A Church without Words

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.


  • Ben

    If I’m reading this right, church is more ‘true’ when we can’t understand what is being said? Forgive me but I find this a little hard to swallow.

    • Heidi Harris

      Perhaps for me it is.

  • Jana

    Please, may I come to church with you?

    • Heidi Harris


  • JohnH

    “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
    Jeremiah 31:34

  • Belview

    Sounds like you really want to attend a baptist church or something. You know, the ones with clapping and such.

    • Heidi Harris

      Clapping and such sounds grand.

  • Saskia

    Interesting. I currently live in Germany (Dortmund, where are you?) and have gone to church a couple times here (non LDS though). There are times that I have the same experience as you, usually when I attend the local Anglican congregation and find comfort in the people and the familiar rituals, even though I don’t really understand the sermon and singing becomes a pronunciation lesson. There are also times that it just makes me feel like an outsider, which then feeds my own personal spiritual anguish. But for the most part, I heartily concur with your post.

    • Heidi Harris

      I totally get this, Saskia. And I’m in Rostock. Wish I was closer to you so we could meet!

  • http://ByCommonConsent Lisa Goddard

    I lived in Sweden for four years and had the same experience in my ward in Göteborg. What really struck me is that it seemed like everyone was so loving and I never heard a word of gossip. It took me several years to even begin to understand Swedish and even then, I didn’t “get” sarcasm or subtle digs. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist there – it definitely does. I just couldn’t see or hear it. And it was glorious.

    • Heidi Harris


  • Travis

    But if the point is to avoid hearing things that you find hurtful, then…isn’t church still about you? Let me suggest an alternative approach: When you go to church and people say things that are doctrinally unsound or culturally insensitive, think, “This person doesn’t speak for the church; this person speaks for him/herself. S/he probably means well and just isn’t aware of how it comes across.” Then think, “What can I learn from this statement? What things do I say that may have hurt other people? How can I learn to see past So-and-So’s insensitivity and genuinely love him or her as a child of God?”
    I have trouble with the concept of “church without words” because it seems like a way to insulate yourself from human interaction: it’s church without people. I understand: People can hurt you, so it’s easier to disengage; to cloister yourself behind a language barrier that will protect you from communicating with them. But is that really more like what a true church should be? Or is one of the reasons we go to church (as opposed to, say, isolated meditation in nature) so that we can become more Christlike through our interactions with other imperfect people?