Feature Stories

What is the purpose of a YSA ward? (Hint: It’s not marriage)

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We need a fresh view of the young adults of this generation.

Rob Ferrell sits down in a large armchair directly in front of a camera. He looks confidently into the lens and begins to speak with a sense of urgency and directness. In just seconds, Ferrell’s passion for the message he’s come to deliver is obvious. After citing the Bible Dictionary’s definition of repentance, he says, “And I will tell you, we need a fresh view of the young adults in this generation.”

Ferrell is on set for a Deseret Book video series called Seek. Drawing on his experience as a father of nine and his service as a young single adult bishop and stake president, he has come prepared to explain why parents and leaders’ approach to young adults in the Church needs to change. His hope is for this video to reach the hearts of as many Latter-day Saints as possible. What he may not realize, however, is that he’s already reached one young adult’s heart from just across the room.

Twenty-three-year-old Abraham Robledo was working as the cameraman the day Ferrell sat in that armchair. Robledo had been involved with several Seek recordings prior to this one, but today was different.

“I actually cried during Rob’s lesson,” Robledo says. “There was the strongest spirit in the room. The strongest I’ve felt the Spirit in a long time, to be honest. … The way that Rob approaches the gospel is how I have always imagined Jesus Christ to be.”

Robledo’s experience mirrors what producers hoped for when the Seek project began. In addition to the course on ministering to young adults, there are classes on deepening scripture study, coping with infertility, and seeing creativity as a spiritual process, just to name a few. The extensive list of topics covered in the videos is all about reaching out to “the one.”

“The final goal [of the videos] is that one person feels seen and heard and loved and understood because of watching this; that really is our hope,” says Paige Blaser, one of the producers.

To help make that hope a reality, Blaser and other producers put great thought into whom they ask to be instructors for the classes, looking more for heart and personal experience than public visibility. For example, Ferrell’s participation didn’t come as a result of any perceived “Church celebrity” status; instead, Blaser heard him on a podcast and was drawn to his passion, along with his years of experience serving young adults. Executive producer of Seek Michelle Torsak explains, “The scripture in Doctrine and Covenants [88:118] says ‘we teach each other words of wisdom,’ and that is what this really feels like—learning from the collective wisdom of Latter-day Saints.”

So what words of wisdom did Ferrell share that touched Robledo’s heart?

“I think it was how candid he was about the reality of the culture of the Church,” Robledo says. “He explains ways that we can adjust our practices as a culture to both respect tradition but also work with the new generation to find what works best for them. [The Church] is not about applying the same expectations to every individual but leading with Christ’s love and using the gospel to build people up.”

Ferrell’s full Seek class, “Helping Young Adults Thrive in the Church,” is broken into six segments, all available at https://seek.deseretbook.com/. But for those eager for a taste of how to start changing the Church’s approach to young adults right now, keep reading.

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Abandoning Misconceptions

Ferrell grew up in the Bay Area of California but settled as an adult in Mountain Green, Utah, to practice dental work as a periodontist. His first call to serve young adults as a bishop came as a bit of a shock; he had seven young children and his wife was pregnant with their eighth. After serving for about three and a half years, he was called as a young single adult stake president for the next five years. He then continued doing firesides and conferences, including at Brigham Young University Education Week, about connecting with young adults. Now, he and his wife serve as mission leaders in the Peru Lima Central Mission.

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The Ferrell family at Lake Powell
Photo courtesy of Rob Ferrell

In lesson one of his Seek course, Ferrell teaches why we must abandon misconceptions, including the misconceptions about the purpose of a young single adult ward.

“If you think about a young adult ward, what does my generation think is the purpose of that ward?” Ferrell asks. “My experience has been [that] most people think it’s to get young adults married, … and to me that’s actually very sad. There’s no redeeming message in that.”

Ferrell knows there is a much higher purpose to young single adult wards, and focusing on it is essential to a young adult’s activity in the Church.

“The purpose of a young single adult ward is to help young adults find Jesus Christ. That’s it. It’s not marriage, it’s not missions, it’s not any of that. It’s to help young adults find Jesus Christ and develop a meaningful relationship with Him,” Ferrell says.

He explains that many young adults grow tired of repeatedly being told the importance of marriage. But by shifting the focus of young adult single wards from finding a spouse to finding Jesus Christ, members can more fully enjoy life now and be more prepared for marriage when the time is right.

“If the focus is on coming unto Christ, then the natural consequence is going to be people developing the ability to receive revelation … [and] becoming closer to Jesus Christ, [which] will lead them to the kinds of decisions that will have meaningful impact in their lives,” Ferrell says.

Keeping Missions in Perspective

A hyperfocus on marriage isn’t the only thing that can dilute the power of a young single adult ward—so can a skewed perspective on missions. Serving a mission is a profoundly positive experience in many young Latter-day Saints’ lives, but leaders and parents’ first focus should still be on connecting young adults with Christ. If cultural traditions surrounding missions get in the way, young adults whose lives and choices don’t fit the usual mold may quickly feel alienated and choose to walk away from the Church.

“I think of that pressure to serve missions, and … if the focus is not on helping young adults come unto Christ, it can be a very damming thing,” Ferrell says.

To help illustrate how leaders and parents can elevate their focus, Ferrell tells the true story of a young man who had a sexual relationship with his girlfriend up until the night before he left for the missionary training center. After seven days in the MTC, the young man decided to come home. His parents, however, were so disappointed that they wouldn’t pick him up from the MTC. Instead, an older brother came and drove the young man to meet with his stake president and be released.

The stake president was quick to remind him that they had talked about the consequences of a sexual relationship prior to marriage and the young man should have known better. Ferrell says that, overall, the interview was not a good experience for the returning missionary.

Then the young man went home, and the first words out of his mother’s mouth were, “What are we going to tell everyone?”

“You think tradition and culture are not killing people?” Ferrell says. “We had better wake up to what we are doing to these young adults when we focus on the wrong things.”

While this young man’s experience is certainly not reflective of the reception all early-returned missionaries receive, what happened next in his life is both touching and instructive. The first Sunday after returning home, the young man decided to attend church in his family’s ward. But as he sat in his car in the parking lot, he felt he could not emotionally handle going inside, so he drove away. But then he received a text from another young adult who expressed sympathy for his situation and invited him to come to the young single adult ward instead.

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Finding Jesus Christ

“He walked into the young adult ward where a bishop understood the purpose of the young adult program: to help [him] come unto Christ,” Ferrell says. “He put his arm around the young man, not even knowing the situation, and loved him and welcomed him.”

After that warm welcome, the young man decided to continue attending the ward. Some time later, he agreed to meet with Ferrell, who was serving as the stake president. At first, the young man appeared frustrated about having to talk to another priesthood leader about his past mistakes. But as the two began to talk, tears came to the young man’s eyes as he expressed that all anyone around him talked about was him returning to his mission.

Then Ferrell said something the young man wasn’t expecting: “What … if told you I didn’t care if you go back in the mission field or not?” The young man was surprised and said Ferrell couldn’t say something like that since he was stake president. So to illustrate his point, Ferrell took it one step further and said: “Jesus Christ doesn’t care if you go back into the mission field.”

Ferrell went on to explain that he wanted to focus on helping this young man feel the love and power of Jesus Christ, rather than just getting him back on his mission. As Ferrell talked about what it means to come unto Christ, the young man wept in relief.

“I’ve been hearing people talk about that my whole life,” the young man said. “[But] I don’t know how to do that. Can you help me find Jesus Christ?”

And that, Ferrell says, is the purpose of young single adult wards.

Trusting Young Adults

In other videos, Ferrell shares concrete ways to help young adults connect to Christ. Additionally, he testifies of how capable young adults are and invites viewers to consider all they have to offer.

“I also challenge you to help us change some of the stereotypes … that have surrounded young adult programs and even young adults themselves,” he says. “We need to trust them more. Not only do we need to figure out how to inspire and lift them, [but] absolutely more importantly, we need to learn from them. … It is my testimony that if we will see the goodness in this rising generation, they are going to be involved in miracles that this world has never seen.”

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Watch the rest of Rob Ferrell's course on working with young adults at https://seek.deseretbook.com/.

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