I go to a church where there are no words.
Well, that’s not entirely true. To be more honest, I would have to say that I go to a church where there are many words, but none for me. You see, for the past year and a half, I’ve been attending a German LDS congregation and, let’s be real here, I simply do not know the language.
True, I can pick out pieces from a heartwarming story about a loyal cat or generally understand that there may (or may not) be a meeting of some sort on the 15th, but for all intents and purposes, my church experience is generally one of personal meditation with some distracting yet interesting background noise.
I suppose that, in general, most people would think this would be horrifically boring and a religious experience completely devoid of meaning. After all, doesn’t doctrine make a church? Don’t Sunday School lessons make a church? And scripture! The foundation of church! How could there be one without the other?
This was my opportunity to take a simple thought experiment and test it in the real world.
Frankly, at first, it was horrifically boring. I read an entire cookbook on kindle over the course of two weeks back in February. The fact was that I didn’t know how to participate in a church without words. So much of Mormon worship is sitting and listening to words, speaking words, and reading words. Yes, there’s music, but generally it’s treated like a water cooler break rather than an opportunity to reach a level of soaring spirituality. And, instead of having awe-inspiring architecture or art surrounding and inspiring me, the building, like every LDS building, was plain and utilitarian.
My first conclusion: Mormon worship in a chapel is very purposefully structured to keep everyone focused on the same thing. Very little imagination is encouraged and it is difficult or even impossible to find time or space to practice personal meditation. An LDS church without words is therefore a church without any kind of possibility of spiritual participation.
By the summer, however, church became a place for healing. Over the months I’d gone to church without words, I realized that not once had I felt hurt by talks or lessons about gender roles or priesthood hierarchies (previous to Germany, this had punched me in the gut at least once a month). I never had to sit through misinformed and defensive “us vs. them” accusations or fears. There were no comments about “the gays” or “the liberals” (though, frankly, these don’t even happen in “Church with Words” Germany). I realized that over the course of six months I had never internally cringed or struggled to hold back stung tears. Never.
For a person who had been in a state of fluctuating spiritual anguish since 2008, this was a kind of peace I had forgotten was even possible. With this peace, I was finally able to start cautiously peaking out of the bunker I’d built up around my heart.
My second conclusion: Church without words frees worship from the potential hurt and confusion that can come from spiritually harmful cultural attitudes and doctrine.
In the fall, I found that I didn’t feel compelled to go to church on the off chance I might learn some new doctrinal insight for myself through words, because church no longer was about me. Instead, I went to church to simply be with people I knew and loved individually. I would go to see if Jonas had lost his tooth yet or if Herr Schmidt’s vice-like handshake was as painful as ever. If Heidi had made her poppyseed cake this week or how Olga was doing on final exams. Learn a German word from Andreas and teach an English one back. Hug twenty people on the way out the door.
My final conclusion: Church without words became community. Church without words perhaps became more like what a true church should be.