“Membership Required” is a restriction that I have never seen on a house of worship. (Well, except for Mormon temples, which don’t say that on the outside but do on the inside.)
LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinkley has said “bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.” (lds.org)
This is a long way of saying: Visitors Welcome. And, it implies that visitors bring something from their own experience that is valuable and may be enriching to the Mormon experience.
In spite of ubiquitous Visitors Welcome signs, Churches can be intimidating places because they are inherently communal. A tight community of people leads to cultural expectations and practices outside of formal doctrine and policy. Someone that enters our worship space is often easily identified, not by a visitor badge, but by subtleties in how they dress or act.
So, in spite of Visitors Welcome, any conscious person knows that a church environment is not especially welcoming for the newcomer. As we enter the doors of a new church, there is considerable apprehension as to what awaits. Most visitors will want a low key experience as they infringe on another’s sacred space. Some congregations will handle visitors well, others may not.
From the Audience: “So, where are you going with this?”
There is another perspective to “Visitors Welcome” that is seldom explored.
Visitors Welcome also implies an outflow, others leaving their previous space and exploring yours.
Hinkley’s statement also expresses our understanding that there are spiritual truths and religious perspectives that can add to our own.
Mormons believe that truth is found everywhere and it is our individual responsibility to learn “truth” where ever it may be. We are instructed to “seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118, D&C 109:7)
This mandate extends beyond spiritual matters:
“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” (D&C 88:78-79)
We can take this mandate to “seek diligently” passively or actively.
What can we learn for the faith and practices of other religions that may enlighten our own experience? What do other Christians do well that would enhance the Mormon Christian experience?
These were questions I had in mind while visiting three different Churches on a recent Sunday, New Life Fellowship, St John’s Episcopal Church, and Cache Valley Bible Fellowship. I finished up by attended an LDS sacrament meeting with my son at his single adult ward. It was a fascinating experience.
My little church hopping experience was unplanned and rushed, but I wanted to share a few observations.
First, New Life Fellowship. I arrived at 10 am and did not want to wait for the 11 am service. But I spent a few minutes looking around.
The building is only 4 or 5 years old. The environment is very comfortable and welcoming. The entry opens into an eating area with tables and chairs. The welcome aroma of food made me want to sit and listen to the musicians practicing in the adjacent chapel.
One thing that I did notice was that they take their child care very seriously. A register, name badge printer, and electronic notification pucks are part of the process for leaving their kids in the care of church volunteers.
Wanting to use my Sunday morning efficiently, I next rode my bike to St John’s Episcopal Church. We attended Christmas Mass at St. John’s last year. It is an amazing church, absolutely beautiful. This was my first time attending a regular Sunday service. The liturgy is a bit more formal than Prince of Peace Lutheran. It was interesting how the formality melded into an informal announcement period during which several members explained the activities for which they were responsible.
Unfortunately, I arrived late to the service and left early because my intent for the morning was to attend Cache Valley Bible Fellowship (CVBF), which is quite near our home.
Like many small churches, CVBF uses a converted commercial space. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the atmosphere they created. You are greeted by a large open room with an information desk, lounge, and food serving area.
Having arrived just before the worship service started, there a lot of people conversing, enjoying some coffee and donuts, and preparing an after-service potluck meal. As the musicians started the service, people casually wandered in over about 20 minutes. The liturgy was a bit more formal than the loud music of Alpine church, but not nearly as formal as Prince of Peace.
I ducked out of the service early in order to attend church with my son.
There are some commonalities and good practices that I observed on my little whirlwind tour. Pardon me while I present them in contrast to my LDS experience.
- Meditative space. Modern LDS church buildings are constructed for comfortable efficiency. As such, they do not evoke a pleasant, meditative mood. St. John’s, New Life, and to a lesser extent, CVBF all had a comfortable feel. St. John’s is especially intriguing for me.
- Food. All of the congregations that I have attended over the last two years have served food after the service. Whether just coffee and pastries, soup and bread, or a full meal, they all had time for socializing after the service.
- Short sermons and scripture focused. Formal liturgies of the Lutheran and Episcopal church include several scripture recitations, music and hymns, and a 10 to 15 minute sermon followed by communion. CVFB and Alpine worship consists of a series of congregation sing-alongs and a sermon.
The sermons are relatively short compared to the multiple speakers in an LDS meeting. The simple messages allow you to walk away with a new thought to ponder without being overwhelmed with multiple speakers.
- Casual dress. A few people in St. John’s wore ties and dresses, but mostly, people were there by choice in the clothing that they felt comfortable wearing. This come-as-your-are expectation is less imposing than an LDS meeting may be for someone who is visiting.
Attending the LDS sacrament meeting with my son was an intriguing contrast.
From the Audience (With sarcasm.): “So, if you liked all these other churches, why don’t you just go off and join one of them.”
Beauty doesn’t have to be exclusive. I can have holy envy for the sacred practices and perspectives of another faith tradition without abandoning my own and I would hope that they would feel the same about mine.
The question is: What do these churches do well that we could emulate?
We can’t do much about meditative space. Many of us are stuck with a business-like atmosphere* of the modern LDS buildings. But, we can apply the other three lessons.
Combined with the member ministering concept, the move to a shorter meeting schedule in 2019 has the potential to allow for more non-correlated activities, such as scripture discussion groups and refreshments after regular meetings.
Regarding sacrament meeting programming, members that are asked to speak are often give conference talks as the basis for their Sunday sermon assignments. This leads to speakers talking about talks rather than addressing the subject directly. I often wonder if using scriptural passages as the basis for an assigned topic might lead to more direct engagement with the gospel message.
Lastly, a casual dress code** may be very helpful at creating a more open, understanding, and diverse experience.
* Mormon church buildings are austere and not particularly conducive to meditation and casual social interaction. Relief Society rooms are about as good as it gets. Plastic tables and folding chairs are functional but not particularly inviting gathering places.
** To my knowledge, neither Christ nor Handbook I or II require a particular mode of dress in order to worship. (Although Christ did specify clothing for his apostles. (See Mark 6:8-9 and Matt 10:10.) Prior to being called into the stake presidency, a former ward member typically wore cargo pants to church, so atypical clothing might not be good calling repellent. If you are concerned about modesty, women in pants might be better than short dresses.