Over the past 180 years the Evangelical world has had two primary missions in response to Mormonism. The first was to protect our own sheep, the second was to call Mormons to repentance and motivate them to join the fellowship of true believers. These were both accomplished by pointing out the heresies inherent in Mormonism and by drawing questions to the trustworthiness of Joseph Smith and Mormon origins. I hope to persuade that the time is now upon us to consider a new approach to Mormonism. I do not wish to criticize the way we have historically approached Mormonism. On the contrary I think the two overall missions have been praiseworthy and Biblically motivated. I do not by any means think that Mormonism stands with historic, orthodox Christianity. I do not think the LDS church teaches truth in regards toward the nature of God. I think the LDS church draws the majority of those it teaches away from the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his apostles. I do not think that Joseph Smith bears the marks of a trustworthy prophet. Despite my continued stance against Mormonism it’s becoming clear to me that a new set of circumstances is now upon us. The signs of a new season are showing and we need to pause for a moment and consider our efforts and the allocation of our resources.
A New Day
We are entering a new day. The world of Mormonism has changed significantly in the seven years in which I’ve explored it. As many have observed, the internet has sparked an information revolution. Materials are widely available and the ability to collaborate and unify with like-minded people has increased tremendously. This has had a tremendous effect on traditional Mormon debates. I’m flabbergasted to see faithful Mormons agree with Evangelicals on the facts of such things as the Kinderhook Plates and the Adam-God theory much less Joseph Smith’s Polyandry and his non-translation of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. The focus of the debates has changed from “is it true” to “does it matter”. That is a monumental shift.
In addition, non-traditional Mormon voices are beginning to form and they are being heard. The censoring of the “September Six” is not likely to happen in today’s environment. If such an attempt were made by Mormon authorities it would not go well for them. In many ways such efforts would only make those “un-correlated” voices more clearly heard because the controversy would add attention to their work. Grant Palmer was correct when he predicted that church discipline would only increase sales of his book “Insider’s View on Mormon Origins”. Many disaffected and “New Order” Mormons may even hope for church discipline as they continue to speak out on a number of topics. [update June 26, 2104: this prediction turned out to be untrue as the church has excommunicated Kate Kelly, a feminist who sought to influence the church to ordain women. Whether or not the church will benefit long term from this is yet to be seen.]
In many ways our concerns about Mormon origins and the character of Joseph Smith are being carried further and farther by those still inside the church. Ex-Mormons, New Order Mormons, Disaffected Mormons and even some BYU professors and other faithful Mormons are carrying this message forward. Their words about these concerns travel further and farther because it is often wrapped in the package of “Mormon” rather than Evangelical. A perceived friend is more trusted than a perceived enemy.
For many reasons we Evangelicals have been viewed as the enemy. We are not at fault for all of those reasons. Mormonism began with a strong polemic against traditional Christianity and hasn’t let up. In addition we have a Biblical mandate to defend against false doctrines and false prophets. We’ve been correct in taking a stand against the false ideas Joseph Smith presented. Sadly that stand has not always been carried out in love. Evangelicals who think it is appropriate to literally slam their doors on Mormons or in any other way treat them inhospitably have not been the best example of the love of Christ. Those that have intentionally exaggerated or misconstrued Mormon beliefs have given Mormons plenty of reason to view our message and our intentions skeptically. But reasons and motivations for the animosity aside; we need to recognize that the way Mormons perceive us stands in the way of our hope to carry the true Gospel forward. I think we need a new strategy and I think the time to aggressively change modes is now.
Why Change Now
Recently Elder Marlin K. Jensen conducted a Q&A at Utah State University. In that session Elder Jensen stated:
“The fifteen men really do know, and they really care. And they realize that maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now; largely over these issues.”
This statement isn’t all that revealing in terms of the suspected number of people who are now losing their faith in Mormonism (whether they officially resign or remain members is another topic). What’s remarkable about this statement is that it’s being stated by Elder Jensen, Church Historian and a member of the Quorum of the 70. The real news in his statement is that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the 12 are aware that people are losing faith and they are aware of what is causing them to lose faith. That Elder Jensen states this in any kind of public forum is significant. The effects of this apostasy are being felt. In addition the LDS church’s growth rate in the United States is hovering somewhere near its birth rate (which is also dropping). Finally, Generation Y is less committed to the faith of their parents than any generation before it. I do not believe that any sort of significant change will take place within the LDS church to change these trends. The church is too bureaucratic and too invested to make a significant risk that may backfire. In addition the age of the leadership does not incline them to take risks. At best the church will make apologetic answers from unofficial resources such as FAIR more broadly available. But I do not believe this will stem the tide.
People discover questions that threaten the LDS church from search engines not from Gospel Doctrine classes. Those same search engines are already providing these apologetic answers and they are proving to be largely ineffective. Publishing these answers in a manual is only taking a step backwards in technology. Additionally, providing answers in official venues has a double edge, publishing these questions under the church seal reveals them to members who are already disinclined from reading anything that is not officially published by the church.
I predict in the next 20 years there will be a radical shift within the LDS church. If Mitt Romney becomes President that shift may occur sooner (due to heightened media scrutiny). Many people will leave the Salt Lake branch either because they no longer believe the message or because they believe the church is making compromises that it shouldn’t make. We’ve already seen the pattern of this behavior in the Community of Christ and the Worldwide Church of God.
In that sort of environment the LDS church will need friends. Many may be glad to see the organization crumble and hope for its entire evaporation. I do not. I believe the organization of the LDS church can be separated from the heresies of Mormonism. There is much good in the organization and in the people of the LDS church. What doesn’t directly conflict with the authentic Gospel of Jesus should be preserved if at all possible. Jesus is out to make all things new.
If you disagree with me about the organization, I still think it would be appropriate for you to consider changing strategies. Your Mormon friends and neighbors in this time of change will need friends. I’m alarmed and discouraged by the great many ex-Mormons who become secular agnostics or atheists. This is in part the bad fruit of Mormonism. As the saying goes; “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Another part of this is the rising cultural shift toward secularism. A third part has to do with the way Evangelicals are perceived by Mormons. We are rarely viewed as helpful or friendly by Mormons. In our efforts to stand strongly against heresy we’ve become viewed as the opposition. For many in the midst of a crisis of faith the idea of joining in worship with Evangelicals is immediately rejected because of the preconditioned view Mormons have of Evangelicals. A Mormon missionary in distress is not likely to seek out a Protestant minister for help. Again, this isn’t entirely our fault, but perception is the reality that we must deal with. We must make an extra effort to overcome perception. We must do what we can to help Mormons see us as a friendly and helpful face in the midst of a faith crisis.
A New Strategy
For these reasons I believe we need a new strategy. I think we need to largely abandon our role in exposing Joseph Smith and Mormon origins. As I’ve mentioned, I think this work will continue at the hands of Mormons and will have greater traction than anything we could hope to produce. The role “Rough Stone Rolling” has had in changing the tone of the debate should be evidence enough. Terryl Givens has a forth coming book on the evolution and progression of Mormon doctrines. This book will undoubtedly challenge the notion that many Mormon doctrines have been static. Works such as these will continue to erode the traditional Mormon narrative. Our best efforts at expose’ can’t do better than these in terms of effectively demonstrating the LDS church to not be what it historically has claimed to be. The era of Joseph Smith being viewed as a trustworthy figure is closing one internet search result at a time both inside and outside the church.
Instead I think we need to focus on explaining how and why we live out our faith. Many of us have effectively learned how to communicate and frame language in a way that Mormons are familiar with. We need to talk more about the advantages of grace over legalism. We need to proclaim the heart of living solely in the New Covenant. We need to explain better the beauty we see in the Trinity. We need to talk more openly about our own struggles in faith and how we overcame them. We need to better explain appropriate hermeneutics. We need to explain clearly what we mean by “inerrant” and how that differs from “literal”. We need to more boldly proclaim our confidence that the Bible was transmitted throughout history reliably. Many are already doing all of these things, but we need to step up these messages at the expense of talking less about Joseph Smith.
Rest assured, Joseph Smith is being talked about and will continue to be talked about. But don’t spoil your future witness by leading with his failures. Continue to resist his influence. Boldly state when asked about him that you think he’s a false prophet. But don’t get into details. If you are asked for details share them slowly and cautiously. Be confident that everything you know can and will be discovered. The heart of your message is not the bad fruit of Joseph Smith, the heart of your message is the hope that lives within you. Stick to your message. Instead of making you and your ministry the place Mormons become disenfranchised with their faith become the place where they can safely ask “what’s next”. Become a recovery center for the spiritually wounded rather than an artillery range against Joseph Smith. Though some are still converted to Mormonism, the LDS church is not the threat it once was and mostly likely never will be again. I wouldn’t want even a single Evangelical converted into Mormonism but I don’t believe guarding our sheep needs to be our chief focus any longer.
Some may be tempted to disregard what I’m saying. I’ll be branded by some as a compromiser. I can assure you I am not compromising. Instead I’m calling us to see what even the Mormon apostles recognize; the times have changed. We have a new mission. Let us recognize that our battle is not against Mormon flesh and blood but rather Mormon powers and principalities.
Begin your transition. It’s time to be spiritual healers. It’s time to be pastors. Let us no longer erect bulwarks against those lost to Mormonism. Let us now build bridges for those Mormonism has lost.
NOTE: I think the “Transitions” study produced by Western Institute for Intercultural Studies is a great start. Let’s build on it.
NOTE #2: These survey results were posted shortly after I posted this article. They illuminate more on why Mormons become disaffected.