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FSY Decentralizes EFY, But Will High-Energy Faith Overwhelm Some?

By Karen Austin

Photo by Harris County Public Library

When my children were between 14 and 18 years old, we sat down a few times and explored the possibility of sending them to a BYU sponsored Especially for Youth conference.

Neither of my children attended for a variety of reasons (costs, logistics, apprehension about going without a close friend, seeing that the programming would not meet their interests, and recognizing that attending was a class marker–dividing the haves and the have nots in our “mission field” stake in the Midwest.)

Decades prior in the summer of 1979, I traveled from Orange County, California to attend EFY, a 5 day event on the campus of Brigham Young University. I don’t remember any salient spiritual experiences. I also don’t remember feeling alienated from my faith either. I remember the stress from negotiating through the large BYU campus and the challenge and then triumph of connecting with other young women in the dorms. They were also from Southern California. The faith-promoting aspect maintained me at my previous level.

I am thinking a lot this week about how youth build their testimonies with support from parents, leaders, and peers. My son returns from his two-year mission later today.  He was ambivalent about church and a mission for a few years, but for a number of complex and nuanced reasons (including meaningful support from local leaders), he chose to serve a mission. He now has a strong social and spiritual connection to the LDS church.

His younger sister stopped attending LDS church services eighteen months ago, for a number of complex and nuanced reasons. Only God knows her heart, so I may never truly understand my daughter’s journey.  It’s not my job to micromanage her soul. My prayers direct me to communicate Christlike love and to focus on my own choices (including choices on how I interact with her). I am not supposed to focus on her choices. She’s an adult by a few social markers and counting: she has graduated from high school, she’s 18, and she has earned four scholarships for academics and music. She leaves for college in three weeks, so the window for formal youth program participation—and the window for hands-on, in-house parenting—is rapidly concluding.

The timing of the announcement for changes to some youth programming caught my attention, given the transitions my children are experiencing as newly minted young adults.

On Friday, July 19, 2019 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that they are decentralizing the “Especially for Youth” (EFY) program by renaming them “For the Strength of Youth” (FSY) and moving them locally with support from BYU. The press release includes more detail on FSY protypes already established outside of the US and their pragmatics of costs, leadership training, local support and coordination and more.

READ THE OFFICIAL 7/19/19 ANNOUNCEMENT OF EFY to FYS

My view is that the largest push for this change comes from another act of “decentralization.”

This formal request to move Church programs outside of Utah happens from time to time—from encouraging converts abroad to stay where they are instead of immigrating to Utah, to building more Institute buildings that include social programming in addition to scripture study, to adding additional LDS affiliated schools (BYU-H, LDS Business College, BYU-I), to not trying to push hard on the BYU-ish school SVU in Buena Vista, VA.

Some responses that I have read to this most recent announcement are concerned that these are shallow, cheesy attempts to manufacture testimonies. (Read the comments on BCC to the post Kevin Barney wrote about FSY last weekend.)  The comments ask some good questions about pragmatics, Barney and others address the “cheese” factor aka is sensationalism spirituality, and a few bring up the concern about personality styles. I am interested in all of these issues, but I’m taking a personal approach by focusing on the loud social faith vs quiet individual (or in pairs) faith journey.  I don’t see this as either/or. It’s one, the other, or a careful mix of both for many youth.

I actually think the decentralization is an attempt to address this criticism, to make the events more organic to their context.  I was intrigued by this Church Newsroom YouTube video that depicts FSY by images and a few bullet points about content and aim (running just under 3 minutes). The footage shows youth outside of the US, which has been ongoing for several years.

I can see how many people can be served by participating. I can see my son benefiting a lot by participating as a counselor—if he has the opportunity or inclination to do so. But I can also see that my daughter would not be served by this type of activity, even if I could put her in a time machine.  My son is social and open to new experiences. My daughter is selectively social and has a lot of anxiety about changes to her routine and about participating in loud, crowded events such as large-room lectures, sports & leisure activities, and dances.

Recognizing my daughter’s nature, I have traveled five times in ten months so that she could become acquainted with the campus where she will start college this fall. On her fifth trip, we attended a two-day registration and orientation event.

I saw her in a setting similar to EFY/FSY. As we were lining up at 7:45 am to pick up our name tags and packets at 8 am, we could see about 20 college students in matching shirts form a circle behind the roped off area. The orientation leaders began to chant, jump, and pump their fists in the air. As they got louder and more animated—to bond as a team, build energy, and express school spirit—my daughter grew closer and closer to bursting into tears.  She immediately started formulating ways that she could opt out of events in order to regain her composure. If the two-day event was going to be dominated by this type of hype, she was going to have trouble learning anything about the school, because her cognition and emotions would be overloaded. This preview of “hyping up the crowd” was actually counterproductive to the intent of the orientation team—for my daughter and I’m guessing for a number of other participants.

Later that morning when my daughter and I were separated into “for the parents” vs “for the student” presentations, I went up to the orientation leader who looked the most pensive, grounded, and Type B. I told her directly how they need to create spaces for the introverts to retreat. I don’t know if she “heard” me.

That’s my biggest concern when I read about FSY and other youth programming—building a testimony isn’t often accomplished in loud, social, publicly emoting type environments. If I ever get a chance to work with the youth, I would advocate for more spaces where youth can work alone or in small groups on the less “show off” talents such as painting, drawing, writing poetry, writing in a journal, listening with compassion to another teen, programming code, building a robot, caring for animals, spending time quietly observing nature and so forth.

How did I as a youth receive a testimony? It wasn’t at EFY.  I remember feeling the Spirit testify most strongly at the dedication of our stake center in Cypress while singing “The Spirit of God.”  That was dramatic. But for the more part, it was a still small voice of feeling the Spirit most consistently through personal study of the scriptures, study that took place at my kitchen table or in my bedroom. I also remember feeling the Spirit testify of the body of Christ when youth leaders would offer me compassion when I didn’t fit in with my peers, offered me very gently offered insight about how I should still love my mother even though I was arguing with her.

It wasn’t the charismatic guest speaker at the pulpit. It was the youth leaders in my ward who talked to me with respect and compassion as they drove me in their cars, sat with me on their porches when I ran away from home (for an hour), and came to talk with me in the foyer when I was overwhelmed by the chaos of stake dances and three-legged races. They didn’t try to get me back into the crowd. They asked me about my thoughts and showed me that I had value to the group, even without participating in large, group activities.

I’m not asking (overtly?) for programmatic change, because I’m not in charge (of much, really). But watching my daughter and thinking about youth activities sponsored by wards, stakes, or regions motivates me to look for the youth sitting on the outskirts. And it invites me to think about the ones who aren’t there, but who might have an art show or a recital that I could attend.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

7 thoughts on “FSY Decentralizes EFY, But Will High-Energy Faith Overwhelm Some?”

  1. The announcement about EFY just about made me cry. I grew up in the Midwest and my first year at EFY at BYU back in the 80’s changed my life. It was the first time I had realized I wasn’t alone in my faith, that there were thousands of people like me who had the same beliefs. I never clicked with my local leaders who thought I was snotty and sarcastic (true!), but I was a clean slate to all the new people I met in Provo.
    I’m very much an introvert but I so wanted to be outgoing. I really forced myself to do the outgoing things and I learned that I could push myself and try new things. Fortunately I could head back to my dorm room to have some peace and quiet when needed.

    My first spiritual experiences came at EFY. The first time I felt the spirit strongly was there and I loved the funny and upbeat speakers who were so different than the same old boring people I heard in my stake back home.

    I had been seeing a therapist for several months before I went to to EFY the first time. When I came back she listened to my recounts of what had happened and she was stunned at the change it had made in me in such a short time. The rest of my summer and school year were only acceptable because I knew that I just had to make it back to EFY and the world would be ok again, if just for a week. The shot of spirituality would be enough to sustain me through another year.

    I’m probably the poster child for the reasons the EFy was begun. I seem to have enjoyed it much more than my children, the fifth of which just got back from her first session last month. I assume that the reasons for changing it must be inspired, and hopefully it will help more people. But I’m truly sad to see it go.

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  2. I relate to what you said about how EFY attendance often separates the haves from the have-nots; that was my experience growing up in the Seattle area in the 1980s. The only person in my ward who I remember attending was a girl my age whose parents were relatively affluent. The rest of the kids in the ward, who came from blue-collar families, had to be content with local youth conferences.

    My husband and I have saved and budgeted, so our kids can have a wider variety of experiences than we did. My 16-year old son just got back from EFY in Texas for the second year in a row. He's really benefited from both of his EFY experiences, and he happens to be an extrovert. I don't know if my introvert daughter, who is almost 12, and a younger brother who is also introverted, will ever be interested in attending.

    Although I enjoyed going to dances, youth conferences, and other activities when I was a young woman, I often felt overwhelmed. Only much later, in my mid-40s, did I recognize my own introversion. For years, especially as a missionary, I felt like something was wrong with me, that I felt overwhelmed by social situations, especially those with large groups of strangers. I believe there's a definite component of LDS culture (not gospel doctrine) that emphasizes extroversion and devalues the virtues of introversion.

    I'd love to see what you describe: more offerings for those (youth and otherwise) with quieter faith and more contemplative spirits–settings and situations in which we can make deep and meaningful connections suited to our temperaments.

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  3. This is interesting as I am an introvert myself and loathe large group things so completely see your point of view. Also because I live in England and things are done differently here. Every year each stake alternates between stake youth camp and EFY; one year it is camp and everyone goes and on the alternate year it is EFY for 14 to 18 and a Deacon/Beehive 48 hour camp for the others. This changed a couple of years ago from EFY to FSY but still on alternating years. None of my children went to EFY/FSY because it would have been the summer they were 15 (due to the alternating schedule) and had all stopped attending church by that point so I don't have any personal experience of how it works.. My friends' children have had a variety of experiences. Some love it and come very committed to church and others don't feel as if they have fitted in very well. A lot is down to personalities and we really do need to stop treating everyone as if they are the same and all fit into the same mould. Just my two pence worth. x

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  4. I should have pointed out that EFY/FSY is done on a mission basis and not a stake basis, so all of the youth in the mission get together. This gives a larger group as sometimes there are very little youth around in a stake. For a stake activity we would expect between 40 to 60 youth to attend and for a mission wide EFY/FSY upwards of 200.

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  5. My children went to EFYs that were held in our region of the country. When it could, our small, far-flung stake offered to pay for that so everyone who wished to could go to those. One year our stake was able to persuade BYU to hold one in the boundaries of our stake, in our sparsley settled state, at a local college campus. It gathered kids from maybe 4 equally far flung contingent stakes in the US and Canada and was made up of about 100 participants. (Low for the usual EFY which was usually located in locations where kids would come from larger demographic areas, which is why it took some persuasion to get it here.) Years later one of my children spent a couple of summers as a counselor at some of these smaller, far-from-BYU EFYs, so I’ve heard a lot of stories about what it’s like from that perspective as well. I have no experience with the big BYU EFYs.

    I am hopeful about the proposal for these more local FSYs. If they are like the EFYs in our region of the country that our chidren attended they will involve smaller groups, will not depend upon rah-rah, hype components, and will allow for time for thinking and processing, as well as include the usual dance for those who need it. And, as it involves planning by the local YSAs (if there are some available) and stakes, it will be more likely to reflect an understanding of the nature, interests, needs, challenges, expectations and culture of the teenagers who will be attending.

    Our children would probably not have flourished in a big BYU EFY. But for our children, who practiced their faith as a tiny minority in their community, and often had to travel long distances to spend time with other LDS teens in their stake, these more local EFYs, with young people in the region who were living with challenges similar to the ones they were and who understood the value of supportive friendships in keeping the faith, were a very helpful breath of fresh air and perspective.

    If the FSYs are like that. I think having them is a good idea.

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  6. I may be biased as a teacher, but I feel like seminary offers those quiet, introspective, faith-affirming moments for youth, and on a near-daily basis. I think it's good to have the variety and the options to appeal to multiple ages and stages and types of youth.

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