The Dynamics of Mormon Stories Communities, Part 3
What makes a church? What makes something not a church? The various proponents of Mormon Stories often claim that they are not a church, nor are they creating a church, but they are about creating spaces for people. To that end, one interesting thing (but certainly not exclusive to them…I am aware that other Mormon-related groups have local gatherings) about Mormon Stories is its “communities of support.”
First, a segue. When people criticize atheism for lacking organization, and when secularists call for an appropriation of what “church” is for secular causes, what are they talking about? Well, here’s one thought:
Orthodox or not, for many traditional atheists, the word church is taboo, even if God is definitely not in residence. When Tim Gorski, a Texas physician, approached Paul Kurtz, an influential atheist who now chairs the Center for Inquiry, an atheist think tank, about his plans to start the North Texas Church of Freethought in the nineties, Kurtz discouraged him, on the grounds that atheists don’t need church. And about ten years ago, American Atheists turned down Gorski’s bid to sign on to an atheist advertisement published in USA Today.“Individuals and organizations could put their names on the ad. Churches could not,” Ellen Johnson wrote me in an e-mail, while insisting that American Atheism’s “eleventh commandment” is to never criticize or rebuke kindred organizations. “Since they were technically a church, we said no.”
Gorski believes that a church is not necessarily God’s house. It belongs, first, to the people. Many atheists, he says, misunderstand why people go to church in the first place. “It isn’t the specific doctrines,” he says. “[Church] binds people together and relates them to one another and gives them each a personal, private, and, of course, quite subjective understanding of themselves and their world.”
I certainly think these things apply to what Mormon Stories is doing. Especially with the Mormon Stories Conferences that are held at the various Mormon Stories support communities.
I wrote of my experiences in attending the Houston Mormon Stories Conference before, and some of the points I’ve written of before will apply in my analysis here. Mormon Stories Conferences are themed affairs, and the topics and speakers are generally a mix of locally famous folks and famous-at-large folks, and then local, not-quite-so-famous folks. I think one of the main things is that since these are local, each conference reinforces that there is a community in your area that understands your experience, but is open to differences of opinion.
However, one thing that is striking about the Mormon Stories Conferences (at least, I am evaluating from the one in Houston…maybe that wasn’t representative) is how closely it mirrors LDS church services. There are the Mormon Stories approximation of LDS prayers, Mormon Stories musical numbers based on generally well-known LDS hymns, of course the speakers, and then testimony…er…story-sharing.
I understand why it’s done this way. It makes the conference extremely familiar and friendly (if you don’t have any aversion to the way the church runs services, that is…so you pretty much know what’s next.)
But apart from the conferences, is that all?
Mormon Stories Facebook Groups
After I went to the MS Conference in Houston, I joined the Facebook group for Mormon Stories. Then I realized that there was a Mormon Stories group for Houston specifically. I think this is a nice touch; the Mormon Stories group tends to have some non-geographically-specific drama from people “at large,” but the Houston group is waaaaay more chill. I mean, I guess since everyone knows everyone, people behave themselves.
I assumed that this is how things worked for all the other area Mormon Stories groups, but from what I’ve heard (I can’t personally confirm…I am not a member of any of the other cities’ groups), there apparently are growing pains.
I’ve heard of group schisms. Of personal politics. People being pushed out of groups.
…I guess Houston is just super-chill? Yep, we Houstonians are elite chill tier. Get like us.
But seriously, to be a fly on the wall of another group’s page…I’d like to see first hand these interpersonal squabbles. How is it that an organization designed for openness can intentionally (e.g., through conscious bannings) and unintentionally (schisms) reinforce its own orthodoxy?