Mitt Romney, Harry Reid, Glenn Beck, Steve Young, and Donnie and Marie Osmond—the list of famous Mormons continues to grow. So much so that Newsweek recently called this "The Mormon Moment." Behind this sudden public prominence is decades of rapid growth for the Latter Day Saints, and few evangelical churches have much success in reaching them. Alpine Church, a non-denominational, five-campus church in northern Utah, is a notable exception. To understand what it takes to reach our Mormon neighbors, we talked to Steve Bennetsen, one of Alpine's teaching pastors.
What made you want to minister in Utah?
After attending Moody Bible Institute, I worked in a church near Chicago. I enjoyed ministering in that area, but I wanted to be somewhere with greater spiritual need. When I learned that Utah, apart from Mormon wards, is actually the most unchurched area in America, it grabbed my heart. Only one percent of the population attend an evangelical church. Utah is one of America's greatest mission fields. There is a smaller percentage here than in places like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
To understand the culture. At first glance, Utah looks like any other place in America. But the Latter Day Saints church influences every aspect of the culture, from education to business to government to media. The church owns the major businesses and media outlets. Every night, the news spins a positive piece about the Mormon Church. This religion touches every aspect of society in Utah.
How do you speak effectively within that culture?
Many Mormons believe evangelical Christianity is for morally-lazy people, for people who want to drink coffee and wear jeans to church. So one of the biggest challenges we face is leading people to understand the gospel. The gospel is not about performance or religious ability. The gospel teaches we are sinners and only God can save us. That gospel is a new idea to many people, and many find it offensive.
We ask them if they have had a defining moment of being saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. We tell them that only when they have received a new identity can they begin to honor God. Getting people to understand that sequence is the biggest challenge we face, because they have been indoctrinated with the idea that salvation is linked to works. We want to honor God with our lives. But we tell them we can never earn salvation. Only the Cross can do that.
If we are going to be effective in reaching this culture, we can't simply try to change people's doctrine. While doctrine is important, reaching Mormons is not primarily a doctrinal issue. Mormonism affects a person's entire worldview. So we have had to think deeply about how we address their culture, not just attack their beliefs.
What approach has been most successful?
Historically, most evangelical churches have isolated themselves and served as refuges from the Mormon culture. But we decided to actively engage Mormon culture.
We discovered that a good first step is simply to invite somebody to church. In our context, inviting people to church is not offensive. In Manhattan people might find it offensive, but that's a secular society. Things are different in Utah. It's considered normal to invite someone to church. When they come, we work hard to create a Sunday service that makes sense to Mormons. We want to engage them without being offensive.
What have you found does not work?
You'll always run into a dead end if you start off attacking their beliefs. Many Christians want to attack the cultural anomalies of Mormonism—polygamy, racism, the relationship of Christ and Lucifer, and so forth. But Mormons are trained to tune out those sorts of attacks. They consider that to be persecution, which they think bolsters their position. They also have set answers to respond to attacks. Being derogatory or starting with theological distinctions isn't helpful.