At the end of the book Planted, Patrick Mason makes the analogy of church being like living in a gated community, but one with open gates that welcomes others to come in.

In the meantime, we live in houses in a gated community that paradoxically swings open its gate for all to enter.  Yet like many intentional communities, ours has a set of neighborhood covenants that delineate the terms of life within and that shape the quality of the shared experience to make it meaningful for those who enter.

It’s an analogy I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading it.  When seen in this light, the existence of the bloggernacle is a lot like a group of people who dislike certain aspects of living in a gated community, wish for a new Home Owner Association board, or whose local board members keep adding community rules that make life unpleasant.  Gated communities seem to have a few common characteristics:

  • Uniformity of appearance.
  • Security theater.
  • More expensive.
  • Communal areas and activities.
  • Lots of rules.

Let’s take a closer look.  I was reading an article from Wall Street Journal about whether gated communities are a good investment or not.

Uniformity of Appearance

We recently hosted a French foreign exchange student for a few weeks.  One thing he remarked about was that all the houses here look the same.  Truth be told, that’s kind of the case no matter where you live.  Homes in India look a certain way.  Homes in the Canary Islands look another way.  Row houses in Philadelphia look another way.  Every neighborhood or city or state has a type of home that seems suited to the climate and has over time become the most common.  Most homes here are neutral colored stucco with terra cotta tile roofs.  There are lots of big windows and mostly desertscape lawns with palms and cacti.  So, homes in general here look similar.  Within a gated community, the rules of the community prohibit deviation from the norm by not allowing unapproved (e.g. clashing) colors or styles and a host of other types of rules to enforce uniform appearance.  The focus is on not lowering property values by keeping everyone to a minimum standard.

This is very similar to the unstated dress code at church.  I was speaking with a member of our stake presidency about my concern that women visitors will feel out of place because most other churches accept women in pants.  He confidently stated that after they attend, “They’ll get the message.”  The norms speak volumes.  Men and boys doing ordinances wear white shirts.  Most men wear conservative business suits.  Blue or striped shirts are allowed begrudgingly.  Leaders don’t wear facial hair.  Most people dress conservatively.  While we allow people to dress differently, if they do, they may be seen to be lowering property values–these people are not candidates for the HOA board.

While HOAs can’t mandate what the homes look like inside, they can prevent broken down cars, pink flamingos and bright blue soffits.  Likewise, all the church can do is regulate a normative appearance at church, but we can’t dictate what’s inside the whited sepulchres.

Security Theater

Gated communities are bastions of something called “security theater” or activities designed to give the illusion of increased security while not necessarily lowering the odds of security breaches.  Other types of security theater that are familiar to us as Americans would be signing for credit card purchases and going through TSA security at the airport.

A customer of our business was telling me just last week that there was a murder in their upscale gated community.  A workman who had been fired by the community board re-entered and killed an 82-year old resident and her guest in a burglary.  As this woman noted, the gates are not really secure at all because all the workers have access, and it’s a large community.

Numerous studies over the years have shown that security in gated communities is more a matter of perception than reality. For instance, in 2005, the Orlando Sentinel looked at sheriff’s reports over a four-year period on 1.400 Florida homes in both gated and ungated communities that were similar in price and location. The newspaper found nearly identical rates of burglaries and stolen cars in each. Only minor crimes, such as smash-and-grab thefts and vandalism, were lower in gated communities. Speeding was less of a problem, too, since cars had to slow at the entrances.

The gates weren’t much of a deterrent because they were often easy to get around or were left unlocked; and burglaries and thefts occurred even in communities were gates were manned. In some cases, access codes were widely known because residents regularly gave them to guests and workers who cut lawns, killed pests, walked dogs, cleaned houses and delivered pizza. Similarly, an analysis of national crime statistics done last year by University of Florida criminology student Nicholas Branic found that living in a gated community does not significantly influence a person’s likelihood of victimization.

Types of security theater we have in the church include temple recommend interviews and tithing settlement.  In both cases, access is granted based on self-reported worthiness.  These are activities that function more like speed bumps than barriers to entry, giving individuals pause, but not stopping anyone–which is how they should work!  Mason says that our gated community needs to be open access, but still attractive to non-residents to get people to want to join it.

But like any place with security theater, the theatrics give us a false sense of security and can at times make us less vigilant.  We assume that we are safe from danger, but we simply be vulnerable to those who prey on the guileless.

Show Me the Money

The one thing most homeowners have to consider before they choose a home in a gated community is whether or not they want to pay the association fees for the ostensible benefits.

Although gated communities are often associated with celebrities and the wealthy, many spectacular homes in iconic upscale places such as Beverly Hills, Calif., Palm Beach, Fla., and Newport, R.I., are in ungated subdivisions. Conversely, developers often gate developments in sketchy neighborhoods to improve sales or rentals; homes there may well be worth less than similar ones in better surroundings. So it’s not necessarily true that residences in gated communities are more valuable than ones that are not.

However, it’s certainly true that owners in gated communities will pay higher homeowner’s association fees to keep up the entrance, maintain outdoor cameras and gates and possibly pay guards’ salaries. Over the years, these fees will add up to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, so think carefully before you commit.

Clearly, church members pay a lot in tithing, usually 10% of their income (self-reported) for the upkeep of our buildings and toward the corporate church’s expenses and endeavors.  It’s not as direct as the HOA fees in terms of what you are paying to receive, but it is “required” for those who want to be full participants (temple recommend holders in good standing) in Mormonism.  Clearly over time this is a large investment, and it does benefit the community as a whole by building up the church.

Paying for a gate may be worth it if you have small children and want to minimize their exposure to traffic.

For many, the benefits of the church as they raise children have a hold on them.  They may see the benefit of surrounding their kids with other “good kids” with similar values, as well as supportive leaders and wholesome activities.

Communal Areas & Activities

One of the main allures to live in a gated community is access to a clubhouse, outdoor recreational areas and pools, and sometimes a gym.  This gives homeowners a more social environment than they may achieve as an individual household, and without the expense or difficulty of maintaining a pool or recreational area individually.

it’s easier to meet your neighbors on a daily basis than you would in a standard subdivision.

For many, this is the best reason to participate in church, the access to a ward family.  Anyone can live a Christian life independently, but having friends who are also working on the same goals is better than going it alone.  There are not only ward events like holiday parties, linger longers, social activities for families, children, youth, and women, but there is a neighborliness to Mormon wards that is envied by others.  An Indian colleague of mine who was living in New York City mentioned to me that he admired how close-knit Mormon communities are.  He said that even if you didn’t know one another, Mormons could move anywhere in the world and instantly have people available to help them move, find a reliable and trustworthy babysitter, or give recommendations on a wide variety of things.  It’s like the Next Door App, but more personable.

One of the frequent laments I hear is the loss of some of our previous social activities, things like Road Shows, Music Festivals and Gold & Green Balls, things that have been lost over time.  Clearly our social programs are one of the things that gives Mormonism “stickiness.”

Rules, Rules, Rules

One of the main reasons people leave gated communities is disagreement over the rules and how they are enforced.  When the rules become irritating to the point that it’s not enjoyable to live in that community, or when the HOA board is particularly heavy-handed in enforcing the rules, people may choose to move out.  We attended a family reunion several years ago in a gated community clubhouse.  There were papers tacked to nearly every surface with rules on them, ranging from common sense to ridiculous.  I’ve never seen so many rules on so many surfaces before.  There were even rules tacked to the inside of each bathroom stall door.  Clearly this was a HOA board that wanted a lot of control.  We accidentally violated a few of the dozens of rules while we were there, resulting in swift correction from the ever-vigilant board members.  It’s hard to relax and enjoy a party when you are worried about the joy police swooping in with the sword of justice.  Many others in the community seemed unfriendly, more concerned with the disruptiveness of outsiders (particularly children) than with making their community feel welcoming.

As the WSJ article concludes:

If you don’t want to be isolated from the larger community, hate fiddling with gate swipe cards and don’t want to be told what color to paint your mailbox or whether you can park a recreational vehicle in your driveway, then gated communities are probably not for you.

There are plenty of people who choose a gated community to keep out undesirable individuals, to create an oasis away from the larger community where the things they don’t want to see are hidden from view.  Some prefer to shield their children from non-LDS influences.  If your local ward is adding too many burdens or being judgmental or unwelcoming, you may long for the diversity of the larger community outside the borders of your gated community.

There’s always a fine line between creating a great cohesive community that people would aspire to join and being able to keep the gates open to welcome new individuals who may not fit the mold–yet.  Perhaps all churches are gated communities in a sense, just with different design plans and different rules.