The facts are staggering and we need to be aware of them. I am referring to the Mormons or, officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Did you know, for example, that there are now over eleven million Mormons worldwide? Each year they win more than 310,000 converts. What is disturbing is that eighty per cent of these converts come from Protestant church backgrounds.
I will refer to this later, but in the USA Mormons often say among themselves: ‘We baptise a Baptist church every week’!
Mormonism has the potential to exceed 267 million members within the next eighty years and thus become the first world-religion to emerge since Islam. Whether or not this potential will be realised, of course, is debatable.
However, there are other disturbing facts. The numbers of Mormon missionaries and converts will double in the next fifteen years. Already they are by far the largest single missionary-sending group in the world with more than 60,000 full-time missionaries.
The initial reason for mentioning these statistics is to draw your attention to a recently published book, edited by F. J. Beckwith, C. Mosser, Paul Owen et al. It is called The new Mormon challenge: Responding to the latest defenses of a fast-growing movement (Zondervan, 2002).
The book is not an easy read; but technical jargon is kept to a minimum. I appeal to church leaders to purchase a copy and grapple with its contents, for there are several reasons why, in my opinion, some of you should read this book.
One reason is that LDS (abbreviation for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has made huge advances in recent years in making its teachings appear more respectable to academics. LDS has engaged in a vigorous apologetics mission to commend its beliefs in a twenty-first century context.
The result is that there are Mormon scholars available today who are able to ‘outclass many of their opponents’ (inside cover blurb). Traditional arguments against Mormonism are now rejected as ‘outdated, misinformed or poorly argued’.
If Mormon missionaries are active in our localities, are we sufficiently informed to engage with them biblically and in a meaningful way? This book could assist you to do so.
Another reason for commending the book is that it represents the first major response by competent Christian scholars to the new challenge of more scholarly Mormon apologetics.
The tone of the writers is one of courtesy and respect, while the standard of writing is academically rigorous. None of them descends to the level of cruel caricature or deliberate misrepresentation.
The third reason which has attracted me to this book is that the contents are new and, in some respects, pioneering. There is no recycling of old material; the chapters are thoroughly researched – they are interactive yet do not compromise the unique, revealed gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If you are sharing the gospel with Mormons – or are keen to explore their teaching to engage more extensively with Mormon missionaries – then this book will assist you.
Before discussing theological developments within LDS, I want to indicate some of the contemporary challenges which this movement presents to Evangelicalism.
One obvious challenge is a moral one. The LDS emphasis on the family unit, good family relationships, high moral values and consistency of behaviour, often attracts new converts.
Those who turn to Mormonism from Protestant and Catholic churches are often appalled at the inconsistent, often wicked, conduct of their previous church leaders and members.
Carl Mosser points to another challenge. He is convinced that ‘a major factor contributing to Mormon growth is the widespread biblical and theological illiteracy among the laity of Protestant and Catholic churches’ (p.69).
His appeal is that our church members need to be ‘grounded better in basic biblical doctrine’. This is not a call for all Christians to become professional theologians, but to be familiar at least with basic Bible teachings.
Are we failing? Allow me a personal reference at this point.
About four years ago I wrote an easy-to-read outline of major Bible doctrines. The outline, consisting of ten brief lessons and attractively packaged, forms a unit in my college’s Correspondence Course.
I called the unit Christian Basics because the ten lessons are foundational, requiring and encouraging Christians to interact with the biblical text. My purpose in writing was to help new converts and others interested in the Christian faith.
Over the past four years, this ‘unit’ has proved extremely popular. To my surprise, however, many Christians of long standing have also opted to study Christian Basics and have felt comfortable with it.
In fact, they benefited greatly from the studies and were encouraged to become more biblically literate.
This experience raises lots of pastoral questions in my mind. Do preachers and church leaders assume that their congregations know the Bible and its doctrines – when in fact they do not have a clear grasp of these things?
Again, are preachers communicating the truth at a level and in a way which believers can absorb and enjoy, becoming established in the faith?
Where do they come from?
Another challenge concerns the converts to LDS. Where do the 310,000 or more converts come from each year – in terms of background? One sociologist, Rodney Stork of Washington University, has researched this movement extensively over a couple of decades.
Stork has established that most of the Mormon growth is from converts rather than the children of Mormon families, with a ratio of over four converts for each child baptised.
‘At any given moment’, Stork claims, ‘the majority of Latter-Day Saints are first-generation converts’ (p.62).
Where do they come from? Fairly reliable estimates indicate that 75-80% of them ‘come from specifically Protestant backgrounds’ (p.67). Mosser affirms that ‘far more people convert to Mormonism from Evangelical churches than vice versa’.
This is a disturbing statistic, which is related to the lack of biblical literacy in churches in many countries – as well as to superficial forms of evangelism. An increasing number of Mormon converts are also coming from a Roman Catholic background; in fact, this trend is ‘rapidly growing’.
There is a further challenge that may come as an even greater shock. The ability of Mormonism to extend its work into new cultures is ‘literally dependent on the success of Bible translation organisations like SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translators’ (p.68).
Three related aspects can be identified with regard to this challenge. Firstly, while LDS translate their Book of Mormon into many languages, they do not appear to engage in Bible translation work.
Secondly, LDS missionaries are only sent to countries where the Bible has already been translated.
Thirdly, it is only against the background and knowledge of the Bible that the Mormon message makes its subtle but misleading appeal. Their message is that Mormonism provides the restoration of the ‘fulness of the gospel’.
Mosser is correct when he observes that ‘Mormon missionaries don’t evangelise, they proselytize. Mormonism is a religion that gets its life mostly from pre-existing forms of Christianity’ (p.68).
I wonder to what extent missionary organisations, including SIL/Wycliffe, are aware of Mormon exploitation of their work? Are there measures which can be taken to blunt this Mormon strategy?
Expository and doctrinal preaching
Mosser suggests that missiologists and missionaries need to ‘develop strategies for effectively meeting the challenge’ (p.83). He makes three recommendations.
First of all, because Mormonism is growing both on the mission field and in the missionary-sending nations, Mosser recommends more co-operation and consultation between pastors, church groupings, missionary statesmen and Bible College teachers in order to face this challenge.
Secondly, he recommends we develop apologetic and theological engagement and stop nurturing ‘a cultural Christianity’ or one so ‘seeker sensitive’ it can only be described as ‘entertainment driven’ (p.84).
Related to this, thirdly, he recommends a ‘renewed emphasis on expository and doctrinal preaching in our churches’, and the use of catechism as part of a more vigorously biblical ministry.
I agree wholeheartedly with these recommendations. Next month I will review the book further in concentrating on theological developments.