Hellfire Pitches Won't Work for LDS

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 8, 2001
By Bob Mims

Door-to-door arguments over doctrine, in-your-face pitches for salvation and dire warnings of hellfire won't cut it with Utah Mormons, would-be 2002 Winter Games evangelical Christian missionaries are being warned.

Instead, say the makers of the recently released Bridges: Helping Mormons Discover God's Grace videotapes, friendship and respect are the best foundation upon which mainstream Christians can share the gospel with their Latter-day Saints brothers and sisters.

"LDS people are our neighbors and friends," said Ken Mulholland, president of Salt Lake Seminary, which produced the two-tape, five-chapter series. "We are part of that community and we wanted to speak about the good news of Christ in way where it does sound like the good news."

Along with companion literature, workshops and seminars, Bridges training has already debuted in nine Salt Lake-area Protestant churches. In all, an estimated 500 people have participated.

That is just the beginning. June Evans, administrator of the partnering UtahGames Network, says more than 150 Utah churches are expected to screen the videos and host training sessions before the Olympics open next February.

"We're also training people to take these videos back [and] train their own groups and churches," Evans said, adding there are plans to offer the training on-line.

Past videotapes exploring LDS themes have had a harder, even combative edge. In the 1980s, The Godmakers and The Godmakers II declared Mormonism a non-Christian cult, derisively equating its sacred temple rituals with paganism. The films drew fire from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and eventually fell into disfavor with many mainstream Christian churches for their perceived exaggerations and misrepresentations.

In advance of their 1998 annual meetings in Salt Lake City, the Southern Baptist Convention released The Mormon Puzzle. While the video eschewed the sensationalism that made the Godmakers films notorious, it did not shy from concluding Mormons were outside the Christian tent.

The Mormon Puzzle argued that the LDS Church differed from historic, apostolic Christianity over core doctrines on the nature of God, the role of grace in salvation, and Mormon belief that humans can eventually obtain godhood. The SBC followed up its video with house-to-house evangelism in Salt Lake City; while largely uneventful, there were reports of some heated doorstep debates.

Bridges explains the doctrinal differences without flatly declaring Mormonism as non-Christian, but spends the bulk of its presentation -- told through interviews with Protestant ministers, ex-Mormons and active Mormons alike -- discussing LDS history, teachings, the cultural tapestry of predominantly Mormon Utah and an overriding need for interfaith understanding.

"Mormonism is usually understood as a cult, in Christian terms," says Mulholland, who also appears on the video. "That's wrong. It's a culture, and until we understand it as a culture, we will never be effective in reaching these people for Christ."

"They are expecting you to attack them," adds the Rev. Scott McKinney of Orem's Evangelical Free Church. "If you will not do that, but love them . . . and show real Christian compassion to that person, you'll change that perception."

That approach likely helped Bridges get made, acknowledged independent filmmaker Andy Wiebe, who used $40,000 in anonymous private grant funding to make the videos. While the LDS Church in no way endorses Bridges -- it refused comment on the production -- it did allow Wiebe's film crew to shoot scenes on downtown Salt Lake City's Temple Square and interview some members outside its nearby Conference Center.

"The LDS Church is not spooky or weird or an evil cult, which was the tone some have taken by attacking in a tabloid fashion," Wiebe said. "We wanted to do it in a respectful, gentle way."

Pastors who have shown the video at their churches thus far are unanimous in saying Wiebe met his goals of producing a kinder, gentler LDS expose.

"It's always easier to find aspects of the Mormon faith to ridicule. . . . It is much more difficult to present a way of reaching LDS people in love, respect and with genuine concern," said the Rev. Terry Long of Salt Lake City's Calvary Chapel. "It is our hope to shine the light of Christ in this community and show them that there is a Savior who loves them."

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