A couple of years ago, in one of my trips to Utah to visit with my wife's family, I went Christmas shopping at the Gateway Mall in Salt Lake City. I was walking along with my wife and infant son, slightly freezing to death in the Utah winter, when I was approached by eight young adults (early 20's, equal numbers of men and women). Now, in most cities of the world, when you're approached by a gang of young people, you get ready to hand over your wallet and hope you don't end up being stabbed in the face. This was Utah, however, so I was ready to expect something different.
The "gang" leader started the conversation: "Hey man, can we have your name please? You're wearing a green shirt and we need someone wearing one."
It turns out they were on a scavenger hunt as part of a YSA group date and they had to complete a number of tasks that one of them had drawn together in advance. I was number 15: Find someone wearing a green shirt, get their name and take a photo.
Now, don't get me wrong, they seemed to be having a lot of fun and were positively gleeful when they heard my British accent, but I couldn't help thinking that their "date" was more suitable for a bunch of school children.
Speaking of what I perceive to be childish activities; my sister-in-law has been a member of a YSA ward in Utah for a number of years now. When we were chatting on Skype a couple of months ago, she got talking about a group date she was planning. They had decided that they were going to get together to make a blanket fort.
"What, so you can create quiet corners and make out with some guy?" I asked.
"Oh, no, no. We just want to make blanket forts. I'm making treats for afterwards." she replied.
I asked if, in fact, the activity was some kind of ironic, nostalgic, postmodern statement of their lost youth. However, it seems that it was nothing at all like that, they genuinely thought blanket fort making was a perfectly acceptable venue in which 26 year olds could potentially meet their eternal companion.
At this stage, you're probably thinking that I'm just a grumpy, no-fun curmudgeon. You're probably right. I've recently turned 31 years old. I have a few faint wrinkles appearing and I found a grey hair the other day. Maybe I've finally reached the age where young people confuse and scare me. Maybe I'm just not part of the Zeitgeist anymore. Maybe blanket forts and scavenger hunts are what people do now. When I was young, you'd ask someone you were interested in out for a meal. Isn't that the done thing anymore?
Either way, there are problems that I do see occasionally arising out of this YSA culture. Do aspects of the YSA culture run the risk of creating emotionally stunted individuals?
For example, does the heavy emphasis on chastity mean that some would much prefer to go on group dates/ hang out rather than risk even the remote possibility of temptation?
Does the heavy emphasis on finding an eternal companion scare/intimidate people to the point that it's more comfortable for them to be in "gimmicky" childish situations rather than things that seem more grown up?
Of all the single adults I've seen over the years, the ones that ended up in successful relationships are those that broke free of manufactured "playtime" and developed genuine shared interests with people they like; both inside and outside of the church. From that, romantic relationships can form.
Is some of the problem because church culture treats single adults as almost permanent adolescents? Does this cause/encourage the infantilised behaviour such as scavenger hunts or blanket forts? And what about the single adults that don't like activities like the ones I've mentioned? Does the culture create enough of a place for them or are they just seen as outsiders?
In a Church that places such a huge emphasis on marriage, do we sometimes treat those that aren't married, especially YSA, as being less "mature" than us. Is part of the problem that we treat marriage and family as the only markers of adulthood?
In my blanket fort building sister-in-law's ward, they require a married couple to "preside" at every official activity. Get a bunch of married people of the same age together and they don't need anyone to preside over them, so why on earth do you need a married couple to look after people in their late 20's? These are young professionals: doctors, lawyers etc; they don't need babysitting. Handbook 2, Section 13.6.2 states that "Supervision by ... responsible adults should be provided for activities for ... young single adults". No wonder single adults can seem infantilised; they're conditioned to be so.
On the flip side, I've counselled a number of newly married couples who found the transition between single life and married life in the church very difficult. Putting aside the fact the boundaries of chastity have suddenly shifted (that's maybe a discussion for another day), but there's also no corresponding Young Married Adults organisation to organise "fun" activities for them.
Maybe I'm just over-thinking this. Maybe I have just become a curmudgeon, but it is worth considering how we treat single members of our church. Does the way we treat them and our cultural expectations of YSA encourage a prolonged adolescence or vice versa?
In the meantime ... hey you darn kids! Get your blanket fort off my lawn!!
This post was originally published May 8, 2013.
ldsbishop grew up in the land of Shakespeare, Milton and Monty Python. Looking for some culture, he moved to Utah for a while where he seduced his future wife with his accent. They now live back in the UK. He was called as the Bishop of his ward in his mid-twenties. That's where the similarities between him and President Monson end, though he can also wiggle his ears. He and his wife are the parents of two sons, the type of boys that have people suggesting we need more talks on reverence. He keeps his sanity by tweeting his thoughts under @ldsbishop.