Talking to Mormons
"The one thing I would tell anyone contemplating joining the Mormon Church is that it is so easy to join, but it is a literal, physical and mental hell to get out."Keith
The orthodontist is young, good-looking, and successful. His office is dazzlingly clean with six patients chairs in a row overlooking a groomed courtyard. His appointment calendar is set up in fifteen-minute intervals. He moves deftly from chair to chair adjusting crooked little smiles as nervous mothers wait in the wings.
In the consultation room he explains to my wife and me how our $2,600.00 will be spent on our daughters teeth. Glancing at the written form on the table, he says, "Oh, I see you are a preacher."
"Thats right," I respond. "I guess youre LDS, doctor?"
Smiling apologetically, the doctor says, "Well, Im not a very good Mormon. I was as a kid, but& I dont know&"
I am well acquainted with this sheepish, Im-sorry-Im-not-a-good-Mormon routine. I have witnessed it frequently in "cultural" Mormons, Latter-day Saints who, for various reasons, are not "into" the church.
"Someday Ill get active in the Church, but right now&" His voice trails off.
"Well," I say, attempting to establish common ground and make him feel at ease, "people express their faith in various ways."
He rallies, "Yeah, thats where I am. Im really a nice guy. I mean Im very tender. I cry at all the right places in the movies."
"You look like a sensitive person. Im sure you think about spiritual things."
"I do! Not that Im terrifically spiritual, but I have thoughts on the subject."
I havent come to the dental appointment to witness to the orthodontistI am there to conduct more mundane business. But as the conversation develops it becomes apparent that God has something more in mind. Out of the corner of my eye I see Margaretta picking up the drift of the conversation. I think I see her settle back into her chair. With minor trepidation I ask, "Dr. Nelson, youre a sensitive person who has serious thoughts about God. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"Well& I guess not."
"If I hear you right, you sort of find yourself alienated from your religious roots. I mean, you are a Latter-day Saint, but you are not active and you feel a little guilty about it."
"Yes, I guess thats true & but I view it as a temporary alienation."
"I understand," I continue, "but I also sense that you think the problem is your fault. I mean, the fact that you are not an active Mormon is due to some shortcoming within yourself?"
"Oh, I know its my problem."
"Okay, wait a minute. I hear you, but Im not sure I agree with you."
He eyes me curiously. "What do you mean?"
"Did you ever think that maybe its not you who has the problem?"
The question takes him off guard. He focuses his attention on me. He understands that I may be referring to his church. I figure he will become defensive and avoid this conversation. Instead, he merely continues to stare at me. The X-rays lie in a pile on the table between us. The whir of the air conditioning is the only sound in the room. Margaretta is listening intently. "Go ahead," he finally says quietly.
"Well, think about it," I plunge on. "Youve assumed that because you dont fit in Mormonism, that something is wrong with you. Maybe that isnt true. Maybe you know something other Mormons dont. Is it possible that you sense something alien to you in Mormonism? Something that prevents you from fitting in? Maybe you dont fit with Mormonism because something is wrong with the system."
"Oh, I dont see how&."
"Im sure you wonder how that could be true. How could you know something that the Elders dont. After all, who are you."
Silence. I have the feeling he has asked these same questions of himself. I sense the struggle within him. "I mean, Mormonism is not the only religion in the world. In fact, in perspective, its a rather minor religion. For every Mormon, for example, there are a hundred Roman Catholics. Just because you dont fit in doesnt necessarily mean youre wrong."
Im sure the man has never had a conversation like this before. Hes thought things about his faith that couldnt be spoken, but, suddenly, in an apparently inopportune moment, he finds himself in an intensely personal conversation. I know its uncomfortable for him. And I know he has a choice to make. He can terminate the conversation with a word. Or he can choose to give me some more space.
As I wait for him to respond, I am once again overwhelmed by the complexity of trying to witness to a Mormon. This orthodontist is one of the thousands of bright Mormons who walk around secretly alienated from their faith and unable to talk to anyone about it. Most Mormons will never in a lifetime have a personal encounter with someone who will share a genuine Gospel witness.
The dentist has been raised in what he has been taught is the One True Church. He has attended Mormon grade schools and a Mormon college. Until he opened his practice he had belonged to the Church because of family and peer pressure. And now he finds himself isolated: uninterested in the Mormonism of his childhood, afraid to investigate anything else.
But he knows its his problem. The Mormon Church is true! Anybody who questions that is on the way to apostasy. Hes heard the apostasy stories since childhood: "Those who doubt start down the road to apostasy and eventually end in shipwreck." My Mormon friend entertains the idea that at some time in the indefinite future he will return to the Mormon Church in full activity.
I understand how he feels. I myself once was an active Mormon. I was a temple Mormonthat is, a Mormon initiated into the secret rites of the temple. I was a tithing Mormon who taught gospel doctrine classes and served the Church wholeheartedly for years. I had been on a religious treadmill, marching to the Elders drumbeat, until God rescued me.
As I look into the eyes of this intelligent young man, I marvel again at the power of deception. I am reminded of what Ted DeMoss, who specializes in evangelizing businessmen, says: "The unsaved business or professional person is not Gospel-hardened; he is Gospel-ignorant." My dentist rather than being inured to the simple Gospel message, has simply never heard it. "Dr. Nelson," I say, drawing a breath, "can I tell you something very important?"
I quickly relate how much my personal relationship with Jesus Christ means to me. I promise to send him a book and he promises to read it. We return to the discussion of my daughters misaligned bite, and sometime later I am able to share, in detail, the message of Christ.
Why Talk to Mormons?
Mormons have an enviable reputation for being so solid, so sure of their position, that they hold all of the initiative in any missionary effort. But is that really an accurate appraisal?
Mormonism is not the largest Church in the country, but it is one of the most visible and it is growing rapidly. A vibrant public relations campaign incorporates national television, magazines, radio, and newspapers to project an image of wholesome Mormon family life to America. Even though, for the most part, Americans accept their Mormon neighbors, or at least tolerate their religion, there is still some public reservation toward Mormonism: Utah is a strange land of temples and prophets, where one sees T-shirts bearing the message, "You are now in Utah: Turn your clock back 20 years."
Evangelical Christian leaders have watched Mormonism with dismay over the years, sometimes overwhelmed and intimidated, especially in the heartland sanctuary of the Rocky Mountains where Mormon authority has ruled unchallenged for 130 years. But until recently, outside the shelter of Utah proper, Mormondom has remained more of a theoretical than an actual problem for evangelical Christianity.
Today, however, Utah is no longer isolated from the rest of America. Suddenly, Mormonism is next door to everyone. Twentieth-century transportation, communications, and social mobility have sent Mormons throughout the country to live, work, and build churches, which means that evangelicals are in direct contact with Mormon missionaries coming out of Utah. At the same time the population tide has backed up from California, and evangelicals are moving into Utah. As evangelicals and Mormons find themselves eyeball-to-eyeball, both are startled but fascinated the Zion Curtain has cracked!
Meanwhile, something else is happening. As the Utah frontiers break down, unexpected internal problems are shaking the Church to its foundations: Newly discovered historical documents are causing Mormon scholars to question the roots of Mormonism; the Book of Mormon is under attack from anthropologists at Brigham Young University (BYU) itself. The patriarchal authoritarianism of the elders is being challenged. As a result, I talk to exiting Mormons every week.
As pressures mount from within and without the Church, many Latter-day Saints are reexamining their faith. Today, before I sat down to write this, I spent four hours talking to three different Mormons who are leaving the Church.Right Attitudes
Some view Mormons as "the enemy." They approach Mormons in anger and fail to understand that they are victims of an oppressive religious system. Victims need love, understanding, and patience as well as truth. But, with "truth on our side," well-meaning evangelists charge into the battle, indiscriminately lopping off heads, forgetting that the cultist is to be won, not killed.
On the other hand, some people are so "loving" they forget to temper their acceptance with truth. To avoid being hard and arrogant they mistakenly fail to share the doctrinal minimum of orthodox. They dont want to be "negative." But it isnt negative to tell someone the painful truth its really very loving to do so. True love confronts. I cant avoid telling my neighbor his house is on fire simply because I dont want to be negative. A doctor cannot fail to treat a cancer because the treatment will upset and frighten the patient.
Fortunately, we dont have to settle for either of the extremes. It is possible to be truthful as well as loving. To be bold and sensitive, tough and tender. In order to do so, we will need to take inventory of our attitudes, prepare ourselves for battle, and pray for direction.
As a former Mormon Elder, a gospel doctrine teacher and one who has friends and relatives still in Mormonism, I have a special interest in seeing an effective evangelical approach directed toward Latter-day Saints.
Whenever I go to speak on the subject of Mormonism, I am asked one question more than any other: "How do I witness to my Mormon friends and relatives?"
That is not an easy question to answer. If three proof texts and a tract would convert Mormons, there would be no Mormonism. No, our task is not an easy one, but it is a possible one. And, if there is no one-two punch, there is, at least, a right approach to our Mormon friends. There are right and wrong things to do.
I do not attempt, in this book, to develop a specific step-by-step system of evangelizing Mormons; rather, I attempt to present a working philosophy for speaking to Mormons. I want you to understand the foundational errors of Mormonism so that you can relate to and empathize with Latter-day Saints.
In addition, I see this as a handbook to which you can refer to get specific help in specific areas. I will share information on subjects that invariably come up in conversation with Mormons. I will recommend subject areas to pursue as well as ones to avoid. I will share techniques (tactic) as well as philosophy (strategy).
My ideas about witnessing to my dearly beloved Mormon friends and neighbors are built on hundreds of hours of conversations with Mormons, former Mormons, and people who minister to Mormons.
My motive in witnessing to Mormons is that they may come into the same freedom I myself have experienced in Christ.