In 1997, the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” spread like wildfire among Christian singles. Authored by Joshua Harris, a young man disenchanted with secular dating norms, the book encouraged young people to avoid dating with warnings about the heartbreak that could be involved. 

Most Americans, it turns out, didn’t need much encouragement to ditch dating. Over the last 25 years, dating has gone from an expected norm to a rare exception in many communities.

By many measures, this has accelerated since smartphones became widespread in 2012-2013. A Pew Research survey conducted in October 2019 found nearly half of U.S. adults — and a majority of women — reporting that dating had become harder in the last 10 years. Another 2022 Pew Research Center survey found most singles perceive dating as more difficult than before the pandemic — with 57% of singles surveyed reporting they are not currently looking to date or be in a romantic relationship.

Julia Carter, a U.K. sociologist who researches romantic relationships, also remarked last year on the extent to which dating has become “much more privatized,” thanks to dating apps, where “people tend to be sitting in their rooms on their own flicking through profiles.”

In the hyperdigital immersion of today’s society, in-person interaction for many has come to feel anything but natural. “Oh no, I would never go out for dinner with anyone. It’s just so intense and awkward,” said Sasha in a Guardian article last year. Rachel agreed, “You just don’t want to invest in that. Not just the money, but the time as well.”

BYU–Idaho students gather in the Student Center for ice cream as part of the CES Date Night held in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 31, 2024. | Mike Lewis, BYU–Idaho

Some of these same concerns have animated recent efforts by the Church Educational System of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to spark face-to-face social interaction among young adults, including dating. “We have so many young people now who are more connected than ever on Instagram, but they don’t talk to people in real life,” said Elder Clark G. Gilbert, church commissioner of education, in a new Church News interview.

Elder Gilbert described receiving letters from parents stating, “My daughter has been at such and such a university, and hasn’t been on a date for two years.” Other letters say “my son stays up with his roommates gaming all night.”

To provide an extra nudge, leaders at each of the CES institutions — Brigham Young University, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, Ensign College, and even BYU-Pathway Worldwide and more than a dozen Institutes of Religion in the U.S. — were asked to host a mass date activity in January, tailored to the needs of students at each campus. 

A couple smiles for a photo during the CES Date Night hosted by Ensign College on Jan. 31, 2024. | Ensign College

The aim, Elder Gilbert said, was to help students in “loving” and “low stakes ways,” to “get back in the game and ask someone out.” 

“This wasn’t just a response to societal trends, though they are significant,” Elder Gilbert told the Deseret News, “this was a response to prophetic encouragement.”

Stake presidents in young single adult, or YSA, congregations have orchestrated similar events at a smaller scale for many years. President Wayne Dymock, who presided over the Logan YSA 7th Stake, told the Deseret News about encouraging stake members to bring someone to a formally scheduled date night. “You get a date, have someone set you up on a blind date, or I’ll get you a date.”

“We want you to come, have fun, get to know each other, relax and enjoy dating,” he recalls telling the men and women in the stake.

The recent CES events have scaled these efforts considerably. In the span of a week, an estimated 20,000 young people gathered at these massive date events with the largest being held at at BYU-Idaho with nearly 7,000 students.

Couples gather on the BYU–Hawaii campus for the CES Date Night held in Laie, Hawaii, on Jan. 31, 2024. | Monique Saenz, BYU–Hawaii

Organizers at the Utah Valley Institute of Religion in Orem, Utah, felt strongly about requiring all of the 800-900 people in attendance to show up with a date. “This really stretched many students who said they had not been on a date in months,” said Institute Director Sean Dixon. “It was evident, after watching students feel nervous about getting dates, how much this event was needed.”

One student at BYU-I described how his entire family home evening group, who don’t usually go on dates, all got together to get dates for the event. Although admitting initially feeling a bit nervous about trying to host a date night for her smaller group of students, Ashley Parkinson, Institute Director in Columbia, Missouri, spoke appreciatively how “each one did their best to come with a date” to a night of conversation, games and a “fancy dinner,” even if it stretched them.

As reported by Rachel Sterzer Gibson with the Church News, Parkinson finished the night with a message from President Dallin Oaks and her own testimony — sending students out the door with a handout listing inexpensive date ideas and conversation starters, along with a voucher for a local cookie shop to use for a future date.

Alongside a wide variety of activities — from dancing and karaoke to pickleball and board games — there was plenty of free food at these massive date nights. That included 5,000 hot dogs served at BYU, 4,700 servings of ice cream at BYU–Idaho (running out in the first 15 minutes) and 550 taco salads at the Utah Valley Institute of Religion, which stretched to feed closer to 700 people. 

Students roast s’mores at fire pits on Brigham Square in Provo, Utah, as part of the CES Date Night on Jan. 31, 2024. | Rebeca Fuentes, BYU

The campus date night “by far exceeded our expectations,” said Allen Jones, BYU-Idaho managing director of student activities. “Every activity was full and bursting at the seams.” Brent Fillmore, an instructor at the Logan Institute of Religion, said turnout also surpassed expectations: “The many couples who attended this monumental event seemed to leave feeling lighter and inspired.”

Students pose at a photo booth during the CES Date Night hosted by BYU–Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho, on Jan. 31, 2024. | Mike Lewis, BYU–Idaho

Underscoring the why. While only a subset of attendees will have a marriage directly sparked through events like this, there are additional benefits to these activities in a day when 18-25 year-olds are the loneliest segment of the US population.

It’s clear event organizers have their eye on something more long-term as well, namely, the cultivation of what Virginia professor Brad Wilcox calls the “marriage mindset.”

Accompanying the various activities, many of the organizers integrated uplifting religious messages about marriage and embracing one’s divine identity. At BYU–Pathway Worldwide, President Brian K. Ashton and Sister Melinda Ashton touched on various dating and marriage questions in a broadcast titled “Nurturing Eternal Relationships,”

In the Church News interview, Elder Gilbert pointed to remarks to young adults by President Russell Nelson in 2022 about identity and by President Dallin Oaks in 2023 about dating and the doctrinal significance of marriage as the true impetus for these events.

“Gather your courage and look for someone to pair off with,” President Oaks shared from earlier teaching he gave to encourage young men. “Start with a variety of dates ... and when that phase yields a good prospect, proceed to courtship. It’s marriage time. That is what the Lord intends for His young adult sons and daughters.”

Sister Kristen Oaks then described her own long wait for marriage, and the “longing and heartache and tears on my pillow that often accompanied it.” But she witnessed of the Lord’s love for those waiting on a cherished dream, citing Sister Michelle D. Craig who said, “Trials do not mean the plan is failing.” She also channeled scriptural encouragement to be “calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come.”

After blessing an audience of young men and women to “know the truth about who you are” and “what your glorious potential really is,” President Nelson promised them “spiritual growth, freedom from fear, and a confidence that you can scarcely imagine now” along with reassurance that their future would be “more exhilarating than anything you can presently believe.”

“Inside of the Church Educational System,” Elder Gilbert said. “We don’t make up what our priorities are, we look to prophets, seers, and revelators.”

More important than the number of activities and attendees, Elder Gilbert said, was “teaching principles of the proclamation, principles of the family, and amplifying a message from a prophet, seer and revelator.”

“This isn’t a silver bullet,” he acknowledged, in reference to the CES date night events. But he expressed hope that, despite strong societal trends in the opposite direction, these efforts can be a catalyst to re-instill a positive dating culture that will get people away from screens and help them connect together often as fellow Christian disciples.

Rachel Sterzer Gibson contributed to this reporting.