The Convert Files: Meetinghouse Architecture

Latter-day Saint Meetinghouse
Jeff Borders

Jeff Borders

A Typical North American Latter-day Saint Meetinghouse

There are just some things you have to get used to when you are a convert, and they start the first time you step foot in a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. First, let’s start with some terminology that has always made me scratch my head. Sometimes we call the buildings, well,“ buildings.” Sometimes they are churches or chapels. Other times they are meetinghouses. It’s enough to confuse us. Just imagine how someone on the outside feels when we throw in a term like “stake center” on top of all of those?

Speaking of chapel, what Latter-day Saints call the chapel of the the building, is what I grew up knowing as the sanctuary. A chapel for me, referred to the building as a whole, but sanctuary, now that was something different. The term sanctuary meant something sanctified and hallowed, set apart for the preaching of the word of God and communion with the divine.

And yet, Latter-day Saint meetinghouses are their own thing, simple in nature and something of a triumph of minimalism when you really get down to it. Nevertheless, let’s talk about some of their peculiarities from the perspective of a convert.

The Standfam

I thought The Stand was a really freaky book by Steven King where society breaks down after an accidental release of a mutated influenza strain. As it turns out, I was wrong. I can admit that. I’ve since learned it is where the bishop and his counselors sit and pick out the future speakers for Sacrament Meeting from an unsuspecting congregation! You know what I’m talking about, bishopric members. The first time I heard the term “the stand,” I didn’t fully comprehend what it meant.  Was it something to be feared, or revered? It took some time for all the other Latter-day Saint vernacular like this to fully sink in.

We always referred to the front of the sanctuary as the place where the pulpits were.  The church I came from had two pulpits. I’m not sure why? Maybe it was just in case the pastor wanted to shake things up a bit, or in in case we had dueling preachers. In any case, their weren’t any seats for extra people behind them. There was some choir seating off to the side, but that was about it.

I need to talk about pulpits for a second, because I think our church building has the most unique pulpit I’ve ever seen. The pulpit in our building is shaped like a giant open book.  When you stand at it, it invokes the feeling like the prophet could be standing there reading names from the Book of Life itself. It’s the coolest thing ever. If they ever remodel our building, I hope they keep it as a piece of history. If there are other buildings that have this feature, I would love to know where they are.

The pulpit in Jeff Borders’ meetinghouse

(Incidentally, there’s a great Facebook Page devoted to meetinghouse architecture, if that’s your thing.)

Cat Scratch Fever

Let me stop here for a second and ask a question that has probably plagued the minds of members since the dawn of mankind? Okay, maybe not since the dawn of mankind, but at least since the invention of modern Latter-day Saint meetinghouses. Why are the walls of the church made out of the same material that they make catch scratching posts out of? The only reason I can think of is to wake you up if you accidentally fall asleep and your face touches it, thus saving you from any embarrassment, and a possible speaking assignment from a Bishopric member who saw you and decided you need to give a talk on the importance of staying awake during Sacrament meeting.

Now, I’m no design specialist, but I’m pretty sure Chip and Joanna Gaines would be shaking their heads at us.  I know if we throw drywall up, the walls would be covered in crayon murals by 3-year-old Picasso’s in a flash. But what about a cool ship-lap, or maybe just something less abrasive? At the very least our choice of wall decor doesn’t match our disposition as a people. Our friendliness and warm welcomes to visitors and members on Sunday should always overshadow the scratchiness of our wall coverings. I think I’m onto something. We need to embrace a distressed aesthetic for our meetinghouses.

The Cultural Hall

Is it a cultural hall, a gym, a multi-purpose room, or is it a giant open space for your toddlers to run free and cheerios to stomped to oblivion? This often used, and sometimes overbooked area of the church building can be separated by dividers, with sentinel basketball hoops stoically guarding each end. Some are carpeted, so are not. In my experience, it’s only been the Stake Centers that have hardwood courts, which makes for some gnarly rug burns when you’re playing church ball in your carpeted ward gym. In this wonderful space, it’s all about mutual activities and ward potlucks. They’re also really good places for wedding receptions and youth dances.

The Materials Center

I need to take a moment to address something I’ve been pondering for a long time. Is it a materials center or a library? And why is it treated like the Holy of Holies; only the Levites can step across the threshold to touch the Arc of the Copier. Are they afraid  I’m going to abscond with the 50-year-old cardboard picture of Adam and Eve, or a VHS copy of Families are Forever? The place is locked down tighter than Fort Knox. Either way, it takes up more real estate than it needs to for a place that’s mostly about copiers, television storage, and chalk. Many are called, but few are chosen to get keys to the library or materials center, or whatever we call it. Okay, so not all ward librarians are like that. I may over-exaggerate…. a bit. To all those ward librarians I just offended, I offer my sincerest apologies. You do an amazing service to our members. Thank you for your hard work and dedication in your calling, I just like to poke fun. But seriously, we all know you enjoy the calling as an excuse to hang out with your spouse during second hour.

I know there are other peculiar quirks in buildings to match the peculiar people we are. Some buildings have an upstairs area with a few classrooms, some have secret passage ways. I’d love to hear your stories about meetinghouse designs from all over the world.

A Sanctuary of the Lord

All that being said, it is amazing what the Lord has blessed us with. We have beautiful houses of worship, with which we can gather together regularly. It’s up to us to make sure that we remember whose house they are, and we make sure to keep them clean and neat. If we put the same amount of effort into cleaning our ward buildings as we do with our temples, imagine the message of gratitude it would send to Heavenly Father.

And let us remember, while we may not use the term “sanctuary” in our culture, undoubtedly, that’s what these buildings are. They can and are sanctuaries against the trials and tribulations of the world. They are sacred spaces where members and visitors come to commune with the Spirit and renew sacred covenants. Might we take a moment to reflect on how we act and treat the sanctuary of the Lord the next time we step foot in it.

So bear that in mind as you contemplate ways to harass the Facilities Management Group.

Note: You can also check out the templated approach to meetinghouse design at the Church’s very own Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Department.

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