slow turtleMany of us have a fast life: fast food, fast work, and fast devices that enable—make that “require”—us to connect with people at anywhere, at any time.

In the last decade, various “slow” movements have arisen to combat this craziness. Among them is the slow church movement, now with an excellent manifesto co-authored by Englewood Review of Books editor Christopher C. Smith and CONSPIRE magazine managing editor John Pattison.

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus isn’t just about our personal decisionmaking or family worship; it focuses more on what is systemic. It’s about what churches and denominations can do to make slowness a way of life and faith.

When I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the ways its suggested practices are or are not being lived out in my own faith tradition, Mormonism.

In a couple of areas, we excel—particularly in Sabbath-keeping, gathering regularly for community meals, and making a communal record of the ways God is at among us.

My ward just had a terrific monthly testimony meeting yesterday, for example, which is the kind of regular “memory keeping” the authors encourage. Mormons often express gratitude for God’s many good gifts, we are generous with our time and money, and we show hospitality, especially to one another.

In other areas, Mormons fail craptastically.

Slow movements in general succeed or fail based on how tied they are to their communities. In slow food, for example, all ingredients are locally grown, prepared, and enjoyed. Slow design “celebrates diversity and regionalism” by emphasizing the integration of local architectural traditions and indigenous natural materials.

Slow is inherently incompatible, then, with the goals of Correlation.

Since 1960, when Harold B. Lee’s All-Church Coordinating Council faced the ongoing problems of perpetual budget shortfalls and what historian Matthew Bowman has called a “patchwork quilt of the church overseas,” it drew every church activity and program under a highly centralized corporate structure based in Salt Lake City.

That means that today, in Mormonism:

  • The lessons taught are the same in every ward and branch around the world, so whether you walk into a Sunday School lesson in Akron or Abuja you’ll know exactly what to expect.
  • The chapel in Abuja may look just like the one in Akron, using materials that had to be shipped in, because almost all LDS meetinghouses are constructed using standard plans.
  • The hymns you sing (and the fact that you sing hymns to a piano and organ in the first place) are carefully prescribed according to the conservative musical tastes of white people in Utah. The Church Handbook of Instruction’s only allowance in the section on “adapting ward music to local conditions and resources” stipulates that if no one in the ward knows how to play the piano, the Church can provide a digital one that is preprogrammed with tinny LDS hymns. Um, thanks? “Adapting” in this case does not mean changing Mormon music styles or worship preferences to fit local cultures, though the CHI sniffs that “other instruments” may sometimes be used if they’re not too secular or prominent. And they’re not brass. Or percussion.
  • The racial and ethnic makeup of high-ranking church leaders is heavily white and American middle-class. For an individual abroad to rise to anything more than local or regional leadership requires first a full assimilation in American culture and values, to say nothing of the English language. Mormonism is not yet a global religion, but an American religion with an increasingly global reach.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been and continue to be many benefits to Correlation. For example, it has leveled the playing field enough that LDS communities with enough critical mass to need a meetinghouse building are going to get one regardless of whether they can raise the money locally, as used to be the case.

slow churchBut most post-Correlation LDS chapels, whether in the U.S. or abroad, look like they have simply been plunked down on a random street with little concern for neighborhood integration.

The phenomenon the authors describe of “placelessness,” where people come to church for services or activities and then return home without getting involved in the church’s neighborhood, describes many Mormon wards to a T.

What might a slow Mormonism look like?

  • It would open itself to local expressions in worship and have stronger ties to the neighborhoods in which it is embedded.
  • It would allow for more ideas and changes to bubble up from the ground rather than be dictated from the top of a far-away corporate structure.
  • It would stop measuring our spiritual impact primarily by numerical growth.
  • And it would not strive to be the same the world over.

12 Comments

  1. Beautiful thoughts! I do wish we were incorporated into neighborhoods better. It takes a lot of work to coordinate community efforts with ward activities, imo.

    • Jana Riess

      Yes, it certainly does, and it requires a long-term commitment. I think that outside of Utah (where most people are Mormon so the neighborhood, by default, is strongly integrated with the LDS Church), most Mormon wards aren’t part of the fabric of the neighborhoods where they’re located. They could kind of be anywhere. And when we do have some ad hoc efforts in that direction, it tends to be more about what Church members think might improve the neighborhood rather than what the neighbors say would better their lives. We don’t listen as well as we might.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Jana, the Abuja, Nigeria Stake has 10 wards and 3 branches. I am willing to bet that at least one of the meetinghouses does not look exactly like the standard plan ward houses that appear every four blocks on every major residential street in Utah. But that is true if you simply go to other parts of the US. In the US Territory of Guam, the newest meetinghouse when I visited there was designed on an open plan with louvered windows and ceiling fans, even in the chapel, and open lanais rather than enclosed hallways, so it did not need air conditioning (It was designed by a local LDS architect). In several places in California where real estate prices are high, most of an entire stake can be housed in a single large building with two chapels. In Harlem and in Tokyo, newer meetinghouses are multi-story to make the best use of limited land.

    On the other hand, the familiar components of an LDS meetinghouse are there for a reason, and the same reasons tend to push other denominations and other religions into creatiing similar structures, as convergent evolution. For example, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple has a distinctive worship hall, but the rest of the structure, with classrooms and a large multipurpose room with a stage and an kitchen, don’t look that different from a Mormon wardhouse.

    Here in Richland, Washington, the oldest LDS meetinghouse in town was initially built circa 1960, and it is a bewildering hodgepodge of rooms on different floors and even with rooms halfway up the stairs between floors. It is definitely NOT friendly for anyone with limited mobility.

    In areas where the Church has grown fastest, in the old days when the people who were going to get a new building had to come up with most of the money for it, young families were repeatedly asked to sacrifice to build a series of new meetinghouses even though they were in the same home for decades. On the other hand, higher income people in more established neighborhoods were not asked to make similar sacrifices. The centralization of Church finances, not just for construction but also for utilities and maintenance, has produced a more egalitarian financial situation for all Church members, a condition that is also aided by limitations on local fund raising and expenditures. Building sufficient meetinghouses in Nigeria is given priority over adding a stain glass window and a pipe organ to a chapel attended by doctors, lawyers and business executives where my son lives.

    Indeed, why isn’t simplicity and humility in church architecture a value that is part of being “slow” as you describe it? Are the Amish, who meet in each other’s homes for worship, rather than building ornate chapels with impressive decor and vaulted ceilings, less “slow” than people who put resources into impressive chapel design?

    • Jana Riess

      My concern is not that our chapels be “impressive” or “ornate,” so I’m sorry if my post ever gave that impression. Modesty and functionality are most definitely “slow” values that we can celebrate.

      My concern is that our chapels don’t usually take local differences into consideration, though there are some exceptions as you point out. I hope the exceptions become more of the rule. In my travels I have seen many LDS chapels that look like they were imported lock, stock, and barrel from Utah, and look very out of place in their new contexts. The benefit is that they are instantly recognizable as being LDS — they are a corporate brand. That’s also a huge disadvantage.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    On the music, the portable keyboard at our wardhouse has a pipe organ setting so it sounds similar to the electronic full organ in the chapel. Not tinny at all.

    • Jana Riess

      Raymond, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one! I have heard the setting you mention and it’s not nearly as nice as a full organ (although there’s always the possibility that I’m making a sweeping judgment based on a single very bad specimen).

  4. Wayne Dequer

    Although you have raised a topic that deserves consideration, I don’t think we need to really be concerned about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need to be concerned about how we stack up against “the slow church movement.” We do need to be concerned about balancing respect for individuality and the value of unity. We do need to respect and be involved with our neighbors and our communities. We do need to slow down enough to focus on each others with compassion and focus on the things that truly matter most. As a church community we try to work on critical intersections and try to thoughtfully live the restored gospel. See a 3 minute video focusing on these values at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10152501732946550&set=vb.18523396549&type=2&theater worth pondering.

    • Wayne Dequer

      1. I should have proofread more carefully (especially the first sentence) before posting. I apologize.
      2. I attended Church for over 25 years in a chapel built largely with labor by the members in the 1940’s. I love the individual character and spirit of these older building while I appreciate the utility of our newer buildings.
      3. I also note that Handbook 2: Administering the Church (https://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church?lang=eng ) has a helpful section (17) entitle “Uniformity and Adaptation.” Additionally, several of the other sections have a subsection entitle “Adapting the ____ Organization to Local Needs.” There is emphasis about being sensitive and adapting to family and individual needs.
      4. A couple of years ago Elder Neil A. Anderson quipped in a leadership meeting that it was actually pretty easy to give advise in such meetings, because general authorities usually only need to give general advise. It is up to local leaders following the principles of the Gospel, working in Councils, and heeding the whisperings of the Holy Ghost to find solutions to local challenges. This of course echoes Joseph Smith comment about teaching correct principles and letting the people govern themselves.

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