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Courtesy LDS Church
More than 390,000 LDS teenagers are now participating in seminary classes like this one, an all-time high for the LDS Church's 101-year-old religious instruction program.
I have never seen this kind of focus in our seminary students than I have seen during the past eight months. Suddenly, many of these kids will be on full-time missions in just a few months. The gospel has become more real to them. —Mark Beecher

SALT LAKE CITY — Enrollment in seminary, the LDS Church’s 101-year-old religious education program for teenagers, is at an all-time high, with more than 391,000 young people participating in one of three different versions of the program in 150 nations around the world.

Statistical information from the Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Annual Report for 2013, released recently by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reveals the growing internationalism of the seminary program, with nearly half — or 186,996 — of LDS seminary’s 391,680 students living outside the United States.

While there are more seminary students in the United States — 204,684 — than in any other single nation, countries like Mexico (28,299), Brazil (22,655), Peru (17,969) and the Philippines (16,791) boast rapidly growing LDS populations — and, not coincidentally, growing numbers of seminary students. And seminary is taking hold in nations like Nigeria (3,115), Ghana (2,511) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,943), where LDS influence is relatively new.

“Seminary continues to grow internationally,” said Randall Hall, associate administrator for the seminaries and institutes of religion of the church. “The youth of the church are phenomenal. They have a desire to learn and live the gospel and are willing to sacrifice.”

That willingness to sacrifice is evident in the fact that the vast majority of LDS seminary students — 240,227 — participate in early morning religious education programs held before school in local church buildings and, sometimes, in the homes of church members. The next biggest number of students — 126,176 — participate in released-time programs, during which they are allowed to take an hour during their regular school day and go to nearby seminary buildings for religious instruction. Released-time programs exist primarily in Utah and surrounding states, where high numbers of LDS students make such programs feasible.

The remaining 25,277 seminary students participate in home study programs in areas of the world in which daily meetings with other LDS students are not possible.

Jared Jepson, a seminary and institute coordinator in Arlington, Texas, said the global growth of seminary is a natural consequence of church efforts to bring seminaries and institutes into new missionary fields as a way to strengthen new converts.

“Thus, there is a positive correlation between the overall population increase of church membership and the total enrollment of seminary students worldwide,” Jepson said.

In areas where the church is not new, there may be other factors that come into play. Mark Beecher, a 27-year veteran seminary teacher and administrator, said three come quickly to mind. First, he said, is the word “polarization.”

“Elder Neal A. Maxwell (a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles prior to his death in 2004) used to talk about the polarization of modern times,” said Beecher, who is currently principal of the seminary that serves students at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, Utah. “We’re seeing that today among our students. The middle ground is shrinking. More and more, these kids have to choose sides between what’s good and what’s bad in the world. Seminary becomes a refuge for them. They are flocking to a place where they see a lot of good, and they feel safe.”

“I go to seminary because it’s kind of like a little paradise that you can get out of school and enjoy the environment and the atmosphere,” said Chris Chen, a high school senior whose family immigrated to Utah from Taiwan four years ago. “I go to seminary so I can escape from all the stress and problems for a little bit.”

Josh Padilla, a high school junior in Manassas, Va., agrees.

“Being able to feel the spirit so strong every morning totally changes my mindset for the day,” he said. “I am more concentrated and I tend to be more kind and patient. I just feel like I have that strong spirit with me the rest of the day.”

That is usually also true for Sydney Andrews, a 16-year-old seminary student in Henderson, Nev., although she acknowledges that "sometimes I get the attitude of just going to seminary because I have to."

"But when I am there and listening to the lessons it reminds me of how much I love learning about the Savior,” Andrews said.

The second thing that came to mind for Beecher was the word “bulwark.” He referred to a 1977 talk given by then-Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, during which he said seminary programs “were started (at a time) when they were nice but were not critically needed.”

“They were granted a season to flourish and to grow into a bulwark for the church,” Elder Packer continued. “They now become a godsend for the salvation of modern Israel in a most challenging hour. We are now encircled. Our youth are in desperate jeopardy. These are the last days, foreseen by prophets in ancient times.”

And finally, Beecher said, he sees the LDS young people today “responding to a call from a prophet.”

“They are coming to seminary with greater focus,” he said, referring to the attitude of his students since last October’s announcement by President Thomas S. Monson reducing the minimum age for full-time missionary service.

“I have never seen this kind of focus in our seminary students than I have seen during the past eight months,” Beecher said. “Suddenly, many of these kids will be on full-time missions in just a few months. The gospel has become more real to them.”

“I think the new age for missionaries definitely affects how serious I am about seminary," said Andrews, a high school sophomore. "It makes me want to listen closer and try to get the most out of it while I can."

Padilla said that since President Monson’s announcement he “definitely feels the greater need and obligation to not only go to seminary but to also participate in the scripture searches and in-depth discussions to be sure I’m getting the full understanding of what is being taught.”

Chen, who is planning on going on a mission soon after he graduates from high school this spring, said he is “more interactive with my teacher and my class.”

“I ask more questions about things I don’t understand,” Chen said, “and I have more motivation to go to class.”

Jepson said seminary teachers in Texas are reporting “those who are attending are taking things more seriously and that there is a greater sense of urgency.”

Hall said that while “the number of youth who enrolled in seminary because of the recent announcement would be quite small … what the announcement did do was create excitement and more focused study by our current students.”

And that, Hall said, is significant because LDS youths “have great faith” — a notion that is supported by national studies indicating Mormon youths are “more knowledgeable about their faith, more committed to their faith and have more positive social outcomes associated with their faith.”

In her book, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” Kenda Creasy Dean, associate professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, says, “Mormon teenagers tend to be the ‘spiritual athletes’ of their generation, conditioning for an eternal goal with an intensity that requires sacrifice, discipline and energy.”

Padilla, who just turned 17, acknowledges that attending early morning seminary classes before school requires all three of those characteristics: sacrifice, discipline and energy. But, he says, “I honestly go to seminary because I know it's what my Father in Heaven wants me to do, and it makes my day complete.”

Besides, he adds, “I know that my Father in heaven loves me. Why else would he have given such a blessed life?”

“Spiritual athletes” like Padilla, Andrews and Chen are part of the reason Halls says “this truly is a generation being raised up at this important time.”

And for more Mormon teenagers than ever before, seminary is helping in raising them up.