A fellow-seminarian and close friend of mine, Kirk, of the blog Kuriakos, has spent a significant amount of time working with Evangelical churches in Utah over the past two summers. In exchange for driving him to the airport, I managed to
extort convince him to write a guest post reflecting his experiences there. (Supplement the following with this post he wrote as he prepared to depart Utah again this past August.) What follows is, I repeat, a guest post by my friend Kirk. Without further ado....
"If you want to be ignored by more people than you ever thought possible, come pastor a church in Utah."
When I first went to Utah two summers ago to join Westlake Community Church for a summer as an intern, my knowledge of Mormon culture probably would not have filled one page of paper. I spent my first summer in Utah County staring out the windows of our car in amazement as we drove past countless wards and stake centers and seminary buildings. I couldn't get over the feeling that I was in some parallel American reality, where everything was exactly the same with one exception: all the churches had disappeared and been replaced by wards. For a kid who grew up in the church, who attended church two or three times a week his whole life, who went to a Christian university in the center of the Bible Belt in Oklahoma, the absence of churches on every street corner was very disconcerting for a while. But by the end of my first summer the shock had worn off. And when I returned this summer for a more serious and intensive internship in the church, I came with a new understanding of what ministry in Utah meant for churches in the Utah Valley like Westlake Community Church: survival.
Except for the few rare large churches in Salt Lake City, pretty much every church in Utah is just trying to survive. I suspect that the vast majority of these churches are operating on the edge of failure - all it would take would be one bad month of finances or the loss of two or three key members and the whole church might collapse. This leads to some high tensions between Christian churches in the Valley. The pastors at my church have reached out to the pastors at other churches in the area to partner with them in ministry, but any connections are coming together very slowly. Even in my church, other new church plants are looked at with some trepidation, because if this other new church really takes off, then how will we survive? I think most Christian churches operate under a "this country ain't big enough for the both of us" mentality, and so divisions remain as we try to reach a culture that prides itself on unity and has always been critical of the divisions in the Christian church. But, that's the nature of the beast, as my pastor always says when we talk about the challenge of ministry in Utah. It can be extremely frustrating sometimes, as it was the day my pastor said the quote at the beginning of this post. But in spite of the hard times, I have come to love ministry in Utah. I love living and working in the midst of the Mormon people, and I love the greater feeling of brotherhood with the Church universal that I have felt as I have been able to identify with what it is like to be a Christian outside the U.S. even though I haven't left its soil.
Westlake Community Church does not specifically target Mormons. (If we just did that, we probably would have closed a year ago.) No, we strive to be a Christ-centered, Bible-believing church that is a light to the whole community in Utah County. We exist to help our congregation grow in Christ and to share Christ with the whole city. It just happens that 95% of the people in the city are Mormon, so we can't help but be impacted by their presence. We just want to make sure they are impacted by ours as well. The amazing thing is that our church has brought in a vast spectrum of people, from people who have been in Christian churches their whole life to people who have never been religious at all, from people who left the LDS Church years ago to people who still call themselves Mormon. It is exciting to see everyone come together and worship on Sundays. We have days when we serve the community and days when we evangelize, but we are grateful to welcome whomever God gives to us. My pastor says we are good at doing two things: preaching the word and loving people. We try to keep our focus on doing these things well in the grace of God, and we trust he will continue to bless us and keep us standing.
I really have come to have a tender spot in my heart for the Mormon people. For one thing, they aren't all that different from me. It's not like I've learned to identify with a completely different culture and language that I met while on some foreign mission field. No, I'm ministering among people who are mostly white, conservative Americans just like me. I don't smoke or drink, so I fit in really well in Utah. I don't even drink coffee, and I rarely drink soda, so I wouldn't even have to make any big adjustments in life if I wanted to join the LDS Church. I see that they work hard to ensure that their families are provided for at the same kinds of jobs that Americans all across the country hold, at places like the Harley Davidson plant, car dealerships, universities, law offices, and fast food restaurants. They also work hard at ensuring their salvation, and they have to because their religion requires it. That's just the nature of their beast, I suppose. Temple requirements, mission trips, good standing in one's ward - all these things are required of a good Mormon, especially if they want to make their way into the Celestial Kingdom and life everlasting with Heavenly Father. (Sometimes Christian churches can load just as many rules and demands on their members' backs. I believe Jesus was protesting this type of religion in Matthew 23 when he scolded the Pharisees.) But I have seen how the Mormon people work so hard to make themselves perfect, to appear as if they have it all under control, to "endure to the end". I have watched how LDS teens are rebelling against traditional Mormon beliefs, chafing under the strict rules and becoming disillusioned by the extensive information available that casts doubt on their past and scriptures. And all these things break my heart.
It breaks my heart to see people so close to the truth and yet so far away from understanding what it means. It breaks my heart to see people proclaim salvation by grace through faith in Jesus who are unable to accept that free grace because their other scriptures tell them that part of their salvation is still up to them. It breaks my heart when I share with Mormons about the free grace I have found in Christ, how he has done for me everything I could have never done and left nothing for me to do, and they nod their heads in agreement while completely missing the point. (I sometimes question if it is a point that needs to be debated, but I am convinced that our dependence on Christ alone as our salvation is central to the Gospel message.) It really all comes down to Christ. Who he is and what he did cannot be devalued by making him like one of us.
These days I'm asking myself if I'm meant to have a long ministry in Utah. The answer: I don't know. I do know that my heart is strangely drawn to Utah and that I want to share the Gospel with the people and see Christ accepted by them for who he really is. I think I will be going back again, maybe for a summer or a year or a couple years. Maybe I will leave after a few years, or maybe I will stay there for good, but one thing I do know is that Utah needs Christians. It needs Christians who will go and stay, who will love the people and stand undaunted by the rejection. It needs pastors who will not seek large numbers or lots of money, but who will be satisfied with trusting God to provide for them every month because he has called them to be there. Utah needs Christians who will lay aside differences and egos and who will help each other succeed. I just want to be a part of it.