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Utah churches face challenges as part of religious minority

SALT LAKE CITY (BP) – South Valley Baptist Church in suburban Salt Lake City is celebrating the completion of its first building, a particularly joyful event considering the mission congregation has existed for six years and has owned its property for five. An extended series of zoning and permit roadblocks to construction compounded a perception of community opposition in an area where Baptists are often considered outsiders.
“It’s just been a constant struggle, and if we hadn’t felt that the Lord had put us out here, we wouldn’t have stayed, humanly speaking,” said Huron A. Polnac Jr., the church’s pastor and a missionary of the North American Mission Board. “But it was interesting … . God has shown us through all of this that he is out here helping us.”
South Valley’s story is somewhat typical of Southern Baptist churches in a state where Mormons make up about 75 percent of the population, much more in some rural areas. Gains, while not impossible, are difficult. The key to success, according to several pastors and state convention leaders, is to understand the environment in which churches are operating and respond accordingly.
The “persecution” such as experienced by South Valley has often been more inadvertent than deliberate in recent years, leaders say, much like any minority population is likely to experience without strong connections to local power structures. When the local mayor was approached about the extended planning and zoning delays at South Valley, for instance, the problems were eventually addressed and the church was allowed to move forward with the building.
In another church in a heavily Mormon community, notification of a water cutoff for repairs was made through the Mormon ward structure. It was assumed that would be adequate notice.
“You are always aware of where the power is,” said Jim Herod, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hyram, Utah. “But they try to be very careful and not abuse that power, especially in an overt or obvious way. And they are sensitive to others who are not Mormons.”
Over the past 20 years or so, in fact — as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been increasingly portrayed as a part of mainstream Christianity — there has been even more interest in working cooperatively and respectfully with non-Mormons, Herod said.
The change in attitude actually has had some positive consequences. “They want to be accepted as Christians and they’re encouraging members to be involved alongside Christians. It really has the effect of opening them up to experiencing the gospel,” Herod said.
Tom Vance, missions consultant for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, said the change has been reflected in subtle ways — such as the emphasis in the main Temple Square visitor’s center shifting from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to Jesus Christ and scenes from the Bible. He agreed it has also resulted in more tolerance of non-Mormons.
“When I first pastored a church, Christian kids had difficulty making the basketball team … . There was this climate of, ‘We want these Gentiles out of here, because we want a pure place where only LDS (Latter-day Saints) are.’ I think that changed a few years ago to, ‘Let’s have them here but let’s convert them.'”
Evangelism is also approached differently in Utah than in areas where Christians are more common. Successful approaches are almost entirely based on earning the right to be heard by cultivating relationships.
At Mountain View Baptist Church in Layton, Utah, those relationships have been built largely through a wide array of support groups and other programs of interest to the broader community. A Christmas “Walk through Bethlehem” presentation that covers the entire grounds, for instance, has been effective in introducing the church to the community and opening the doors for further contact. The church has found a niche that has allowed it to thrive evangelistically in an area where others have struggled.
“We have not felt any rejection, we have not felt any obstacles that we couldn’t overcome,” said Keith Markham, Mountain View’s pastor. “We have not felt anything except that the Lord is working here and he is letting us work with him.”
In other areas, however, the isolation felt by Baptists has resulted in a siege mentality among some churches that inhibits evangelism, said Herb Stoneman, evangelism director for the Utah-Idaho convention. It particularly becomes a problem in areas outside metropolitan Salt Lake City where non-Mormons are scarce.
“Pastoral leadership is evangelistic in its thrust, but people get tired of the battle,” he said. “Pretty soon you have folks saying, ‘Look pastor, why don’t we forget about all these people that are around us and get on with having our organization working right here.'”
Another reason for Mountain View’s success — and the struggles of some new congregations — is its modern and attractive building, according to several leaders. It might sound materialistic to Baptists familiar with new congregations meeting in storefronts and mobile chapels, but Mormons expect well-appointed facilities.
“You can’t start churches in this area in the way we used to start churches,” said Markham. “Every 10-12 blocks the Mormons will have a $2-3 million ward building. You have to build the best, you have to build the nicest and you have to say to them, ‘We give, and we are just concerned about our God as you are about your false doctrine.'”
Vance said one of the biggest problems facing Baptist work in the area is simply a lack of experienced leadership. In an area where the problems faced by churches require strong leadership skills, the pastors and church starters often are young and relatively inexperienced.
“Most of the pastors who have training to do this are not located in our area,” he said. “So for them to come and plant a church and plant their life here is a pretty strong commitment. They oftentimes come here and really they don’t have the kind of support system they have back in the South. Then you add to that financially, it’s very difficult for them.”
There are several leaders who have moved from church to church, starting and restarting congregations. Herod, for instance, left the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Brigham City to start Emmanuel in Hyrum. Polnac also has extensive experience in the area, having restarted Kearns Baptist Church before agreeing to start South Valley in Riverton. And Markham came to Utah after about 20 years on the Missouri Baptist Convention staff.
Vance said the best leaders are those who realize that opposition, as in the early church, can actually strengthen churches and individual Christians.
“If you think about it, people that are Christians who are living out here need to have an even stronger church family,” he said. “People like that can grow a church anywhere and the opposition that you have from Mormons or whomever becomes a positive and not a negative.”

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  • James Dotson