Unity in Diversity: Congregational Life

It’s an odd thing to move to a new congregation. I think that most Community of Christ members expect change, subtle to dramatic, should they move and change congregations. But with my previous background as a Latter-day Saint where everything—and I mean everything—was correlated at the general (or world church) level, I knew exactly what to expect when we moved. While the people are different from congregation to congregation, the programs, buildings, and worship are all consistent.

So when a Mormon moves into a new ward (congregation), they can expect that their Sunday School and other class instruction will be from the exact same book, and often the lesson plans will be the same from week to week no matter which church you attend anywhere in the world. Worship formats never change, and the physical spaces where the worship is held, the actual buildings, are often identical to other buildings of the same period for the last thirty years or so (with most of Mormon growth occurring in the last three decades). Older buildings exempted, I can walk into a Mormon chapel just about anywhere and know exactly where the bathroom is, the bishop’s office, the chapel, etc.

Community of Christ’s greatest strength, and potential weakness, is its unity in diversity (one of the church’s Enduring Principles), which I find refreshing.  While I think there are things to be learned and even envied from the Mormon experience, I celebrate the unique creation that is a Community of Christ congregation. Often the people scrimp and save and build the building from the ground up with their own hands, creating an ownership which is unknown among contemporary Mormon wards, especially in the United States. In Gainesville, Florida—our congregation until last month—the members there worked for years at a concessions stand during University of Florida games. In fact, they burned themselves out on building their little church on the hill to the point that they are now hesitant to get around to a badly needed phase-two for their growing congregation.  These are challenges I never faced previously as a Mormon—challenges which make building Zion and a congregation completely new, exciting, and personal.

Moving to Nashville, Tennessee, we have entered a completely different experience in congregational life. The church itself is a large steel-frame structure that also houses a community theater—not because the members rent out a theater, but because a theater grew out of the interests and passions of church members, eventually becoming a very apparent aspect to the building. On our first Sunday here, it was hard to tell if we were worshiping in a church or gathered before a stage for a play. I could go into the relevancy of sacred drama to Christian and Restoration history and worship, but won’t.

The worship experience in Nashville is similar to Gainesville, but has its own uniqueness—allowing for a certain malleability or fluidity which seems congenial to Moroni 6:9:

And their meetings were conducted by the church, after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach or exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done.

Here in Nashville, Restoration Christianity is well balanced, in scripture, hymns, and worship.  For example, last Sunday was a pentocostal endowment experience which drew from Hebrew, Christian, and Restoration understandings of Pentecost and being endowed with the Holy Spirit. I left feeling endowed and recharged, reconnected to my universe and my God.

Community of Christ is not just a journey, but often a wild ride. We’ve had highs and lows, but have never been bored. I felt a very distinct call to join, and understand now—at least in part—why God was calling me here, for it has brought peace back to my soul as a Saint of the Restoration and as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It has given me the opportunity to serve Christ and build Zion. The uniqueness of each congregation is but another example of our “new and everlasting” experience, one that is both unchanging and transcendent, yet new as it is encountered in new places and times and among new peoples.

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8 comments on “Unity in Diversity: Congregational Life

  1. Brad Bryant says:

    Thanks Seth, for sharing your observations with us! It is helpful for us “old timers” to see the Community of Christ through new eyes and perspectives. Glad we crossed paths at JWHA, so I can put a ‘face’ with the name…

  2. John Hamer says:

    Scrimping and saving to build a building definitely used to be a big part of the LDS experience, at least for missionfield Mormons. My great grandparents were leaders of the LDS Aurora, Illinois, Branch (congregation) in the mid-20th century. They used to meet in a rented hall and they were constantly holding dinners and doing other fund-raisers for the building fund. When they finally built a stake center in Chicago and another one in Naperville in the 1960s, my grandfather was one of the main builders. Locals put a lot into the buildings in those days.

  3. Seth Bryant says:

    John, I agree completely. And it wasn’t just a mission field experience, but included the Saints in Utah.

    My grandfather told me stories of being asked to contribute large sums of money–above and beyond ten-percent tithing and other offerings–for the building fund to construct local meetinghouses. This “assessment” was determined by his bishop, who would look at his income, and assess just how much he could afford to contribute. And my great uncle Paul oversaw the construction, and helped build with his own hands, a beautiful chapel that stands near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City.

    From my missionary experience, I was always surprised by the variety of buildings throughout the Southern United States–but, they had to be more than thirty years old. One chapel from the 50s featured a pulpit offset to the left of the congregation; the physical facilities manager, however, tore down the stand and pulpit, rebuilding it to look more like other LDS chapels, remarking that it was “too Protestant looking.”

    I am careful in the post (but perhaps not enough) to point out that LDS building standardization is a contemporary experience of the last thirty years or so. I found a fascinating article in the November 1981 Ensign (pages 108-110) entitled “News of the Church: A New Generation of Meetinghouses.” While it lauds the new approach, many, however, lamented this cookie-cutter design.

    Uniformity served several purposes. Rich members in California could no longer build meetinghouses that were more elaborate than poor members in Idaho or Utah (I’m sure you’re aware of some of the “Temple Chapels” in California, built before standardization, that are almost as elaborate as temples).

    Correlation of local construction also took budgeting out of the hands of the local leadership and people, imposing more control from Salt Lake to make sure church programs and facilities were uniform. To this day, fund raising to augment the ward budget is very limited, and few members have any idea of the balances of the local budget. All tithes go to Salt Lake without any transparency, and they are distributed back as Salt Lake sees fit, again without anyone but a few local leaders knowing the numbers.

    Beyond control, the obvious purpose that building standardization serves is that it saves a tremendous amount of money for a growing church. In 1970, there were 3 million members–which means that more than 10 million baptisms have been conducted in the last thirty years. By using the same design and materials, the LDS Church has saved millions upon millions of dollars over the years.

    I once heard, on good authority, a story about the general authorities visiting the model chapel for all future standardized buildings. Sometime in the late 70s, early 80s, the Twelve and a few others were loaded onto a bus outside of the Church Administration building. Mark E. Peterson was grumbling about being taken away from his work, until he heard that N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency called for the trip.

    Upon getting out of the bus and seeing the steeple to the new building–which was detached from the main building and made out of three pipes jutting out of the ground–Bruce R. McConkie stated, “That’s the ugliest steeple I’ve ever seen.” A church employee leading the tour responded, “But Elder McConkie, it saves the church $45K over a traditional steeple,” to which McConkie replied: “Like I said, the best looking steeple I’ve ever seen.”

  4. Arthur says:

    Forgive me for taking the conversation a bit off course, but as a LDS person curious about this blog, may I ask for a bit of clarification about nomenclature? In the post, you refer to members of the LDS church as “Mormons?” So I infer from that that members of the Community of Christ do not refer to themselves as “Mormons,” and they refer to members of the LDS Church as “Mormons?”

    Just wondering, nothing more. I am very interested in the blog, thanks for writing!

  5. Seth Bryant says:

    Hi Arthur,

    Thanks for reading, and no worries about going off course. You can’t have a tangent if you don’t have a center.

    I would say that you’re correct: Community of Christ members would NOT call themselves Mormons (probably emphatically, for most).

    I refer to members of the LDS Church as Mormons or Latter-day Saints. I realize that there was a push a few years back to phase out the word “Mormon,” but as a cultural Mormon I fear that doing so might have tragic consequences for my own identity.

    OK… I’m joking. But, I do think of myself as a member of Community of Christ, a cultural Mormon, and a Latter Day Saint or Saint of the Restoration (NB the lack of a hyphen between “Latter” and “Day” which distinguishes non-Utah Latter Day Saintism from the Mormon variety). But this is just me, and I have a very unique religious experience, heritage, and conversion career.

    Many Community of Christ members would like to phase out “Saints” as an word describing church members. This is similar to how many Mormons would avoid using the word “sermon” and opt for “talk”–in an act of negative-identity formation, or not because it isn’t a useful term, but because it isn’t Protestant. I, however, think “Saint” is useful and perhaps essential.

    • Arthur says:

      Makes total sense! I would have to count myself as a person in favor of phasing out “Mormon” if only because it seems vague considering all the movements stemming from Joseph Smith-Restorationism.

      So usually I just describe myself as a Latter-day Saint and that’s it. Thanks for the answer!

  6. I can certainly relate to the struggle to build a church building. Our congregation, small as it is, built a new one nine years ago. We paid it off in five years. None of us are rich. We struggle with our finances..yet were able to retire our debt that soon. There are only 37 of us altogether.

    Most Community of Christ churches out here on the fringes ( Southeast Kansas) are small.

    • FireTag says:

      Margie:

      LOL! I thought Kansas was at the Centerplace! When we lived in New York City when we were first married, mailings from the church were invariably late because they were first sent to the MANHATTEN, KANSAS mission!

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