An International Snapshot of Mormonism

Mormonism has been called an (if not the) American religion. To go further, I think that it could also be called an American middle-class religion, an American mountain-west religion, or an American white religion. All of these possible labels spotlight particular characteristics of Mormonism’s majority structure, culture, demographics, and history.

What often gets overlooked, however, is Mormonism’s international presence.  I should note, I’m not trying to make a case that international Mormonism deserves to be its primary label more than any of the others listed above.  Personally, I find it a bit disingenuous to try and represent Mormonism-entire as a haven for diversity for quite a number of reasons, though there are indications that this is changing (see the probable “I’m a Mormon” ad that pops up on the right of this screen, for example).  However, this doesn’t mean that an international Mormonism doesn’t exist.  In fact it does, in hundreds of unique cultural enclaves around the world.

Currently, I live in former East Germany and attend a small branch, or congregation, that I have grown to love over the past year.  I thought that, perhaps, a short snapshot of its particular Mormon idiosyncrasies would help fill this gap in our institutional memory of what it means to be a non-American Mormon, particularly how the experience differs and, in my opinion, improves on the more correlated experience of Mormonism in the United States.

Size

In the United States, it is relatively common for a town of 20,000 to have more than one Mormon congregation with 250 regular members in each.

Here, in our city of approximately 200,000, there is one congregation of 40 regular members.  More than half of these members are related to each other in some direct way–grandparents, cousins, etc.  The rest of the branch are older members, converted in the DDR period, and my American husband and me.

Second, contrary to the (very recognizable) large and utilitarian meetinghouses of the US (the chapel overflow can become a basketball court or wedding reception hall if needed!), here we meet in rented rooms above a discount grocery store.  There are no organized meetings or programs for teens as in the US for the very simple reason that there are no teens.  There is a very informal children’s meeting, however, with three attendees.  Where strict structure was necessary in the US to keep groups of 50+ children quiet and entertained for two hours, here, we sing a few songs, have a prayer, chat one-on-one, and play with toys if there is still time.

Time

In the United States, church lasts for three hours: one for the main sacrament meeting (entire congregation), one for an instructional scripture-based lesson (segregated more or less by age), and one for yet another lesson with your auxiliary group (segregated by age and gender).

Here, we meet for a maximum of two hours: one for sacrament meeting and one for auxiliary groups.  On the first Sunday of each month, we all bring food to share and eat lunch together in a small activity room.

Second, where there seemed to be an overabundance of organizational meetings in the US, here they are quick, informal, and rare.  There is little pressure to create elaborate displays or handout materials for lessons.  There is little stress surrounding the annual children’s performance.  There are no elbow-digs to join the time-intensive volunteer church choir or organize an elaborate Arabian-themed adults-only dinner dance with live band.  Church is where you meet on Sundays and say hello to friends.  It isn’t where you spend 20+ hours each week.

Expectations

The first church leader I saw in Germany was the president of the women’s organization.  She was leading the Sunday meeting and wore pink jeans and a cotton t-shirt.  At least a quarter of the women in the audience were in slacks.  A young girl wore a lovely sleeveless summer dress and two boys were in Levis.  During the congregational meeting, a three-year old freely wandered up to the front of the room and sat next to the ward leadership while playing with a toy truck.  There was no chorister.

And I’m pretty sure that I was the only person there who saw any of those things.

Too often, our American congregations become places where habit and outward appearance take precedence over genuine spirituality and love.  Too often pants become synonymous with sin (yes, really) and sleeves with self-righteousness (yes…really).  Too often we indignantly worry so much about the irreverence of a child playing with a truck that we’re unable to even try and hear the message at the pulpit.

Not always, but too often, the American-Mormon culture of conformity, perfection, and expectation makes us all into Pharisees.

This branch here isn’t perfect, and American wards aren’t uniformly unpleasant.  But, it is important to note that, here in this German city, international Mormonism is getting a lot of things right.

  • Ryan Fairchild

    You should have titled this “My personal experience in a German branch” snapshot of the Church.

    I’ve attended 11 branches/wards outside of the United States and my experience has been vastly closer to the “American” experience than the “my view of what the international church is like” experience. While I definitely like the organic experience you described (and the organic, cultural idiosyncrasies of each unit I’ve attended), I don’t know that you’ve necessarily painted a more accurate picture of the international church than of a certain size of unit.

    • Heidi Harris

      Valid point.

    • niklas

      Maybe that wasn’t international but certainly an European experience. I recognized a lot from it (saying that as a European myself). Yes, church differs from country to country in Europe too, but there are some common traits, such as the informal organizational meetings, lack of handout or elaborate displays for lessons etc. The unit size has certainly effect too (lack of youth, no chorister, two hour meetings).
      The only thing I was surprised to hear was the amount of women wearing slacks. Never seen that anywhere.

  • Lisa

    I have been to a few European church meetings and I agree that this snapshot, is pretty specific to you. I attended a branch in Budapest and it felt very much like my ward in California. They wore dresses and suits. Church was 3 hours long. I understand that East Germany had a difficult background, but at the same time, so did Budapest and there were many young convert families, who came from all over the large city to go to church in a small meetinghouse. These members were so excited to be together and would get together during the week. I love that I go to church in my Sunday best. And if Sunday best is slacks then so be it. But I don’t think think conformity of wearing dresses and suits is a bad thing, I find it respectful and reminds me where I’m going. But every situation is different, every congregation, just like people, are in different places of growth in church. Being dressed up in dresses and suits doesn’t mean you’ve made it, the spirit that is felt there is the most important. But I do believe that showing respect to God’s house and “working” in the gospel are good things.

  • Dan The Mormon

    The author ignores the fact that the bulk of international Mormons are in Latin America. I’ve attended several congregations in Costa Rica and Mexico. The meetings were three hours long like American meetings. Lots of people, especially new converts and younger members, did not wear skirts, dresses, or ties. However, lots of people in my current congregation in Philadelphia also wear less formal clothing. In fact, the meetings in Costa Rica and Mexico were much more similar to meetings in the western USA than meetings at my current ward in Philadelphia. Here in Philly about a third of our congregation speak a language other than English at home (and often in testimony meetings). It is the most diverse ward I have ever lived in.

  • Brian

    I served a mission in New England, and there were large wards and small branches. The small branches were very much what you describe, but there is also a cultural difference that is unique to such places. I remember a family who was transferred to the area from the heart of Utah, and the teen daughter was not just appalled at the church culture, but school as well. She was in a massive school with gangs and goths, and had no idea how to fit in her cheer leading, dance committee, social bubbliness into an atmosphere of apathy and disdain for such things. I suspect many would find a similar culture shock in East Germany. And, I also had branches where we met on Sunday in a members work and we converted a board room into a chapel by bringing in cubicle chairs to fill the space.

  • Joel cannon

    I have been to church in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippeans, Austrailia, New Zealand, Holland, Italy, Germany, Israel, Hungary, Tasmania, Kenya, Brazil, Paraguay, England, and others. Usually capital cities with tourists and American expats, and someone will usually offer to translate for me if I don’t speak the local language. I am always more amazed at how much I feel at home and how friendly people are. I am often invited for dinner by really interesting people who make me feel like family. I often meet people I know from other places or have friends in common. For example, I met a Japanese girl I had dated in Tokyo while visiting Amsterdam. She was married with a young child. I am sure that the farther I get off the beaten path, the more rustic the church gets. In Dar es Salaam, the taxi driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and pointed to a school room with no walls that was used as a meetinghouse. No one played the piano, but there was a Casio synthesizer that was programmed to play the hymns with the touch of a button. There was a variety of members all ages and their humility, and loving spirit made me proud to belong to their church.

    I think that members who do not get to meet native members from around the world have a very skewed perspective of the gospel and confuse the local culture with Mormon culture. Visiting a ward in Utah is just as culturally curious as anywhere else, but not nearly as friendly because I must look so ordinary.

  • Darren

    “Not always, but too often, the American-Mormon culture of conformity, perfection, and expectation makes us all into Pharisees.”

    LOL!!! While strictly speaking I do not agree with this conclusin, that’s still really funny because, yes, there is an element of outward appearance trumping spirituality in american LDS wards. Not nearly as bad as suggesting that it leads to apostasy (though utside of BYU I’ve only attended a ward service in Utah once that I remember ;>) ), but there’s still a touch of truth to it.

    I served in Recife, Brazil between the beginning of 1991 to the end of 1992 and the church was much more established there than what you’ve described. There was one area, Joazeiro, where I served which was in the process of building its own chapel. There I can relate the unique spitiruality found in a smaller, less established place but even then there was a lot more members in the branch/soon-to-be-ward in that area.

    This was a good perspective and I think this topic is very worthy of expanding upon.

  • Dale Wight

    An important result of the intenationalization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that 1 of 11 Mormons in the world is black. Membership growth in the African continent has been 8% each of the last two years, the fastest growing part of the Church.
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=3815138975353&set=oa.10150782551752158&type=1&theater

    Here’s the new LDS chapel in Antananarivo, Madagascar
    https://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=4134075388564&set=o.355468294495274&type=3&theater


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