Christopher Naylor, a 22-year-old student originally from Dana Point, Calif., attended the Mission Viejo Institute before transferring to Brigham Young University a year ago. The weekly devotional experience, of course, is a little different between the two. At BYU, the weekly devotionals are in the 22,700-seat Marriott Center and other classes aren't scheduled the devotional.
He especially liked the smaller atmosphere at Mission Viejo.
“There was a lot more camaraderie there,” he said, describing how lots of friendships made at institute activities were maintained outside of institute. “Institute really is kind of a binding thing.”
Gardner and Greiner related missionary opportunities provided through devotionals and accompanying socials.
“Our devotional serves as a great missionary tool. People invite their friends to the devotional and stay for lunch,” Gardner said of the program in Tucson. “So our devotional sometimes is one of the first introductions to the church for some college-aged students.”
Greiner said they had 19 baptisms last year thanks to contact through devotionals, lunches and socials at the Mission Viejo Institute.
Naylor, Hall, Greiner, Gardner and Janson all agree that the social aspect of institute devotionals is perhaps even more important at smaller institutes in areas with fewer members.
But Fabiola Chavarria, a 21-year-old student at the Gainesville Institute in Florida thinks a little differently. She compared her devotional experience to that of her sister’s at Southern Virginia University, where it seems everybody goes to the devotional.
“I feel like since it is a smaller number, lots of people don’t really come for the social aspect,” she said. “If it’s a bigger group, they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s going to be lots of people there,” and they’ll be more encouraged to come. But if there’s only like 10 people coming they’re going to have to come because of a testimony of the actual devotional.”
Regardless, she finds that the more laid-back atmosphere of institute devotionals and social gathering provides a perfect opportunity to invite friends who aren't members of the LDS Church.
Most paramount in the tradition of the devotionals is the speakers.
Chavarria and Naylor believe that’s where smaller institutes have a bit of an advantage.
“If it’s a really big class, you kind of feel lost in the crowd,” Chavarria said. “But since it’s a small group, you feel like more of a family and you can get a lot more from it, I feel.”
It turns into more of a discussion rather than just listening to a speaker, she said.
“I think on the smaller level that the speakers are a lot more personable. A lot of people know them personally so it makes their words a lot more powerful,” Naylor said. “The devotional is a lot more influential, it really hits home.”
Institutes like the ones in Gainesville, Tucson and Mission Viejo turn to more local members and local leadership. Stake presidents, bishops — Janson’s institute even invites returned missionaries to speak — they get a variety on the “small scale.”
“Because we’re far away from church headquarters, we don’t have the opportunity to have church leaders come,” Gardner said. “But we do have wonderful, faithful members of the church that have great stories to tell that strengthen our resolve to keep the commandments.”
Gardner and Janson alternate live speakers with videos of BYU devotionals and CES firesides to give their students a chance to hear from general authorities and other church leadership.
“That provides our young people to be touched by the spirit that, obviously, the brethren communicate,” Gardner said. “They just love it, whether it’s a live speaker, a local member or whether it’s even a video recording.”
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