I took a unique approach today, after talking with my wife about what was going to happen in YW. (My wife is the Personal Progress Leader, and the entire presidency was gone today, so she arranged the lesson.) The topic for the month is "Marriage and Family", and since our daughter just returned from her mission in Germany, my wife asked her to talk with the girls during the third hour about how marriage and family is different in Germany and what she learned about those topics from her mission. I thought that would be an excellent lesson for the boys, as well, so the girls in my class joined the next younger class and left just the boys in my class (since the girls were going to hear from her the next hour, anyway).
Sarah started by mentioning that she had thought a lot about how to address the topic, since she had been bored stiff when she was their age by lessons about marriage and family. She said she always thought:
"I'm 14 (or 16). I don't care about this topic right now, especially since I've heard about a thousand lessons in my life about it."
That got a nod and laugh from everyone.
She then spent the time talking about how the German people, generally, and the German members view marriage and family - and she shared some specific examples of people and families with whom she had interacted on her mission. There is no way I can remember and record everything she said, and much of this summary has to be generalized more than when she said it, so I am going to focus on four things that were particularly striking to me:
1) She said that Germans value family, but they tend to cut off family members entirely who do anything that is against the family wishes - even some things we would view as trivial, but especially "bigger"things, including joining the LDS Church. (One example she used is a woman in one ward whose aunt refuses to acknowledge the woman's presence when they are riding the same bus.) The fascinating result of that tendency is that members of the Church tend to go to the other extreme when they embrace the importance of family - meaning they try hard to not let ANYTHING separate them from their kids, even leaving the Church or not living standards the members view as extremely important.
She said it is very common in the wards where she served to have visiting family members who are not church members attend meetings on Sunday, even if those visitors have left the Church entirely and had their names removed from the records - that they aren't there to support the Church but rather to be with family. She said, essentially, that it's easy to see how strongly people REALLY believe in family by how they treat family members who disappoint them in some way - and there was an amazing spirit that was almost tangible when she was talking about that.
I wish everyone in the Church who badgers, hounds, judges, dismisses, rejects or in any other way mistreats family who struggle or leave could have been in the room to listen to that part, especially.
2) She said that Germans tend to be very loyal and are very committed to keeping their word - and that causes surprising issues with marriage. She said that the default in Germany is for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together, starting often as early as 16. She said they live together until they split up and simply move in with their new boy/girlfriend. Apparently, Germany has a VERY high divorce rate and a VERY low marriage rate - with the underlying assumption / belief that it's no big deal to be with whomever you "love" at the moment and then move on to the next person - and the next person - and the next person . . . She isn't sure which came first - the casual non-marriage attitude or cynicism caused by the high divorce rate, but she said the general attitude among the younger generations is:
"Why get married? It never lasts, anyway, so why bother with a ceremony and promises I'm not going to keep?"
They are devoted deeply to honesty and loyalty, but they are so jaded by such a long history of failed marriages being the norm that they have given up trying in order not to break what they see as impossible promises. This is such an assumed given by now that the people she met generally were okay with the Word of Wisdom (at least, that Mormons would accept it, even if they couldn't) and tithing (since all the churches collect money in some way from their members) - but the vast majority of people simply couldn't understand the concepts of the Law of Chastity, lifelong monogamy and eternal marriage. Again, however, when it did "click" for someone who then embraced it, it became an incredibly important, powerful part of their life - to such an extent that they would NEVER accept disowning or hounding their family members into adversarial relationships.
3) She talked about how that same attitude leaks into how the members interact with each other and those who are investigating the Church - their "extended family". Over half of the members in each unit where she served (often well over half) did not have the traditional family structure, so they saw the Church's teachings about the family as an ideal toward which they could strive in their own unique situations and which they could try to initiate for their own children - to break the cultural cycle of their own lives. They never beat themselves up over not being in the "ideal" situation; rather, they focused on having as close to an ideal "church family" as possible by accepting everyone who entered the church building as "family" and doing anything possible to make them feel loved, no matter their personal life situation.
This is the daughter who told me after her first temple trip that we work so hard to build the kingdom of God on Earth that we often forget to establish Zion, so it was especially touching to hear her describe a church experience that, while obviously not perfect, shows how it is possible to establish Zion if people are really committed to it.
4) She said that the missionaries who were the most successful working with investigators and inactive/less-active members were the ones who accepted each person and worked with them individually in whatever way honored their individual agency and showed real respect.
As an example, two Elders had taught a nine-year-old boy whose mom was active (having left the Church officially but being rebaptized about ten years ago) but whose father had requested his name be removed from the records and never rejoined. His mother wanted the boy to be baptized, but his father wouldn't give permission. The Elders taught the boy all of the lessons in about two weeks and then tried to convince the father to change his mind. To say it mildly, it didn't work.
Sarah and her companion started teaching the boy the lessons when they replaced the Elders in the ward and quickly were told about his father's opposition. Given the situation, they taught the boy about once a month and spent more time serving the family in whatever way they could - and praying every day that the father would change his mind and allow the baptism. After finishing all of the lessons, they told the father that they were done teaching the boy, that they believed he was ready to be baptized whenever the father decided it was the right time and thanked him for letting them teach his son. They continued to pray daily for the boy and his father, stopped teaching the boy and continued to serve the family as they had been.
Shortly after Sarah transferred from the area, the boy's aunt called her and told her that the father had been so impressed by the simple respect the sister missionaries had shown him as the boy's father that he had told his wife, completely out of the blue, that he would give his permission for the baptism. Less than two hours later, someone from the Area Presidency office called the mother to let her know that they wanted to schedule an interview to renew her temple covenants - not knowing her husband had just given his permission for their son to be baptized. Sarah said it was her favorite experience of her entire mission - that praying so intently for so long for the family had helped her love them (non-biological family) in a way she hadn't realized was possible previously. She said it helped her understand better how the German members felt about "extended church family" being real family - how powerful the concept of "sealing" can be when it is seen as communal and not just about biological families.
Finally, she served about 2/3 of her mission (about a year) in what used to be East Germany. As a humorous but touching aside, she said that EVERY German member who had been in the Church for at least two generations knows Thomas Monson personally and absolutely adores him - personally but also for getting the temple built in Freiberg, which was a lifeline and indescribable strength during their decades of isolation. For example, there was a Bishop in one ward whose sister is the young girl President Monson has mentioned giving special candy to when he was visiting Berlin on one trip. They still call him "Elder Monson" in stead of "President Monson" and say:
"We know he is the Church President, but he is and always will be our Elder Monson."
It was a wonderful lesson, and I really wish more people could have heard it - but I am quite certain it made an impact on the youth who were there.