A recent article in The Christian Post reports that the Unchurched Prefer Cathedrals Over Contemporary Church Buildings. The article reports:
In a study conducted by LifeWay Research for Cornerstone Knowledge Network, the unchurched preferred more traditional looking buildings by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio over any other option. Given 100 “preference points” to allocate among four photos of church exteriors, the unchurched used an average of 47.7 points on the most traditional and Gothic options.
The other three options were given only 18.5 to 15.9 points.
The article reports that younger “unchurched” in the mid 20s to 30s demographic particularly preferred the older, more traditional look. Suggested reasons were the connection to the past that older buildings evoke, as well as a common perception that more modern styles seem “cold” and perhaps a bit sterile.
Which, of course, inevitably brings us to LDS architecture. Early LDS architecture shows a certain amount of quirkiness. We’re all aware of the striking temples at Kirtland, Nauvoo, and of course, Temple Square in Salt Lake City. But there are a number of interesting LDS places of worship throughout Utah – particularly its tabernacles. For those who are interested, here are a few good examples (not the best photos in the world, but we take what we can get): Provo Tabernacle, Vernal Tabernacle (now renovated as our 51st temple), Bountiful Tabernacle, Heber City Tabernacle, Loa Tabernacle, and the impressive St. George Tabernacle (took 13 years to build it). Enjoy.
My own childhood is connected to the half century old Richfield Tabernacle. A serviceable design that doesn’t really hold up to the others listed above. But I remember it being a highly interesting building from a kid’s perspective. Hanging balcony seating, twisting hallways, winding stairways, cavernous stage full of winches and pulleys, and a comforting sort of weight that comes from being in an old well-built structure. There was an annual Christmas tree exhibition held in its rooms and hallways every December. Apparently Richfield’s Tabernacle has a pretty eventful history. The first ambitious attempt burnt down. The second lasted longer, but was rendered unsafe by an earthquake and eventually demolished in favor of the current structure which has stood and served as a Stake Center and community events center for well over fifty years.
The second Richfield Tabernacle attempt seems remarkable enough that it’s worth quoting the description from “The Proper Edge of Sky: The High Plateau Country of Utah” by Edward R. Geary:
It was a remarkable edifice. The style was more or less Gothic Revival, but with nineteenth-century exuberance it incorporated many other motifs as well, from Greek pediments to onion domes. It could hold four thousand people, twice the population of Richfield at the time. The tower was 187 feet high, making it in all likelihood the tallest building in Utah outside of Salt Lake City. It dominated the townscape much as medieval cathedrals dominated the towns clustered at their base (pg. 72).
Nineteenth-century exuberance indeed. Yet a part of me wishes that we had a bit more of that exuberance today, in our places of worship. To be sure, the current standardized LDS floorplans for new chapels and stake centers are very serviceable and attractive enough. But like those “unchurched” yearning for a touch of Gothic, I too occasionally wish my own faith had a bit more of a physical connection to its past. And not just uniquely Mormon past, but the great weight of history behind the age-old belief in the one true God.
I’m not alone. There have been other posts on the bloggernacle by those who wish for an abandonment of cookie-cutter churches in favor of something more interesting and connected with our history. But another recent blog post by Moshe Akiva, a committed Jew and longtime admirer of historical Mormonism and Joseph Smith (check out his blog on Mormonism and Judaism – Two Sticks) lists the lack of diversity and individuality of Mormon Sunday worship as one of several reasons he hasn’t converted to the LDS faith.
Going once or twice, particularly in an older, architecturally interesting chapel in Utah is an interesting cultural experience. More than that, particularly in one of the newer, corporate, branded cookie cutter chapels is, to me a possible substitute for chemical anesthesia…
Attending a Mormon church reminds me of going to a McDonald’s or shopping at Target. It’s “branded” and standardized building regulated service standard lessons and “General Handbook of Instructions” are the same from place to place. I realize that this is a comfort to some. I suppose that shopping at Target or eating at McDonald’s in a new city is also comforting to some. I’m not one of those people. I don’t eat at McDonald’s and I rarely shop at Target. I like new out of the way restaurants and small owner-run shops.
He also cites a run-in with the LDS Church in Manti (another location for some great Mormon architecture) that made me rather nostalgic:
I have to say that the best experience I ever had in a Mormon church occurred when I was on a Motorcycle trip that crossed Utah from North to South. It was in the late summer and I was unprepared for the rapid temperature drop up in the mountains. I had a great dinner at the “Bakery” (which included a restaurant) in Manti. I struck up a conversation with a local rancher who turned out to be a Mormon bishop in which I complained about the unexpected cold. He offered to put me up for the night and I slept in a room filled with genealogical information and diaries of his polygamous ancestors. I spent most of the night reading them (with his permission) and then went to church with his family in a quirky old chapel filled with equally quirky personalities who went way off the lesson manuals. The classes were filled with theological debate and local history. I suppose that these people were too close to the the Mormon core to be worrisome to Salt Lake, but they were way off the reservation… In any case this was, by far, the best experience I had in a Mormon service and it was, by far, the most independent.
I’ll admit that I agree with him that Mormonism has become far more standardized and uninteresting than I’d like. I realize there are some good reasons that we are the way we are. Chapels are expensive to build, and unique and satisfying architecture probably just isn’t all that feasible. And can you imagine the outcry at a city planning meeting in some California suburb if the LDS Church tried to drop a
building like the Provo Tabernacle in the middle of a couple Mc’Mansion housing developments? I also realize that we are a pragmatic sort of religion and not much given to wasting time and effort on mere aesthetics.
But gosh, I just find the idea that LDS aesthetics, architecture, and even worship may be stuck at where they are now for the next 100 years incredibly depressing. Isn’t there a way we could be doing this better?