Monday, July 14, 2008

What to expect when you visit a Mormon church

Many Mormon (LDS) churches have a sign on the front proclaiming “Visitors Welcome”. Visiting an LDS church service is usually a pretty good way to get an idea of who Mormons are and what they believe. Here’s what to expect if you’re contemplating a visit to an LDS church, along with some tips for first-time visitors.

Where and when can you go?

Visitors are welcome in all LDS meetinghouses. Type your address in this locator to find out where and when your local congregation, or ward, meets.

You may have heard about LDS temples, which can only be entered by baptized members in good standing. Most temples are easily identifiable by their large size, exquisite architecture, and in many cases a statue of an angel on top. Meetinghouses, on the other hand, are usually nondescript and are much more common. There’s probably one in your town or neighborhood.

What happens at church?

Church meets on Sunday and is three hours long. There are three meetings in a row that each last about an hour:

  • Sacrament meeting - This is the most important meeting and it’s held in the main room, or chapel. It starts with a song, a prayer, and announcements. Occasionally, special blessings are given to members of the congregation such as babies or newly baptized members.

    After these opening proceedings, the congregation sings another song and some (usually) young men bless and pass the Sacrament through the congregation. The Sacrament consists of small portions of bread and water that are reminders of Jesus’ body and blood, respectively. This is the most sacred part of the meeting and the room may get quieter, depending on the number of small children in the congregation.

    The Sacrament bread and water is intended for baptized members of the church. However, it’s not taboo if you want to take some yourself. The Sacrament is offered to everybody, so if you don’t want to take it, you can just pass it on to the next person.

    After the Sacrament, a few members of the church give talks about different subjects that the Bishop assigns. This takes the majority of the meeting. An exception to this is the first Sunday of the month which has an “open mike” format where anyone can share their feelings about Jesus Christ.

    The meeting wraps up with another song and a prayer.

  • Sunday School - After Sacrament Meeting, everyone attends a Sunday School class based on age and experience in the church. For visitors and new members of the church, there’s a class called “Gospel Essentials” which covers basic topics. Ask anyone where this class meets and they will be happy to show you where to go. You may be asked to introduce yourself briefly just so others can get to know you.

  • Priesthood Meeting / Relief Society - In this meeting, all of the men meet together in “Priesthood Meeting” and all of the women meet together in “Relief Society”. This is often a less formal environment than the other meetings and is used for more specific announcements about upcoming activities and lessons on special topics. Because these meetings tend to be less formal and convene based on age and gender, this is where you’re most likely to meet members who resemble you.
During both Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society, there are "Primary" classes available for children, and a "Nursery" for toddlers.

In some wards, the order of the three meetings is reversed, so that Sacrament Meeting is last. This is usually so that a church building can accommodate several wards at once.

Heads up...

Here are a few things that might happen when you visit an LDS church and how to prepare for them.

  • Upon entering the church you may be greeted by one or more enthusiastic members. Because the same church members meet together every week, they get to know each other well and it’s easy to spot newcomers. Experience shows that most visitors appreciate this, but if you want to be left alone, just state that you’re here to observe.

  • You may be approached by missionaries. LDS missionaries are usually young men and women who teach lessons to people who are interested in learning the Church. The missionaries are easily identifiable by their black name tags. If you like what you see at church, you can choose to have the missionaries visit your home to teach you more things about the LDS church. If you’re not interested in having the missionaries visit, it’s best to say so directly. You can say, “Thanks, but I’m just observing right now. I’ll let you know if I become interested in having some lessons.”

  • You might hear yourself referred to as an “investigator”. Some members use this term to refer to anyone who is not baptized that is visiting, or “investigating” the church. It’s not meant as a derogatory term, although I prefer the term “visitor”.

  • Someone may ask where you live or direct you to another church building. If someone does this, they’re not trying to get rid of you, they’re just trying to be helpful. LDS congregations, or wards, are defined by geographic boundaries, so given an address, you can find out which ward you belong to. If you enjoyed your visit but didn’t attend your own ward, don’t worry. All LDS congregations teach the exact same things and are “staffed” by volunteers, so most wards tend to be very similar.

What you won’t see

A few things are noticeably absent from LDS services:

  • Requests for donations - Donations aren’t requested publicly at LDS meetings. If you want to contribute money to the church, there are envelopes available in the hallway, usually next to the Bishop’s office. You can give the envelope to the Bishop directly or mail it to his address, which is on the envelope.

  • Crosses - The symbol of the cross is noticeably absent from LDS churches. There’s nothing evil about a cross; the LDS church just prefers to focus on a living Christ instead of displaying the mode of his death.

  • Polished sermons - Most sermons and classes in the LDS church are given by common members of the congregation, who may not have public speaking experience or who may not have been members of the LDS church for very long. This is how we all learn together. Hopefully the sincerity of the discourses makes up for lack of polished speech.

Additional info

For some similar information from the official Church web site, see What to Expect at Sunday Meetings. If you have any additional questions or tips about visiting an LDS church, please add them as comments to this post.

Looking forward to your visit!

1 comment:

jtsnake said...

There's actually even a snazzier meeting house locator now:

It's awesome!