Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Are Younger Evangelicals More Respectful of Mormonism than the Old Guard?

As I mentioned recently on Flunking Sainthood, I had the opportunity earlier this month to be a guest on the Mormon Matters podcast with LDS blogger Joanna Brooks and evangelical pastor John Morehead, talking about theological differences between our religions. Here, John offers some further thoughts about evangelical-Mormon readers and holds out hope that some old approaches might be changing. –JKR



Scene from the Mormon Miracle in Manti. (Alliteration not included in the Savior's message.)

By John Morehead

In his book The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Baker, 2002), the late Robert E. Webber discussed the diversity of Protestant evangelicalism, and developments in this subculture’s religious landscape. He defined “younger evangelicals” to include anyone “who deals thoughtfully with the shift from 20th– to 21st-century culture.” These shifts involve different attitudes to theology, culture, and other religions. I include myself in this demographic (perhaps more by like-mindedness than age), and offer my thoughts on what this involves for evangelicals engaging Mormon culture.


Some of the reasons for my shift in praxis and thought come from personal experiences. After relocating to Utah from California I had the opportunity to attend the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. The pageant itself was a fascinating drama. At the base of the Manti temple, Mormon actors recreated various segments of LDS history, complete with dramatic music, lighting, costumes, sets, and recorded narration. It is easy to understand how Mormons are moved emotionally and spiritually by this event.

An even greater spectacle came prior to the pageant when a handful of evangelicals gathered on public property just outside the temple grounds to engage the Mormon faithful. Nearby a few individuals handed out literature and engaged Mormons in doctrinal discussions. The crowds of curious and angry Mormons grew around a sign-wielding evangelical, and he used the opportunity to shout biblical doctrine and verses at the crowd, while describing LDS doctrine in the most unflattering terms possible. Eventually fellow evangelicals came alongside and joined in the spectacle, some shouting questions and Bible verses, while others quietly engaged Mormon onlookers in dialogue.


In contrast to these polemical encounters offered by what Webber would label as “traditional evangelicals,” there is another movement within evangelicalism that draws upon Webber’s “embodied” or “incarnational” form of ministry. This is defined as “an approach to Christian service based on principles derived from the life of Jesus in his relationships, both with those who followed him and those who rejected him” (Paul Hiebert & Eloise Hiebert Nenese, Incarnational Ministry [Baker, 1995]).

Incarnational ministry involves several important elements.

1. An emphasis upon relationships. An incarnational approach emphasizes cultural interaction, personal involvement, and long-term commitment. Jesus, Paul, and many in the history of Christian mission, recognized something we have forgotten: people are more receptive to what we have to say when it occurs within the context of relationships (as well as open Christian community) existing within their culture.


2. Theology and culture are taken seriously. Incarnational ministry recognizes the importance of sound theological reflection to ministry praxis, but it also recognizes other considerations, including the culture in which the gospel is proclaimed. Evangelicals who take culture and theology seriously, will also reflect on their character and actions as it relates to respecting (while not uncritically accepting) the culture in which they minister.

3. Rhetorical humility. The adoption of an embodied or incarnational ministry means evangelicals don’t have to communicate in ways that are culturally and personally offensive to Mormons in order to adequately proclaim their message. In fact, we may be causing needless offense and preventing our message from being heard through certain communication styles.


4. Humility in character. Here I am reminded of the words David Hesselgrave where he said “remember that although missionaries have been commanded by Christ to preach the gospel, they cannot command a hearing. They must win a hearing by demonstrating that they are people of integrity, credibility, and goodwill” (David Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally [Zondervan, 1991]. Evangelicals must ask themselves whether Mormon contacts see us as these kinds of people.

The purpose of this post is to describe a ministry form in evangelicalism. I hope that these ideas will become the stuff of reflection and discussion by evangelicals. I offer my thanks to Jana Riess for providing me with this space for writing, and to Mormon readers for their patience as they “listen in” on an evangelical intra-religious dialogue with inter-religious implications.


John Morehead is Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and involved with the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Thanks for this insight into the discussion among Evangelicals about how to best carry their message to Mormons.

    Let me offer a few comments on LDS perceptions, which is a good part of the elements of “incarnational ministry”:

    First, conducting a demonstration adjacent to the “Mormon Miracle Pageant” is going to be perceived by many Mormons as a kind of “leaching” on the great effort that is made by Mormons who contribute to staging the pageant, as well as the substantial investment of time and gasoline by the families who come from all over Utah and even further to enjoy the presentation. Pageants like these are opportunities for Mormons to be unified in a review of the historical events which they share, and which make the location at the Manti Temple significant. A noisy demonstration detracts from the entire pageant experience, like a biker gang invading a family reunion. Demonstrations like that make Mormons conclude that the Evangelicals conducting them are desperate (implying they can’t get people to listen to them through less offensive approaches), and are rude and ill-intentioned. The last thing most Mormons think of when they see such a demonstration at a venue like this is “What admirable people! I should listen to what they say.”

    It should not be surprising. I think the demonstrators would get the same kind of reaction at a Grateful Dead concert. Certainly the idiots from the Westboro Baptist Church uniformly offend people of all denominations when they demonstrate at funerals of servicemen. I think most people are confident there is a special corner of hell reserved for those folks.

    (And by the way, the Supreme Court majority was just plain wrong in saying their behavior was protected by the First Amendment. It is speech meant to injure the families of the dead, at a time when they are most vulnerable, and is every bit as unnecessary and lacking in social value as any defamation. The court majority abdicated their duty to ensure there are legal means to redress grievous wrongs. Some day I will not be surprised to hear that the Westboro Baptists had a terrible “accident”.)

    Second, I think the reference to the example of Paul as a missionary is a good one. Even when he was speaking to pagans in Athens, Paul did not just stand up and denounce his audience and tell them they were going to hell. Instead, he started where they were in their own view of the world, and tried to use points of contact between their world view and his to introduce them to the new concepts he was offering.

    Third, I appreciate the thoughts about rhetorical humility. A speaker who obviously has an incorrect understanding of what Mormons actually believe and teach each other shows that he has no respect for Mormons, and they will tend to return the favor, at least in terms of sacrificing their time to listen.

    Indeed, one of the things that might help Evangelicals interested in ministering to Mormons to retain their rhetorical humility is that, in any large body of Mormons, some of the people were converts to Mormonism from an Evangelical denomination. Most such people have a pretty good understanding of what they left behind and of what they were getting themselves into when they joined the LDS Church. There are also lots of Mormons who have had lengthy discussions with Evangelicals in the context of helping some of them join the LDS Church. So an Evangelical is not going to get anywhere by starting with the assumption that all Mormons don’t already know his point of view. Many already do, and have specifically chosen the Mormon alternative.

    Certainly there are some Mormons who will listen seriously to an Evangelical appeal and eventually be convinced. That’s OK; Mormons are big on religious freedom for all, and feel fairly confident that over time the net membership of the LDS Church will grow. Based on the viewpoints I have seen expressed by some former Mormons, I think many of them never got to a clear understanding of LDS doctrines, while others seem to be emotionally happier in an Evangelical worldview that seems to place less personal responsibility on them for the final state of their soul. Some people just don’t WANT Mormonism to be true, for whatever personal reasons lie in their personal histories, while others just grew up in a Mormon environment without really deciding whether they believe in it or not.

    One of the basic LDS beliefs is that a Mormon who is not especially committed in his behavior is no worse off in the eternities than a good Christian of any denomination. Both can expect to be in the First Resurrection, and to live eternally in a heaven where Christ dwells, though not God the Father. Thus, an enthusiastic Evangelical is probably better off, and better appreciated by God, than a wishy washy Mormon. (Yes, Mormons do NOT believe that belonging to a church other than theirs condemns a person to hell for eternity). Indeed, we even believe that hell is, ultimately, temporary (though at least 1,000 years long).

    I don’t think most Mormons are distressed about lukewarm Mormons choosing other churches. It is mostly a problem only when such converts join the ranks of the Evangelical Hells Angels who try to disrupt Mormon amity at events like Mormon temple weddings, General Conference and the pageants and try to use their former status as Mormons to denounce their former co-religionists as being, e.g. unintelligent, uneducated, immoral, cultic, etc. It’s just plain offensive, and they know it, which makes them rather poor examples of “Christians”.

    What it boils down to is, if Evangelicals were to approach ministering to Mormons the way that Mormons proselyte Evangelicals, in a more gentle, nonjudgmental and personable way, they would probably have a bit more success, and at the very least they would not get a reputation as boors who are obviously lying when they use loudspeakers to claim to represent Christ.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment John W. Morehead

    Raymond, thank you for your responsive thoughts to my post. I too think that evangelical evangelism at the Manti pageant is problematic. Readers might appreciate my analysis of this from the perspective of anthropology of pilgrimage in an essay titled “LATTER-DAY SAINTS, RITUAL, PILGRIMAGE, AND CULTURAL SYMBOLICS: NEGLECTED SOURCES

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Larry Ogan

    Great post and thoughtful comment. Thank you

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment stephanie

    Great thoughts. In response to the title: I think and hope so! I like to imagine I am one of the new guard. While I’m not a Mormon, learning more about the LDS faith with an open mind has led me to further conviction that I won’t ever be one, but also that there is so much to respect and appreciate in the LDS church.

    Growing up as an evangelical pastor’s kid, my exposure to Mormonism was mainly through seeing the Book of Mormon in Marriott hotels, watching LDS-sponsored TV ads, and hearing occasional whispers that Mormonism was a cult. Two things widened my perspective: Mormon bloggers and your book Mormonism for Dummies! An LDS friend in high school lent it to me and a few mutual evangelical friends when we asked for some explanation of what she believed (out of curiosity).

    Of course, when I started reading your (old) blog, I had no idea you were actually the author of that book. I put those pieces together later. And also the piece where you show up (I think) in one of my favorite books of that era, Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. So people like you are also definitely helping to bridge the gap. :)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Raymond Takashi Swenson

    To Pastor Morehead: Thanks for the link to your interesting article. This is a topic which has also been addressed by Mormon author Orson Scott Card, who is best known for his several award-winning science fiction and fantasy book series, but who started out as an actor and playwright at BYU, writing the libretto for Stone Tables, a musical about Moses, while he was a missionary in Brazil. He was engaged by the LDS Church to write the script for a pageant in 1997 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the arrival in Utah of the Mormon pioneers, Barefoot to Zion, and he also wrote the script for the current version of the Hill Cumorah Pageant that is produced each July in Palmyra, New York. Those experiences caused him to reflect on the role of pageants in Mormon society, in several essays, as well as in “Pageant Wagon,” one of the stories in a cycle about a future post-nuclear war Mormon society in a climate-changed America, published as The Folk of the Fringe. Professor Michael Collings reviews Card’s story in the context of Medieval mystery plays, in an essay at Starshine and Shadow, .

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