Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is the church the same everywhere you go?

I've been to church in lots of places (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Utah, New York, Washington, Arizona, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Venezuela, North Carolina, Connecticut, and probably a few more I can't remember), and from time to time I've heard (as some of you have, no doubt, too) someone say, often in a testimony, that "the church is the same everywhere you go."

Well, no, it isn't.

And, yes, it is.

Yes, the meeting structure is the same (generally a three-hour block on Sundays, generally the same curriculum, of course the same scriptures (assuming they're available in the language of the congregation), though perhaps in different languages), but part of what makes the church the church are the people. And given the diversity of geography, ethnicity, language, economic standing, political views, family stage, age, and so on, we can't expect things to be the same everywhere.

To be sure, I'm playing a bit of a game here. When some say "the church" is the same everywhere, they mean the gospel. And God and the gospel don't change from place to place. But local culture (infused by all those differences I mentioned above) plays a big role in what an individual congregation is like.

We have lived in some wards where, as active members with long experience in the church, we were sorely needed by a tired bishop to help staff organizations in the ward. And we've lived in other wards where we were a dime-a-dozen in terms of our experience. We lived in international wards where we spoke the minority language and had to rely on translation, and we've been in some wards where others spoke the minority language. Small inner city congregations have unique challenges compared with suburban units, just as suburban units have their own set of challenges.

To be sure, we hope we find some comfort in the "sameness" of congregations when we travel or move from place to place. But many have also felt the disappointment that a new ward just isn't the same as the one they left.

My wife and I have moved more often than we ever imagined we would. We've been "new" in 11 wards, including times we've moved back into a ward after having been away, and including two ward divisions. We've developed a couple of coping mechanisms for our moves.

First, we try to join the ward choir wherever we go, assuming there is one. It's something we enjoy doing, and we are able to find a few like minded folks pretty quickly.

Second, we try to get to know our ward leaders in the bishopric, Relief Society, priesthood, and whatever organizations our kids might be in. We know the bishop is often too busy, but by our reaching out we get to know a few people, and hope that a friendship sticks.

Finally, we seek opportunities to serve. We'll tell the bishop early on that we're ready for callings when he's ready to extend them (so he won't hold off allowing a "settling in" period). And we volunteer to do stuff where it's needed and where we can. I've made a couple of good friends helping to unload someone else's moving van.

What's your experience in different wards and branches? How have you coped with the changes?

- Paul


  1. I like the suggestions you gave here and agree that church culture can be different in different places. I remember a man I met in Germany from Ivory Coast. Though the church in Germany doesn't seem very different from what I was used to in the U.S., he felt like a stranger there. In Africa, he said, the members were more lively, sang with more enthusiasm and were more friendly than the Germans. It was a difficult transition for him to make.

    Having moved a few times myself, I've found neighbors can be fast friends if you make an effort to engage in discussions or even just say 'hi' as you see them. Invitations to dinner or a family game night can be even better. Since you'll probably see them quite a bit, they're always good friends to have.

  2. Speaking in very general terms, and not meaning to stereotype anyone, my personal experience has been that there's a higher concentration of judgmental members in the Northeast than in UT/CO/AZ. As one friend of mine explained it, "out here, it's easy to be Mormon". On the East Coast, though, I think the church suffers from an image problem and that can create some pretty oppositional situations--being the only Mormon for miles around can be hard.

    I had a wonderful Bishop in my student ward (incredibly thoughtful and understanding, a really good leader for teenagers), but, at one time, a very difficult RS president (I was in this ward for 7 years, throughout college and law school). Church became more about buying clothes from Ann Taylor and not drinking coffee than actually living the gospel.

    The family wards I've been in, or visited, on the other hand, seemed generally more tolerant of diversity.

  3. Interesting thought. Student and single wards I've known (either as a member of the ward or the parent of a member or in an advisory capacity) present a unique set of circumstances -- younger, less experienced members sometimes who are also finding their way.

    Now we live in an established suburban ward. We find that the propensity to comment in class seems inversely proportionate to age. We wonder (based on our own experience) if the theories of youth fade with the experience of age. Not universally true but certainly in discussions of families and parenting.