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.
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.
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.
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.