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By study and faith: How LDS institutes provide intellectual answers for 'doubting' millennials

In any given semester, the number of students in Jared Halverson’s Institute classes ranges from 7 to 800.
In any given semester, the number of students in Jared Halverson’s Institute classes ranges from 7 to 800.
Courtesy of Jared Halverson

Hundreds of students pass through the Salt Lake University Institute of Religion each day and frequently they do so without the bribe of free food.

These students come hungering for knowledge.

In the information age, answers should be easily accessible to the millennials, but when it comes to faith the generation is labeled as less religious.

“You read a lot in the press and people are talking a lot about the millennials and then describing them in a way of being more doubting or in many ways being away from the ideal we might have,” said President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency in a recent press conference. “While there’s lots of talk about the terrible problem of millennials I go across the church and meet our missionaries and I’m telling you … there’s a power coming in this ‘millennial generation’ that is in fact remarkable and greater faith than I can remember.”

That greater faith doesn’t mean the millennials don’t face questions. Jared Halverson, the assistant director at the Salt Lake University Institute of Religion, knows the questions his students face and his goal is to create a place where those questions can be answered.

“We live in an information age and there is a low threshold for ignorance where you can always Google something or ask Siri,” Halverson said. “We have so many ways to have our questions answered; whether they’re accurate or the kinds of answers we need is another question. To come to a place like an institute — I’m free to ask the questions that I have and they’re not going to scare anyone or unsettle anyone. They are the honest questions that I can’t find good answers for — they can come to receive those.”

In November, President Dallin H. Oaks, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, participated in a Face to Face event broadcasted from the Logan Utah Institute of Religion and emphasized the leadership’s desire to focus on institute.

“One of the things we want to do in the leadership of the church is to increase the enrollment and the attendance at institutes,” President Oaks said.

In any given semester, the number of students in Halverson’s classes ranges from 7 to 800. Giving students individual attention sometimes seems difficult, but Halverson takes the first step to engage his students by sending each student a text after they attend their first class. He welcomes office visits, phone calls, texts, emails, friend requests and direct messages.

“One of my highest priorities since coming to the U has been opening the channels of communication with students,” Halverson said. “Questions are welcome and nothing is off the table so to speak.”

He devoted his own education to the cause.

“I have always felt that I could be more useful to God and his kingdom if I learned and I studied and even if I had credentials — that way other people would take the message of the restored gospel more seriously,” Halverson said.

He majored in history at BYU and used his free credits to take any type of course that would benefit his learning of religion, like taking Hebrew classes or a The Bible As Literature course. He then continued on to get his master’s in religious education. Then he moved to Tennessee where he worked on a second master's in American religious history and then attended divinity school. Halverson’s current field of study for his doctorate is the rhetoric of religious polemic.

When Halverson got the assignment to go to the University of Utah's institute, he first told his wife.

“She laughed and said, ‘Honey, you study intellectual anti-Mormonism and you get to go to the epicenter,” Halverson recalled. “Studying secularization primarily, not just academic anti-Mormonism, but studying secularization in the face of faith, in some ways there’s no better place than Salt Lake. Some of the engines for secularization include government and this is the state capital; urbanization, and this is the largest city in the state; education and this is the flagship university in the state. Then you drop Church Headquarters into the midst of that and how can you not have the kinds of challenges between secularism and faith that you see in this kind of an area.”

The father of five commutes from his home in Cedar Hills to the University of Utah. He relishes the opportunity to take public transportation as he uses the two hours of commuting each day to read a book with the goal of reading a book each week. If his students have read a book or an article that has troubled them, he reads it so he can understand their perspective.

He hopes to be able to guide his students as they resolve their doubts, but more importantly, he hopes to help them develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“If I can point students to the scriptures, that’s far more powerful than I am,” Halverson said. “If I can point them to the Savior who will carry them through their lives, if those things happen during a semester, then I’ve done my job.”

Halverson knows that knowledge comes by study and by faith, and he hopes to build his students’ faith in Christ.

“A verse that always motivates me is in Luke 18 Verse 8 when the Savior asks, ‘When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?’ One of my greatest goals is to make sure that is answered with a resounding, ‘Yes.’”