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Bridging the Divide: Cross-Cultural Mission to Latter-day Saints
Sep 21, 2004

Bridging the Divide: Cross Cultural Mission to Latter-day Saints

By Ken Mulholland

When the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2002 Winter Olympics Games would be held in Salt Lake City, many in the Utah evangelical community were filled with a mixture of excitement and dread: excitement at the wonderful opportunity God had given us to share the love of Christ with visitors from around the globe, and dread that Christians from outside Utah would come here, attack the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly called Mormons) and its members, and call this “evangelism.” Utah Christian leaders quickly decided we had a responsibility to provide a positive model for those who were coming. Salt Lake Theological Seminary was asked to produce an evangelism training tool that conveyed the philosophy of area pastors. The final product was a video-based training tool entitled Bridges: Helping Mormons Discover God’s Grace. Bridges was used with considerable success during the 2002 Winter Games, and continues to offer Christians an effective method of outreach to Mormons.

The basic philosophy of the Bridges approach is built around three core beliefs. First, there is a commitment to relational evangelism rather than confrontational evangelism. Second, there is a commitment to understanding the unique culture of Latter-day Saints and finding points of contact within that culture in which the gospel can be heard and understood. And third, there is a commitment to church based evangelism that seeks to lead LDS people not only to a biblically based faith in Jesus Christ but also to a strong commitment to the local church.

The Big Picture

However, before this philosophy is discussed in more detail it is important to give the big picture that provides a context in which to understand why the Bridges approach is needed. The following three facts provide this context.

The first fact is that there is a deep theological divide between traditional Christianity and the LDS faith. This can be traced in part to the earliest days of the LDS Church when its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., claimed that God had told him that he should not join any of the existing churches because all their members were “corrupt” and “all their creeds were an abomination.” Instead, Smith claimed, God had selected him to restore true Christianity to the face of the earth. These statements, along with his claim that God had given him a new book of scripture, the Book of Mormon, inflamed the frontier evangelicals against Smith and his followers.

This initial encounter between Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians was extremely negative, but it took decades for the worldview of the LDS Church to come into clearer focus. The central and unifying thread that holds Mormon doctrine together is “eternal progression,” the teaching that Heavenly Father was once a human being who, along with his wife, “progressed” to become a god. The doctrine of eternal progression promises that the potential for godhood also lies within the grasp of every person. To use another LDS description, man is “god in embryo.” In short, LDS doctrine rejects the traditional Christian belief that God is ontologically of a different order than humans. The most famous LDS summary of this teaching is: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”

The average Christian is confused about what they are to think of the LDS faith. After all there is a common religious vocabulary that is shared between Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians, and the LDS Church is careful to identify its teachings with Jesus Christ. Several major denominations felt that it was important to provide guidance to their members on this subject in recent years. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in North America, held their annual convention in Salt Lake City in 1998. In preparation for this meeting they produced a video entitled The Mormon Puzzle which politely but firmly declared LDS doctrine to be beyond the pale of Christian teaching. The Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church, two of the largest mainline denominations, have also provided official position statements. The Presbyterian document says, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a new and emerging religion that expresses allegiance to Jesus Christ in terms used within the Christian tradition. It is not, however, within the historic apostolic tradition of the Christian Church…” The United Methodist statement concludes with almost identical words: the “LDS Church is not a part of the historic, apostolic tradition of the Christian faith.” The Roman Catholic Church concluded that they would not accept Mormon baptism as a valid baptism. These two Protestant denominations, and one major branch of Christendom—with very different histories and practices— declare with one united and unambiguous voice that the teachings of the LDS Church are outside biblical, apostolic, and historic Christianity. This fact leads to the obvious conclusion that traditional Christians are under an obligation to share the message of God’s grace with Latter-day Saints.

The second fact is that evangelistic outreach to Latter-day Saints has been dominated in recent decades by what has come to be called the “heresy-rationalist apologetic.” This approach, widely popularized by Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults, now provides the basic modus operandi for the majority of people involved in the “counter-cult movement” as well as the average Christian who has read and absorbed the methods and assumptions of those who advocate this approach.

An evangelist using the heresy-rationalist apologetic begins by presenting a biblically orthodox understanding of core theological categories: the doctrine of God, of Christ, and of salvation. The teachings of the LDS Church are then set side by side with traditionally orthodox biblical teaching in order to show that the LDS faith fails to square with it. Having thus demonstrated that the Mormon faith is “something other than Christian,” the evangelist appeals to the Latter-day Saint to leave the LDS Church and to embrace biblical Christianity. For reasons we will explore later, such an approach almost always receives a hostile response from LDS people.

The third fact is that despite the dedication of those who employ the heresy-rationalist apologetic, the LDS Church has continued to grow at an amazing rate. It is now an international religious movement claiming nearly 12 million members with 60,000 missionaries. According to University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, the LDS Church, if present growth trends continue, will become the first full fledged new world religion since Islam, with 265 million members by 2080.

These three facts—the heretical nature of LDS doctrine, the dominance of the heresy-rationalist approach to evangelism, and the failure of this approach to adequately meet the challenge of reaching Latter-day Saints—calls for serious and prayerful reflection among traditional Christians who are committed to sharing the gospel of God’s grace with LDS people. Clearly, something needs to change if we are to be effective witnesses.

A New Model

In the last decade a few evangelical churches in Utah experienced considerable growth and effectiveness in reaching Latter-day Saints. For example, Washington Heights Baptist Church in Ogden has 1,200 people attending on a typical Sunday, with over 400 of these being former Mormons. Christ Evangelical Church, located only a few miles from Brigham Young University, has 600 people attending weekly, with half coming from a LDS background. These two churches represent a growing number of Utah churches that have taken a fresh approach to reaching Mormon people, and this approach—the one advocated by Bridges—is bearing considerable fruit.

The essential and critical characteristic of this approach is the assumption that Latter-day Saints should not be viewed as members of a “cult” but rather as members of a culture. In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), Jesus commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all nations. We often read this as a command to take the gospel to nation-states, such as China or Nigeria. In fact, the word that is translated “nations” is ethne. The meaning is closer to what we now call ethnic groups, but a better translation is “people groups.” Some people resist the idea that Latter-day Saints should be considered a people group, but interestingly, the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups identifies “Mormons” as a unique American ethnic group that emerged within the American context. Put simply, “ethnicity” is defined by a cluster of characteristics that leads a group to see itself as “us” and those outside to see the group as “them.” Thus Jews, Armenians, and Gypsies fall within the category of ethnic groups—and so do the Latter-day Saints.

The first (and also the most obvious) of these cultural markers is that Latter-day Saints have a shared world-view that flows from their unique religion. Religion is not accidental to Mormon ethnicity, but causative. Converts chose to enter this new community and in so doing, they also embrace a world-view. For example, the belief in a “Living Prophet”—the president of their church who is believed to be God’s spokesman—is the central belief from which all others flow. Latter-day Saints also have their own scriptures and their own unique religious practices (e.g., baptism for the dead and temple marriages).

A second marker is the shadow cast by the early Mormon practice of polygamy. Even though disavowed over a century ago, Latter-day Saints still endure the smirks and jokes about this practice that sets them apart from the non-Mormon neighbors. A third marker is the “word of wisdom” that prohibits faithful Latter-day Saints from using alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated drinks. Thus, something as basic as ordering a meal becomes a statement of their identity. Yet another marker is the two-year proselytizing mission served by many young men which serves as a special rite of passage within their culture. Such cultural markers (and these are but a small sample) are continual reminders to Latter-day Saints that they are indeed a unique people—even for those who no longer believe the doctrines of the LDS Church.

Two Critical Issues

Once Mormons are seen as a people group, then the question arises as to which parts of this culture are important to those who seek to share the gospel with them. Specifically, what are the cultural barriers that keep them from hearing and what are the cultural bridges that make the Good News sound like good news to them? Following are two answers to these questions that underlie the Bridges approach.

The Barrier. Mormon people view themselves as a persecuted people and unless this is understood and taken seriously it will be very difficult or impossible to communicate the gospel with them in a meaningful way. A short history lesson should give some insight into this cultural reality. Beginning in Missouri in 1838, the Latter-day Saints were involved in the “Missouri War” with their non-Mormon neighbors. There were casualties on both sides but the Latter-day Saints were badly beaten and became refugees in mid-winter. They fled back to Illinois, where they were received with open arms by settlers there. However, once established in Nauvoo, their new city settlement on the Mississippi River, the cycle of conflict with their neighbors began again. The irritants this time included a huge LDS militia that terrified their neighbors, rumors of polygamy, and the destruction of a newspaper that was critical of Joseph Smith. It was here that Smith was arrested and murdered by a mob in 1844.

Soon the Latter-day Saints were forced to abandon Nauvoo and to strike out for the Great Basin (then in Mexican territory) where their new leader Brigham Young believed they would be beyond the reach of the United States government. Many went through enormous physical hardship in their trek across the plains. Ironically, the United States acquired the Utah Territory from Mexico the following year, and Brigham Young’s hostile attitude toward the authority of the United States government eventually led to the “Utah War” of 1857 in which no one was killed but federal authority was firmly established. A “cold war” ensued between the United States and the LDS Church in which many LDS leaders were arrested, many Mormons were disenfranchised, and LDS property seized. In 1890, when the pressure was overwhelming, the LDS Prophet officially renounced the practice of polygamy. With this step, the period of antagonism ended, but the impact of this experience is still fresh.

Latter-day Saints, like most people, are selective readers of history. To the popular Mormon mind, the essence of LDS history is that they are a people who have endured great and undeserved persecution. Any fault that might be placed at the feet of the LDS Church is unrecognized, dismissed or ignored. Only particular fragments of history—those telling the story of Latter-day Saints as the victims of unjust persecution—remain in their collective memory. These stories are still very much alive for LDS people and their sense of being persecuted for their faith is an integral part of the Mormon psyche.

This sense of being a persecuted people has a huge impact on how Latter-day Saints respond to comments about their Church, their beliefs, their culture, their history, and their leaders. And the LDS sense of what constitutes criticism generally has an extremely low threshold. This sensitivity is especially pronounced when such comments come from evangelical Christians, who are seen as their chief critics and persecutors. Ironically, this sense of being persecuted by traditional Christians confirms their LDS faith. The LDS syllogism goes like this: true Christians have always been persecuted; you are persecuting us; therefore, we must be true Christians.

Consider, then, the likely effectiveness of standard “counter-cult” approaches in light of this sense of being a persecuted people. One tactic, calling the LDS Church a “cult,” sets off the persecution fire alarm. Should this surprise us? In fact, how many traditional Christians would respond positively to someone calling their church a cult? Another tactic, insisting that the LDS Church or Mormon people are not “Christian,” has the same effect. Most Latter-day Saints attach a moral/behavioral meaning to this word, rather than a theological meaning, so any statement that Latter-day Saints should not call themselves “Christians” will likely be heard as an accusation of immorality. No wonder they are offended! Efforts to discuss the theological implications of the name “Christian” are likely to be fruitless. The typical LDS response to this claim is that “What do you mean we are not Christians? Jesus Christ is the center of our faith, his name is in our Church’s name, therefore, we are Christians.”

Yet another tactic that backfires is that of handing out tracts or preaching in front of LDS temples. Since LDS people see their temples as their most sacred places these acts are viewed as showing blatant disrespect and intentional persecution. While this is not the intention of most who utilize this strategy, nevertheless, that is the message that comes across. Again, how would most of us respond to LDS missionaries standing in front of our churches with tracts and signs, and preaching as we enter and leave church? Each of these tactics backfires, causing even agnostic and unbelieving Mormons to “circle the wagons” and defend their culture and heritage against people whom they see as hateful and provocative. If we desire to communicate the gospel of God’s grace with LDS people, we must take their sense of being a persecuted people seriously and allow this to inform our strategies.

The greatest antidote to this belief that they are a persecuted people is to get to know them as individuals and demonstrate that we like them. One pastor in a solidly LDS city coaches a community youth football team, and this single activity has opened countless doors with parents and young people because it communicates that he likes his neighbors and values their children. This single act makes him, in the eyes of his LDS neighbors, a person who they will consider talking with about their spiritual concerns. The word also gets out in the tightly knit LDS community that here is a Christian who does not hate them.

Another Utah church hosts a Christmas dinner theater in which members invite LDS neighbors who are treated to a nice meal served on fine china and a well-acted play with a Christian message, with thousands attending. There is no overt evangelistic appeal, but the LDS people are left with the pleasant and indelible impression that these traditional Christians honor Christ, they actually pray, and they seem to enjoy being with their LDS neighbors. These Latter-day Saints remember the church as a “safe place,” and many come back to seek, and find, answers.

Once a church is considered to be a place where they will be welcomed, many LDS people will come like Nicodemus came to Jesus—discretely, hoping not to be found out by their fellow ward members. It is surprising how many Latter-day Saints are deeply dissatisfied with the LDS Church and beliefs. Churches that take this strategically low key approach are experiencing rapid growth and seeing large numbers of Latter-day Saints confessing faith in Jesus through Christian baptism.

The Bridge. The cultural bridge that allows us to make the Good News sound like good news to LDS people is found in the Mormon emphasis on personal experience. I first discovered this reality more than thirty years ago. As a young man, I had great confidence in the power of argument to persuade LDS people that their truth claims were false. I believed that if I could just show them that their confidence in Joseph Smith, in their new revelations, or in their church was ill founded, they would quickly accept my beliefs in the authority of the Bible, in the triune God, and in salvation by grace through faith alone. I’m not sure why I assumed this, but I did. I was dedicated to knowing as many facts as I could so that I would be well equipped to tear down the foundational beliefs of LDS people.

Eventually, I became convinced that I found had the unassailable argument that would overthrow any “reasonable” Mormon’s confidence in their doctrine. I shared this argument with two LDS men who listened with great interest. After I had finished what I thought to be a compelling presentation, I asked them for their response. They looked at me with sincerity and said thoughtfully that my argument was solid and good, but, in the final analysis, they could not accept its conclusion because they had both prayed about the Mormon faith and they had a “testimony” that it was true. I was stunned by their response. I could see that they really did understand the intellectual power of my argument. However, they rejected it with a quiet confidence that forever changed my life. Their response was that they knew the LDS Church was true because they felt it to be true.

It was at this point that I stopped trying to argue Latter-day Saints out of their belief in the LDS doctrine or leadership. Instead, I prayed that the Lord would open my eyes and my heart and show me to how to communicate with LDS people in ways that they could, and would, hear. A major insight came via an article in the Brigham Young University campus newspaper, which described the story of a nominal Roman Catholic’s conversion to the LDS faith. The potential convert was a Ph.D. student in psychology who had been exposed to intensive missionary efforts while at BYU. He finally decided, once and for all, to determine if Mormonism was true.

It had become kind of a game with him. ‘Mormon’ he would say, and a consuming tingling would immediately follow… If he asked if he should remain a Catholic the manifestation would immediately stop. After doing this for four days, ‘He [finally] concluded that he had not been earnestly seeking an answer when the white stone slab naming the Provo Temple appeared a brilliant white. Tingling from head to foot, he felt his vision narrow. Stars and city lights paled in comparison. He could see nothing but the white stone slab… ‘I knew then that the church was true and I should become a Mormon…I knew in no uncertain terms that this was the word of God.’

This young man’s story is very helpful in understanding the Mormon way of knowing truth. Even though he was confronted with the LDS message for months, his decision to convert to the LDS faith was not based on understanding the relative claims of Catholicism and Mormonism. His feelings provided the basis by which he knew that the LDS Church was true. He believed that God spoke to him quite independently of the Bible or LDS Scripture, and he believed this because he tingling and he had a vision. This young man’s reliance on an emotional proof is very typical and in some senses almost the rule for the vast majority of Latter-day Saints. Understanding the importance of such a feeling-based “testimony” is critical if we are to hope to communicate with Latter-day Saints.

In philosophical terms, we are discussing epistemology—how do you know what you know. The LDS way of knowing spiritual truth based upon feelings is something I call a romantic epistemology. The extent and importance of this romantic epistemology can be seen at work in many areas of LDS experience.

For example, the first encounter most people have with the LDS Church comes through their beautifully produced and emotionally charged television commercials. One memorable commercial portrays a frazzled housewife who is desperately waiting for her husband to relieve her at the end of a difficult day. However, when he arrives home, rather than seeing his wife’s needs, he is distracted by a business call. Viewers watch the wife struggling not to crumble under the weight of her disappointment when her husband recognizes his mistake hangs up the phone and embraces his wife. Who could fail to be moved by this scene? Then the tag line says, “Brought to you by the Church of Jesus Christ, the Mormons.” Like all good marketing, an intentional link has been created between the name of the church, and the powerful feelings that this vignette evoked in the viewer. Thus, the way is prepared for the Mormon missionaries.

Another indication of the importance of feelings to LDS faith is the tradition of testimony meetings, held one Sunday each month in LDS congregations all around the word. At each testimony meeting a number of church members stand before their local ward and “bear their testimony” saying such things as that their Church is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true, often with tears in their eyes. The evident expression of feeling has a powerful impact of affirming the faith. Latter-day Saints who may have begun to doubt certain doctrinal beliefs of the LDS Church will ask themselves, “How can I doubt when others seem so sure?”

Traditional Christians may feel put off, or may ridicule LDS people for confusing “heart burn” with genuine faith. Such a reaction, however, is a serious mistake. While this feeling-based method of knowing God’s truth is not the same as faith based on the biblical truth, it is still a deeply rooted cultural fact. The reality is that we must learn to speak “Mormonese” — the language of spiritual experience—if we are to communicate with LDS people. Some traditional Christians fear that by speaking the language of experience they will compromise the gospel message, since the reliability of God’s truth is found not in feelings, but on God’s unchanging truth revealed in the Bible. However, it is possible to speak the LDS language and remain faithful to the truth of Scripture. Following are some basic suggestions. Here are just a few ways in which we can use the LDS language of experience as a bridge to make the Good News sound like good news to Mormons. Listen to Their Story. Obvious as it sounds, the first step is to realize that there is a wide variation in what individual Mormons believe. While many do believe the basics of traditional LDS doctrine, others are simply cultural Mormons who appreciate their upbringing and heritage but do not believe the teachings of the LDS Church. Some of these people are agnostic, others hold New Age beliefs, and still others hold beliefs that may be close to traditional Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, some have a genuine faith in Christ, but for some reason or another choose to remain associated with the LDS Church. Therefore, we need to listen carefully to each person’s story as an essential of authentic friendship and the first step of relational evangelism.

We should begin by simply asking “getting to know you” questions about background, family, and work. When it is appropriate, we should ask questions about their faith as well. “Tell me how you came to be LDS?” Some people might tell you that they were converted after a serious spiritual quest, while others might say they were raised Mormon but now have little use for the LDS Church. Their answers may reveal that “missionary dating” drew them in: they began dating a Mormon who insisted on conversion before marriage. Another helpful question might be, “What is important to you about being LDS?” Some come from broken homes and they look to the LDS Church to help them develop strong and stable families. Others are attracted by the strong moral values, healthy lifestyle, or social structure of the Church. If we listen to LDS people they will tell us what we need to know to apply the Good News to their special need. Present Our Story. We must move beyond simply listening. Evangelism, in the final analysis, involves sharing the story of God’s grace. Many Latter-day Saints are surprised to find that traditional Christians have personal spiritual experiences with God. If we are indeed disciples of Jesus, we have many stories about how God has worked in our life. These stories are our own testimony, and we should share it.

But we need to go beyond the experiential to the biblical, by showing how our experiences are tied to God’s promises in the Bible. For example, whenever I share my conversion story, I always include a brief exposition of Romans 10:9-10. I make it clear that when I came to faith in Jesus, it was because I believed what God promised, even though my feelings were unmoved. I did not “feel” that my sins were forgiven, but I believed what the Bible promised: that if I have faith in Jesus, believed in his resurrection, and confessed Christ as my Lord (my Ruler and my God), then I was forgiven and accepted by God. In effect, I offer them a “gospel sandwich,” a text of Scripture surrounded by my personal experiential testimony. In doing this, the timeless truth of God’s word is presented in a way that makes sense to experience-based Mormons. We should also tell of ongoing daily experiences with God. We should tell of answered prayer (mentioning the scriptural promises we claimed) and we could tell how the Holy Spirit encouraged us (or confronted us) as we read certain passages of Scripture. We can tell something of our struggles with sin and of our growth in godliness. This kind of openness is not the Mormon way, but it is extremely attractive to some Latter-day Saints who simply want to be honest about their struggle with sin. Many Mormons are hungry for a personal relationship with Jesus and many will welcome someone who is willing to speak openly about God’s work in their lives. Expose Them to Christian Worship. One of the best ways to communicate God’s grace with LDS people is to take them to worship with a traditional Christian congregation. Many Mormons believe that because the LDS Church is the only true church, God is not present in our worship and they may feel some guilt attending a traditional Christian service. Christian worship is very different from Sunday meetings in an LDS ward. What many Christians might consider an average service may be seen by a Latter-day Saint as an amazing and meaningful event. For many LDS people the turning point of faith comes as a result of experiencing Christian worship and feeling God’s presence in a place where they did not expect to feel God.

It is critical to choose the right church and service. It should be a church where the LDS person will not be made to feel unwelcome with negative comments about the LDS Church from the pulpit or church members. LDS people (even those who are looking for answers outside of Mormonism) react negatively to criticism of the LDS Church and culture. Mormons who agree to attend worship are often afraid that they will be found out by fellow Mormons, that they will be mistreated by traditional Christians, that they will stand out, or that they may be taking the first step to apostasy. We must do everything in our power to make them feel safe and welcome.

Introduce them to the Bible. If we want to see people begin to follow Jesus, we need to introduce them to God’s promises in the Bible. Latter-day Saints have a basic respect for the Bible since it is one of their “standard works” of Scripture, though most have little actual knowledge of its message (most Latter-day Saints know only a handful of proof-texts). Consequently, many Latter-day Saints are loaded down with guilt because they know they are not “worthy” to progress to the highest of the three LDS heavens. Rather than rebuking them for a false view of the afterlife, it is much more effective to point them to God’s answer to guilt. For example, Romans 8:1, speaks to any person who is weighed down by guilt: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” LDS people need to hear the Good News and holding out God’s promises to them is a good way to start.

It is critical that LDS people begin to study the Bible for themselves at some point, but this is no easy task, since Mormon culture resists the idea that God speaks today through written words—even the words of the Bible. Rather, most Mormons look for immediate personal guidance either directly from God or through the voice of their Prophet. Yet, they must read the Bible if they are to know about God’s grace that will set them free from a works-based religion that offers only frustration for the spiritually sensitive person who truly seeks to please God. If Latter-day Saints are open to Bible study, it is a good idea to point them towards the Gospels to discover who the Jesus of Scripture is. The book of Acts gives them the story of the early church, Galatians and Romans provide a clear presentation of the message of God’s grace, and the early chapters of Genesis are important to help them a basic understand some basic biblical doctrines. Do not browbeat or attempt to correct them at every turn, but give them time to listen to God’s Word. After all, they must learn a new way of knowing God—by faith in Christ alone—despite what their feelings tell them.

The Fields Are White Unto Harvest

The traditional understanding of evangelism aimed at Latter-day Saints is that it is extremely difficult and one can expect to see little fruit. However, the Bridges approach flatly says that this is not true. Mormon people are spiritually hungry and many long to know that they can be accepted by God, yet for many that spiritual hunger is not being satisfied with in the LDS Church. If we extend ourselves to them in genuine friendship, are respectful of their culture, demonstrate by our lives that we love and follow Jesus, then we will have their ear. If we will do these things, we will experience a wonderful harvest.