In my parent’s attic there’s a barrel full of old fabric scraps. These pieces of aprons, dresses, and shirts carefully collected by my grandmother and great-grandmother are a tangible history of the clothes that covered our family for the first part of the 20th century. The scraps were gathered in order to make quilts; what once covered our bodies by day became the warmth that kept us snug at night. Purpose, not pattern or origin, determined what went in that barrel. The scraps were there to form something useful; something that fit together for a specific aim.
However, something my great-grandmother could have never imagined happened; quilting became a hobby, not a necessity. No one knew what to do with the barrel; having lost its original purpose it merely collected dust, an interesting but useless memento.
The church in North America is quickly becoming a scrap barrel—something once vital to everyday life has become a relic of bygone days. Nice, sweet, sentimental, but of little use to all but the dedicated enthusiasts.
Facing the Truth—the Facts and Figures
In most of the United States, the Christian church is in denial. We played such a vibrant role for so long; it’s impossible now to believe that our respected position is eroding—and that a generation is growing up around us without even a basic understanding of our faith. The reality is, North America is now a mission field, and this is a fact we can no longer ignore.
Nationwide, Christian church attendance is in decline. According to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, there’s been a drop among those attending church “nearly every week” from a high of 34.9 percent in 1972, to 24.7 percent in 2004 (the most recent year reported). What’s more, 30 percent of all regular churchgoers are over 65, while only 11.6 percent are between 18 and 30. Also troubling, the survey shows an increase among those who “never” go to church from 9.4 percent to 15.6 percent over the same period.
A Leadership Journal article from the summer of 2006 highlights an even more disturbing feature of contemporary attitudes regarding church, “that only 17 percent of [all American] adults believe that ‘a person’s faith is to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church.’”
The historic Christian church is losing ground and is widely perceived as irrelevant.
Utah and the Mormon Faith: A Preview of What’s to Come?
This temptation to deny this reality does not exist in one particular region of the United States. There is a huge inland empire that was never part of a modernist Protestant-evangelical consensus; a culture that parted ways with popular Christianity 159 years ago and created an alternative way of thinking and acting, and is today finding a receptive following.
That region is the Intermountain West centered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and influenced by the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (For a brief summary of the basic beliefs of the Mormon faith, see the end of this article.)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormons) is one of the world’s fastest growing religions. Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and religion at the University of Washington, states that Mormonism “stands on the threshold of becoming the first major faith to appear on Earth since the prophet Mohammed rode out of the desert.” At the end of 2005 there were 12,560,869 members worldwide, with about half of those living outside of the United States. Some growth estimates predict that membership will double in the next 40 years.
Throughout the 20th century, Mormons had a change of heart and attitude. They no longer saw themselves as a “gathered church” in the safe haven of Utah, but as a movement on a mission to convert the world. With renewed interest in expansion, membership skyrocketed from just over one million in 1947 to three million in 1971.
Today, the LDS church has more than 50,000 missionaries in the field serving two-year stints. These young (18 to 25-year-old) men and women, working in pairs, view this service with pride — as do their parents and community. Increasingly, retirees are joining their ranks with thousands now serving in temples and genealogical research centers worldwide. Some 100 million copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed, 120 temples are in operation worldwide, and $5 billion in revenue flows into LDS coffers annually from tithing. Well-organized and funded, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is poised for reaching millions in the 21st century.
Their powerful story of a misunderstood and persecuted people seeking religious freedom in the American West forms the bedrock of a worldview that’s pervasive throughout Utah. The themes of self-reliance, personal faith, and courage are sown into the American story, and have a particularly deep resonance in this culture, where they are integral to the advance of an emerging world religion.
The story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is instructive. It shows us that as the historic Christian church in America declines, other active, disciplined, well-funded faiths will step into the vacuum. The Christian church in Utah has been living in this reality and has learned vital lessons about how to thrive and grow under this new cultural reality.
Utah matters because it is a preview of America’s future — where historic Christianity exists as a minority faith; where our tried and true ministry approaches are suspect; where something more solid than pragmatism is needed; and where we must determine how to salvage the essentials, retool the important, and jettison what just doesn’t matter.
Christianity has never been a dominant force in Utah. Including all branches of Christianity — mainline, evangelical, Orthodox, and Catholic — the total Christian population of the state is eight percent. By comparison, the Christian population of Egypt is nearly double that, at 15 percent.
The Outsider’s Advantage
Being an outsider, the church regains its role as servant. When Christianity is not the dominant faith — as in Utah — when it’s forced to take the lowest seat at the table, it renews its understanding of service and rediscovers the promise that the greatest is the least (Luke 22:23-30). From a position of cultural weakness, the church renews her dependence upon the Lord. This is evidenced by a renewed emphasis upon prayer. Being an outsider drives us to pray, not as a duty to be checked off the list, but as a means of survival. The church that grasps the human impossibility of its task will become a praying congregation. The future of the church centers on prayer.
Being an outsider gives power in evangelism because it forces us to listen. When we are not driving the cultural agenda, we have the luxury of being able to listen, and to do so with genuine curiosity. When we aren’t maintaining a predetermined status quo, we’re free to ask sincere questions. “Why do you say that?” “What do you mean?” “How does this work?” These are the key to opening a dialogue. The simple art of conversation becomes a highway the gospel travels. As we understand another’s story, thoughts, and troubles we find openings to serve that person the good news of grace that we have found. The future of the church lies in asking questions.
The position of cultural outsider forces us to rethink our practices in light of the Bible. Because our worship and behaviors are not like those of the normative culture, we regularly have to explain and defend our positions. The servant church finds only one source sufficient in guiding these interactions — the Word of God contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Yes, our traditions and history guide us, but they always guide us to the Word as our unalterable source for Christian practice. The future of the church is guided by the Bible.
PCA congregations in Utah are living these principles in order to flourish in a difficult environment. The results are amazing:
• Twelve years ago there were no PCA churches in Utah. Now there are five, and an active plan for 10 more to be planted in the next 10 years. There’s also a plan to establish a presbytery in Utah within 15 years. (Currently, Utah is a “destitute region,” territory not claimed by the boundaries of any current PCA presbytery.) This strategic effort of strengthening existing congregations and planting new ones is being guided by Mission Utah, a Mission to North America-approved church-planting network.
• The five PCA churches in Utah now lead the Christian community in developing indigenous leadership. Over the past four years New Song Presbyterian, Hidden Valley Presbyterian, and Jordan Presbyterian have spearheaded training men for pastoral ministry. Today there are six interns serving our congregations in Utah. In December, one intern, a recent Covenant Seminary graduate, became the first PCA pastor to be ordained here. Four of the other five are natives. Like any missionary movement, the success of the venture can rightly be judged by its ability to reproduce leaders from within the culture, leaders who can take the movement into the next generation. The Utah congregations have been blessed by indigenous leadership, and that bodes well for our church-planting vision.
• Most exciting of all are the people coming to faith in Christ for the first time. Since Utah has such a small Christian population, church growth is conversion growth. In order for a congregation to expand, it must reach out to people in need of grace. One new believer spoke of her previous life like a dress that she kept trying to wear, but found constantly pinching. No matter how much others told her that the dress looked fine, she couldn’t make it work. “I’ve got this dress in my closet, and I’m ready to get rid of it. I just need to know what to wear once I let it go.” Having the privilege to explain the gospel to people exhausted by self-effort is the joy of ministering in America’s future.
God’s Redeeming Work
God is at work in Utah building His church. Reformed theology, which stresses the sovereignty of God in redeeming His creation, gives us a deep well of confidence to draw from as we move into a culture that has drifted far from God. We can rest confidently in the purpose and plan of God. He is active in our culture, drawing people to a dissatisfaction with their current lives. He is moving His people into relationship with those He is calling so that they might point to the saving work of Jesus.
Those interested in the PCA’s work in Utah may consider moving here to work with an existing congregation or church plant . There are few other mission fields where you can continue your career, speak your native language, and stay in the U.S., while having the opportunity daily to explain to neighbors, coworkers, and friends the liberating good news of God’s grace through Jesus.
Another approach for taking Utah to heart is to pray. Prayer is not icing for the ministry here, it is our bread. We need thousands of people praying regularly for this movement, because we firmly believe that God stirs His people to pray as He moves to accomplish His will. Each of the PCA churches here is young, vibrant, and full of new believers — yet also in need — of facilities, of financial support for training the next generation of church planters, and of help with organizational needs.
In 1847, just days after the Mormon pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley, several LDS leaders went to the top of a small peak that overlooks the valley where more than one million people now live, and prayed to their god that this place would be a sign to the nations of the truth of the LDS faith. Our prayer is that this state would be a sign to the nations of the surprising, saving power of the true King of Creation — that Utah would become the setting for God’s miraculous turning of an entire culture to serve and worship the true and living God of the Bible.
We must not wring our hands that U.S. church attendance is in decline; that new world religious movements are emerging around us; that there are places where few people have heard the good news of God’s grace through Jesus. This knowledge is a call to action — an amazing realization that God has called us to live in such a time as this.
Sam Wheatley is senior pastor of New Song Salt Lake Church (PCA).
What Does Mormonism Teach?
All quoted material is from www.mormon.org, the official Web site of the LDS church.
1. Mormons believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of genuine Christianity.
“Having been lost because of the Apostasy, Christ’s Church and His authority were to be restored to the earth. This Restoration would make available the opportunity for all to receive once again all of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Joseph Smith’s First Vision marked the beginning of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. In subsequent years, Christ restored His priesthood and reorganized His Church. He has continued to reveal truths to His prophets and to restore the blessings that were taken from the earth for a time.
“A general falling away from the truth occurred after the death of Christ’s Apostles. This is called the Apostasy.
“After the Apostles and many righteous Church members were killed and other members departed from the truth, the Lord took the priesthood authority and His Church from the earth. Without God’s priesthood authority, the Church no longer functioned as Christ had established it. The ordinances were changed and many plain and simple truths were lost. While many good people and some truth remained, the original Church was lost.”
2. Mormons believe that humans are the physical offspring of a bodily divine being and are enabled to become divine themselves through the ministry of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“You lived with your Heavenly Father as one of His spirit children before you began your life on Earth. You were happy there, but God knew that you could not continue to progress unless you left Him for a time.
“So He presented His plan — the plan of salvation. It allowed you to come to Earth, where you would gain a physical body and would have experiences that would help you to learn and grow. The purpose of the plan is to help you become more like Him.
“The fact that you are living on Earth means that you accepted Heavenly Father’s plan and came here wanting to do all you could to receive all He has to offer.
“The marvelous thing about Heavenly Father’s plan is that by following it, not only can you return to Him after you die — you can also find peace and happiness in this life.
“You have infinite potential. As a child of God, you have the divine potential to learn and grow and become like Him.
“Just as you may have inherited characteristics from your earthly parents, such as your mother’s sense of humor or your father’s love of music, you have inherited qualities from your Heavenly Father.
“He is a God of love, goodness, mercy, charity, truth, power, knowledge, justice, and wisdom. You can nurture these divine attributes. Within you are the seeds of divinity and the power, through Christ, to grow and progress for eternity.”
3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-day Saints believes that faithful families within its body last forever.
“Family relationships can last forever — not just for this life … death does not need to be the end of our relationships with cherished loved ones. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that the ‘same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there [in eternity], only it will be coupled with eternal glory’ (Doctrine and Covenants 130:2).
“Family members who accept the Atonement of Jesus Christ and follow His example can be together forever through sacred ordinances performed in God’s holy temples.”
4. Mormons teach that revelation did not cease, but continues through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“God has not left us alone in our day. There is a living prophet on the earth today who communicates God’s will and stands as His special witness.
“In addition to translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith recorded other revelations he received from God. Many of these revelations are found in two books of modern-day scripture:
• The Doctrine and Covenants
• The Pearl of Great Price
These additional books of scripture show that God continues to give revelation through His chosen prophets to guide His children. He has not left you alone.”