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In the early 1990s, some LDS missionaries got on a bus in Venezuela and headed to a zone conference. The bus was stopped by a soldier, looking to conscript his young countrymen into the army. He asked the dark-suited evangelizers who they were, and they proudly proclaimed in unison, “We’re Mormons!”
Taken aback, he let them go.
Being recognized as a “peculiar people” with a strong sense of community has been a hallmark of Mormonism since its 1830 founding.
By the mid-20th century, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were so tightly woven and distinctive as a group that one 1950s sociologist categorized them as “an ethnic minority” — despite being mostly white.
These believers in the “restored church of Jesus Christ” and their all-volunteer clergy had created congregations across the U.S. and parts of Europe that functioned almost like small towns — with their own verbiage, theater, basketball leagues, speech tournaments, bazaars, dances and picnics.
They called the place where they worshipped and played together “meetinghouses” rather than chapels, because they functioned as community centers where they gathered often throughout the week.
That all began to change in the 1980s, with a “consolidated meeting schedule” — a three-hour block of services on Sunday — and worldwide expansion into far-flung regions.
It has evolved even more dramatically in the past three-plus years since President Russell M. Nelson took the helm of the 16.6 million-member global faith.
Statues of the Angel Moroni, a figure from the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, are rarely being added to the tops of new temples. The “live” endowment temple ritual, created as a kind of religious theater, has been replaced by a film. Ward (congregation) activities committees have been disbanded. Youth celebrations before new temple dedications showcasing local cultures have been discontinued. Class names for Young Women, including Beehive, Mia Maid and Laurels, have been stripped away. Long-standing, even iconic, outdoor pageants have ended.
Meanwhile, Latter-day Saint teachings have been continually simplified to become nearly indistinguishable from some evangelical Christian beliefs.
On top of all that, Nelson has declared that even using the name Mormon is “major victory for Satan” and has generally prohibited its usage.
What’s happening here? Is Mormonism losing its identity? Is the Utah-based faith in the midst of a sea change?
“We are definitely in a transition phase for Mormon identity,” says Utah attorney Steve Evans, who founded the By Common Consent blog. “I grew up in a Mormonism that hinged around societal bonds: roadshows, activity nights, Scouting … so many activities that our social calendars were full with ward participation. Now we live in a libertarian church that has pared religion down to weekly meeting attendance and the occasional cannery project. Politics have surged to fill the gap, and now I would guess a lot of people no longer look to their wards for their social identities.”
The church “used to be such a big chunk of who we are,” he says. “I don’t know what we are without it.”
The correlation movement
The need to systematize Latter-day Saint worship started in the 1960s, with the rise of the “correlation movement.”
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Church leaders worried that as the faith spread internationally, “it would fragment into various national churches and lose the perceived unity of culture, belief and allegiance to Salt Lake City that church leaders valued,” says Latter-day Saint historian Matthew Bowman, who is writing a book about the correlation effort, and that the “organization and administrations of auxiliaries [programs for children, youths and women] were growing unwieldy.”
They thus sought to streamline church administration and “to produce a unified church culture, by way of instituting standardized manuals, centralized periodicals, standardized architecture for church buildings, approved art, and even a single hymnbook,” says Bowman, who directs Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.
The result was “a deeply American church culture, largely because those who were making these decisions were American,” he says, “and were marked by the presuppositions of the white American middle class.”
The norms of what these leaders considered “spiritual” were translated into universals, Bowman says. “Sitting quietly — what church leaders in the mid-20th century began calling ‘reverence’ — was more respectful than loud singing or dancing as Christians in Latin America or Africa did; business dress was more appropriate for worship than other sorts of clothing; art should be the simple realism of the American middle class rather than abstract; hymns imitated the style and pace of white American Protestantism, and so on.”
Today, the church’s strategy seems to be “making organizations more flexible and stripping away many events and committees,” the historian says. “This might be all to the good, and some such changes probably are useful.”
The McDonald’s model
Mormonism has gone from a time in the very early church “when [founder] Joseph [Smith] and Brigham [Young] were trying on new theologies like new pairs of pants, trying to see if and how pieces fit into this new church structure they were creating,” says Liz Layton Johnson, a Latter-day Saint living in Saudi Arabia with her family. “That kind of innovation and revelation has really slowed down over the years as the church has grown and, to some degree, calcified.”
Currently, there is “this huge emphasis on obedience as opposed to experience, of always having the ‘right answer’ to questions (‘Read your scriptures! Say your prayers! Go to church!’) instead of having big questions that we can’t really answer (but we could try to),” Johnson says. “I feel like that creative, visionary spark is gone in a lot of ways, and that instead of exploring new waters, we’re just told to stay in the boat.”
That approach, she says, “bleeds over into the cultural experience of Mormonism.”
As the church grows around the world, “it has to reckon with the fact that America and its quirks aren’t supposed to be the center of the church.” Johnson says. “Christ is.”
It is fairly common to hear people who are visiting a new country say, “I just love how the church is the same everywhere,” she notes. “And that’s true, with some minor variation.”
But you know what else is the same everywhere? McDonald’s. “As a mother of kids who can be picky eaters, I admit that I am always grateful to find a McDonald’s in a foreign country, because I know that my kids will finally eat something without a fight,” Johnson says. “But as an adult with a more refined palate, I don’t want to eat at McDonald’s every meal. I want to experience the local flavors, to understand the history behind the region’s culinary influences, and to try a variety of foods.”
The church can be a place that is “both the McDonald’s for the picky eaters, but also host some of the finer cuisine for those who are seeking…