What are the New Roles for our Latter-day Saint Cultures?

We’ve all seen the changes. Two hour church. High Priests don’t meet separately. No more Scouts. Come Follow Me. Etc., etc., etc. Anyone with a serious continuing connection to the Church is still adjusting. And those adjustments include adjustments to our culture.

You’ve probably seen the changes in culture. They include changes to our terminology (“ministering”, “come follow me”), changes in how we structure our lives (“two hour church”, home-based study and study groups) and changes to the cultural goods we consume (podcasts, YouTube videos).

During my life the culture associated with the Church had already changed markedly before the most recent changes. The roadshows, bazaars and theater, the sports competitions and blue and gold balls, the Relief Society magazine of my youth are gone, along with many other things. How I act as a Church member now is radically different than what was normal then.

With all of this, I wonder how the role of culture has changed and should change. In my view culture is an extremely important part of any organization. We rely on culture to allow members to express their feelings about the church and their place in it and the world. Our culture gives others signals about whether we are part of the community or not. Culture fills in our experience between ritual and meeting. It is present in how we try to accomplish our religion. And sometimes it even limits and thwarts what the plain text of our teachings would have us do.

I realize this is a big question. It’s complicated by our relationships with the Church itself and our understanding of what is permissible. There are some cultural expressions that aren’t acceptable, while others are encouraged. Many church members are uncomfortable with culture that they don’t believe has been approved by the Church or doesn’t come through a church-owned source.

Fortunately, culture isn’t always something that is decided by authorities and transmitted to members. It is more often the collective and generally unintentional decisions of everyone in the group. In a very real sense, we decide on our culture.

So, what should our culture look like?


20 comments for “What are the New Roles for our Latter-day Saint Cultures?

  1. Where I experienced them there were M-Men and Golden Gleaner Gold and Green Balls, but no blue and gold [cub scout?] balls.

    There is a sense of community that has been lost in many wards and stakes as a result of changes in culture organized around church sponsored activities and local fundraising efforts. Those changes have their good points, but it might also be a good thing if there were a way to rebuild that sense of community. I’m too old and tired to purport to say how or what our culture should look like.

  2. Don’t forget the church is a global organisation. That means that the church culture in the US may be very different from church culture in Europe. I think it is dor the best that we (in Europe) get rid of some of the USchurch culture that really doesn’t fit well with our own cultural narrative.
    And never forget not to mix cultural habits/opinions with gospel truths! That I think is causing a big problem in the church today and the reason why esp. young people walk away in droves.

  3. Wondering, I may have mis-remembered the name of the ball.

    I think you are right about the nature of local events. In our ward I see an active resistance to many social events. There is a clear attitude that the Church already takes up so much time that they don’t want to feel obligated to do any more. And you are right, this comes at a cost of community.

    I could be persuaded that this has a good side if I thought most members were spending time in other communities, or at least with friends outside their families. Sadly, I don’t believe that is happening.

  4. I’m only 37 and the sense of community I had with the church has diminished from my youth. Grew up in the PNW, mission overseas, BYU, law school and a YSA ward where I met my wife back home in the PNW, and now working for the feds I’ve lived in three states and three countries (Middle East/Africa).

    The ward and stake that I grew up in the PNW was middle of the road economically, lily white with a few rich people and some poorer folks. University town. But there was always something coming on at the stake center, and everyone knew everyone else and their business. There were folks that had been in the area for 50 years, and far more moved in for the University or the tech company in town over the years and stayed. This was a far more net positive then negative, but still you knew who was who and what people were largely up to. I can think back to the 25 years I lived there and remember who got married, who went to which mission, who died and how, who left the Church, who moved out and to where and when they came in, who is still there and what they are up too, etc.

    The height of the community and attachment I had with the Church was in my YSA ward I lived in for four years, back in my home town.This was due to my social circle being centered there and at the Institute, even more so then the Y. The wards I’ve been in since, have had community to one degree or another, but never the same closeness or depth. Domestically, one ward was solid in the LA area though with a very elderly demographic due to housing issues, one was probably the wealthiest/most politically connected ward in DC and had a terrible sense of community/togetherness if you hadn’t lived there for at least 10 years and weren’t in the 1%, and another solid ward in the DC area.

    Overseas I’ve felt it a sense of connection to the community in the Church, in a branch in Israel or Africa, or my current stake here in the Gulf. Probably because you can connect alot faster being far from home and in a place where you have little say in how things are culturally. The bonding can generate faster in such an environment.

    Overall, I’ve felt the distance socially from the Church since taking this job and becoming something of a vagabond. It’s hard every couple years to pick up the social/community aspect in the church in a new location. People are always friendly, but will still ask if I’m new even if i’ve been there for two years. I think you can still get the sense of community pretty good if you stay in a place longer than the three year entry requirement point. Each decade, and especially this last one, of my life the social/community aspects of the Church has diminished, mostly by changes from Salt Lake. I think it’s to push us closer to the fundamental unit of the gospel, the family, but i do miss some parts of what I experience 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe it’s all just childhood nostalgia. I can’t say for sure

    Anyway, some thoughts I had.

  5. Arganoil, your coments on the global nature of the church are absolutely correct. I went ahead and changed the title of the post to say Latter-day Saint Cultures, instead of just Culture. I sometimes think that in making these changes the Church assumed that locally wards and stakes would create their own events and programs and culture. But by and large that hasn’t happened much.

    Yes, cultural habits and opinions can mix with gospel truths. But I don’t think we should think of culture vs. gospel as some dichotomy. They mix. It’s more like Gospel Truths are the goal and culture is involved with how we accomplish the goal (although that is probably an inadequate description also). Your ward’s culture can be involved in relatively simple decisions like which hymns to sing in Sacrament meeting, and whether or not its ok to sing a hymn most members don’t know.

  6. The culture imposed by the institution is the most difficult thing for me. I live in Hawaii and the institution’s property management company, Hawaii Reserves, Inc. (HRI), is hell-bent on building houses over the most beautiful rolling hills and freshwater springs in Laie—a place understood by Hawaiians and residents to be sacred. Instead of restoring taro to the agricultural land (a social, cultural, economic need) HRI hopes to change laws and ignore existing community resolutions so they can build. The profitability of a housing development proves too tempting to somebody in charge. Members and the community are torn and contentious. So uninspired and tragic! This is perceived as Utah-business-centric culture imposing will to reshape the Hawaiian landscape.

    I cannot imagine the Brethren allowing this, but it’s happening. Makes me realize that money has a grip on LDS leadership.

  7. Blue and Gold Banquets. Gold and Green Balls. Both long gone, but conflated in the post.

    Still, an excellent and thought-provoking post, and excellent comments as well. I believe the church is undergoing significant strain, the resolution of which is anything but clear. Two examples:

    1) Can the church move fast enough to stem the loss of Millennials without completely alienating the Boomers? (This shows itself in new LGBT policy, more transparency, ecumenicism, etc.)

    2) How does a church with a rigid, top-down hierarchical structure preserve enough flexibility for it to survive in the different cultures it finds around the globe? (Part of the answer appears to be stripping down to the bare bones, but some of this is counter productive, like a single universal hymnbook).

    I look forward to seeing the other responses!

  8. They could be fun, but were a lot of work.

    The ward I grew up in (boundaries have changed considerably) has a plaque for Eagle Scouts. It does not have one for missionaries who served in the ward. Many of those Eagle Scouts did not serve missions. Some thought about it (I know, my father was bishop at the time) but didn’t think they’d be “good enough”. Had they gone, they would have been better missionaries that a lot of those in my mission from Orem or Bountiful somewhere that went because everyone else did. (Neither of my MTC companions had read the Book of Mormon before coming in.)

    Socializing is always fun and can be spontaneous without jumping through a bunch of hoops.

  9. I wish we had a culture of extreme humility. Where the underlying vibe at meetings was less ‘we’ve got truth, you don’t’ and more ‘we are just as much the least-of-these as the next person.’

    I also wish we as a church were poor and had to truly sacrifice to run our programs, help our neighbors.

  10. Not me. There are plenty of poor churches out there. I want a church that can spread the gospel everywhere, feed all the children, and build Zion using concrete and steel.

  11. Maybe I’m interpreting things differently. Are we really talking about the financial resources available? I’m much more concerned with being humble and poor in spirit. Financially I don’t care too much, although I agree that having resources to help others and spread the gospel is a good thing.

  12. I kind of miss Roadshows…there is a cherished family memory that I have connected to that. As much as I liked much of my time in the BSA, I will not miss the church association with scouting. However, I do hope the outdoorsy and high adventure stuff remains. It’s not completely clear to me how that will play out and with the Pandemic it will clearly not be sorted out in the short term.

    Honestly, IMO, as others have said, I think it’s the internationalization and even the spread beyond the intermountain West that has driven almost all of these changes. I’m fine with that. As much as I appreciate a fair number of things about Utah, church culture there has a lot of weirdness and stuff that makes me uncomfortable enough to where I just don’t think I’d function well living there. If I were to make a list of the events in my life that have been most trying for me as a member of the church, a good half of them would be dealing with that culture.

    How we change? I don’t know. I think we still have a lot of transitioning to do. Too many wards are suburban wards isolated from the trials of the urban poor. The church doesn’t seem to have solved the quandary of the urban ward in many ways. Or the poor ward. In some respects, stake and ward boundaries have become a virtual wall to getting the resources of the church to where they are most needed. I mean, surely those units benefit from a church with a welfare system and financial resources, but all too often in a stake you have the relatively wealthy ward with an abundance of leadership and then a ward not so far away that’s being starved. Maybe boundaries should be redrawn yearly until such resources are allocated more equitably. I live in a ward now that is resource rich, next to a ward that is barely above water, which is next to an urban branch that is always a person or two away from a complete leadership emergency. The ward I’m in is so white that the one family of color that regularly attends is basically doted on as something between a novelty and a demo of how cosmopolitan we are. So I think some cultural shifts and policy shifts are certainly in order there. There are some silver linings–the Pathways program and the programs for employment no longer are afterthoughts. They shouldn’t be discounted. But there’s a lot more to do.

  13. I often wonder if church culture isn’t gravitating more towards an informal lay-clergy split. It used to be that every member was to have a calling and the church’s mission was to keep everyone very busy and involved. Now with the combining of high priests and elders and the reduction of church, many callings have gone away. Not to mention the fact that people are having fewer kids means that not as many will be involved in youth callings. Ministering appears to be nothing more than watered down home teaching where numbers just aren’t as important. There are certain types of folks who are either interested in leadership callings or are very observant in about everything and won’t say no to leadership callings. Once in a leadership calling, they get called to another leadership calling and on it goes. They become a de facto clergyman in their respective communities. Ward members look to them as bishop even after they are released. They respect what they have to say. Then there are those who are more disengaged but are there on the sidelines. I have a brother in California who is always in leadership callings. He believes it his duty to be as involved as possible in the church. Then I have another brother who kind of goes but doesn’t do much in the way of callings.

  14. The Atlantic magazine had an interesting article this month: “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake.” It sums up my feelings why the Church’s move to reduce its cultural footprint in favor of the nuclear family is ill conceived. I cannot do the article justice in a short comment.

    My observation is that we, our species, grew up as hunter/gatherers in small bands of 20 or 30 people. The whole group was family and everyone lived their lives in the presence of everyone else. We, humans, like this sort of relationship. It has continuity, mutual support, mutual caring and love. If one’s parents are flawed, there are other adults to fill in and support the children.

    In the Church, the ideal has been the patriarchal system, the father as the head and patriarch and everyone else subordinate. I suppose in that system, the Church becomes an association of patriarchs with much weaker relationships between families than within the family. This is what the present restructuring has implied. The Church is a support to the patriarch (ideally) who is responsible for the education and welfare of his family.

    So read the article in Atlantic as to why this is a mistake.

  15. I remember doing Roadshows as a youth. I also remember have stake plays every couple of years or so. The productions we did wouldn’t be possible with the stages we have in the new buildings. I truly remember with fondness being in a stake play or being the stage manager for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lots of work. Many late nights of rehearsals.

  16. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I welcome many of the changes. I don’t miss road shows, scout camps and all the hi-jinks associated with them and the overall “jello” culture of yesteryear (I grew up in Utah but haven’t lived there for 25 years). I had many bad experiences with those that originated with people/leaders involved that caused many to leave the church/gospel. I’ve got thick skin and love the gospel, but cultural aspect has always been a conundrum for me. It’s still good to “meet oft” and support each other in physical meetings and service, but too many stakes/wards seem to think that the more meetings the better (kind of like work, where meetings = busy, but most aren’t necessary).

    Living in a more rural area, we have plenty of poor folks here that have as many challenges as anyone. Take the facade away and no matter where you live, you have challenges – just different ones. People put up fronts and it’s too easy to judge. Once you get to know people and their situation, you find out they put on their socks one at time like you.

    I agree with J.Green…humility is the breeding ground for “riches” that show up in many ways. Don’t you want to lift/serve where you live? Push the common denominator up, not down. The BoM has a myriad of examples of that. I think the overall culture should be one of serving, helping and, building Zion, not “programs”. Sometimes we need a bridge to get there that a “program” helps with, but its a means to an end. Just like the new curriculum, it can be individualized to meet the needs of where and who you are. Some like physical things (sports, camps, etc.), some like games, music, etc.. Family above all else.

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