NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Southern Baptists could learn a great deal from the “missionary culture” of rival, false gospels who are creating missionaries and subsequent converts at an alarming rate, Phil Roberts said.
Through daunting missionary efforts, Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown to 5 million, 4 million of whom live outside the United States, Roberts said. But more impressive, he said, is the growth rate of the Mormon church, up 1,000 percent in the last 40 years and still growing through its aggressive missions efforts.
Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo., and an expert in Mormonism, was the kickoff speaker for this year’s national Conference on Biblical Discernment, Feb. 15-17 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The event was sponsored by Evangelical Ministries to New Religions, a national organization committed to reaching people in cults and new religions with the gospel of Jesus Christ, along with NOBTS.
“Since the Second World War, when there were only a few thousand missionaries, [Mormon missionaries] have grown to over 50,000,” Roberts said. “These missionaries now produce 300,000 converts … each year.
“This does not mean that they produce converts from Mormon children,” he added. “The 317,000-plus baptisms recorded by the church in 1997 were converts from non-Mormon movements. That means that each missionary produces about six converts per year.”
Mormons, Roberts said, have created a missionary culture in which being a missionary is the rule, not the exception. The Mormon church requires that its missionaries (mostly college-aged men, though women increasingly are being used) give a two-year period of service which also involves a two- or three-month training period in which they learn to defend their faith vigorously but gently — and convert members of other faiths.
It is more difficult to understand this participation level once one understands the rigorous requirements of the Mormon missions stint, Roberts said. During the two-year assignment, he said, missionaries live in highly disciplined conditions: They may call home only twice a year; they live with only what they need; and they may not return home even in the case of the death of a parent.
“Remarkably, missionaries and their families generally have saved enough money to pay their own way,” Roberts said.
Mormons are not satisfied with their rate of growth and plan to send out 100,000 missionaries into the field by the year 2005, Roberts said.
“If they are able to do that,” he said, “Mormons will look forward to baptizing 700,000 converts to the church, maybe more, by the middle of this decade. At this rate of growth … the Mormons could number at least 280 million by the year 2085.”
Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, Roberts said, could learn a few things from Mormon missionary efforts.
First of all, he said, evangelical missions agencies must learn to challenge and recruit people directly to become part of world missions.
“If appropriate opportunities and structures were established for student evangelism, whether or not people feel called to full-time career missions, they could still be challenged to spend months or several years of their lives sharing the gospel in a missionary context,” Roberts said.
Second, Roberts suggested targeting youth to be involved in direct evangelism, not just in the “service and administrative element” of missions, such as charitable work. Roberts also suggested making more three-month to two-year missions experiences available to young people, as well as raising the expectations of them to get involved in missions.
“Is it too much to expect that every evangelical student give several months to doing direct evangelism, no matter what their career path or plans?” he asked.
Roberts also suggested bringing missions involvement into children’s and youth groups, as well as into the families of evangelical churches. Missions education, he said, must be the responsibility of everyone. In the Mormon church, he noted, songs have been written about becoming a missionary when they’re older, creating a sense of anticipation even in younger members.
“I want to be a missionary now. I want to be a missionary now,” the song reads. “I don’t want to wait until I am grown/ I want to share the gospel while I am young, for I have a testimony of my own/ I want to let my friends know about our church and the happiness it brings to me/ I’ll let them know the gospel was restored, tell them how The Book of Mormon came to be.”
Roberts said Christians also must see the cults as a mission field, realizing that the best response to cult conversion tactics is “a good offense and not just a good defense.”