There’s been a lot of chatter about the staggering (?) announcement of twenty new temples at this past weekend’s General Conference. The usual inside-baseball chatter is going to be what you would expect: people excited about their community or where they’ve lived or visited previously or served a mission finally getting a temple. From the progmo community, there’s some question about why we need twenty more temples when the ones we have aren’t in full use anyway. Is it a sleight of hand to signal growth (that isn’t actually happening) or to spend some of that rainy day fund (that it won’t make much of a dent in)? And a solid chunk of the exMo community thinks temples are an opulent waste of money in a world with more pressing needs like poverty, disease and lack of drinking water.
Let’s unbox some of these things. First, I was excited (here’s my inside-baseball plug) to see that Singapore was on the list! As a former resident of that great nation, I recall that ward youth temple trips involved a flight of several hours and a hotel stay at the local Cebu Marriott where prostitution was rampant in the pool area. Whoever did the write up for the Church Newsroom apparently doesn’t actually understand anything about Singapore, though, as they claimed that it is located to the south of Singapore. Singapore is a city-nation. The whole island is one city, one nation. Whatever. Editing is apparently not what it used to be. While Singapore only has one stake, every temple trip is a multi-hour flight either to Hong Kong (Cantonese-speaking) or the Philippines (Tagalog-speaking), neither of which share Singapore’s official languages (English, Tamil, Mandarin, and Malay). There are also 5 disricts (33 wards) in neighboring Malaysia and 2 stakes & 1 district in nearby Indonesia. There’s a case to be made for a temple there, despite the membership numbers being few. On the downside, Singapore is extremely expensive (unlike both Malaysia and Indonesia), often in the top 3 most expensive places in the world, but if you have $100B laying around, why not, and the Changi airport usually tops the list of best airports in the world. Singapore, like Hong Kong, is often a connector for Asian destinations.
That’s a pretty solid justification for one specific temple, but the push for so many temples in a shrinking Church is somewhat puzzling. What is the Church on about?
Preparing for the Second Coming. Personally, I’m not much of a millenialist, but that doesn’t mean top Church leaders are not. Is there a sense of urgency from the big red chairs regarding temple work as a way to prepare for the Second Coming? Maybe. I always thought that the doctrine was that temple work would be one of the main activities after the Second Coming, not as a precursor to it (although I guess if you have the temples there, you are ready to roll).
Creating demand. This one feels like a strong case to me. There are two ways the closer proximity of temples can create demand that didn’t previously exist: 1) the theory that members will attend more if it’s more convenient, and 2) the theory that a visible temple and open houses will create more interest among non-members in investigating the Church. In this scenario, the temple functions as a strip of flypaper, attracting flies and anything else that happens to flit by, and then creating stickiness from which it is hard to extricate themselves.
Reducing global footprint. LOL, OK, I don’t really believe this one, but let’s give it an airing. My Singapore example is a very stark example of this. Norway would be similar. We are definitely encouraging people to fly a lot more than is absolutely necessary in areas where membership numbers are lower and as a result temples are further apart. In the Canary Islands where I served my mission, members had to fly to Frankfort, Germany to go to the temple (now Madrid). If we are encouraging youth temple trips, those flights add up to a lot of carbon footprint for temple attendance.
Illusion of growth. We are getting into some of the more cynical views with this theory. Announcing new temples feels like growth even if it’s not growth; it can re-invigorate members’ excitement in the ways listed above, through affiliation with different locales, and through pride in these visibly beautiful structures.
Spending the $100B. This one is probably an even more cynical view. Temples are expensive, particularly in certain places, and they do show the Church investing in infrastructure for members, doing something that is doctrinally part of the overall purpose of life (saving our dead). It checks all the boxes and takes some heat off those who feel there is nothing to show for their tithing investments in light of the Church’s surprising wealth.
Legacy building. President Hinckley said: “Adulation is a disease I fight every day.” He was renown for being the first Church President to announce a ton of new temples, kicking off this phenomenon of many much smaller temples. President Hinckley was also one of the most media savvy Presidents we have had. Is Nelson trying to catch a little of that renown? He is certainly quoted by the rest of the speakers in General Conference a lot. I can’t remember another living Church President who was so frequently quoted within his own General Conferences, honestly. It’s a little cringeworthy. I’m not so sure about this driving the opening of twenty temples, but perhaps there is some tie to the Church President who announced specific temples and that leader’s personal legacy of perceived achievement. The reason I’m not convinced by this one is that I literally can’t name a single Church President who announced a specific temple, but maybe that’s just me. But a President’s legacy (since Hinckley anyway) could be tied to the total numbers of temples. If there were baseball cards for Church Presidents (or the Church Almanac, same thing), stats would probably include number of temples built, among things like number of wards or stakes or missions created. We all know actual membership growth isn’t happening, so this is a different growth statistic for those keeping the stats; it’s his infrastructure package for the future.
Strengthening member ties to high-demand requirements. There are several ways in which more temples can do this: 1) a higher expectation for frequent attendance (requiring an active temple recommend, which they’ve been pushing since the mid-90s), 2) requirements for temple workers to staff these temples, including high level leadership roles in the form of Temple Presidents and Matrons (barf to that “title”). Because temples are necessary to receive specific Mormon ordinances, having them closer to home enables more people to participate in those; however, since each Church member only needs three total ordinances in a temple for self (washing & anointing, endowment, and sealing), there is some question about the “stickiness” of temples based on proximity. There are probably stats on this somewhere, though. Since the mid-80s, temples have been used to enforce tithing as a requirement, and since the 90s, a temple recommend has been increasingly required to hold callings. Given the worthiness interview about compliance with beliefs and behaviors, this increases the orthodoxy and orthopraxy (and overall commitment to the “covenant path”) of Church members to be able to participate.
Let’s revisit for a moment that idea of creating demand, something which the Church (and many companies) is often very good at doing. For example, convert baptisms go way up in a place that is flooded with missionaries. Some imagine that flooding an area with missionaries is only done because there is too much work already there, and that doing so is a response to a demand, but the flow can work the other way also. By flooding an area with visible symbolic presence, you create a stir, public interest, and this leads to some additional convert baptisms. As a missionary, we used to use this tactic which we called blitzing an area (probably a reference to the Blitzkreig raids of WW2 in which Germany bombed the hell out of England).
There is a possible downside to the idea of creating demand, though, which is regarding the product itself. If the product is in fact what people both want and need, informing them that it exists is great and leads to growth through word of mouth. If the product is not able to meet the wants and needs of consumers, advertising it too much may actually cause losses. How do the members feel about temple attendance? Is the temple all it’s cracked up to be as an experience? Has this changed over time, and if so, in which direction? I’d love to see some data on how people view their temple experiences and whether this product is something that is beloved, merely tolerated, or somewhere in between. I know many Church members who love it, who find it a place of peace and calm. I know at least as many who feel guilty because they don’t love it at all, and they think this is evidence that they are broken in some way or less worthy or spiritual. I know a lot of women who find the inherent sexism and polygamous overtones alarming and unacceptable, even with the recent changes (protip: we all know that the “new and everlasting covenant” refers to polygamy, and obviously the temple film fails Bechdel hard since there’s only one woman in it). This third cohort is certainly not going away and is only growing as the world continues to slowly treat women better (for obvious reasons, this remains a huge blind spot and only one of many problems for a patriarchal Church). Keeping the temple contents mostly secret can help create interest in attending it for new converts, but the contents will either attract return trips or not, once one’s own ordinances are complete. What does attendance look like among age groups? It would be expected that attendance would rise as folks retire and have more time on their hands (and fewer small children). Does this remain true as ensuing generations retire, or are attention spans getting shorter and expectations for how to spend their downtime changing? Only time will tell.
From where I’m sitting, the Church doesn’t always have the best read on where “demand” is. For example, many of you will recall Carrie Jenkins’ utterly ridiculous claim that BYU didn’t sell caffeine on campus because there was no demand for it. You may also recall discovering that, according to the CES department, all women automatically left their paid jobs when they had a child because they wanted to stay home, implying that it was their choice. Unfortunately, their bills didn’t just disappear like magic. As a missionary, I was taught that humans all had these same meta-questions that we were there to answer: who am I, where am I going, what is my purpose on earth. Funny thing is, most people didn’t consider 18-22 year olds to be the best resource to ask these questions, if indeed they had them. What I did find was that there was a demand for answers to questions we were wholly unprepared to provide: when and how should I leave my abusive husband, will God forgive me for having had an abortion, what do I do as a trans person now that my family has kicked me out, how can I care for my disabled child and cover our expenses.
Let’s see what you think about this largest-ever temple announcement.
- Is the temple answering questions (through the experience) that speak to members and humans broadly? Is this experience adequate to the needs and wants of members or does it require further evolution to meet the needs?
- Why do you think the Church is making this huge commitment to temple building? One or more of the above reasons or some other reason? Why is this a top priority right now?
- Are people you know excited about the new temples?
- Is the Church good at assessing demand or creating demand? Why or why not?