Mormons who gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah, for their 181st Annual General Conference this past weekend were again met by a small group of Christians shouting "repent," among other things.
The group is a regular presence at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conferences, often hurling insults and dragging the Book of Mormon on the ground.
Countering the protesters this year, however, was another group of Christians who offered "free hugs" and some "Jesus style" love for the Mormons.
"Jesus didn't scream and hold signs at the Samaritan well," said Charles Hill, pastor of One Community Church in South Jordan, Utah, in a statement. "We are called to love each other."
Hill moved to South Jordan in 2009 to start a church in a predominantly Mormon community. He has made clear that his mission is not to "defeat" the LDS Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, but to simply reach those who need Jesus.
Over the past two years he has built relationships with many Mormons. He often opens his house up to his neighbors, almost all of whom are part of the LDS Church. But again, he has clarified that he's not out to convert them to his Christian faith, but rather to simply love them.
So when he sees other Christians protesting at LDS conferences, he's compelled to respond.
He brought out his church to the conference on Saturday, the opening day of the two-day event, to give out some love. "HUGS not THUGS" was their marching orders. They handed out free hugs to those who needed "a boost after walking past our brothers and sisters in Jesus who just gave them an ear full. We will give them an arm full."
Meanwhile, he has a message for the protesters: "Dear Thugs: stop driving the wedge between our relationships that we seek to build that much deeper. I bet most of you aren't even from this city. If you really knew someone who was LDS and loved them, you would never be doing this. And for those that are in our cities here…there is a reason your church is '50 soldiers in the Army of the Lord' strong every Sunday morning and has been for years."
The LDS Church continues to grow in membership in the U.S. and worldwide. According to statistics revealed at the convention on Saturday, total LDS membership at the end of 2010 was 14.1 million. The religious body also reported 272,814 converts baptized in 2010, 134 temples (with three new ones planned for this year), and 52,225 missionaries serving in 340 missions.
Additionally, LDS leaders boasted service and aid to the poor. Mormons logged in over 40,000 hours of service through more than 4,000 volunteers in Japan relief efforts, Thomas S. Monson, president of the LDS Church, reported.
Monson, whom Mormons view as a modern-day prophet, delivered a charge that likely resonated with Hill – to be good citizens and good neighbors, and examples of honesty and integrity "wherever we go and in whatever we do."
Hill acknowledges that there are fundamental theological differences between Mormons and evangelical Christians. And he would rejoice if his Mormon neighbors came to a saving knowledge of Christ.
But he disagrees with treating them as a "conversion project."
"Jesus did not say: 'Win them with scare tactics and by acting like thugs when you disagree with someone.' He said, 'They will know you by your LOVE.' Jesus said: 'LOVE your neighbor as yourself.'
"He also said, 'By this will everyone know you are my disciples when you have LOVE one for another.' All of the law and the prophets hang on the 2 commands to LOVE! Can I get a witness?"
Reminding Christians of both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, Hill encourages believers to reach out in their own context – whether it's a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) parade, a porn convention or an atheist convention – with Jesus' love.
"Maybe we can start a revolution that shows what we are FOR [love and the gospel] rather than just the press we get on what we are AGAINST," he pondered.