There's a Mormon church only a couple blocks down the way from where my family resides, so we naturally get hit up by Mormon missionaries on a fairly regular basis. If life isn't too crazy at the moment, my Dad typically invites them and we spend a few weeks trying to get them to tell us why we should be Mormons.
Normally, the missionaries call it quits after three or four discussions and leave us be until the next batch of missionaries arrive. However, after a few years of this, and the Mormon/Evangelical beliefs comparison that blogger friend Cavan and I did, I figured that I really should get around to actually visiting a Mormon church. I can hardly claim to be highly knowledgeable of the religion without paying at least one visit to their base of operations.
So this Sunday we (myself, my sister, and our roommate Rachel) woke up bright and early to hem and haw over whether or not to wear skirts. The only winter skirt I have I made myself when I was fourteen. Whatever. I wore it anyway. Then we piled into the car and began our trek down the road and into foreign territory.
First impression: Nice entryway. Very nice.
One of the missionaries was waiting at the sanctuary door for us and expressed only mild disappointment that our brother hadn't come as well. He was very friendly and ushered us over to some seats on a pew they had saved for us (I had let them know ahead of time we were coming). We had a minute or two to glance around and peruse the bulletins handed to us before the meeting started. I guess I hadn't really expected to see a cross anywhere inside the sanctuary, seeing as how Mormon churches don't have them outside the building, either, but it still felt odd staring at a big blank wall without any sign of a cross anywhere.
Second impression: They have a single adults hotline? And the church is throwing a dance? It's not only encouraging young people to dance together, but it's announcing it in the bulletin? Oy, definitely not Mennonite! And what is this about needing a "dance card" to be able to attend?
Actually, it appears you also need an "ordinance temple card" to visit the temple. This may or may not have been the same thing as a "temple recommend", which seemingly has to be renewed by a member of the bishopric. It doesn't take too long to figure out that the church is extremely hierarchical and regulated.
The churches I'm used to typically require you to be a church "member" in order to vote for the elder board and other occasional big decisions. Also, I've had to have a criminal record check to volunteer with the kids, but that's about as regulated as it's gotten.
So anyway, the service started. All in all, it was different from my church, but most of it still seemed familiar. I would slot it along with the more traditional church styles - hymnals rather than PowerPoint, organ rather than worship team, pews rather than chairs, etc. We passed the bread and water by during the Sacrament (they use water instead of grape juice or wine).
The morning was divided into three parts: Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School, and Women's Relief Society. The Sacrament Meeting, rather than having a single speaker, had an open mic time, where anyone could go up and share their testimony. Apparently this happens once a month.
When the mic was first opened, there seemed to be a semi-awkward lull where nobody went up. I wondered how long it would be before one of our host missionaries would crack and get the ball rolling. As it turned out, only a few seconds. It was also quite obvious from his testimony that he was well-aware we were listening, as it had just to do with what we had been discussing during our prior meetings - how we can know that the book of Mormon is true. :-) I admit that I appreciated how he was attempting to keep things relevant for us. After the first missionary, other people started going up and the whole semi-awkward pause thing died out.
Impression number three: These testimonies feel almost Islamic in a non-Arab way. I didn't know there was a Mormon shahada, but I keep hearing it, almost word for word - "I know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Joseph Smith is his Prophet!"
For Sunday School, we were slotted into the Gospel Basics class, with the missionaries and other Mormon newbies. The topic of the day just happened to be "Prophets of God". This surprised me a little bit, although maybe it shouldn't have after the shahada thing. Perhaps it was just fluke that we ended up attending on the one day when the topic was extremely Mormon, but I had been expecting something a little more basic to the Christian faith - say, the death and resurrection, grace, or the Ten Commandments or something like that.
While I'm well aware that Mormons differ from "standard" Christians in accepting Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon on top of Jesus and the Bible, I wasn't expecting it to be so Joseph-Smith-and-Book-of-Mormon heavy. I guess I expected pretty much the standard Christian fare with added bits, but the added bits seem to have stolen the spotlight and become the main emphasis. I definitely heard more about Joseph Smith and modern-day prophets than I heard about Jesus - in fact, barring one testimony that mentioned Christ's atonement, I'm not sure I heard anything Jesus or grace-centric all morning. That was rather disappointing.
The missionaries obviously couldn't accompany us to the third part of the morning, the Women's Relief Society Meeting, but a church member introduced us to his wife, and she chatted with us and was very friendly in their place.
Impression number four: This seems to be a highly emotional setting. People keep crying. It's got the semi-rigid formality of a Mennonite Brethren church, but the spiritual emotionality of a Pentecostal church. What an interesting mix.
The topic of the Women's meeting was revelation and how to get it. An interesting comparison between revelation and radio waves was made, which I actually might use some time. Beyond that, however, I don't think I picked up anything useful, as the speaker said that only worthy people could get revelation, and I'm not really convinced I'm worthy.
All the teaching in the Women's meeting came from the higher-ups, that is, from apostles or prophets or other people of authority. There were a few personal anecdotes to illustrate points, but, to me, at least, it felt like the whole discussion was just parroting others rather than the result of critical thought and Biblical study.
Sunday School was similar in this regard. For example, someone mentioned how the current prophet (or someone close to him) warned the church about the dangers of being addicted to video games, and how this demonstrated that he was receiving inspiration from God. Given that I could have told them to beware video games and yet I don't fancy myself a prophet, it made me wonder whether these particular Mormons weren't thinking for themselves or were just pretending they weren't in order to elevate the church leaders.
Rachel, Brianna and I all agree that the "weirdest" event of the morning was the very last hymn, which came at the close of the Women's Relief Society meeting. Entitled "Families Can Be Together Forever", it was rather reminiscent of "I Love You, You Love Me" from Barney the Purple Dinosaur. The main idea of the hymn was that we love our families so much that we want to spend all eternity with them and that we'll be good so that we can get married in the temple and do just that. Needless to say, despite loving our families intensely, none of us actually sang along with that one, though it was interesting to listen to.
One thing that we really liked about Mormon church was the strong community aspect. There was a lot of interaction between the members themselves and even the speakers and the members. Everyone was involved - it's the kind of place where it would be hard to just go and passively sit and listen. Things are designed so that the community grows together, and everyone seemed to know everyone else's name. The Mormon community was pretty tight-knit, and it's nice to see that, especially when my own background has seen four out of the five churches I've regularly attended fall apart due largely to conflicts within the church (though not necessarily while we were still attending).
People were very warm and welcoming and it's easy to see how investigators could find themselves quite at home. I'm really glad we went. It was a good experience and very interesting. However, I can still solidly assure everyone that I am not a Mormon, nor thinking about becoming one.
Next week: Normal church!
I don't have any particularly good quotes about Mormonism, so I'll revert to quotes from the kids at the Sunday School of my own church:
Val: Do you kids know what the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – are called? It starts with a P... Penta...