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Ministry in Mormon country

For Churches of Christ in Utah, reaching a state dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints poses an immense challenge.

SALT LAKE CITY — To Mormons, the Salt Lake Temple — a magnificent granite structure built in the 1800s — stands as a sacred icon and monument of pioneer faith.
For the 14 million adherents worldwide of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Temple Square represents “Jerusalem and Mecca and Shangri-La all rolled into one,” said Latayne C. Scott, a former Mormon.
“I myself wore a silver charm of the Salt Lake Temple around my neck for many years,” said Scott, author of the Zondervan book “The Mormon Mirage” and a member of the Mountainside Church of Christ in Albuquerque, N.M.
On a recent morning, a dozen teenagers from Texas made their way to the center of Utah’s capital city to tour the Mormon world headquarters. The teens’ aim: familiarize themselves with the region’s predominant religion before starting a weeklong mission trip here.
The youth group came from the 1,200-member Sunset Church of Christ in Lubbock — a West Texas congregation with more members than all the Churches of Christ in Utah combined.
“I wanted the Texas kids to get a perspective” on Mormon life, said Mike Wiist, minister of the Murray Park Church of Christ, a 100-member congregation just south of Salt Lake City that hosted the group.
Mormons believe God gave additional Scriptures beyond the Bible to a self-styled prophet named Joseph Smith in the 19th century. These writings claim Jesus Christ visited the Americas, reject traditional Christian understandings of the trinity and original sin and admonish followers to avoid alcohol and caffeine.
“I guess, if you’re just looking at it from a distance, people might say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe people believe that. It’s ridiculous,’” Wiist said. “But to see people who are really passionate about what they believe, to see real people behind the beliefs, real hearts, real faces — maybe the group can take that perspective with them.”
The teens were joined by adult sponsors and four short-term missionaries to Salt Lake City: Beth Horn, her brother Dustin Horn, Jacob Norwood and Glenna Schultz, all serving through Sunset International Bible Institute’s Adventures in Missions program, known as AIM.
“Mormonism is in my roots, so I really wanted to come be a part of it,” said Sunset member Laura Collier, who joined her daughter, Rhonda, 17, on the trip.
Laura Collier grew up in Wyoming and was baptized as a Mormon at age 8. Ironically, a Bible study as part of a Mormon before-school program prompted her search for the truth.
“We came across the Scripture about how you’re not married in heaven or given in marriage … and I knew that didn’t agree with what Mormons believed,” said Collier, whose questions led to her conversion at age 18.
FREEDOM IN CHRIST, FOR MORMONS
After touring Temple Square, the Texas teens painted, sorted canned goods and cleaned floors at a Volunteers of America homeless outreach center downtown.
The rest of the week, they focused on evangelistic outreach, service projects and a Vacation Bible School for the Murray Park neighborhood. The youth group distributed 1,000 “gospel cards” with information about the church and talked to a number of people, Sunset youth minister Justin Cardwell said.
“Our conversations with Mormons were quite pleasant, but immediate fruit was few and far between,” said Cardwell, noting that the campaign did not result in any baptisms. “We viewed our work as seed-sowing, with prayers that long-term ministries will lead to freedom for them.”
The Sunset group’s experience epitomizes that of Churches of Christ in Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains a dominating presence. Christians occasionally convert Mormons but only after months or years of study and relationship building, church leaders said.
“We don’t go out and try to convert Mormons,” said Jeff Oliverson, an elder with the Southside Church of Christ in Salt Lake City, the state’s largest congregation with 300 members. “I don’t want to hit anyone over the head with the Bible. I think they have to reach the point where they want to start asking questions.”
Oliverson speaks from personal experience: He’s a descendant of one of Joseph Smith’s wives and grew up Mormon. His parents, two sisters and a brother remain Latter-day Saints.
While his family hasn’t excluded or blackballed him, that’s not the experience for every Mormon who converts, he said.
In Oliverson’s case, he sought answers in the Bible when the Book of Mormon failed to satisfy his questions.
“The truth has set me free,” he said.
CHURCH STRONG IN FAITH, NOT IN NUMBERS    
Mormons comprise roughly 60 percent of Utah’s 2.8 million residents.
By contrast, fewer than 1,200 souls make up Utah’s 19 a cappella Churches of Christ, according to the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States.

“The group that meets here is small in number but strong in spirit and faithful to the Lord,” said Gerald R. Molzahn, who works with the Brigham City Church of Christ, 50 miles north of Salt Lake City.
The church, in a community named after 19th-century Mormon leader Brigham Young, averages Sunday attendance between 12 and 20.
In southeastern Utah, Martin and Julie Johnson serve with the Moab Church of Christ, which has a membership in the 20s. The closest sister congregation is 100 miles away, said Martin Johnson, a graduate of Sunset and Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
“We have members who have never seen another Church of Christ, never been to a lectureship, never been to a gospel meeting at another congregation. We’re trying to change that,” said Johnson, who organized a trip to the Tahoe Family Encampment in California and plans to take members to the Bear Valley Lectures in Colorado.
South of Salt Lake City, about 40 people worship with the Mid Valley Church of Christ in Sandy. Members include a Liberian refugee family and a number of people in their 70s and older.
The church’s small size contributes to its close-knit family atmosphere, said Donna Moore, a longtime member along with her husband, Michael.
“I think that’s part of the uniqueness,” she said. “Your church family is your family because most of us are transplants.”
LIFE IN A MORMON CULTURE
Thirty years ago, a new Christian named David Hurley graduated from medical school and moved to Utah for an internship. The pediatrician never left.
One of the Murray Park church’s two elders, Hurley said he appreciates the positive aspects of Mormon culture.
Often, he said, an out-of-state visitor will remark in a Bible class or church fellowship, “It must be hard here with all these Mormons.” Inevitably, Hurley groans, knowing that — typically — a Mormon or two is in the audience.
“Mormons are good people,” Hurley said. “It’s a good place to live. The crime rate’s low. Family is valued. Education is valued. There are a lot of good things about having Mormon neighbors.”
The best time to share Christ, in Hurley’s view, is not when someone is comfortable in his current situation but when that person is hurt or confused.
“That’s the time to let them know that Jesus is the answer,” he said.
Murray Park members teach a Tuesday night Bible study at a drug rehabilitation center. Every other Sunday afternoon, a church group goes to the center and sings with the residents.
“These are people, mostly drug addicts, abused women, who have no place to go,” Hurley said.
To distinguish themselves from the young Mormon missionaries so prevalent in Salt Lake City, the AIM missionaries avoid white dress shirts (for the guys) and skirts (for the girls).
Dustin Horn, 20, said he has discovered that most residents are either Mormons who would be ostracized by family if they gave up their faith or non-Mormons so tired of proselytizing efforts that they won’t open their doors.
The Horns and Schultz volunteer at a therapeutic clinic where children with physical and mental disabilities ride horses. That experience has opened the door to friendships with other volunteers — many of them Mormons.
Still, persuading those friends to delve deeper into matters of faith has proven difficult. “You can’t really reason with them. You can’t really convert them,” Dustin Horn said. “You have to become friends with them and live your life in a way that makes them ask questions.”
Randy Clay, Southside’s minister for 18 years, said the church preaches a simple message of salvation through Jesus and emphasizes the necessity of baptism.
At the same time, the congregation works with believers outside Churches of Christ whenever possible, he said.
“When you’re up against it and know that there’s a small band on your side, you band together,” Clay said.
However, that plea for Christian unity does not extend to Mormons.
“If you know much about LDS theology, they’re as wrong as wrong can be,” he said. “Now, they’re good people. I think a lot of them are sincere, as we are. But it’s just not a Christian church.”
Clay lived about three minutes from Southside’s old building.
On his short drive to worship, he’d pass 12 Mormon congregations, he said.
“Every corner, you see it,” he said. “So constantly, I’m reminded that I’m in a state that needs the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.”

  • Feedback
    I grew up with Mormons in Redlands California (lots of Mormon history in the San Bernardino Valley) and they were some of my closest friends because of their family beliefs and behavior. This led to my reading of the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants while I was a student at ACU out of curious.
    David Ellis
    Westside church of Christ in Round Rock
    Austin, Texas
    United States
    March, 6 2012
    Are you concerned that if you represent us accurately you might convert some people? Not one thing I read in this article in relation to our doctrine was true or accurate. I am a mormon and I love, believe in adore worship, study, give my all to our savior jesus christ. The god who walked among men on earth. He who called apostles and prophets, who died and was resurected. I love him. I know he lives. He is jesus christ. He is the only one who can save us.
    mike mhana
    shelby branch
    shelby, Montana
    usa
    August, 28 2011
    “Noe everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and preform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
    Seems to take care of the thought of everyone who claims Jesus will be in Heaven.
    Stringfellow
    PArk Plaza Church of Christ
    Tulsa, OK
    USA
    August, 12 2011
    I read your Christian Chronicle News and am so blessed by what you are doing. I will be praying for your work to grow as you spread the love of Jesus Christ and his redeeming blood. May God continue to bless all of my brothers who are working so hard to spread the true Gospel. All my love. Bill Harper
    BB
    Billy G. Harper
    Whites Ferry Road Church of Christ
    West Monroe, Louisiana 71291
    USA
    August, 4 2011
    Oliver, if I were to judge you by your words, I would say you are a sincere and devoted person.
    Here’s why most Christians view the Mormon religion (without judging its individuals) the way they do:
    Different god (former man who wants to help people become gods) + different scriptures + different view of salvation (ultimately exaltation only through temple work) + history and scriptures that call other churches corrupt =
    a different religion.
    Latayne C Scott
    Mountainside
    Albuquerque , NM
    USA
    August, 4 2011
    Who are you to judge ones heart and determine whether or not someone is Christian. I believe there is a passage in the New Testament, judge not lest ye be judged. I love my Savior and Redeemer, I am a Christian and I am a Mormon. I believe anyone else who has a love for the Savior is Christian too.
    Oliver AhMu
    Blue Springs Chapel
    Blue Springs , Missouri
    USA
    August, 4 2011
    Thank you, Latayne, for your response. I am, indeed, quite familiar with your body of work. I do not believe that this venue is designed as a forum to discuss individual items, but I would be happy to elsewhere. I think my comment about relying on the “Ex-Church of Christ Support Group” still exemplifies the problem. Would you suggest that members of The Churches of Christ appeal to the “Ex” group for an accurate assessment of their beliefs?
    Comments from anyone are welcome: [email protected]
    Don Ormsby
    Syracuse Center Ward, Syracuse, Utah
    Syracuse, UT
    USA
    August, 3 2011
    That’s quite a broad statement about my accuracy, Don. Have you read any of my books? Other articles? Blogs? We’re talking about thousands of printed pages. Could you give some specifics about where I was inaccurate? I can think of a couple that have come to my attention lately (the date of the translation of ancient Egyptian, and the meaning of the word Nauvoo), and I’m willing to be corrected.
    Latayne C Scott
    Mountainside
    Albuquerque, New Mexico
    USA
    August, 3 2011
    I too would like to clarify. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in an open canon because we believe in a living God who still reveals truth to us. God loves us and does not hold back His word from us; He has given us prophets to help us understand His counsel. I explored many faiths before I joined this Church. I am satisfied that I have the best possible relationship with my Savior Jesus Christ. I know he loves me, I know he accepts me for my weaknesses and frailties, and I know that he suffered for my sins. I am grateful for this knowledge.
    Steve Salisbury
    Hyde Park Ward
    Chicago, Illinois
    USA
    August, 2 2011
    I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a few items. First, I would suggest that the works of former “Mormons” such as Ms. Scott are seldom accurate. As an example, I doubt you would consider the “Ex-Church of Christ Support Group” capable of expounding your point of view with accuracy. I suggest studying www.mormon.org.
    Although LDS Christians do not subscribe to several of the post-apostolic concepts of so-called “Orthodox Christianity”, we have an intense devotion to Jesus Christ of Nazareth. We view Joseph Smith not as a “self-styled” prophet of God, but as a prophet called of God as any of the prophets mentioned in the Bible. I would be happy to engage in friendly conversation on the subject. [email protected]
    Don Ormsby
    Syracuse Center Ward, Syracuse, Utah
    Syracuse, Utah
    USA
    August, 2 2011

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