 11, 2023. | Adam Fondren for the Deseret News,


Jon Ryan Jensen: And this is not just a hope from two leaders who were used to a previous program; the Church has really made some significant investments for youth around the world. Can you share a little bit about some of the ways the Church is helping members in different countries like Mexico, Guatemala and others around the world to have a place where they can go and do those activities?


President Steven J. Lund: Did I say, “We hope”? I didn’t mean to say, “we hope,” I meant “they hope.” The senior Brethren in this Church are completely in unison around the values of getting outside with our young people and helping them learn the lessons that are available there.


President Emily Belle Freeman: One of the things that we get to look at is a lot of research that comes in, and one thing that we have learned that is just a critical piece of a young man or a young woman’s life is to attend girls camp. In fact, if I had realized how important it was as a mother — my kids all went, but I think I would have been way more passionate about getting them there and talking to them about what happened afterward, because of how critical it ends up being long term in their life.

There is something that happens when they are away for that many days that changes hearts and enlarges souls, and there is something about that experience that is so important, and that’s something that is believed everywhere we go within the headquarters of the Church, is these overnight experiences where the youth are able to get out of their comfort zone and push themselves a little bit and have to work together and learn together and actually get to be with leadership mentors who are testifying and training and teaching concepts in ways they maybe haven’t heard, might be one of the most important things our youth do in the summers.

And that’s true for here in the United States. And it is true all over the world. And we love being able to sit and think about, “What are the resources they are providing in Argentina?” and “What is this going to look like in Africa?” and “What will this look like in the Philippines?” It’s important enough to the leadership of the Church to actually find spaces to make sure the youth are getting what ends up being a really important part of the development of their testimony.


President Steven J. Lund: Those values pertain both to boys and girls, don’t they? As you’ve said. When Church research does these little focus groups and talks to 40-year-olds about “Why are you active and,” for instance, “your neighbor’s not? You grew up in the same environment,” basically, you know, “what happened?” When they ask that of 40-year old women, they will most typically say, “Well, it happened at girls camp.” When they ask 40-year old men, “What happened to you?” They say, “Well, it happened at scout camp.” Never once did anybody say that. [Brother Bradley R.] Wilcox likes to say girls go to girls camp, and they come back with testimonies; boys go to scout camp, and they come back needing to repent, just because they’re kind of wild out there.

But what they will talk about is, “That’s where I found that I could trust my bishop, my Young Men’s president, these adult leaders, and when I went on to make important decisions in my life, I knew unequivocally those people loved me and they weren’t going to give me bad advice. And by following them, based upon those relationships, I made better decisions.” And that’s actually what happens at Young Women’s camp as well, isn’t it, is that they were there, but while they were there, the most important thing that happens is that formation of relationships with adult leaders.

And what we’re finding through the FSY conferences is no revelation, but it is a little bit of a revelation just how powerful that mentoring relationship becomes when it’s actually young single adults who are near peers, just one step ahead of them in their progression, that they’re building those relationships of trust with, where they look at those young people and say, “Wow, I’m seeing these young single adults who are taking the world at full speed, both hands on the handlebar, not looking back, ringing their bell,” and still not compromising their discipleship.

And that modeling that goes on in that environment, we hope will happen more and more throughout all of the activities of the Church, that young single adults can be interjected into the equation, as youth are getting together, to model what discipleship looks like. That is truly Church-changing and world-changing.

President Steven J. Lund visits with leaders at the Provo MTC after a devotional.
Young Men General President Steven J. Lund visits with Provo Missionary Training Center President Kevin E. Calderwood after the MTC devotional Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Provo, Utah. | Adam Fondren, for the Deseret News


Jon Ryan Jensen: Love that. How can we make the process easy and smooth for Primary children who are moving into the youth program?

President Steven J. Lund: When the Church reorganized itself about the same time that the Children and Youth program was launched around age-group progression, so that everybody who was going to turn 12 in a given year or who is 12 becomes deacons in that year. So there’s this, in January — January is a really critical time — when they come along.

I was recently at an event where I was talking to a dad and his boys, and I said, “How old are you?” And he said, “I’m 11,” and I said, “Well, what’s going to happen this next year?” He said, “I get to come into Young Men’s.” And I said, “What else is going to happen this year?” “Well, I’m going to get to go into the — whatever it is — sixth grade, seventh grade, or whatever it is.” “Anything else?” “I can’t think of anything.” And then his little brother, who’s about 6, said, “Well, you’re going to get the priesthood.”

We want to flip that mindset. The exciting thing that happens when a young man leaves Primary and comes into the Young Men’s program is that he has hands laid on his head, and he is empowered with the power of God to change his world and the world of those around him. That is such a profoundly exciting and important thing. We want our young people coming in to understand that, and by the time they leave six years later, we want them to understand what that is to be responsible to the world for the powers that have been given them. Because of that priesthood they hold, there are places they simply can’t go, and there are things that they simply cannot do to be faithful to that priesthood and to the work that Heavenly Father has them to do by virtue of that priesthood. The same principle holds true with the young women too, doesn’t it.


President Emily Belle Freeman: And I think as we talk about that, we think about how that is complemented by the opportunity they have to begin making covenants in the house of the Lord and teaching them that important concept of accessing His power and experiencing what covenant relationship looks like and let that become the pattern of their life.

I was talking to a young woman who just graduated out of the program a couple days ago, and she talked to me about when she first started going to the temple to do baptisms for the dead. And she said, “I went with a friend. My mom dropped us off, and we went down, and we did our baptisms,” and it was in the time where you would put on your one outfit to do your baptisms, then you would go change into a dry outfit and do the confirmations. And they got all done, and it had gone really fast. And nobody was there. And so they went back to the desk and said, “Can we go again?” And everyone was like, “I think that’s fine.”

So they got their new outfits, and they went, and they went again, and still nobody was there, so they were like, “Should we go again?” And she said, “It was almost like we were at an amusement park, where we were like, ‘There’s no one in line. There’s no one there. We might as well go again.’” Well, they did 100 names that evening in the temple because they had caught that fire and that vision of this experience that she will now never forget as long as she lives.

And it’s so darling because the baptistry, just before it closed, the man and the wife who were running the baptistry, who had now spent the entire evening with them, invited them to go to dinner with them in the cafeteria down below. And she said, “That one moment had such a profound effect on my testimony.” And I love that there are things that will happen with these youth as they go through this priesthood progression and as they learn to be in covenant relationship that will change their lives, change the trajectory of their lives, but also help them find a place where they belong and where they want to be as lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ.


Jon Ryan Jensen: There are few better examples of “spiritual momentum” than a story like that.

President Emily Belle Freeman: Yeah.

Jon Ryan Jensen: President Nelson, I think, would say that’s what that is; you do it once, you’re going to want to do it again and again and again. Thanks, President Freeman.

The Church has put together a number of different ways for the youth to be immersed in the scriptures, to serve with each other, to actively become a disciple of Jesus Christ, whether that’s serving in their own quorums and classes within their neighborhoods, or attending seminary, or attending an FSY conference.

As you look at all of those different ways that youth have to learn and become, could you maybe put a plug in for the youth of actively participating in each of those as a way throughout those six years to truly become that disciple of Jesus Christ and really take advantage of all of the different ways that have been created for them to build more fully their testimonies of the Savior?

Teenage boys and girls hold cell phone lights up at a FSY conference at Weber State University.
Attendees hold cell phone lights up during a performance at a FSY conference at Weber State University in Ogden on Thursday, July 14, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News


President Emily Belle Freeman: Yeah. One of the things that has been so fun for me, coming up to the headquarters of the Church and watching, is to discover how many things there really are for the youth of our Church to participate in to strengthen them and their testimony. And as we sit in council with the Seminary Department, with the people creating the youth music, with people who are writing for the youth magazine. And as we’re planning for FSY every year, there really is a lot of devotion towards strengthening the youth of this Church.

And I love that there are avenues for every youth, no matter where they look — in the summer, in the school year, on the weekends, on the weeknights — there is somewhere they can go to find strength and community and a place of belonging, but also to learn how to become something that they maybe wouldn’t be able to become on their own. And what a beautiful thing that is to be part of a church that is offering strength everywhere; in the hallways of school, in homes, in church buildings, and in events and activities all over the world. And what an amazing thing for a church to provide for a group of young people to become stronger.


President Steven J. Lund: And our youth really don’t have to look very far to get direction, do they? President Russell M. Nelson has stated very unequivocally that you, speaking to the youth, are not the “future” leaders of this Church; we anticipate and expect you to lead now, that your role in the gathering of Israel, that most important thing that is going on on this planet today, is firmly in your hands. He invited them into the Lord’s youth battalions, not for some future event, but because they were born with gifts, with special guests; they are especially gifted with those talents necessary for the gathering.

And so, by following the Prophet, they will find purpose for their lives, and they’ll find direction that will see them through the stormy days.


Jon Ryan Jensen: One of the customs that we have at the Church News podcast is to let our guests have the last word. I would love to hear from the two of you: What’s something that you know now — having watched the youth throughout 2023, and as you look forward to 2024 — what’s one thing that you have learned now that you would share with the youth and their parents and leaders?


President Emily Belle Freeman: One of the things that I would think of — and I’m going to take us back into this scripture one more time, because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. We get into 3 Nephi, Chapter 5, and this scripture that will become so familiar to us this year, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life” (Verse 13). And he has so much conviction when he says that verse, and it’s made me wonder a lot: Where did he get that conviction to stand up and just testify, “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? Not “I want to be,” or “I hope to be” or “I aspire to be,” but “I am” a disciple of Jesus Christ.

And there is a verse a little bit farther down in this chapter that is probably often overlooked. And I think this verse probably gives us great insight into Mormon and what he knew about his relationship with Jesus Christ. I love when he says this, in Verse 20: “I am Mormon, and a pure descendant of Lehi.” And then he says, “I have reason to bless my God and my Savior Jesus Christ.” And then he tells us his reason. He says, “that he brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem,” and then listen to this line: “(and no one knew it save it were himself and those whom he brought out of that land).”

And I love that Mormon, what he taught us is, “I have reason to bless Jesus Christ, and it’s because I’ve actually seen His hand in my life, and no one else may know it, except for Him and me. But I am so confident in that relationship, that I can stand up now and say to you, ‘Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’” And I think that is true about our youth in this generation, that these are youth who are having sacred experiences with Jesus Christ. And they might be experiences that only they know, that maybe only God knows, that they’re having, but it’s strengthening them, and it’s giving them reason to bless Jesus Christ. And within that reason, it’s allowing them to stand as disciples of Jesus Christ.

And the one thing that I have learned about the youth of this generation is they can be trusted. They can be relied upon. They are strong. And they are receiving revelation and ideas. And they have a vision that is going to help this Church move to a higher and holier way of living in, and I trust that they are the ones who will get us there.


President Steven J. Lund: One of the things that has been brought forward in my life, working with these young people, is just how active God in heaven is among them and among us. The petri dish that is fun to walk into is an FSY conference, where you see these young people, 14- to 18-year-olds, who are coming usually — often, not usually, but often — against their will. And they bounce off the bus that’s delivering them a little surly and a little angry. And their counselors, these young single adults who become mentors to them, pick them up and go feed them a corndog, and pretty soon, they’re starting to feel a little happier. And then, you know, by Friday — I love to be there on, you know, at the end of the week — I’ll stop them in the hall, and they’ll all have a miracle to tell. “How’s your week going?” “Well, on Monday, I didn’t want to come, and I knew that this wasn’t for me. I knew that I’m not this kind of guy. ‘I’m just a tourist passing through my parents’ church, but I’m on my way someplace else.’ But now, I’ve been here for a week, and I don’t want to go home. I want to live like this.”

And sitting in those rooms, watching these miracles just catching fire in the lives of these kids, it’s just a stunning miracle to see just how active Heavenly Father is, that in those few hours where change has happened, there are miracles, dividing-the-Red-Sea kind of miracles, happening person by person by person, where they come out of there saying, “I was going to quit the Church. Now, I’m going to go on a mission. And I’m going to live like this.”

So, the interest that Heavenly Father takes in His children really puts new meaning to that phrase “This is my work and my glory — to bring to pass [these miracles]” (Moses 1:39). This really is His preoccupation and His love. And you can’t help but feel love for Him in return, watching how He is molding the lives of our young people.


Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates on the Church on

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