Two Churches, Two Gospels

As a Mormon, you belong to two churches: your local congregation, be it ward or branch (the Local Church), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Institutional Church). While something similar may be true for members of other denominations, it is more true for and has more effect on Latter-day Saints. You may draw strength from both your Local Church and from the Institutional Church; I do, and I think most Mormons do. But they are surprisingly distinct units, with rather different, if complementary, agendas.

Your Ward. Unlike almost any other church I know of, the LDS Church assigns its membership to a specific geographical congregation with one specific bishop who has official jurisdiction over that assigned membership. Whether you attend or not. No self-segregation for Mormons. No shopping for a congregation with a pastor you like or a nice youth program. No one gets paid. Everyone serves, most in formal callings of one type or another, but also through friendship, conversation, encouragement, and service projects or activities both large and small. Wards are fairly close-knit communities, at least by modern big-city standards. Teaching supposedly follows manuals which spell out the modern Institutional Gospel, but a wide spectrum of personal opinion and persistent folk doctrine gets taught in classes and across the pulpit. Some bishops follow procedural guidelines for administering the ward fairly closely, others take their discretionary powers and run with them, for good or ill. Exactly what doctrinal and procedural ingredients make up your particular Local Gospel depends on where you live. I have attended LDS congregations all over the world and never encountered a version of the Local Gospel that was really off the charts, so I don’t want to exaggerate the degree of variation, but it is certainly there.

Your Church. Unlike almost any other church I know of, the LDS Church bestows a strong, omnipresent sense of denominational identity on its membership. It follows you wherever you go in the world. There is something about being Mormon which is definitively transnational, even compared to the Catholic Church, where national churches retain some autonomy and still reflect national differences. While local leaders (stake and ward) exercise direction over local members, the Institutional Church retains direct control over LDS temples and temple presidents, over LDS missionaries and mission presidents, and over CES personnel and LDS university presidents. The Institutional Church authors (anonymously, in some undisclosed draft and editorial process) manuals to be used by local units for instruction in Sunday classes. The manuals, along with material posted at and what can be gleaned from General Conference talks, constitute the modern Institutional Gospel, presently rather streamlined compared to the freewheeling 19th-century version. Local LDS buildings are in fact owned by an entity of the Institutional Church. All contributions collected by local congregations are upstreamed directly and immediately to the Institutional Church, which takes title to those gifted funds and has accumulated a remarkably large portfolio of investments. Local members and units have zero input or influence over the management and disposition of those accumulated assets and the revenues therefrom. The Institutional Church issues handbooks spelling out in detail how local leaders are to administer their congregational affairs but granting some leeway on certain matters to local leaders.

So much for the set up. How does this play out?

Activity. Some members get disgruntled with their ward and the Local Gospel they encounter, so they stop attending. Yet, they may still consider themselves fully Mormon in the institutional sense, and may be quite willing to resume congregational attendance after moving to a new city or a new neighborhood, or even upon a change in local leadership. In other denominations, a disgruntled person is free to find another congregation more to their liking to attend, so our congregational inflexibility causes some of our inactivity problems, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, we do set up separate congregations based on language and on age, to keep Spanish-speaking members and young adults active. Imagine if we set up separate congregations based on other factors (say a ward for religiously liberal Mormons, or a ward for those who idolize the writings of Elder McConkie, or a business casual ward). And why not, if it makes people happier about attending church?

Then there are members who *do* continue to attend and be fully engaged with their local congregation but who, either informally or even formally, disengage from the Institutional Church. They are quite happy with the Local Gospel of service and moral exhortation, with activities and pot luck dinners, but take serious issue with one or another aspect of the Institutional Gospel. Our church buildings all proclaim “visitors welcome” and such local-only Mormons are generally welcome. But this is clearly a variant form of membership, a “local only” option.

Communication. The Institutional Church communicates directly with its local leaders via Handbook 1 (not available to the local membership), letters sent directly to local leadership, and regional training meetings. The Institutional Church communicates directly with local membership (without going through local leadership) via General Conference and magazines like the Ensign, as well as via Handbook 2, which is now publicly available (and contains a lengthy section of LDS policies which apply to most members but were rather puzzlingly previously unavailable to the general membership). The Institutional Church does sometimes communicates indirectly with local members through local leaders, as when letters are first sent to local leaders to be read over the pulpit on Sunday. Oddly, these letters are not posted at or otherwise made publicly available. There is very little communication from local leaders or members to the Institutional Church. What’s interesting here is the various communication channels open to senior leadership and how and when they elect to use one or another of those options to communicate broadly or narrowly, to communicate with the media or the membership, to communicate with US/Canada membership versus worldwide membership, and so forth.

Public Perception. As J. B. Haws made clear in his recent book The Mormon Image in the American Mind, the general public has a vague but distinct awareness of the difference between the Institutional Church and the local Mormons they know as coworkers, neighbors, and friends. They like their LDS friends and neighbors, but they are suspicious of the Institutional Church. Something about all that money and all those temples and all those missionaries (all features of the Institutional Church, not local congregations) makes them nervous. It’s like the average person splits the Mormon persona into two halves, assigning good attributes to the local Mormons they know or meet and bad attributes to the shadowy Institutional Church they are aware of but are largely unfamiliar with. Heck, even veteran Mormons are largely unfamiliar with the actual workings of the Institutional Church and largely uninformed about what the Institutional Church does with member contributions.

Positive Change? Few Mormons are activists calling for major change or reform. But in a changing world full of challenges and opportunities for the Church and its membership, change is inevitable. Doctrine and practice change more frequently than we tend to notice. So recognizing the local-institutional dynamic outlined above does help us recognize some opportunities to make positive changes that will advance the work of the Church and its membership at both levels. Why shouldn’t we have a two-hour block? How about a Thursday night sacrament meeting in each stake for those who can’t attend on Sunday or who can only handle a one-hour block? If local units were given more flexibility, would that be used wisely or just to find new ways to screw things up? Online seminary, service missions, female clerks — there is no shortage of ideas for positive change. As we slowly but surely continue the evolution from regional to national to global church, productive adjustments to the local-institutional dynamic are going to be part of the process.

Deep Tributaries. A final point: while the modern Institutional Gospel has been streamlined in part by largely dropping speculative doctrines that flourished in the 19th century (think Brigham Young and Orson Pratt), there are still doctrinal tributaries that feed the modern Institutional Gospel that are rich and deep. There is the orthodox stream one can find in books by BYU religion profs like Robinson, Millet, and many others. There is an apologetic stream pioneered by Nibley and carried on by organizations like FAIR, FARMS, and now the Interpreter. There is the broad Mormon Studies stream that includes journals like BYU Studies, Dialogue, and JMH, as well as books by the hundreds. I suspect that some Mormons whose experience of the LDS Church is limited to their Local Gospel sometimes conclude it is too shallow for them or doesn’t address particular issues that trouble them. They deserve the opportunity to sample one or all of the deeper tributaries feeding the Institutional Gospel, sources that treat standard issues in more depth or from a different perspective, and that cover a broader range of issues than is ever encountered in local settings. That might be just what some of those not-quite-mainstream members need to read — it would be nice if somehow the general membership were more aware of these sources. Deeper water carries risks, of course, but also opportunities for some who don’t find their Local Gospel sufficient for their religious needs.

So are you a local Mormon, an institutional Mormon, or both? Do you find any of the deeper tributaries that feed the Institutional Gospel particularly helpful?

21 comments for “Two Churches, Two Gospels

  1. On the topic of positive change: I love thought experiments like this. What about introvert-friendly church? I’ve been active my whole life, but find the sheer number of people I have to interact with at church overwhelming (one reason I love my ward organist calling. I can’t be expected to socialize too much while I play prelude/postlude music, although people still do come up regularly to have one-sided conversations with me).

    When we lived in Tunisia, there was no organized church presence, so we got together with the seven or eight other members in the country and had a small service at someone’s house. I absolutely loved the dynamic of having church with just a few people. In fact, I secretly want to move to another remote country with a small church presence just so we can have “introvert church” again.

  2. Dave, I like your description very much — it incorporates a lot of observations I’ve made myself in the past, and gives them a structure that I find helpful.

    Looking at this structure, it helps me frame a problem I see with getting input from individual Church members to the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency. The Church has pushed a model of members bringing issues to their Bishop/Branch President, who passes it up the line to the Stake President (if they can’t resolve it themselves), who passes it up to the Area Authority, and then to the top. The Brethren have promoted this model in General Conference, suggesting that this is the correct way of raising problems, instead of sending letters to General Authorities. And the Church has enforced this model by passing letters back to local authorities for a response, instead of responding themselves.

    From what I’ve heard anecdotally, I don’t think this works for many Church members. They don’t feel like their concerns are heard, and feel like local leaders fail to pass the concerns up the ladder when they should.

    Is it possible that this model has led to efforts like Ordain Women or will lead to similar efforts in the future? In an environment like the U.S., where we have interest groups of all types trying to influence individuals and governments at all levels, it seems likely that those who don’t feel like they are heard will group together to find another way to get their message to Church leaders. And they will use creative ways to get attention to accomplish their aims.

    I’m NOT trying to suggest that this is good or bad. I am suggesting that it is how human beings react if they don’t think their views are being heard. Its probably too simplistic to say that the failure of the system to effectively pass views to the GAs is the reason for efforts like OW. But I wonder if it doesn’t play a role somehow.

  3. I think there is an increase in attempts at direct communication by the central leadership and members such as by “worldwide leadership” training and broadcasts, stake conferences via satellite broadcast from SLC for broad areas of the church, on line training and the like. As to receiving input from members, the Church has a sophisticated social science research division that regularly polls members on various issues (but does not release that information to anyone except the leadership). This polling is a way to get a “scientific sampling” of member attitudes without being screened or filtered through intermediate leadership channels. Anecdotally, the faith promoting rumor mills says that some of the modifications to the temple liturgy reflected information received through such methods.

  4. Thanks for the insights in this post, Dave. Anecdotally I would say that local ward identity has been incredibly important to me personally, both growing up and as an adult. My wife and I recently moved, and we quite deliberately looked for a place that was within the same ward boundaries—the shared friendships and experiences we have in our current ward were meaningful enough to impact that decision.

    The church qua institution is always going to be a bit harder to embrace and identify with, whether one is inside or outside the institution. I certainly have moments where I feel proud of belonging to the church, when I’m happy to say, “these are my people,” but that is rarely tied to feeling proud of the work of the bureaucracy. The exceptions would be our humanitarian and welfare programs, which seem to work well and certainly require bureaucratic expertise.

    I’m no expert, but in my observation other minority religions with whom we are sometimes compared, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, also cultivate an international identity among their adherents. Indeed, the international flavor of their identity may be even more primary than ours, as they don’t have the same kind of cultural metropole with disproportionate weight in defining norms and practices as we do.

  5. Great overview. Yes money flows up and words flow down! Strategically the institutional church would do well to open upward communication from faithful as it would tend to end run the outside internet avenues of agitation distancing and othering the agitators from chapel Mormons who would have a say.

  6. Thanks for the post, Dave.

    “Unlike almost any other church I know of, the LDS Church bestows a strong, omnipresent sense of denominational identity on its membership. It follows you wherever you go in the world. There is something about being Mormon which is definitively transnational.”

    Yes, indeed, but as Robert R. (5) also suggested, the question is how much of this “something” is “American”. American Mormons see the church as “the same” all over the world, which it is indeed through many factors, but how many of those factors actually have nothing to do with the gospel, but are cultural norms imposed by its American origin? This is a complex question. Not possible to discuss in detail here, but I refer to this article: Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church.

  7. Thanks for the interesting post, Dave. I recently finished Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, and was struck by how important it is in certain Protestant traditions NOT to be tied strongly to other congregations, even those of the same denomination, even if it means lack of uniformity and centralization and structure–in fact it’s precisely the creative building of a particular congregation that is the essential thing, expressing through that process a certain form of religiosity unique to that congregation, or if not unique, at least “original” (not in the sense of being the first to come to the conclusion, but in that they authentically reached a conclusion on their own rather than having it prescribed to them from outside the congregation). Having been raised in precisely the opposite sort of tradition, it made me reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of each, but especially made me think hard about how the deliberateness of non-uniformity was intended to make the congregation responsible for their religious choices and spiritual lives, and how acutely they might feel that, and how deeply spiritual that is meant to be.

  8. I think it would be useful to add a third “Church” defined by temple attendance and the temple recommend process. It’s activity occurring at a place other than the chapels or the tabernacle or assembly hall at General Conference, by a group of people not the same as the Ward or the Church, with doctrine and teaching in the temples that is not normally discussed at Sunday meetings or General Conference. It is clear there is change over time, but most would call it glacial by comparison with either local congregations or the institutional Church, and the process for change is mysterious to unknown. And there is clearly an us-and-them nature to the temple. If you’re in that “church” you know who you are. If you’re not, you also know who you are.

  9. “Unlike almost any other church I know of, the LDS Church assigns its membership to a specific geographical congregation with one specific bishop who has official jurisdiction over that assigned membership. Whether you attend or not. No self-segregation for Mormons. No shopping for a congregation with a pastor you like or a nice youth program.”

    I’m a little surprised you are not familiar with the Catholic Church. It is the largest church in the United States and on the planet. A Catholic is assigned to a parish community based on geography and cannot easily change their assigned one. The parish has one pastor as well as some assistant priests who are chosen by the local Bishop of the Diocese under the direction of the Holy Ghist. Programs, religious instruction, service assignments, etc. are all based on the parish community.

    A Catholic may attend weekly Mass at any other parish just like a Mormon may attend another ward service but they are expected to support their parish community where their records are held.

  10. “are expected to support their parish community where their records are held.”

    Michael, is there a recordkeeping system in Catholicism that lists all Catholics and where they live–or where they live in the Parish and that get transferred along with the person when s/he moves to another parish?

    Can a Catholic be married by a priest of a parish different from the one in which the Catholic or his/her spouse live? Can a child be baptized by a priest of a parish different from the one in which the child lives? What about confirmation or conversion–how parish tied are they?

  11. Very interesting post. It fits very well my recent experience with the Church. I will be sharing this post with a number of people.

  12. I think of the local church and the general church. Sometimes I think of the pastoral (local) church and the administrative (general) church.

    I’m a member of my local church. My calling is to build up my local church. I have some say in matters in my local church. My local church is my ward and stake.

    I don’t have any calling in the general church.

    In the pastoral (local) church, anything done is done by invitation and gift. In the pastoral (local) church, members help each other — they worship together, sing hymns together, play together, and so forth.

    The general church doesn’t serve me directly. The general church provides buildings to meet in, and pays the utility bills. The general church provides curriculum materials. The general church often uses paid employees to fulfill its mission. The general church provides temples and missions. I don’t have a say in matters concerning the general church — that isn’t my calling.

    The local church (really, local churches) and the general church together make a beautiful picture.

  13. Michael (#11), I believe a Catholic priest can hear confession from any penitent Catholic, whereas Mormon bishops restrict their pastoral counseling to members of their own congregation (their authority is strictly local). In a sense, they are only a bishop for those in their congregation.

    My neighbor in California shopped around for a friendly parish to attend, so it sure sounds like Catholics have some flexibility in where to attend and worship. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe that’s just California. For a Mormon to fully participate in another congregation (have a calling, teach a class, receive ordinances for themselves or a family member) requires express permission from at least their Stake President. It really is more restrictive than other denominations, although I don’t claim to know all the details of how other denominations regulate membership.

  14. Remind me of Ritchie wonderful article titled “Institutional Church And The Individual” on organizational abuse.

    We give much authority, almost all recourse and power to our general leaders without questions, in a way it is scary.

    I would love to see our general authorities participate in debate so that we are encourage to think, negotiate and find obedience rather then just being little puppets who cannot determine the difference between policies, doctrines, opinions, and truth.

  15. “So are you a local Mormon, an institutional Mormon, or both? Do you find any of the deeper tributaries that feed the Institutional Gospel particularly helpful?” Are those the only options? Could it not be that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the fountain of living waters that flows outward from Jesus Christ to hydrate every living soul that will receive it? “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.” (John 7:37)

  16. Also, might the Mormon Bloggernacle be considered its own type of church, with its own culture and doctrine?

  17. There’s only one gospel…no matter how many churches there are.

    “Christ died for the ungodly.”

    If you are ungodly, then He died for you.

    There it is.

    Good News…no?

  18. DaveH (#12) – there is a record keeping system in Catholicism but it is not centralized to the extent of Mormonism. There is a reason why people refer to our church as a corporate church. It is structured, managed, and run like a corporation. Catholic parishes are run in a similar manner but on the local parish level. When someone moves into a new parish they are expected to register with that parish as a member. This is not unlike our own church in its early days where members had to report to the bishop and list themselves as a member. The early Utah Saints did not have the blessing of a computerized membership system in place. That does not mean that statistics and records are not kept at the diocese level, it just means that the recordkeeping is more localized.

    A Catholic is expected to get married in their local parish. That may mean the parish of the bride or the parish of the groom. It is possible for them to get married in another parish or church or even outside the church by a priest however, the priest who marries them generally checks with the parish priests to ensure all sacraments have been obtained and permission granted for the marriage. The same practice is also generally true for baptisms confirmations and adult conversions.

    I am not certain why you place emphasis on centralized bureaucracy instead of parish geography and community. Even in our own church, ward community is not based upon where you were baptized or confirmed.

    Dave (#15) – I believe you are correct. A Catholic priest can hear confession from any penitent Catholic. However that tends to be the exception when dealing with Sacraments. I would point out that our Mormon bishops offer counseling as their primary duty and are not involved as much with liturgy or ordinances to the extent of a Catholic priest.

    Your friends in California may have not been questioned as extensively when he or she registered at the parish. Or he or she may not even have registered at the parish and is just attending the church for worship.

  19. Were the suggestions in the “Positive Change” section meant to be entirely hypothetical?

    I don’t know about the current setup, but the Shingu branch in Japan had a two-hour block for a long time back in the day and the stake president of the Osaka Stake at one time sent a request up the chain to see if he could get a two-hour block for his whole stake. However, nothing ever came of this desire so far as I know.

    In Hong Kong there is an English-speaking branch which has been commissioned with providing Sacrament meeting services every day of the week so the domestic servant members (primarily Filipinas) can attend church even if they have to work on Sundays.

    In Israel church is on Saturdays.

    Online seminary and service missions are very real, though more common in some places than others.

    It turns out the international church can be a lot more flexible than many members realize. My question, is it the institutional church or the local church that allows for this flexibility? At what level are these deviations from the norm being approved, and at what point are the reigns pulled back in and people told to conform to the standard? I really don’t know.

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