|16. 2004 Forum - RELIGIOUS AND NON-RELIGIOUS SPIRITUALITY (NEW AGE)|
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Mormonism Case Study “Bridges: Communicating God’s Grace to Mormons”
By Ken Mulholland, Salt Lake Theological Seminary
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church or the LDS Church, was born in the United States in the 1830s and since then has become a religious movement that extends to every part of the globe. Currently, the LDS Church claims twelve million members with a missionary force of 60,000. One prominent American scholar predicts that if present growth rates continue the Mormon Church will be the first emerging world religion since the rise of Islam.
Since the birth of the Mormon Church evangelicals have vigorously opposed it, since it claimed that true Christianity ceased to exist until God restored it through Joseph Smith, Jr. The unifying thread of Mormon doctrine 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 Mormon description, man is “god in embryo.” Thus, Mormon doctrine rejects the traditional Christian belief that God is ontologically different than humans. The most famous LDS summary of this teaching is: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”
Traditional evangelistic outreach to Latter-day Saints has been dominated by the “heresy-rationalist apologetic” widely popularized by Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults. This approach is the unquestioned modus operandi for the vast majority of Christians 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. This approach 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. This approach almost always receives a hostile response from Mormon people.
A New Model Salt Lake Theological Seminary was asked by the evangelical churches of Utah to produce an evangelism training tool that conveyed the evangelistic philosophy of area Christians to those coming to Salt Lake to share their faith prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics. 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 Olympic outreach and it continues to offer Christians an effective method of outreach to Mormons.
The basic philosophy of the Bridges approach is built around three core beliefs: a commitment to relational evangelism rather than confrontational evangelism; a commitment to understanding the unique culture of Latter-day Saints and finding points of contact with their culture; and a commitment to church-based evangelism that seeks to lead LDS people to a strong commitment to the local church.
The essential characteristic of this new model is the assumption that Latter-day Saints should fundamentally not be viewed as members of a cult but rather as members of a unique religious culture. There are many aspects to Mormon culture, but two are especially important in our evangelistic outreach. The first has to do with how Latter-day Saints see themselves in relationship with the broader world. North American Mormons view themselves as a persecuted people (even when they are the majority population) 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.
To the popular Mormon mind, the essence of LDS history is that they are a people who have endured great and undeserved persecution at the hands of the Evangelical Protestant American establishment. Whether or not this is a fair assessment of historical reality, it is certainly a psychological reality for almost all Latter-day Saints in the United States. So Mormons, not unlike Jews, are extremely sensitive and hostile to confrontational evangelistic efforts. With this in mind, consider the likely effectiveness of the standard “counter-cult” approach of calling the LDS Church a “cult” or of insisting that the LDS Church or Mormon people are not “Christian.”
The greatest antidote to this belief that they are a persecuted people is to get to know Mormons as individuals and demonstrate that we actually 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 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 pray to Jesus, 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 Christian 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 church 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.
A second aspect of Mormon culture that offers a Gospel bridge is their emphasis on personal religious experience. This experience-based aspect of their culture allows us to make the Good News sound like good news to LDS people. Here are just a few ways in which we can use the LDS language of experience as a bridge to the Good News to Mormons. We should listen to their story. 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 also 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. Mormons should be exposed to Christ-centered Christian worship. One of the best ways to communicate God’s grace with LDS people is to invite them to worship at a traditional Christian congregation. Many Mormons believe that because the LDS Church is the only “true church,” God is not present in our worship. 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. 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 within the LDS Church. If we extend ourselves to them in genuine friendship, are respectful of their culture, and 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.