February 26, 2011

Preaching the Everlasting Gospel to All the Earth

 Some Adventists tell me that Mormons are a lost cause. That they don’t listen to the truth, and therefore we should not invest too much time. Others tell me of their admiration for Mormons, how our church could benefit from their example, and that they don’t believe Mormons need to be evangelized. 
I was raised Mormon. I needed to hear the good news of Jesus’ soon return. And because some of God’s colaborers believed I was worth the time investment, I’m a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today.
The Problem
Whether you realize it or not, Seventh-day Adventists are often confused with Mormons. At times, other Christians put us into the same category: cult. Why would they do that? Is it because we both seem a little different from the average Christian? Possibly.
Is it because we both claim to have a prophet and emphasize the importance of health and family values? Very likely.
Though both of the reasons above are strong arguments as to why Adventism and Mormonism have sometimes been confused, I’d like to suggest another.
Could it be that we are sometimes confused with Mormons because we have done very little (at least in the minds of observing Christians) to reach Mormons while focusing most of our outreach toward other Christians?
2011 1505 page26As Seventh-day Adventists we believe that God called us to communicate a special end-time message to the entire world. But how serious are we taking our calling? We claim to understand and preach the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12, focusing upon the “everlasting gospel” that needs to be shared with “those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (verse 6, NKJV).* But the painful truth is that for the most part we are doing nothing to reach Mormons. How can we, as a church, claim to be doing this work yet ignore a group of people such as the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints (LDS), with more than 14 million members?
Some History
There are a few people who are trying to reach Mormons. Many in our church are familiar with the Cornforths; some may even remember Douglas Pond and his book Pillars of Mormonism and Leola Woodruff’s book, entitled Valley of Decision, which were written many years ago. Their contributions have helped me (and others) on my journey into the church. Still, what are we—or better yet, what are you—doing to understand and reach your Mormon friends today?
Growing up in the LDS Church, I fully understand what it is like to be Mormon. At the same time, as a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church I can emphatically tell you that these two churches are not that similar. Mormons are wonderful people. My family is Mormon, and I love them dearly! But they are still in great need of experiencing the amazing biblical truths our church sometimes takes for granted, and they aren’t a lost cause, or I wouldn’t be where I am today in my Christian walk with the Lord.
I grew up in a typical LDS/Mormon household. We lived in beautiful St. George, Utah, near some of the most amazing national parks in our country. I was the youngest of 10 children delivered by my mother. Two of my siblings died as babies, so I grew up the youngest of eight, with three older sisters and four older brothers. Being the youngest had its obvious challenges, and with so many siblings who were much older than I, some of my closest friends growing up were my nephews who were around the same age.
I was a happy child and enjoyed going to the LDS Church with my family each Sunday. I was very fortunate in that my mother instilled in me an equal belief in the Bible and the compilation of Mormon scriptures, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. I also learned that God had a special day in which we were to rest from all our labors and spend time with God and our families. Church was a place where we all knew each other. The church was our extended family.
However, I grew up with a fear of God that I can now see was very unhealthy. The emphasis on our works and deeds and the brief mentioning of grace left me feeling rather hopeless. Sure, I believed in the law and the prophets, but I had very little clarity on exactly how I was saved or received forgiveness. Second Nephi 25:23 still echoes in my memories: “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” I just never knew if I had done enough! Hence, I lived with a continual fear that God didn’t love me and was literally ready to “zap” me at any given moment if I messed up too much.
Many Theological Questions
It is at this juncture that I feel that a fundamental question needs answering: Does the Mormon understanding of God and His Son, Jesus Christ, differ from that of the Bible and the average Christian’s belief? Is their understanding of Scripture, with the addition of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price, coupled with their understanding of the role of a prophet and the evolution of theology and truth, so different that it excludes them from salvation? This is a conclusion that many Christian authors have come to. But what do we, as Seventh-day Adventists, have to say?
If Mormons believe that Jesus was simply the firstborn “spirit baby” from the Father and He achieved the state of “Godhood” merely by obedience, it is difficult to disagree with what many other Christians have concluded. For if Jesus hasn’t always been God since the origin of time, as John 1:1-3 states, then Mormons believe in a quite different Jesus. It radically alters the Christian doctrine of salvation.
Beyond the issue of salvation, there were other religious beliefs that troubled me in my youth. I can still remember standing in line to be baptized at the ripe age of 8 years. I had no idea what we really believed as a church, but it was clear from the sociological pressures that I was doing the right thing and that it pleased God and my family. But after a few years went by and I was asked to get baptized as a proxy for the deceased, I began to become very confused. I simply didn’t understand how it all worked. Who were these people I was being baptized for? Why hadn’t they chosen to be baptized when they were alive? And most important, why was it necessary? To top off all these questions, my eldest brother, who had died at 18 months of age, came to visit me one night. I honestly had many questions regarding heaven, hell, salvation, baptism, and the state of the dead.
In despair, I sought to find answers to these questions. Sadly, I was simply told I had too little faith, which was a sin, and needed to pray and read my Book of Mormon and await the “burning in my bosom,” which was all the evidence I would need to be certain that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the only true church. This is not an uncommon experience within Mormonism. Many if not most Mormons I have personally spoken with mentioned to me how they have had similar doubts and experiences. They usually didn’t mention this, though, until I was well acquainted with them and they knew my background and felt comfortable sharing things with me. This is not something they would admit to your average Christian or fellow Mormon, for fear of being judged. There was a lot of pressure to appear as though there were no questions. Many who have had these experiences simply chose to become inactive in the church but never leave. They are often referred to as “Jack Mormons.”
Some Do’s and Don’ts of Reaching Out to Mormons
Obviously, few have my background and knowledge of Mormon faith, but it’s not a requirement in order to reach out to your Mormon friends and neighbors. Honestly, truth alone is not likely to be enough to convert your average Latter-day Saint. The one thing that everyone can do is befriend Mormons. It is through friendship evangelism that it is possible to reach Mormons.
Let me unpack what I mean by friendship evangelism. Simply being a friend with Mormons will not likely bring about any conversion. At the same time, preaching to them or inviting them to an evangelistic series doesn’t usually work either. The old saying that people don’t care what you have to tell them until they know that you care for them can be very true, and, I believe, is very true with this particular group of people. Friendship is foundational.
When the opportunity arises to discuss spiritual matters don’t begin by telling them how wrong they are. I would recommend that you focus on shared faith. If you don’t know what you have in common, ask them. But don’t be surprised if what they see as a shared point of faith is in reality no commonality. By allowing Mormon friends to share their perception of what we have in common, you will open a door for discussion in which you can share some Adventist beliefs in a nonthreatening, accepting way.
Here is another pointer: ask your Mormon friends to tell you what they believe and why. It’s best if this step is taken after getting to know the LDS person a little, as this can make many people a little nervous. Make sure they feel comfortable, and don’t push them. From my experience, many Mormons don’t really know anything about deep theological issues and are often unaware of why they believe what they do, other than the “burning in their bosom” that it is the truth. Once they tell you what and why they believe what they do, then share a little about your own beliefs that are similar, but show where and why we differ on the topic, again in a nonthreatening or nonargumentative manner.
Another way you can really help Mormons and gain respect is to pray for them. You should be doing this in your private prayer time as you think about your Mormon friends and acquaintances, but it will make a huge impression on most Mormons if you ask them if you can pray with them after they share any challenge in their lives. There is a lot of power in prayer! Praying shouldn’t be what we do when all else fails, but rather considered one of our most valuable and effective tools in evangelism in general.
In short, we need to do all we can and do it in love. I don’t have all the answers, and I know it isn’t always easy, but God has also called us to minister to our Mormon friends and neighbors. I was one of them once.
* Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Jason Canfield is married to Mollie and has two young daughters, Enjoli and Emily. He pastors the Abundant Life Seventh-day Adventist church in Wenatchee, Washington. This is article was published February 24, 2011.