“Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor”
At this point in the evangelical church, it is almost a cliche to speak of the most effective form of evangelism as “personal evangelism.” Ask any church member about some best practices for gaining gospel opportunities, and they would probably say something with regards to hospitality, building relationships, and getting to know who you are talking with. For anyone who is serious about Jesus’ message of salvation by grace alone, this message is absolutely central, and non-negotiable. However, there remains the perpetual question of how (Matt. 10:19) to share this message in a way that is understandable to the recipient. In the words of Proverbs 16:23, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” Most missiologists call this idea contextualization. The person seeking to share Jesus’ good news, desires to make the message understandable in order that people might see its relevance.
However, in the location that I minister, contextualization is more of an afterthought. The evangelistic approach that most people want to employ in our area goes something like this: “If I can tear this worldview apart as fast as possible, while simultaneously insulting everything this group holds dear, they will become Christians. And I will get patted on the back by other Christians and churches.” Where might this bombastic mission field exist? In what local people have long called “Mormon Town,” otherwise known as Laie, on the island of Oahu. Although most people would theologically and practically subscribe to the above mentioned style of compassionate personal evangelism, when in contact with a person from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for brevity) there is a default that most evangelicals reset to—that of apologetics (a verbal defense of the faith) or polemics (an active tearing down of counter perspectives).
Please hear me: there is nothing wrong with polemics or apologetics, indeed, I have been greatly ministered to in my own faith through apologetic ministries. And, truly, apologetics play a massive role in the conversion of many Mormons to a true understanding of who Jesus is and a clear delineation of the blessed gospel of grace. However, when this is our first impulse as we seek to minister the good news, our mindset shifts from the living room to the octagon so to speak. It is no longer about loving conversation and a winsome presentation of the gospel, gently correcting, and supplementing information, but about theological argumentation and philosophical domination. Though we all know the well worn evangelistic cliche, “Win the argument, lose the soul,” we don’t seem to care as much when it comes to someone from the LDS community.
Perhaps no book has better helped me (a recovering aggravated assaulting apologist) to see this inconsistency than Ross Anderson’s book Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor. Ross is a former Mormon, who is now a seasoned pastor continuing to minister to LDS people in Utah. What he delineates is a revolutionary idea, that really is not revolutionary in any other context, and it is this: approach Mormonism as a culture and not just a cult. Shocking I know. The simplicity and profundity of this concept is plain. The strategy is merely taking our well-known, well-trudged, and widely accepted practices of missiology and applying them to a Mormon context.
When one does this, we begin seeing the Mormon community as a mission field in need of gospel proclamation, and not as heretics in need of an inquisition. Please do not misunderstand me—Mormonism is a cult. It denies multiple essential components of the gospel (see Travis Kerns’ article), however, Mormons are still people. Most of whom have never heard the true gospel, many of whom have been victimized by the LDS church themselves (see the many secular and Christian support groups that seek to help heal the trauma of the LDS religion). Furthermore, the congregating of many of those with the same belief system, values, and vicinity creates a culture, not all of which is bad because of His common grace (Matt. 5:45).
Tim Keller says in Center Church, “The gospel has supernatural versatility to address the particular hopes, fears, and idols of every culture and every person. This points us to the need for contextualization” (p. 44). I wonder sometimes if our theology of the gospel is too thin as we minister to our mormon neighbors. What I mean to say is that, many of us become insecure of the power of the gospel when we come in contact with cult members, and thus, abandon the work of contextualization, and trust in the power of apologetics more than the power of the Spirit through the proclamation of the good news. Again, apologetics is vital, and even vital in serving the mormon community. The question is, are we abusing the discipline of apologetics in order to hide what is truly going on in our hearts—a lack of faith that the gospel can save?
In preparation for planting our church, my wife and I traveled to Utah to talk to those who are doing this hard work of contextualization and outreach among the LDS community. What they had found over decades of ministering to those in the Mormon community is that, although many of them had met born again christians on their 2 year mission trips (a relatively common cultural aspect of young people’s lives), most of those encounters were not marked by love, but by doors slammed in their faces. While I understand the desire for doctrinal purity, the danger of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the zeal to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), Christians must also understand that the people in the Mormon community are still image bearers of God. They are still our neighbors whom we are admonished to show Christ’s love (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39).
Let us never forget that we too were once enemies of the cross, in dire need of hearing the life changing message of the gospel of grace (Rom. 5:8, 10), bought through the shed blood of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is my plea to you brothers and sisters: Before you look at someone from the LDS church as a cult member or wolf, see them as a person, a person in need of the gospel. Then talk with them as you would with any other person about the gospel, seeking to apply the beauty of Jesus’ message to the pain points in their lives, remembering that this is how many of us came to faith as well. Trust in the power of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Mormon.
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