The highly successful Provo YSA 16th stake once used full meals to get people to show up Wednesday nights, but even when the food offerings decreased, attendance didn’t.
Institute is essentially an LDS Sunday school class on Wednesday nights, with snacks and socializing after. Attendance here peaked at 800 when Dave Rose, BYU basketball coach came to speak a few weeks ago, but average attendance is still 400-450 people, according to Jeff Smith, second counselor in the stake presidency.
Smith is charge of the stake institute program, and he traces the current success to a lesson he learned in a previous stake as a high councilor while his wife, Karen, was the Relief Society president and only 30-40 people were attending Institute.
A nearby stake president whose Institute had high attendance said that he thought two things that helped were serving meals and having members of the stake teach the lessons instead of bringing in retired professors and the like.
“And so we in the 18th stake said, Okay, we’re going to start providing meals,” Smith said.
Karen Smith organized baked potato bars, pizza nights, lasagna, and other huge meals.
“A wedding every week,” she said.
The tactic worked, and attendance quadrupled, according to the Smiths, and Jeff carried the lesson with him when he was called as a second counselor in the 16th stake.
His new stake shared space for Institute at the Jesse Knight building at BYU with another stake. One night a food fight broke out and both stakes were banned from the building. After assuring BYU administration it was the second stake’s fault, Smith group was allowed to keep meeting at the JKB, but they couldn’t have any food that might stain the carpets.
“So the meals went out the window,” Smith said. “But an amazing thing happened: attendance didn’t go down.”
Now they meet in the multi-stake building on 900 East, but haven’t felt the need to expand snacks far beyond cookies or occasionally pizza. And Smith has heard that theirs isn’t the only local stake with 300+ people at Institute.
“Frankly, it probably did start by offering food, but once people came and realized [all of] what was being offered, it wasn’t the food that kept them coming.
One of those 400 attendees is Tyler Jones*, who moved into the stake a couple weeks ago. He attends Institute for the spiritual benefits of studying the scriptures and having gospel discussions with other people, and also for the social aspect of it.
“[At] the place I just moved into [it] has turned out to be a lot harder than I expected to get to know people. So surprisingly, coming to Institute has actually been one of the few times that I see anybody from my ward and can actually get to know people more,” Jones said.
“Plus I can meet other people, you know…someone to become friends with or to ask on a date,” Jones said.
In previous years he attended another good-sized Institute program, but when he moved to North Orem he found himself at a small one, ranging from 10-30 attendees.
“And then the [local] stakes decided to combine and consolidate, and then it was quite a bit bigger, but it still wasn’t as big as this one,” Jones said. “They just have a lot of people here. They fill the chapel for one class, and they have three or four other classes. There’s a lot of people here.”
*Disclosure: Tyler and I have been friends for a few years. I’m also friends with the three people featured in the slideshow.