Most first-time visitors to a Mormon church building comment on the number of rooms. Many expect to find one large interior space, such as in many other Christian denominations’ buildings of worship.
But meetinghouses for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are different from those used by many other religions. They include classrooms, offices, a font for baptisms, a kitchen and in many cases a cultural hall with an indoor basketball court. Cultural halls in Mormon buildings usually also have a stage, for dramatic and musical productions. And the basketball court doubles for a dance floor or dining area, among other uses.
This is all in addition to a large room that seats 200 to 300, called the chapel, used for Sunday worship services. The word “chapel” is also sometimes used by Mormons to describe the whole building or meetinghouse.
“The building was so simple,” said Sandra Yeo after visiting for the first time one of the Church’s meetinghouses in her native England.
“There were no crosses, no murals, no statues or icons of any kind as far as I could see. I had never been in a Christian church that didn’t have that sort of thing. I found the simplicity very appealing.”
For Latter-day Saints, the church meetinghouse is a hub of religious and social life. The most important part of the week, though, is the hour-long sacrament meeting. This takes place on Sunday and is similar to other Christian worship services. Men, women and younger members offer prayers and give sermons, hymns are sung, and the sacrament, similar to other traditions’ communion, is administered. Members teach the principles taught by Jesus Christ.
When Brian Sharon attended his first meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wisconsin, he was impressed with the worship service itself.
“I was used to a very formal, highly structured worship service in the church of my childhood," Sharon said. "I was intrigued by how smoothly and efficiently things were handled, without extensive ritual or ceremony. And I was touched by how friendly and open everyone was, especially to visitors like my family. It was refreshing to me.”
In addition to the sacrament meeting, there are other meetings on Sundays as part of a three-hour span from 9 a.m. until noon, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., or some other variation.
These other meetings include classes for youths and adults and what Mormons call “Primary,” a time for lessons and singing for children 12 and under.
Mormons tend to have large families, so be prepared to see — and hear — a lot of children. And though Mormon parents try to teach their little ones to be reverent, children are also encouraged to be involved.
In the children’s Primary, for example, you will see 7-year-olds, or even younger children, give talks, read scripture and pray in front of their peers. The songs taught and sung in Primary focus on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, on scriptural themes and on simple ways children and others can put into practice what is preached.
Mormons are generally a friendly people, so a visitor should not be surprised when someone, seeing the new face, comes over to talk and offers to shake hands and help the visitor find the right meeting or class.
A common misperception among those not of the Mormon faith is that only Latter-day Saints can enter their chapels. This is most likely based on a misunderstanding about temples and chapels. While temples, of which there are 151 (including existing ones and those announced or under construction) worldwide, are open only to members of the Church who are fully engaged in their faith, anyone can enter a Mormon chapel to visit or worship with their Latter-day Saint neighbors. There are over 17,000 chapels throughout the world.
The physical design of Latter-day Saint chapels reflects Mormons’ depth of religiosity that goes beyond pulpit and pew. To be a member of a Mormon ward (or congregation) is to be part of a faith community that intersects weekly as a group and in smaller gatherings several other times throughout each week.
In some cases Mormon meetinghouses become launching areas for community service initiatives, such as in times of natural disasters. On many occasions, such efforts are in conjunction with those of other community and faith groups.
Mormons say that while the activities that bring them together within their buildings are wide and varied — some cultural, some sporting, some educational and some social — the underpinning motivation for all that is done is for individuals and families to help each other to overcome life’s challenges by learning about Jesus Christ and striving to become like Him.
For Latter-day Saints, the buildings they use for their various worship services and other gatherings are important — but not as important as the building that goes on within their walls. It is the building of strong individuals and families, of knowledge, of relationships and of faith in God that matters most to Mormons.
“Our chapels are not all constructed with the same design features,” said Church apostle Elder L. Tom Perry in a worldwide conference. “However, each one centers on the mission of our Savior. They are buildings dedicated for the purpose of worshiping Him.”
*This story has been updated since it was previously published on 19 August 2008.