SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (BP) – While considering locations to plant a church, Ben Heile determined the unique evangelistic opportunity available in Salt Lake City matched perfectly with his own desires and giftings.
Heile now lives in the Salt Lake Valley with his wife Rachael and three daughters, where he serves as the pastor of preaching and teaching at Hope Church Utah.
A Southern Seminary graduate, Heile and his family were sent out by Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., pastored at the time by NAMB President Kevin Ezell.
Heile told Baptist Press he and his wife believed using their gifts and abilities in the Salt Lake City community made sense.
“We just sat down with pen and paper, and thought about what is Salt Lake City and what are Ben and Rachael?,” Heile said.
“We looked at how ministry there matched up with who God has made us to be with our experiences and our giftings,” Heile said. “It was the most missional opportunity that we could see for our lives, so we jumped at it.”
Shortly after launching Hope Church in 2014, the church planting journey became even more of a family endeavor for Heile, as his parents moved to the Salt Lake area, along with his two younger brothers and their families.
He said his parents were “moving as grandparents, but wanted to be missionaries.”
These close-knit relationships have helped Heile and Hope Church minister within the distinct evangelistic context of Salt Lake.
Heile explained Utah, and specifically, Salt Lake City is the historic home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), commonly referred to as Mormons or Mormonism.
According to Heile, most of the population has the LDS belief system as their active religion or as a part of their background.
He said the main hurdles in communication between evangelical Christianity and the LDS belief system begin with terminology.
“They have a different set of definitions for the words that we use than we do,” Heile said. “We have to share the Gospel in an intentional way in order for people to even hear it. It takes time to get to know individuals and help them see the differences and why we believe what we believe.”
The influence of the belief system can be clearly seen in the community, as the LDS are a massive majority while evangelical Christianity is a massive minority.
Even the city’s street addresses serve as evidence, as they are presented as numbers that indicate the distance that particular location is from the LDS temple downtown.
The lack of evangelical Christianity doesn’t discourage Heile, but provides excitement instead.
“There are lost people everywhere, but it’s extremely exciting to be in a place where you’re an extreme minority religiously because then every conversation you’re speaking to somebody that’s a blank slate,” Heile said. “We really like the idea of being in a place where everything that we did would be useful just because there are so few other people doing it.”
Because so many in Salt Lake come from an LDS background, Heile said Hope Church wants to focus on building long-term relationships that extend the hospitality and love of Christ.
“We just have realized over and over again that hearing the Gospel verbally is the most important thing, but only part of how someone encounters Christianity,” Heile said. “You really want someone to be involved with seeing the Gospel lived as well as spoken.
“The runway for somebody to come to faith can be very lengthy and so the relationship has to be firm enough to last for that whole runway. Consistent prayer, hospitality and long-form life and love with people that are far from God are things that we get really excited about. We just want people to know the joy that comes from knowing Christ.”
Despite facing challenges as the spiritual minority in the community, Hope Church has seen great spiritual fruit in its eight years of ministry, including growing its congregation to nearly 200 attendees and seeing many professions of faith and baptisms.
Yet, the focus for Hope is not only on the here and now, but on the future.
“We’re hoping to find and equip the next generation of planters here,” Heile said.
“We try to facilitate partnerships that might turn into planters coming, but we are also trying to raise up people locally that can start new ministry work and be relational evangelists throughout our city.”
Salt Lake City will be the host of the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in June of 2027.
Heile expressed excitement for fellow Southern Baptists to experience the city and pray for the churches there, but also expressed caution about the evangelistic efforts visitors may bring with them.
“I am thrilled to have people come and see Salt Lake because this is a place that you need to come and see,” Heile said. “I don’t think people understand the lostness until they see what it looks like here. I’m thrilled about that because it gives us a lot of exposure, and I’m over the moon that people will be praying for us.
“I just hope that people who come will firstly follow Paul’s example in 2 Timothy of sharing the truth with gentleness, and also take the time to try to learn some of the differences in the way we use language.
“A lot of stuff we would say, people in the Salt Lake community would totally agree with, but they would mean something totally different. You’re going to have to do the work that it takes to figure out how to speak the Gospel in a way they can hear it.”
Heile encourages Southern Baptists to not wait until 2027 to develop loving relationships with different belief systems wherever they are.
“I think it’s helpful to find an LDS person where you are at and love them well over time,” Heile said.
“If you care about a person, then you’ll do your homework to learn what you need to know to be able to speak to them. If you reverse that order, then sometimes you get excited about a debate rather than sharing the Gospel with a person.”