It’s Tuesday night Bible study, which at this Crystal City Mormon chapel looks a bit like a mixer. Pews are filled with people in jeans and flip-flops, many texting. The night begins with a prayer before segueing quickly into an ice-breaker trivia game and a pizza social.
Not surprising for a church made up exclusively of singles — 800 of them.
The newly opened “23rd Street chapel” is unique in the American Mormon church: It is the only worship space in the country devoted solely to unmarried people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. It serves the biggest population of single Mormons outside Utah in a neighborhood so thick with church members that it is nicknamed “Little Provo.”
The chapel represents Mormonism’s exalted view of marriage and its particular strategy for getting singles wed as quickly as possible: by separating them from people who are married.
“It’s a paradoxical existence,” said Andrew Jensen, a 30-year-old, single Defense Department employee who worships at the boxy office-building-turned chapel. “We come here with the end goal of making ourselves obsolete.”
In a faith that calls getting married “graduating with honors” and believes that after death you live with your family forever, finding a spouse is central to being a Mormon.
That creates an interesting dynamic at the church, made up of three individual singles congregations, or “wards.”
The concentration of so many single men and women produces sexual tension that their faith forbids them to act upon. The chapel’s young professionals brag about marrying later than their Utah cohorts and being more independent, but also worry about being co-opted by Washington’s ambitious, individualistic culture. And everyone wonders what will happen in the afterlife if they never wed.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as Mormons are formally known, teaches that all people have an afterlife, but one must be married, or “sealed,” to reach its highest parts. While Mormons believe it’s possible to be sealed in one’s afterlife, unmarried people are barred from key leadership positions in the church and often worship in separate singles congregations.
Just last month, a top Mormon official urged young people not to delay marriage or “waste time in idle pursuits” at a biannual churchwide meeting.
Once someone from a singles congregation gets married, they move to a “traditional,” or married, congregation, which normally occupies the same building but worships at a different time. (The church assigns members to congregations based on where they live. If there is a singles congregation available, unmarried people are encouraged to join it, but it’s not a requirement.)
The push for Mormons to marry can be intense.
Kristina Southam, 23, moved to Northern Virginia to look for a job in development after graduating from Brigham Young University. In Utah, she said, a woman her age would start to feel uncomfortable if unmarried. But in the Washington area, Mormons are more likely to delay getting married, just like many other college-educated adults.
“It’s nice because there is no deadline,” said Southam, the youngest — and only one still not married — of six sisters.
Still, she was looking forward to joining hundreds of other young singles in the Outer Banks this weekend for a Mormon version of spring break, an annual gathering that provides plenty of opportunities to meet potential spouses. She said she thinks that God’s enemies are attacking the traditional family, in part by making it comfortable for people to delay marriage.
As Southam spoke at the pizza party, several young men approached her to talk. There is lots of dating in the all-singles congregation, which can sometimes mean competing with a friend for a partner, she said. The way to deal with that? Prayer.
“When something doesn’t feel right, maybe that person was wrong,” she said.
Some experts believe the deep dating pool is one reason the Washington area is such a draw for Mormons. There are 50,000 to 70,000 Mormons inside the Beltway, giving the area the highest concentration of Mormons outside Utah, said William Nixon, bishop for a cluster of congregations including those at 23rd Street.
There are other theories. Some think government service reflects the patriotism of an American-founded faith; portraits of the founding fathers are sometimes hung inside churches. Others say mandatory mission work overseas means many Mormons speak foreign languages, then join the Foreign Service and wind up in Washington.
The population in the area, as with Mormons worldwide, is growing. Nixon said his cluster increases by 5 to 10 percent each year.
The Crystal City chapel, which doesn’t have a formal name, is the only one in the country devoted exclusively to adult singles worship, although there are congregations on college campuses made up largely of unmarried students. The chapel serves three congregations: two for people ages 19 to 30, and a small one for those 31 to 45.
The congregations meet separately on Sundays and together for various events during the week, including Bible study, table-tennis tournaments, dinners, lectures and other mix-and-mingle activities.
While other faiths also run programs for singles and try to encourage young people to marry, few do so by separating the unmarried from the married or by promising rewards in the afterlife.
Jared Whitley, a 33-year-old who works in defense contracting and attends services at the Crystal City chapel, said all the pressure on single Mormons can backfire.
“One of the real problems is that Mormon culture puts a lot of emphasis on going on dates and on getting married, but really not a lot on just being in a relationship,” he said. People start thinking about marriage after the first date, which “puts up too much pressure too soon, and people tend to recoil.”
Whitley is active in the older singles congregation, but he said he has become more open to dating non-Mormons, something discouraged in the church.
The church’s position on marriage is explicit, and Mormons — more than perhaps any other American faith group — tend to be very observant, which means that people who have mixed feelings about getting married tend to keep their mouths shut.
‘Marriage isn’t that great’
But there are exceptions. One divorced woman who is active in the 23rd Street chapel said she often argues against the relentless emphasis on marriage.
“I say marriage isn’t that great. I’ve done it. I say marriage is not the most important thing in this life, and some of us will not get married,” said the woman, who wasn’t comfortable being publicly identified as a marriage skeptic. “We need to stop focusing on marriage, marriage, marriage and more on Christ, because that’s what matters.”
Nevertheless, she and many Crystal City singles are spending this weekend in Corolla, N.C., where as many as 1,000 young Mormons trek each Memorial Day weekend in what has become an unsanctioned — and somewhat controversial — tradition.
Described as a wholesome version of spring break, the event is the subject of an upcoming documentary, “Duck Beach: A Single Mormon Story,” which is already the subject of intense debate among young Mormons.
Singles who wouldn’t consider having a regular roommate of the opposite sex occupy mixed-gender beach houses, where attire ranges from shorts and T-shirts to bare-it-all bikinis. Activities include beach volleyball and church.
Though several bishops have urged singles to attend, some young Mormons have refused because they consider it too much of a marriage market.
But the point of view at the country’s only adult singles chapel seems clear: Services in Crystal City on Sunday are expected to be half empty because so many people will be at the beach.