LDS Growth Encyclopedia on Missionary Work and Church Growth (Missiology)

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Young Single Adults (YSAs)

Author: Matt Martinich

Posted: April 22nd, 2014

Young single adults (YSAs) are unmarried adults between the ages of 18 and 30. The Church has stressed the importance of full-time missionary service, marriage, education, and employment for YSAs around the world. This demographic provides the Church with all of its full-time missionary manpower with the exception of senior missionary couples and the small numbers of single sisters who serve missions over age 30. YSAs constitute the bulk of members who get married in the Church. Religious attitudes and behaviors are commonly instilled in members when they are YSAs and these perpetuate into middle and older adulthood. Many YSAs are enrolled in college, trade school, or university courses and obtain advanced degrees that can qualify for higher-paying jobs. The Church has instituted the Perpetual Education Fund (PEF) since 2001 to provide low interest educational loans to members who would be otherwise unable to attend post-high school education. Many of the beneficiaries of PEF have been YSAs.

As of early 2013, the Church maintained approximately 950 YSA wards and 200 YSA branches worldwide and operated 75 YSA stakes. Unlike the organization of ordinary wards, the qualifications for the organization of a YSA ward is the same regardless of geographical location. The organization of a YSA ward requires approximately 200 or more members whereas the organization of a new family ward in the United States requires 300 or more members. The criteria for the organization a new YSA ward appears synonymous with the organization of a new ward outside the United States and the criteria for organizing YSA branches appears synonymous with the organization of a branch within a stake, or about 20-30 active members. The criteria for YSA stakes to operate slightly differs than for ordinary stakes. YSA stakes only function in locations where there is a sufficient number of YSA wards and ample numbers of local, married priesthood leadership to staff stake leadership callings such as in the Intermountain West and at LDS-operated or LDS-affiliated colleges and universities. The Church has continued to combine student and YSA members into the same units in a few locations notwithstanding recent efforts to segregate married and single YSAs.

YSAs in the United States experience significantly different church administration and support compared to YSAs outside the United States. The Church in the United States operates widespread YSA outreach and member support including the operation of nearly 1,000 YSA-designated wards and branches, institute programs based in every stake that specifically focus on YSAs, and well-developed local leadership that is sufficient  in numbers to staff special leadership roles that service this demographic. The Church in the United States has well-developed church infrastructure to handle the unique needs and opportunities for church growth and member retention among YSAs in the United States as leadership manpower is generally sufficient to staff both family and YSA units.

To the contrary, the Church outside the United States generally has little if any infrastructure for handling YSA needs. Insufficient local leadership manpower to staff ordinary church units and YSA units, low member activity rates, and YSAs comprising large numbers of members in ordinary units have dissuaded church leaders from segregating young adults based on marital status. The establishment of both YSA and family units in many stakes would overwhelm limited church leadership and draw away needed manpower provided by YSAs in their home units. The Church has utilized programs such as institute and special stake or district activities to provide YSA socialization activities and ecclesiastical support. In Europe, the Church has organized YSA outreach centers in many countries to help curb member attrition and provide greater opportunities for YSAs to marry within the Church.   

Member activity rates among YSAs appear lower than among any other age demographic in the Church, especially in the United States. Low levels of interest in organized religion, inconsistent church attendance, and a lack of daily engagement in personal religious behaviors such as prayer and scripture reading are common challenges found in YSAs not only in the LDS Church but in most Christian denominations. Some of the most prominent instances of low YSA member activity rates have been in the Wasatch Front where over half the population is nominally a Latter-day Saint. In 2011, church leaders held a massive conference attended by nearly 5,000 and reconfigured the boundaries of 147 student and YSA congregations into 121 YSA wards between North Salt Lake and Taylorsville. At the meeting, LDS apostle Elder M. Russell Ballard expressed concern about large numbers of YSAs falling into inactivity, indicated that the unit restructuring occurred in part due to inactivity woes, and challenged participants to bring at least one fellow YSA back into church activity. A year earlier, the Church experimented with consolidating student single and YSA congregations into the same units and creating YSA stakes to focus on improving activity rates in other cities in Utah such as Cedar City, Ephraim, Logan, Ogden, and St. George. These efforts have born at least some short-term results. Elder David Evans of the First Quorum of the Seventy noted that as part of reactivation efforts connected to the redistricting of YSA wards, members visited at least 4,600 less-active and inactive YSAs and reactivated 1,100 within the first year.[1]

It is important to note that there is significant variability in member activity rates by region, city, congregation, and gender. Some Church Education System employees have indicated that YSA member activity rates under 20% occur in many stakes within the United States. On the other hand, some YSA units appear to have moderate to high member activity rates. Church members in some areas report that as many as 75% of members on church records attend sacrament meeting regularly. However this statistic is often misleading as large numbers of inactive or semi-active YSAs continue to have their membership records assigned to ordinary family wards and branches. Some YSA congregations potentially service as many as 1,000 members if a single YSA unit services multiple stakes. YSA women are more likely to be active than their male counterparts. Many members and church leaders report that the number of active women outnumber the number of active men in nearly all YSA congregations by as many as three to one.

There are also significant differences in YSA issues in regards to the conversion and family support of YSA members in the United States and internationally. Most Latter-day Saint youth in North America remain under the wing of an active parent until age 18 when college or vocational training begins. Most YSA members were raised in the Church and have either been active their entire lives or have gone through one or more periods of inactivity. The activity status of many youth is determined by the activity status of the family or parent(s). Consequently many YSAs do not make a more definitive, independent decision to be active in the Church and self-identify as a Latter-day Saint until separation from family. To the contrary most international YSAs are converts to the Church and have few, if any, family who are members or who are active. YSAs outside the United States oftentimes make a more self-determined choice to remain active in the Church compared to their American counterparts due to the lack of LDS culture within their families. On the other hand, the lack of familial support and long-term activity in childhood and adolescence can be a risk factor for inactivity as a YSA or in middle adulthood. Logistical challenges keeping track of YSAs who move away from their home ward or branch to attend school or pursue other endeavors has exacerbated activity problems due to a disconnect between YSA church leaders and leadership in a YSA's home ward or branch. 

YSAs provide some of the greatest opportunities for Church growth both inside and outside the United States. Proselytism efforts that target YSAs are frequently more successful than those that target older and married adults as YSAs have greater adaptability to make needed life changes to live in harmony with LDS teachings. Interest in discovering a sense of self and establishing oneself in social support groups is strong in young adulthood and provides opportunities for missionaries and members to reach a more receptive demographic than married adults or children and teenagers. This adaptability frequently occurs as YSAs finish high school and transition to higher education or full-time employment. The recently developed autonomy of YSAs in many areas of the world can permit YSA converts to join the Church with comparatively few challenges from family due to single status and no legal or societal requirements from parents to change religious affiliation unlike their teenage and child counterparts. The Church has primarily focused on its proselytism of YSAs in the United States and some countries in Europe largely due to inadequate church infrastructure to maintain separate missionary programs for YSA and non-YSA members and investigators.

The October 2012 announcement lowering the mission age to 18 for men and 19 for women has excellent potential to improve member activity rates for young single adults worldwide. Church leaders and members have widely observed that there are sizable numbers of young men who commit to serve a mission upon graduation from high school but lose the desire or become engaged in prohibitive behaviors that temporary disqualify them from missionary service by the time they reach age 19. Instances of attrition for prospective missionaries appears most prominent in secular universities and colleges, particularly where there is a small LDS presence. It is possible that the Church will increase the percentage of young adult men and women who serve missions which may improve member activity rates upon returning home from missions. Missionary service does not inoculate returned missionaries from falling away from the Church and becoming inactive as church leaders express that inactive returned missionaries within their stewardship constitutes one of their greatest frustrations and disappointments. Activity rates have been historically high among returned missionaries. In 1979, the Church conducted a study of over a thousand returned missionaries and reported that 97% attended sacrament meeting at least once a month, 91% attended at least three sacrament meetings a month, 95% of married returned missionaries were married in the temple, and 89% of returned missionaries held a calling.[2] However it is unclear where this sample of returned missionaries originated (possibly just in Utah or the Intermountain West) and may not be representative for the Church for the United States or for the entire world. More recent official figures for church attendance, temple marriage, and other measures of member activity for returned missionaries are not available but have appeared to have declined since the late 1970s.

YSAs will continue to play a critical role in the growth of the Church and missionary programs as all Latter-day Saint youth eventually transition from adolescence to young adulthood and many YSAs join the Church throughout the world. Prospects appear favorable for the introduction of YSA-specific outreach in major cities in Latin America where there is sufficient local leadership to operate YSA and non-YSA units. The development of more organized and consistent YSA-specific proselytism approaches and teaching resources will be important to help curb inactivity challenges and create a self-sufficient YSA community in most countries.

[1]  Stack, Peggy Fletcher.  "Loss of members spurred LDS singles ward changes," The Salt Lake Tribute, 29 April 2011.

[2]  Card, Orson Scott.  "Survey Results Show That a Mission Makes a Big Difference," Liahona, February 1979.