How We are Failing the Young Men in the Church

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“None of them care if I’m not there.”

I’ve heard this phrase more Sunday mornings and more mutual Tuesdays in my life than I can count. Sometimes it’s shouted, laced with anger and punctuated with the slamming of a door. Other times, it’s muttered, loud enough to be heard but quiet enough that the pain is obvious.

“No one wants me at church,” they say.
“Nobody needs me,” they say.
“I’m pretty sure none of them will notice if I don’t show up,” they say.

They are my brothers, and whether or not there is truth to these statements, they’re talking about us, their ward members, their young men leaders, their Sunday school teachers, their brothers, sisters, and priesthood leaders. The people they’re supposed to look up to and adore. The men who my parents hoped would take them under their wings and love them. Ward members who can motivate them in ways their family members cannot.

They’re talking about us. And it kills me.

The truth is that I’ve heard this kind of a thing from a lot of young men in my life, some in my family, others outside it. Feeling rejected is, unfortunately, no isolated incident. And as a blogger who has written often about cultural stigmas that are harmful to the youth in our church, I have sat in tears at my computer more times over this one issue than anything else. I have read dozens of emails and hundreds of comments from mothers and sisters who tell me how their sons and their brothers, the boys in their life who mean the world to them have felt excluded or judged by their ward members and never come back to church because of it. I have sensed the heartache in their words as they tell me how they can do nothing, that they’ve tried everything, but their sons won’t listen to them. If only he had an advocate in his ward, someone who can help us bring him back, many say. But he doesn’t.  

One cruel action, one nasty word, one piece of despicable gossip, one activity where a boy felt beat up on, or silence when a boy just needed someone to call and invite him is all it sometimes takes, unfortunately, for him to leave the church, perhaps for a very long time.

And therein lies what I believe is one of our biggest obstacles as members of Christ’s church today: we sometimes chase out amazing boys and do nothing to get them back.

I’d like to think that most of us are trying our hardest to include the young men, that we’re being our best selves and looking out for these boys. Generally, I think that is the case, but too often, I hear about things that go on in wards like the following:

A boy comes home early from his mission for medical reasons and we a) assume he’s back because of transgression and b) ostracize him because of it. He leaves and doesn’t come back. A boy who likes art or music or design more than he does sports gets thrown into a basketball game almost every mutual Tuesday where his quorum ruthlessly beats on him and/or doesn’t pass to him because he can’t play, and these are the only activities they plan. He leaves and doesn’t come back. A boy who hasn’t been to church for awhile and doesn’t feel comfortable there because of something he did in his past shows up one Sunday and catches wind of someone saying “that Jones boy is at church today — hope we have lightning insurance on the building.” Just like that, he is gone. He won’t come back.

Boys who are introverted, socially awkward, not sporty, not serving missions, tender-hearted, home early from missions, opposed to wearing suits, struggling with their testimony, or known to get into trouble are marginalized and rejected so quickly and so often that it is a tragedy. It is a huge failure on our part. And we must do better. Because if “great shall be your joy in saving but one soul,” oh how great shall be your agony in losing one. And we are losing many of our boys.

Now, the common and immediate response I’ve come to expect when I say things like this is: “Well, they have their own agency. They have to choose to be there and choose not be offended, so really, it’s all on their heads if they leave and don’t come back.”

I realize that so many of you are trying your hardest to get the young men involved in your ward and their agency is the one thing standing in your way. I get that. I know how hard that is. But I also know many individuals who use another person’s agency as an excuse to not do more. While I wholeheartedly agree that this is a matter of agency and that we must each take responsibility for our decisions, I hate the underlying attitude that is often in this statement and the actions it excuses.  I hate that “he has his agency” seems to absolve a boy’s ward of the responsibility to take care of him and gather him under their wings like Christ does. Would our Savior see a boy leaving the church and simply say, “It’s his agency. He chose to leave, and he’s going to have to choose to come back,” moving on with the multitude around him, never giving him a call, never stopping by to ask him how he’s doing? Absolutely not. We know he wouldn’t do that, because he always goes out of his way to rescue the one sheep. He does this so often that it is a blatant failure on our part to not recognize that he’s trying to get us to do the same thing.

Again: “It’s his agency and if he leaves it’s his own fault,” many of you say. But why, I ask you, is he leaving in the first place? What is the spiritual environment like for him? What’s going on in his home? How is he feeling about his brothers and sisters in the ward? Has anyone reached out to him? What can we, as ward members, do to make it better for him? We rarely ask these things.

Instead, some of us make the erroneous and disgusting claim that if he leaves, oh well. The ward’s better without him. Was the fold of 99 better off without the one? The Savior never thought so.

This matter is so personal to me because I have my own brothers. I’ve seen them struggling at different points in their lives. I’ve seen the way comments like “oh, he won’t ever serve a mission — he’s not cut out for that stuff” or “that trouble-making kid shouldn’t be in the church” wound them. I’ve watched my parents ache for them, because they are trying everything. All they want is for their children to be happy in the gospel. Given, it’s easy to look at a situation from the outside and assume that the parents are failing, when the truth is, they’re usually doing all that they can, and unfortunately, being a sibling or a parent is not enough sometimes. It is so hard, so agonizing to see someone you love unhappy or make wrong choices, and even more so when others don’t seem to care or only look at them like a hazardous waste zone that they must avoid at all cost.

Our boys, our brothers, need all of us. We are their chance.

They need us to love them, look out for them, and talk to them like friends. They need us to be more concerned about caring for them than being the cool leader. They need us to reach out and invite them to activities, to be in their homes as home/visiting teachers, and to cheer them on. They need to know that if they are that one sheep, we are willing to leave the ninety and nine to save them.

Please accept them for what they love and allow them to have a say in what activities are planned. Please don’t judge them because they don’t play sports or they don’t seem what you would consider tough. They need inclusion. It doesn’t matter if they’re different. The point is they are still our boys and their desires and needs are important. 

Sometimes, you priesthood leaders like to mess around with them, give them a hard time because they get in trouble or because they’re different. You like to tell them to man up, grow up, and shut up. You like to beat them around and tease them. I know that you’re trying to make them better, but sometimes they don’t see that and they don’t feel that. They just feel picked on and sometimes unwanted. What they need is your love and compassion, not your negative criticism. Be firm, but be kind.

Sometimes, we like to make it our business to gossip about the boys in our wards and all the mistakes they are making. Those boys, whether you know it or not, hear you say those things and they start believing that they don’t belong. That’s when they stop going to church. I, again, realize that that is their choice, but when I hear about things like this being done by leaders and ward family members, I’m devastated.

These, after all, are our brothers you’re talking about, yes, even my brothers, the ones I love and want to be with for forever. Don’t you realize how important they are to me? To you?

To you boys and men who have left, who have been hurt, please come back to us. We need you. Your soul is so precious to the Lord and so valuable to each person in your life. If you’ve felt rejected, realize how much the Savior loves and needs you, because he does. If you’ve felt too different, please realize that your differences are what make you who you are and people need them. Please stay. Please don’t let the ignorant or rude comments of another person keep you out, or an activity that didn’t go well push you farther away. The Lord wants you in. And so do I.

Again, to you leaders and ward members, our young men’s souls are priceless. Please don’t write them off, please don’t judge them, berate them, or treat them like lost causes. They need you to be Christlike, concerned. They need to know that their ward cares. They need to know that their priesthood leaders love them. They need that phone call when they haven’t been to church for awhile. Goodness, they need that phone call. Let’s stop, for a moment, demanding that they use their agency correctly and instead see how we are using ours. Are we making the best choices as wards to rescue the one? If we aren’t, then what are our wards even accomplishing, really? Why do they even exist?

Wards exist for the one, not just the whole congregation, and until we realize that, we will not progress.

To all of you: you don’t realize the influence you have or the example you can be. As a sister who cares for and loves her siblings and is trying to love her brothers in the gospel, I beg of you: treat every person the way Christ would treat them. We cannot afford to lose them.

More importantly, they cannot afford to be lost.

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11 comments

  1. Your article has me in tears. Our son chose to leave the church 3 years ago and it has been devastating to his father and I to watch and not be able to reach him with anything we do or say. Although his decision to walk away had much to do with choices he was making in his life, there is no doubt that he also felt very excluded and shunned in our ward by the young men who chose to never include him (his first experience with this was actually on his very first temple trip, where the young men actually argued about which car our son would ride in, because no one wanted him in THEIR car—on a temple trip. Really?)
    I fully recognize that my son is responsible for his choices, and no one FORCED him to leave the church. But, as a mother whose heart has ached for 3 years now, and has done everything she knows how to reach out to him, I often wonder if it would have at least made SOME difference if he would have at least felt accepted by those who chose instead to ridicule him. Maybe he would have felt more desire to attend meetings instead of dreading them. Maybe by wanting to be around boys who held similar standards, he would have decided to make different choices, instead of choosing friends who told him believing in God is naïve and pointless. I'll never know for sure if it would have made a difference……but it would have been nice to at least feel that we weren't the only ones fighting to save him.

    Thank you for writing this article……I hope it will be the source of helping other young men to feel loved and included, hopefully keeping them from leaving and avoiding the heartache our family and many others have felt.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. I have a young neighbor who will go to church (under threat from his inactive dad) with me and his younger sister, but always skips out of Sunday School class and YM, and flatly refuses to go to mid-week activities. It may have only been once, but he feels he's been made fun of enough times to want anymore of it. He dresses a bit different – he's not athletic – he's perhaps a bit of an odd-ball. And he doesn't have a single friend at church that I can get to help. We're losing him – rapidly.

  3. Your comment has me in tears. I'm so, so sorry about your son. I know, though, that the Savior loves him and he loves you and he knows the effort you've put into helping your son. He won't ignore that. Keep hanging in there. I know that's easy to say, but if you're doing all you can, the Lord will notice. Your son's spiritual well-being is just as important to Him. I share the same hope, because I've seen far too many boys feel excluded and it's heartbreaking.

  4. Thank you so much for your efforts in getting him there. Keep trying with him. I'm praying that he'll find that friendship in his ward, that someone will be moved to help him.

  5. We have experienced the same thing with our son as the first person who responded. Our son left the church 5 years ago and our hearts have been aching and breaking for him ever since. He's 22 now, and still struggling with life. All we can do is continue to pray for him and leave him in the Lord's watchful care. Thank you for your article. It really touched home.

  6. My brother left the church 10 years ago because the boys in his quorum were mean. He got in with a bad crowd in school who liked him for who he was and taught him all kinds of bad things. Despite the efforts of some amazing leaders he still hasn't come back. I believe what you have written is very valid. I found you through Jenny of Unremarkable Files and like what you write. Following you on Google. :)

  7. I've had plenty of good friends in young men leave the church, and normally there have been two things that have taken place for them to do so;

    A) An adult member has decided to act outside his/her sphere. They've been berated for having to read the sacrament prayer a second time (a hanging offence if there ever was one), or have *gasp* worn the wrong-colour shoes. Instead of taking it to the Young Men's president, or the Bishop (y'know, the official head of the Aaronic priesthood in the church), they have chosen to fix it themselves. Unfortunately, they don't know that Brian struggles with reading, so the sacrament prayer is hard to read. They don't know that Paul's family can't afford to buy him new shoes this week. They think they do, however, and end up making the YM think he's worthless for pretty superficial reasons.

    B) This one, however, is their own fault (though it would be better for us to treat the cause rather than the symptoms). The YM in question discovers the word "judgemental". Suddenly, he won't go to sunday school because the teacher is "judgemental". "Judgemental" becomes the justification, and suddenly, those commandments they've been struggling with don't get the attention they need- it's not him that needs to change, it's the "judgemental" adult.

    It's a problem that can be fixed by members understanding who has the authority to rebuke, and young men learning that he's not there for other members; he's there for himself and the Lord.

    But you're right, we need to watch ourselves and not wash our hands of the boys when they go astray.

  8. *yawn* Please read a serious psychology text book, and come back to this nonsense and realize it for what it is. Many of you are going to read this comment and think to yourself " he doesn't know what he's talking about" " he needs to be saved" " he doesn't understand the power of jebus" whatevs. I just want you guys who think all that to know, I do know what its like to be in those frames of mine myself. It's much more freeing, and interesting, to understand how the human mind works.To understand that we are evolved African apes with a larger prefrontal cortex. Its exciting to observe our closest living relatives, the bonobos, as they do so many humanlike things. You guys are prisoners of your own cognitive delusions. I know how to free you though. Put your faith to the actual test. Walk into a children's cancer hospital tomorrow, lay hands and pray for all the children to be healed, and if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, it should work. If not, then just face reality.

  9. We hear all the time about young women marrying outside the church and not enough boys to choose from. I realized early in my marriage that is was because so many young men leave the church as teachers and/or priests (14-18). I have 4 sons and worry constantly about this happening to them. They are not athletically inclined and are ADHD as well. I count myself very fortunate to have been in wards that have supported and included them for the most part and that we as their parents have apparently given them a stable enough spiritual base to weather the rough teenager years. Even tho my 16/17 year old has not been able to pass the sacrament for months at a time, he has not fought going to church or keeping the standards throughout it all. Still worried about my two younger boys, but hope for continued blessings. Thank you for reminding us that boys have self esteem issues as much as our beautiful young women do!

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