SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–Inside the Salt Palace Convention Center, this year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting will be familiar to most local church messengers. But outside, in a city rooted in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the clash of belief and culture is almost inevitable.
How should Southern Baptists approach and interact with their Salt Lake City hosts, many of whom may be Mormons? A courteous and respectful attitude is essential, of course, according to several leaders in reaching Mormons with the biblical gospel. The most important points to get across in a short conversation, however, are the critical beliefs that set Mormonism apart from historic Christianity and a saving relationship with the historic Christ. Among those are the doctrines of God, Jesus and salvation.
A different god
“If you’re talking to a Mormon, the most important thing is to show that we as Christians worship eternal God who never was a man,” said Rauni Higley, a former Mormon who with her husband, Dennis, now operates a Christian ministry to Mormons in Salt Lake City. “It is something that the Mormons really do not get.”
Mormons teach that God was once a man, and Jesus was merely the first-born of billions of spirit-sons of God on earth. They teach Mormons can eventually achieve that same godhood, with responsibilities for entire worlds of their own if they are faithful to the LDS Church. Many Mormons, however, are not clear on the distinctive differences and think their beliefs are not substantially different from those of historic Christianity.
Higley said a conventional presentation of the gospel often is not effective unless the differences are stressed.
“I look back when I was told as a Mormon that I needed Christ. I would say, ‘Hey, I already have him. But my church is superior to yours because we have a living prophet,’” Higley said. “You witness to a Mormon about Christ and they just look at you and say, “What do you mean?’ … You have to tell them, ‘The Christ I am telling you about is different from the Christ you are talking about.’”
She cited several key verses that are especially helpful in pointing out what the Bible says about God, including Isaiah 43:10, which states in part, “… before me there was no God formed, nor was there any God after.” Other helpful verses in the same section include Isaiah 44:6 and 45:5-6, and 46:9-10. Most Mormons, even trained missionaries, do not have a ready explanation for the blatant contradiction of these verses with their teachings, she said. Other helpful verses include Numbers 23:19, Colossians 1:15, John 1:1,14 and Eph. 2:8-10.
It also is helpful to be familiar with the correct interpretation of favorite verses used by Mormons in supporting their view of the Trinity, including Psalm 82:6, 1 Corinthians 8:15, Genesis 1:26 and Acts 7:56.
Higley advised against getting distracted by such issues as the life and character of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith or secret temple rituals in the short initial interactions that are likely to occur.
“It may irritate them more than anything else, but it really doesn’t cause them to think whether Mormonism is true or not,” Higley said. It is best, she said, to stick with basic theological problems that can be defended with Scripture.
Phil Roberts, director of interfaith witness evangelism for the North American Mission Board, said the first thing in approaching an adherent of any faith group is to have a thorough understanding of the essential doctrines of Christianity. Also, Christians should understand the basic doctrines of Mormonism and be sure to have Mormons define the terms they’re using.
“When you listen at face value you might say, ‘These are wonderful Christians.’ … Well if you understand the unique doctrines Mormonism holds and the fact that they’ve redefined all the Christian terms, then you can get to the heart of what they’re talking about,” he said.
He acknowledged it might be difficult to lead Mormons to Christ immediately, and that organized evangelistic efforts consequently will be directed generically to all non-Christians. “A lot of our evangelism out there will be seed-planting when it comes to Mormon people, because many will be prepared to resist anything. … But we can plant that seed of doubt to show them, ‘Look, you can call yourself a Christian. You can say you believe in Jesus, but is it the Jesus of the Bible?’”
Salvation by grace
Roberts also advised stressing the nature of God and Jesus Christ in presenting the gospel, as well as the centrality of faith in salvation.
“For a Mormon, everybody is going to have a better life, even Adolph Hitler. But did he have faith? No. The Word of God says ‘By grace through faith we are saved.’ We have to emphasize to the Mormon we are under condemnation, all have sinned, and we must by faith have expectation of a better life to come.” Hitler is one of many non-Mormons who have been baptized by proxy in a Mormon temple after their death.
“The Book of Mormon redefines grace,” Roberts said. “It’s what God does for you after all that you can do. And who’s ever done everything that could be done to save oneself? … In defining grace that way, they rob grace of its meaning. Grace is being totally dependent on God’s grace.”
Beyond the basic theological preparation, there are also practical considerations. Mormons value a “modest, not slobbish” dress code, Higley said. They also do not believe in drinking coffee or tea.
“We should be careful not to flaunt our freedom in Christ before those who are still under the law, as Mormons are,” she said. “If you go to eat with them, do not order coffee or tea or even Coke. Water would be best!”
Baptists in Temple Square
The close presence of Temple Square — a tourist attraction and focus of Mormon proselytization efforts — raises a different set of opportunities for interaction. The worldwide headquarters of the LDS Church is just around the corner from the convention center.
One of the guided tours, conducted by young missionaries from around the world, includes the square and its buildings — including the Mormon Temple and Tabernacle and the North Visitor’s Center. That visitor’s center, open to the public, includes mostly images from the Christian Bible. In the South Visitor’s Center, guided tours provide an overview of the Book of Mormon and the Mormon view of the Temple. Also, a movie titled “The Legacy” is presented in a theater across the street, providing a technically impressive but incomplete and one-sided look at the early history of the LDS Church.
Throughout the tours, missionaries often ask guests probing questions about their impressions of what they are being told to prompt discussion of their own spiritual walk. Guests also are offered a free Book of Mormon and are frequently invited to fill out a card requesting a visit by Mormon missionaries in their home.
Southern Baptists should remember that they are guests of the LDS Church while they are inside Temple Square, Roberts said. Security guards, in fact, have been known to remove Christians who spoke out too frequently about their beliefs or against the LDS Church. But there are opportunities for graciously sharing beliefs about Scripture and asking probing questions.
“For instance, when they say, ‘This is our temple and we do gospel ordinances in it,’ say, ‘Well, was this what the temple was used for in the Bible?” Roberts said. “Then you can say, ‘I understood the biblical temple was where symbolic sacrifice was to foreshadow Christ — but not baptism for the dead or eternal marriages.’
“At the end of the tour you can graciously share with the tour guide something of your testimony of Christ alone, exclusive of any church salvation,” Roberts said, noting Mormons respect a personal testimony. “Then you can leave them a gospel tract and go.”
Herb Stoneman, director of evangelism for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, said while messengers might visit Temple Square out of interest, it should not be considered primarily as an evangelistic opportunity. “I am praying that the Lord will use those who go, but I am familiar enough with the methods that I seriously doubt the evangelistic value of visits.”
In dealing with individuals, Stoneman said he uses several approaches that can be effective with Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Mormons are often concerned about eternal matters, and he will often open a conversation by requesting permission to ask a personal question. When they almost inevitably say yes, he might ask if there is anything he can pray with them about. He will pray with them, but it also opens opportunities to share the hope of Christ.
Other times he will ask them directly what they think about religion. They begin talking, and the question is usually returned.
“I’ll often respond with something like, ‘I really do not believe much in religion. … I believe rather in knowing him who to know is life everlasting,” Stoneman said.
“I’ve discovered over the years that our admonition in Psalms to hide the word in our heart is absolutely essential to our being able to communicate with lost people,” he said. “Avoid arguments. We’re not going to get in an argument of what they believe versus what I believe. Rather, I want to talk about the relationship that can be established with the God of the Bible.”
Stoneman also said Southern Baptists should be aware that Mormons in Utah are entirely different from Mormons in the South. They know virtually nothing about historic Christianity, and even the concept that a Baptist can have a testimony of Christ is foreign. In those instances, they often are much more receptive than many Christians might think.
“One of the things that frustrates me has been hearing people say some things that I’ve heard for years, that you can’t win those Mormons to Christ,” Stoneman said. “I say, ‘Wait a minute. They’re just plain lost people. They don’t have a knowledge of the truth.’ And when they are exposed to the truth, like lost people everywhere there is a desire to know the Lord.”