My wife and I expressed interest to the LDS missionaries that we’d be interested in observing an LDS worship service and they were happy to facilitate that experience for us. The first invitation they offered us was to a baptism on a Saturday afternoon.
We entered the ward building through the opened back back door. We were exactly sure where to go so we asked the first person we saw, who happened to be a young man dressed in a white pleated jump suit. I assumed that these must be the Mormon temple clothes and wondered if we were suppose to see him walking around in this uniform. He seemed comfortable though and directed us to the right room.
The ceremony was interesting and we liked the idea of making baptism a special ceremony rather than a part of a regular church service. As part of the baptism ceremony we sang a number of 19th Century Protestant style hymns. The style of the music was familiar to my wife and I, who both grew up singing hymns but the tunes and the words were familiar. One of them stood out to us because it sounded really sing-songy. I believe it was called “Families Can Stay Together”.
A number of people spoke about the meanings and significance of baptism. One elderly man talked about how the next day the Holy Ghost would be given to the young woman who would be baptized. He also talked about how important it was not to go anywhere that the Holy Ghost could not follow. This talk stood out to us as how theologically different Evangelical and Mormon beliefs are.
Our understanding of the Holy Spirit is that he can not be contained or controlled. He moves in and through who ever He chooses. So it was quite foreign to us to hear people talking about controlling who and when they would give the Holy Ghost to. But this was not what most rattled us. We have a deep belief that the Holy Spirit pursues people and calls out for them in all places and in all situations. It’s when people are often in their deepest sin that they hear from God the loudest. We certainly agree that sin can get in the way of hearing from God, but we would never express an idea that there is any place on earth that God can not go and transform people.
As an example of this, our church has two satellite services every week in a bar. Our church has serious space and seating issues. In an effort to create space we have a number of satellite services. Two of these services are at a bar (which is closed on Sundays). Quite intentionally, the church leadership sought out space in a bar recognizing that there are a number of people who will not cross the threshold of a church. But these same people start warming up to the idea of a worship service in a bar because it immediately tells them that there is something different about this group of people than what they’ve experienced in the past. We believe that the gospel message is so powerful that it has the power to transform even a night club into a place where God can be worshiped and lives can be changed. (there is a lot more that can be said about the sacred and the profane which I’ll save for later).
Hearing that when people are most desperate a downtrodden, their cries to God may not be heard made us shutter.
A couple of weeks later we attended a Sunday morning service. The sanctuary reminded me of a great number of Bible-First Protestant churches, which have stripped way all decoration and anything that might distract from the reading of the Word. It surprised me how much I missed seeing a cross at the front of the room. The church service featured Elementary kids reciting scripture verses and singing songs. Probably not the service we would have chosen to go to, but you can learn a lot based on what kids are learning.
The first Sunday School class we attended as a couple. It took a little bit for the class to begin. The missionaries had to go find the teacher for the class and invite a couple of more people to join so that we wouldn’t be the only ones in the class. The lesson was on the atonement which the teacher dryly read directly out of a manual. At one point the teacher started crying for no particular reason which was very uncomfortable. I looked around and no one seemed to think this was out of the ordinary, but I was tempted to stop him and see if everything was okay. Being a visitor I decided to go with the flow. After the lesson there was some discussion. A woman (who had something to do with the Relief Society) said something like “now I know that the Atonement didn’t happen on the cross.” My inner bells and whistles started to go off and when I mentioned it to my later, wife she said she hadn’t even heard the comment. I decided not to debate that particular issue but did end up answering a number of questions about the Bible.
In the next Sunday School class we were separated by gender. The lesson was on the evils of pornography. The teacher read a letter from Salt Lake City that made it quite clear that this was a problem within the membership of the church. The discussion that followed seemed to put the problem back on those outside of the church and the need to protect children. This disappointed me, but did not surprise me. It is a defense mechanism I’ve seen Evangelicals employ numerous times when any discussion of sin starts to hit too close to home. I know from my own experience with discipleship and men’s issues that easily 25% of the men in that room had looked at pornography within the last week. So I was sad to see, in yet another religious context, where vulnerability and accountability were needed, the faithful point the finger away from their own need for holiness and repentance. (and if I’m not making it clear, I’ve seen this happen among Evangelicals many many times as well).
After the class we met a number of people individually. The question that kept coming up was “where do you live?” People seemed inordinately interested in our exact address. But aside from the discomfort of answering that question a number of times we met a number of very nice people who were often shocked to find out we were not Mormons.