One of the most common questions I'm asked on reddit and other places where I discuss Freemasonry is some variant of, "that sounds cool, but what do you do?" This is a fair question, but I think it's a bit too broad. We're a Fraternity that has existed for over 300 years, and so answering that question could take a very long time.
Let's get specific: I'm going to answer the question of what happens in a typical meeting of Blue Lodge Freemasonry. The Blue Lodge or Craft Freemasonry is the core of what we do. It's the initiatory body for new Masons and it holds the basis of our philosophical and moral teachings. It's also very often the social focus of the Fraternity.
So, let me take you through a typical meeting. Many Lodges have dinner first, but we don't in my Lodge. We'll gather on the second floor of our Hall and mill around chatting and shaking hands (no really, just shaking hands, the idea that Masons getting together have to execute some arcane set of recognition techniques is really quite overstated).
Then we go into the main Lodge room. This is a beautiful room built in 1910 that can seat upwards of 400 people. My Lodge usually has about 20-40 people depending on weather, time of year, what we're doing that night, etc.
The meeting is opened with a formal "opening" ceremony. Ever wonder why the start of a sports game is called an "opening ceremony"? Yep, that's why. Freemasonry isn't the only or first organization to have had such a ceremony, but I suspect that it's most of the reason that we use the term in sports.
After the opening, we do one of a few things. The heart of the Blue Lodge is initiation, and if there is a candidate, then they are there to be initiated and that's what we get to ASAP. The initiation is a formal ceremony that has parts to play for many of the officers of the Lodge. There will be officers whose job is to lead the candidate into the room and officers whose job it is to deliver the philosophical and allegorical lectures to them. It's a fascinating process and by the end of the initiation, the candidate has enough information at their disposal to spend a lifetime digesting!
After the initiation (if any) there is usually a business meeting. Finances, new member voting, voting for officers (Freemasonry is intensely democratic!) and upcoming events are discussed. The discussion follows a formal system that's similar to Robert's Rules of Order. The "Master" of the Lodge (the senior most officer) runs the meeting and all comments from the floor are made after being acknowledged by the Master.
It's also possible, if time permits, that a lecture will be given by one of the members. These lectures are approved by the Master, and usually touch on the history of the Lodge, the history of Freemasonry, the content of the degrees or the philosophical teachings of Freemasonry.
That's what happens in a meeting. It might sound routine and dull, but I can assure you that it's anything but! Seeing a new Brother go through the degrees for the first time is a thrilling experience, and I wouldn't give it up for the world! Being able to take part in that initiation as an officer is even more profound!
Speaking of being an officer, this is one of the hidden elements of Freemasonry. It's hidden in plain sight, but often not explained: the initiation process doesn't end when you go through the degrees. Being an officer and moving up through the "line" of officers to eventually be Master of your Lodge is as much a part of the initiation as going through the three degrees as a candidate. The officer line is a form of management training, and unlike most other forms of management training, it's both practical and low-risk. For that reason alone, I highly recommend it to every man who has the chance. After all, if you can become a better manager, it will improve all aspects of your life, so why not?!
After our meetings there are sometimes social events. In my Lodge, we retire to a rec room area in the building and hang out, drink a beverage or two, raise a glass to the Fraternity and discuss whatever we want. Topics have ranged from the best ways to attract new members to the finer points of classic heavy metal to the mathematical discipline of category theory. Everyone has their own interests and when we meet in a spirit of Brotherly Love and mutual acceptance, those interests can blend into a rich tapestry of conversation that can wind into the wee hours of the morning...
Finally, there are the externalities. Officers attend degree rehearsals once a month in my Lodge, which is common; there are picnics and other social events outside of meetings for the whole family; the Grand Lodge holds quarterly meetings that any Mason can attend and so on. These are all optional events (though becoming an officer means signing up for rehearsals at the least), but many Brothers feel as if they are part of what really makes a Lodge into a social unit.
So, what do we do? We meet, we initiate and we run the Lodge.
Hope this has helped to clear up details for some of you, but if you have any questions, please ask!