Driving through Cardston, Alberta, a couple of months ago, my wife commented on the number of LDS chapels in the city. Cardston looked just like Provo but with more cows.
If you spend a lot of time in them, Mormon churches are easy to recognize on the road. They're the ones that look like someone put a steeple on an elementary school or insurance office.
The ordinariness is intentional. Mormon ward houses are not holy edifices per se, but rather just buildings where we go to get the business of worshipping done.
The personalities of most faiths are reflected in the types of structures they build for worship. It could be a megachurch big enough to have a food court, a set of no-frill pews in an ascetic chapel, a magnificent cathedral filled with scary art or just a bower in an elf-haunted wood.
Although I've been a Mormon my entire life, I didn't see a real LDS house of worship until I was nearly 10. Ours was a nomadic military family. We worshipped where we could: in converted warehouses, hangars, barracks, borrowed chapels, apartments, etc.
After a four-year stay in Spain, we returned to the U.S. and Zion, where I got my first real look at a church built by Mormons specifically for Mormon worship. I wasn't impressed.
We had visited a lot of old churches in Europe. For an impressionable kid, nobody captures the true essence of compulsory church attendance quite like Catholics bleeding effigies nailed to crosses, stained-glass apostles being martyred and disturbing murals of the fires of hell.
By comparison, the government venues of my family's Mormon worship had convinced me that whatever else he did, Heavenly Father probably drove a Jeep. If I was really bored, there was a machine gun on it.
Back in the states, I soon learned that Catholics had nothing on Mormons when it came to suffering in church. The difference was that we got ours through sensory deprivation.
Mormon ward buildings are unadorned to the point of austerity. There are no crosses, gold leaf, saints, cherubs, stained glass, gargoyles or bells in or on modern Mormon chapels.
In some of the newest chapels, there aren't even any windows to look out of or escape through.
There's nothing in them to distract the congregation from the true focus of the meeting the pulpit. Unless you brought a book or an iPad, the view is limited to the pulpit or the back of someone else's head.
NOTE: If you're lucky, there's a clock to watch. However, the one in my ward never works right. Time actually seems to go backward where I go to church.
Outside modern Mormon chapels is a circular hallway lined with classrooms containing even fewer amenities. It's here where the finer points of the gospel are drilled into hapless adherents via a blackboard and folding chairs.
But there is a bit of saving color in Mormon houses of worship the cultural hall. Not many churches have basketball courts in the middle of them, but ours do. It's literally at the center of our place of worship.
"Cultural hall" is a bit of a misnomer in that there's rarely ever any real culture involved. Instead it's where we have dinners, wedding receptions, Primary activities and those notorious ward ball games. It's also where the overflow congregation sits.
I've heard rumors that the LDS Church is starting to build ward houses without cultural halls in them. If true, I might have to stop going to church. I wouldn't know what to do if I couldn't worship from the free-throw line.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.