If Mormons could just hang around the church building

(RNS) – A small press advisory crossed my desk this week announcing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is starting a pilot program to allow LDS Church buildings to be used as “places Gathering” for young single adults.

Wonderful, I thought! It’s great that the church lets them use chapels, institute buildings, and other church-owned structures to relax. They need just that: a relaxed, welcoming space where they can just be together.

In my mind, I could imagine it. Maybe other people who aren’t Mormons will come too, drawn by the collegiate atmosphere and maybe all the snacks. Mormons can’t date without snacks.

Except I read the fine print. The list of acceptable activities for the pilot program, according to Church News, includes:

  • Religious Education and Gospel Learning (including institute)
  • Social services and activities
  • Temple and Family History Activities
  • Self-reliance, educational opportunities and support groups
  • Missionary and community activities
  • Other Church Programs

So they can meet in the church building for… approved church meetings.

I’m scratching my head about what’s on this list that young adults couldn’t do before. What’s new here that warrants a “pilot test” in “a limited number of issues”?

Because it looks like this, far from being able to use the church building for impromptu socializing, young adults will need to seek permission to use the building for approved activities, such as conducting genealogical research, taking classes at the Institute and maybe do a service project.

All of this is already available to them.

So what is it ?

The article is clear, everything must be done with the approval of the Area Presidency and under the supervision of stake presidents and bishops. All according to the Manual. And people shouldn’t go “implement new initiatives” without first waiting to hear from the hierarchy if their region has been chosen to participate in this special and select program.

In other words, don’t go crazy holding unauthorized religious education meetings, folks! Things could get out of control. People might think they can have fun together without doctrine and play board games or something.

Young adults interact in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Alexis Brown/Creative Commons

Do not mistake yourself; I love that the church is reaching out to young adults and acknowledging that some of its old ways need to change. As I wrote recently, singles have the lowest activity rates of any church demographic, and if we are serious about addressing this issue, it is important that some of these policies change to give them more responsibility and freedom.

This is not the right way to do it. The goal should be to enable them to move into a church that has been consciously and expressly designed for married people. You do this by let single adults actually be adults. Adults gather regularly without chaperones, teachers, or church leaders present. They just need common interests, and maybe a few brownies, and they’re good to go.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve rediscovered some of my favorite places to grow up. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I feel like the world is mine. So I frequented my favorite library, the cafes where I often go to write, and my favorite local restaurants. One of these places in particular is what sociologists would call my “third place” – a place that is neither home nor work (your “first” and “second” places) where you feel totally yourself and find your community. Not to be too corny about this, but a third place sound like the theme song of Cheers. This is where you want to go because everyone knows your name.

For many Latter-day Saints, the ward building may look like this place. But I would say it is increasingly rare, because the parish is simply no longer the center of community life as it was a few generations ago. Correlation’s goal, especially since the early 1970s, was to bring all church activities and program under the umbrella of the priesthood. This means that over the years there has been a systematic de-emphasis of – I’m just going to come out and say it – anything that existed purely for fun.

We generally no longer organize road shows; we do not organize Super Santa Saturdays; we don’t organize massive sports leagues where young people compete in sports. Gone are the days of golden and green balls and dance festivals of all the churches.

Of all the past activities that were part of the life of the church, we still have homes, for they concern the teaching of doctrine. These are still there. Most of the others, those that only existed to build community through recreation, have been abandoned.

There are excellent reasons for this, since these activities depended on many volunteer hours and represented a ton of work. They were ridiculously inefficient, and Correlation was all about efficiency.

I wonder though: can you create a sustainable community with efficiency as the main model? Can you make people feel at home in a safe “third place” when they have to get permission just to be in the building and are expected to spend all their time to religion?

I feel like this announcement of a pilot program for young adults “allowed” to use the building misses the point. If we want people to claim a space like theirs and feel comfortable in it, we have to be willing to give up some control.

Are we?

Related content:

Finally! Single Mormons Have New Opportunities, Greater Respect

What the Mormon Church Wants to Know About Mormon Young Adults

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