On Oct. 23, a two-week open house for the newly built Billings Mormon temple will end.
The next night, two Billings churches will host the first of four nights of talks on cults - two of the nights focused specifically on the Mormon religion.
People involved in putting on the Cult Awareness Impact Crusade say the event is educational and being handled in a spirit of love. Other local ministers have come out against the event itself, or at the least the characterization of the LDS church - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - as a cult.
The crusade is one of many presented throughout the United States by Watchman Fellowship Inc., a Texas-based group that describes itself as a Christian research and apologetics ministry. The Oct. 24-27 meetings will take place simultaneously at First Assembly of God Life Center and the Billings Bible Church.
The Rev. James Walker, a former fourth-generation Mormon and president of the Watchman Fellowship, will speak at First Assembly. The Rev. Fred Russell, the organization's church ministry coordinator and a former leader in the Children of God group, will be featured at Billings Bible Church. Russell, in a telephone interview, explained the goal of his group.
"We are out to first of all educate the community, and to equip the Church and evangelize the cults," Russell said. "We try to do this in a spirit of love. This is a free country, and everyone can believe what they want. But sometimes groups don't tell you the context of the information that they give to their prospective members.
"By going and speaking in churches and doing community events, we let them see. If they still want to join after they find out the facts, that's fine."
Besides the Mormon religion, focus will also be placed on Jehovah's Witnesses and the New Age movement. But the Mormon temple opening is definitely one reason for the timing of the Billings crusade, Russell said. "Typically, with a new temple, you'll have 300 to 400 missionaries pumped into an area," he said. "About 50 percent of people who visit the open house are not Mormons, and they will sign a guest register. When they do that, missionaries go and visit those people. When pastors find out, they want to let their people know (about Mormonism)."
The Rev. Wayne Hathaway, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Billings, said he has been impressed with the spirit in which Russell and the Watchman Fellowship organization approach the topic of cults and the people who belong to them. "Fred and the other folks at Watchman Foundation are gentle and kind and seek very much to be nonabrasive in what they do, but they do tell the truth," Hathaway said.
At least two local ministers take exception to the crusade and Watchman Fellowship's treatment of the LDS religion.
The Rev. Keith Torney, recently retired pastor of First Congregational Church, learned about the crusade when he received a letter about it last spring.
"I just thought it was another kind of attack on people who didn't believe like they did, and it was an attempt to put Christianity in a box: this is how it is, no deviation," Torney said. "It isn't just Mormons, they named Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and what they call New Age - and I'm kind of New Age. It really means anybody who doesn't agree with them, and that's the problem with any religion that takes themselves on to be arbiters of what true belief is."
After the Rev. David Dickbernd got the same letter as Torney, he called Russell and then wrote him a letter, disagreeing with the group's characterization of Mormons.
"I want you to know that I respect your right not to be a Mormon," Dickbernd, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church, wrote. "I am not a Mormon, either. I respect your right to disagree with some Mormon doctrines. I do, too. I even respect your right to teach your own theological positions which are different from those held by Mormons. "But, Sir, I do not respect your right to label them as a cult simply because they do not agree with your personal theological position. The word cult, itself, is a pejorative term and should be used very carefully." Cults, Dickbernd wrote, are marked by absolute mind control, absolute allegiance to a human leader of the cult, the requirement to sever family times and severe limitations on the possibility of leaving the cult. "Certainly, Sir, if you are even remotely intellectually honest, you know that these characteristics of a cult are not true of the Mormons," Dickbernd wrote.
The Watchman Fellowship agrees that cults can be everything that Dickbernd described. But on a Web site that the organization sponsors, the word cult is additionally defined as "a counterfeit or serious deviation from the doctrines of classical Christianity. In most cases the group claims to be Christian, but because of their aberrant beliefs on central doctrines of the faith (God, Jesus, and salvation), the organization is not considered by Watchman Fellowship to be part of orthodox biblical Christianity." In an interview Wednesday, Dickbernd defended the group's right to come to Billings but reiterated his disagreement with their labeling tactic. "I'm not in favor of any kind of censorship," he said. "But in my view, they're not accurate when they refer to Mormons - or Jehovah's Witnesses - as cults. And, given the fact that the new Mormon temple is part of our community and the Mormon Church is a significant part of the Christian community, I think it's very unhelpful, in addition to being inaccurate." Hathaway agrees that the Mormons have every right to build a temple in Billings, but that their teachings should also be disclosed.
"I don't in any way, shape or form want to deny the Mormon Church the right to exist, as far as the laws of this land go," he said. "I had been contacted by some people forming a protest group against the Mormon temple and I refused to be involved with it. But there is a very big concern that the doctrine taught by Mormons does not line up with biblical Christianity, and people should know the truth."
That's why Hathaway first invited Russell to speak at his church last April. At that time Russell conducted a one-day cult-awareness seminar. He also met twice in the past several months with local pastors.
Hathaway said a total of about 30 pastors attended one or the other of the two Billings meetings where the idea of the crusade was discussed. Most of those pastors represent conservative evangelical churches, Hathaway said. The Billings pastor said he would have gladly hosted the crusade, but his church only holds about 250 people. That's why the larger church buildings were tapped for the event.
The Rev. Richard Kouba, pastor of Billings Bible Church, a nondenominational fellowship, stressed that the event is sponsored by the Watchman Fellowship.
"We're just one of the locations," he said. "Watchman Fellowship wrote to us and asked if we'd be willing to open our church, and my elder board made that decision."
Kouba said his church has made itself available to host numbers of events not directly related to the church itself, including a number of concerts, and Christmas parties sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous. Kouba added that his church is fairly conservative in its doctrinal position, and differs from the beliefs of the Mormons. "I'm not saying they're wrong," Kouba said. "I'm simply saying they're different in what their major doctrines are. From an educational perspective, we will try to educate people about what the differences are, to make people aware."
The Rev. Gail Craig, pastor of First Assembly Life Center, could not be reached for comment.
Dave Hein, a local spokesman for the LDS church, said he was aware of the crusade but that a decision had been made to take a low-key approach to the event. He added that he wasn't worried that the crusade would affect the LDS church, but was more concerned about the division it might cause within the Christian community.
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