There are more than 2,500 Institutes of Religion in the Church Education System in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving more than 350,000 students.
Through institutes, college students are able to add a variety of religious courses to their education. The majority of institutes have some kind of weekly devotional program, said Randall Hall, assistant administrator for seminaries and institutes in the CES.
Some may not have a devotional, depending on the needs of students in the area, but those who do run a devotional program see many benefits both socially and spiritually, he said.
“For many, many years, it’s been a very important part of the institute program."
While there is a formal process for approval of speakers, devotionals vary greatly from institute to institute, Hall explained.
Wayne Dymock, director of the Logan Utah Institute of Religion, runs a program with an enrollment hovering around 6,000 to 7,000 students each year — the largest in the CES. The devotional, their Religion in Life series, brings anywhere from 900 to 1,200 students to the institute’s gymnasium every Friday.
There’s a committee to set up chairs every Thursday night, plus a tech crew, a committee for musical numbers and a group of faculty for ushering.
“It’s a lot to set up, but once it gets going, everybody doing their part, it really flows very smoothly,” he said. “It’s just a big event each week.”
Darrell Janson, director of the Gainesville Florida Institute of Religion, sees a bit of a different turnout. The institute there has only about 100 to 200 students any given semester, he said. The Friday devotionals see about 16 to 20 students.
He described the experience: a senior missionary couple, who help with planning too, usually make a lunch for the students.
“They are just sitting there and relaxing and eating while they listen,” he said.
Institute devotionals not only vary in size but also in traditions.
Food is an important one for the starving college students, many directors said.
“If you feed them, they will come,” Janson said. “I know that’s not the only reason they come, but it does help. I mean, they enjoy that.”
At the Gainesville Institute especially, he explained, the institute becomes a “home away from home” for many students and meals can add to that.
In large institutes like the Logan Institute, full meals just aren’t realistic. The institute tries to provide small refreshments like donuts or hot chocolate a couple of times a semester, Dymock said. They’ve tried meal programs before but have opted for simplicity.
“We just felt like maybe we could use our funding in other ways to benefit the students.”
Important too are the social traditions.
“That is the social event of the week,” said Norman Gardner, director of the Tucson Arizona Institute of Religion, which has about 500 students enrolled and around 125 students at each weekly devotional. He described how many of his students are often the only Mormons in their college classes.
“The devotional is an important place to connect, to gather together with others that share your values,” he said.
Russell Greiner, director of the Mission Viejo California Institute of Religion, with an enrollment of 800 to 900 students, discussed how friendships and even marriages come from devotionals and other institute activities.
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.”
In Mission Viejo, Greiner initiated a quarterly multi-institute fireside, inviting well-known speakers like Deseret Book CEO Sheri L. Dew, BYU associate professor Brad Wilcox and Elder Gene R. Cook, an emeritus general authority.
“What I try to do is create a BYU-type experience for the young single adults that live here and don’t go to a church school — that they can get together in mass and hear the greatest speakers of the church address them,” he said.
Hall explained that local speakers simply need to be approved by area institute directors. If they bring in a speaker from outside their area, approval must come from Hall’s office.
Larger Utah institutes, even with their easier access to "big names" in church speaking, like to invite local speakers too.
The Logan Institute often brings in faithful members who simply have a good story to tell, Dymock said.
“They (the students) love the stories. They can relate well with them. And these are real people and real stories, and real experiences of how the gospel’s been important in their lives. Our kids enjoy it.”
Some institutes even bring in speakers who are not members. Gardner related bringing the then-president of the University of Arizona, Robert Shelton, to speak to his students a few years ago — a neat experience for the speaker and listeners, he said.
Greiner detailed a Vocational Mentor Series they do as part of the devotionals at Mission Viejo, where they bring in a speaker — member or non-member — who has had success in their field.
“You know, these are college students, and they’re preparing for their life’s work and their career,” he said. “It’s very motivating to see the experts in their field and it’s really been a blessing to our young people. They really like it.”
No matter the speaker or particular focus of the activity, both Naylor and Chavarria feel that devotionals enhance their overall experience as students.
“It helps you think about education in a greater sense, in a more expanded perspective. It helps you remember kind of a little of what your purpose is here, it also reminds you of what your responsibilities are at present or in the future,” Naylor said.
It enhances the institute experience and all religious learning for Chavarria. They get to discuss things and apply in ways they just don’t get if they do church services only, she said.
“I mean going to church is awesome, that’s like the main point, but especially when I go to school and work, it’s that extra lift and strength I need throughout the week. I feel such a peace. I feel better when I go — like my week is different when I don’t go.”
Chavarria, Naylor and the institute directors all agree that the main purpose of devotionals, be they speeches or fun activities, should be to increase gospel understanding and testimony.
Naylor, in comparing his Mission Viejo and BYU experiences, said that aside from basic differences in turnout, schedule, tradition and speakers, the experience is ultimately similar.
“I don’t think really there’s a difference in feeling the spirit. It’s always the same spirit.”
And that’s really the whole point of devotionals, Gardner said.
“It’s helping to create a routine that provides students an opportunity to connect during the weekday with things that matter most: things of the Spirit.”
To learn more about area institutes and devotionals they provide, visit institute.lds.org. At Brigham Young University schools in Provo, Idaho and Hawaii, required religion classes take the place of an institute program. They do, however, have weekly devotionals. To search past BYU devotionals and firesides, visit speeches.byu.edu.