The Cookie-Cutter LDS Meetinghouse Is A Design Triumph
Think for a moment on the average Sunday meetinghouse of the LDS church. Yes, those things. The standard hallway track around a “cultural hall” and chapel, with scratchy walls and a steeple added circa 2000.
Sure there are historical chapels and tabernacles that are definitely more pleasing to the eye, and feature more historically “house of worship” elements like stained glass and fancy woodwork. But there’s a reason I love the humble (read: drab) run-of-the-mill, cookie cutter Sunday meetinghouse of the Mormon variety. I’d even call it a design triumph for multi-use facilities.
My affection for said meeting house came in an epiphany I had while I was out walking with my son in his stroller. As we often do, we cut through the parking lot of our ward building nearby. I looked at the various cars there. Maybe some were there for meetings, or interviews. Others were there for activities and sports. Still others were there fulfilling their callings in various ways, or taking advantage of the handful of events that seemed to be going on.
At least that’s what likely could have been happening, really at any church building on any given day. And then it dawned on me about as fast as the punchline dawned on the Sloth’s face in Zootopia. I eventually realized that the beehive of activity at any given church building on any given day is pretty remarkable.
I got to thinking: I live in Mormon Mayberry with a side of Saintly Stepford, so there are a lot of Mormons and a lot of churches. I considered Sundays. Three wards meet in my building. Three wards of at least 500 people each. That’s 1,500 people who use this building as their worship space once a week to express their devotion to God, come together in a show of communal faith, and partake of the symbols and sacraments that dedicate in public display, their lives to the cause of Christ. That alone is a pretty impressive use of a neighborhood community structure.
My thoughts followed toward other ways these buildings are used. I admit that in my neighborhoods here in Utah, or Arizona where I grew up, where so many LDS church buildings that look exactly the same, I haven’t always had a positive reaction.
I thought it was a waste of space, featured too much unsightly parking, or served as metaphorical caves of isolation for fomenting an “us v. them” mentality in the neighborhood. In some ways it seemed these Mormon-only, exclusive buildings, much too close to each other, disrupted the fostering of community for ALL in the neighborhood. But then again…
The neighborhood ward house is a place where life is celebrated. It’s where weddings, BBQs, 4th of July celebrations. Christmas parties and other events happen where friends and neighbors really do come together. For youth in the neighborhood, the meetinghouse is kind of like a Boys and Girls club meets a YMCA meets a community theater, to say nothing of it being an actual church house.
(Update: The neighborhood teens even met up there on Halloween to play games in their costumes.)
I’ve been to chapels for early morning basketball games, family gatherings, etiquette training (yeah, that was weird), service projects, country dances, latin dances, and awkward 14-year-old-can’t-dance dances. So so many dances. The point is, these buildings get a lot of use, and there’s no membership card checker at the front door. The neighborhood chapel is more welcoming than Costco, or as I like to call “Second Church.”
In times of emergency or in response to needs, the chapels, and their steeples, can be beacons in crisis. And I don’t mean spiritual. It’s all about the temporal, really. From storm shelters and command centers, to meeting places for blood drives, community service projects, hygiene kit assembly, quilt making and volunteer coordination. These buildings are immense in their capacity to facilitate meaningful responses to emergency and need.
Countless church buildings have been used as shelters from the catastrophe of weather, fire and flood. They’ve served as places to gather for putting together humanitarian kits, for Boy Scout Eagle Projects, food drives, blood drives and youth service projects. They can offer refuge in times of trouble, literally and spiritually.
Growing up, I was in the same ward as Mikelle Biggs, the young girl who was kidnapped in 2000 and tragically never seen again. In the first hours of her going missing, we organized a community wide search. We mobilized the entire effort, for nearly a week from, where else, the chapel and parking lot of our local meetinghouse. We had a community emergency, a neighborhood tragedy, and the church was our rallying point and command center for organizing our search efforts. Looking back, it was an impressive, organic display of concern and care for our fellow neighbors and community members.
I’ve been to youth conferences held in our weekly meetinghouses. I’ve seen one church in Virginia transformed so thoroughly into a cruise ship, complete with a lounge, an infirmary, a chandelier and a bow heading into a digitally projected sunset, with plywood framing around each window to mimic the rounded views of ocean liner cabins. Brilliant is too weak a descriptor for what that church transformed into. To achieve it was a monumental effort, and for what? All so youth—and not just LDS youth—could have a fun dance bringing together teens from a broad region.
Many of our meetinghouses have family history centers, which are open to the public. Literally anyone can go in there and access genealogical records they might not otherwise know where to find. These meetinghouses have hosted addiction recovery groups, and are a place to seek help, financially or otherwise, for members of the community who are down and out, by meeting with a bishop.
I’ve been a clerk in a branch where I wrote checks, from the meetinghouse, to pay rent, medical bills, fill food orders, reimburse humanitarian missionaries, reimburse a local motel that gave temporary shelter to the homeless. I’ve fielded questions from hopeful visitors that heard this might be a place to help stave off hunger or lack of shelter for another week or two. It felt like a small local charity and food bank that happened to host a Sunday worship service for the inner city crowd.
I’ve been present at social parties and holiday gatherings that served a dual purpose. The first, obviously, as an event where the community comes together to have a social, friendly engagement. But at the same time, the unspoken encouragement of these socials offered a shame-free location to find warm clothing off in a side room. There was nutritious food and new hygiene products, often as game prizes or just as handouts, available to all, without reservation or judgement.
These meetinghouses host parties and social events. Open mics and potluck dinners. Sports and artistic productions. Conferences and fairs. The swiftness with which tables and chairs can be set up and arranged for any purpose makes it seem like Sunday worship is kind of a minor element in the broader use of each one of these buildings. And considering the wider purpose of the Gospel, it kind of is.
Internationally, in Ethiopia I’ve seen worship houses be filled, daily, with youth and young adults who literally had nowhere else to go. Who found a community of support, of friendship and safety. Some got baptized. Some didn’t. All were welcome.
There really is no limitation to what we can use a sturdy facility to facilitate. Perhaps the vast purposes each ho-hum building with no expensive art or fragile stained glass has the potential to fulfill is really the higher purpose of these buildings after all.
Like the whispers drifting through the corn to a young Kevin Costner with that famous lines of faithful pro-action, “if you build it, they will come,” we might see a different kind of beauty in a house of worship, an active sort of triumph that transcends the aesthetic into the beauty of what it does, not how it appears.
That beauty of activity, service, worthwhile recreation (I hate the word wholesome), communal worship, spiritual repair, temporal relief, self-improvement, discovery and shelter from all kinds of storms—a true coming together for all in the community as the first offerings of our worship and devotion then becomes the ultimate expression of our faith in a God that cares about what we do for others as evidence of our love for him ourselves.
I believe there are many other ways these buildings are utilized for the betterment of the members who worship there, and for the communities where they reside. In taking the time to remember all the ways I’ve benefitted from growing up having these buildings around me, I have turned to see how my community has been lifted as well, despite those still ire-deserving scratchy walls.