Stunt Work: Temples and Tents

On Wednesday, I had to opportunity to tour the newly renovated Idaho Falls LDS temple. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have been in temples before, but had not attended an open house tour of a temple since the Sacramento temple was dedicated in 2006. As I was guided through where to park my car, where to enter the adjacent church building, and where to sit for the introductory video, I realized something that was probably obvious to anyone not already a member of this church:

This is totally a PR stunt.

Not temples. Temples are sacred and significant parts of LDS religious life, not a PR stunt at all. Not the renovation or the rededication, or even the youth cultural celebration. All of those events are geared toward people who are already members. But the open house itself – from the video shown before entering to the missionaries and members standing by to answer questions – was a giant PR move.

And when I say giant, I mean giant. Due to weather unpredictability around here, the tour began in a church building and went through a long hallway made up of rented tents and space heaters leading up to the temple entrance. There were volunteers guiding parking, giving directions, speaking to visitors, beginning the ten-minute introductory video, and ushering tours. At 2:35 PM on a Wednesday, my tour group of about 15 people was only one of MANY happening in the temple simultaneously. The sheer volume of the event and the visitors it was attracting blew my mind. I started paying attention to everything – the labels indicating that the tents were rented, the space heaters and carpeting included in the makeshift hallways, the teenagers placing and taking off booties to protect the carpet, the timing of the tours, and the complication of having so many tours going on at once.

All of this was done to lessen the air of mystery that surrounds Mormon temple worship. Mormons are taught from a young age that what happens in temples is sacred, not secret, and should be talked about only in appropriate and reverent settings. To nonmembers, this seems very shady. Nonmembers aren’t allowed in, and no one will tell them what goes on in there. Naturally, rumors abound.

Enter: open houses.

In my research, I found a balance of both LDS news resources and community news sources announcing temple open houses around the world. News coverage from non-Church sources is generally positive and respectful about temples and the significance a new temple has on a local LDS community.

After a temple is dedicated, it is closed to the public. Before it is dedicated – or rededicated, as it is after a large renovation, which is the case here – an open house takes place. Anyone can enter for a guided tour through many areas of the temple. The Church publicizes this event both to members and the surrounding community as an opportunity to get answers to questions and find out what Mormons truly believe. Full-time missionaries and member volunteers are on site to speak with curious visitors and a video shown before the tour explains the kinds of ceremonies performed in the temple and why they are so important to Mormons. While members are a large portion of the intended audience for such open houses, and I certainly felt welcome, I did not get the impression that this event was targeted to me, as a member. It was intended as a gesture of transparency, openness, and welcoming to those not of our faith.

What the Idaho Falls temple open house did well:

Planning. While there were a few traffic jams that caused brief delays at various points in the tour, it was clearly a meticulously planned operation. Around every corner, there was another tour group taking a different route to allow many groups to be in the temple at the same time. Volunteers helped with everything from parking to taking off booties at the end of the tour.

Transparency. While we didn’t go into every room, I didn’t get the feeling that anything was being hidden from me. We were shown around, not rushed through certain parts.

Communication. Before and after the tour, visitors had the opportunity to ask questions. Before the event even began, the whole event was publicized by both Church publications and local news.

What could have been better:

The tour itself. The Idaho Falls temple open house tours were exclusively silent tours. While talking was encouraged before and after the tour itself, and the introductory video had sound, we were asked to be silent throughout the whole tour. I do not remember if this was the case during the other temple open house I have been do, and I could not find anything in my research indicating that this is standard. Perhaps it is the case for all open houses, but it seemed strange. At the very least, I would have liked an explanation. Was it because there were so many tours happening simultaneously? Was it to promote reverence? It seemed an odd thing to ask of us without telling us why.

First and foremost, these open houses are intended as missionary opportunities, reaching out to those who are not members and members who may be struggling with testimony or temple worthiness. I do believe that the secondary purpose of these open houses are as PR stunts – to show the world that we crazy Mormons are actually pretty nice, open people, who would love to talk to you about what we believe.


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