Christians have questions, misconceptions and unproven beliefs about The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints. Questions like, "Are Mormons polygamous?" and "Can Mormons be Christians?" are circulating recently because of major news stories involving Pastor Robert Jeffress, Warren Jeffs and the two LDS candidates in the GOP presidential race – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Christians want to reach their Mormon neighbors with the true message of Jesus Christ, but many times end up pushing them away because they just can't understand the LDS faith.
As one former Mormon, Vince Valenti, told The Christian Post in an email, "The challenge you have, however, is to look at the meaning behind the words."
Another former Mormon, Beth Johnston of Idaho, observed, "We're (Christians and Mormons) not even speaking the same language."
One Utah pastor aims to resolve these problems, and give Christians tools to overcome the barriers in evangelizing to those of the LDS faith.
"It should be said that Mormonism is very different in things that matter a lot," said Ross Anderson, director of Utah Advance Ministries and pastor at Alpine Community Church, a multi-campus church in northern Utah, to CP. "But instead of telling Mormons what they believe, or what they should believe, we should be asking them what they believe."
This opens a door, said Anderson, who has created a ministry to plant "culturally appropriate" churches in Utah and to bring former Mormons into the local church. He is the author of two books, Understanding the Book of Mormon and his latest, Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor, as well as a study guide titled Jesus Without Joseph. Anderson is a former Mormon himself, born and raised as an active member of the LDS Church. In college, he said, he "came to follow Jesus in a new way" when a friend started introducing him to literature showing the key differences between Mormonism and Christianity.
"I started to realize how Mormon beliefs didn't conform to the Bible," he said. "For example, Joseph Smith taught that God was not always God."
Anderson said all the name-calling, accusing Romney of not being a Christian, or calling Mormonism a cult, is pushing the LDS community away.
"I don't think it's helpful to call Mormonism a cult," he said. "Cult has more sociological implications – people immediately think of Heaven's Gate and that kind of thing. Because of negative associations, 'cult' is an insult to them (Mormons)."
"It cuts communication off rather than helping us really understand what Mormonism stands for."
"One thing that's important to understand about the Latter-day Saints is that there are levels of authoritative scripture," Anderson said. "The scripture, including the Bible, Book of Mormon, etc. – every Mormon believes that. The second level is what leaders and officials of the Mormon Church have said in statements. The third level is printed curriculum, which depends on distribution, individual teaching and such. The fourth level is what I call 'folk Mormonism;' some Mormons may believe it and some may not."
"This is the level where beliefs about blacks, pre-existence, God's relationships when He dwelt on the earth, polygamy [come in]," Anderson continued. "We can't assume what any Mormon believes because of such a wide array of personal experiences. I can't know what a Mormon believes until I have a conversation with him (or her)."
"Polygamy is something that has made Mormonism interesting to Americans. But the mainstream LDS church disavows it," Anderson explained. "It is, however, deeply rooted in Mormon history – Joseph Smith introduced it. It's interesting to note that Warren Jeffs and people like him are more like Joseph Smith than the leaders of the mainstream church (are)."
In an email to The Christian Post, Anderson offered these eight tips when evangelizing to Mormons:
Find common ground. Building a relationship takes time and effort. The first step is finding common ground. Active Mormons can be hard to get to know. Their relational needs are met through the ward (their local congregation). They may question your motives. There will be misunderstandings. Start slow. Don't begin by talking about religion, but take an interest in all of life. The family is a great place to build common ground. Share about your family and ask about theirs. Offer to do something together as a family, like snacks or a game night.
Ask questions and listen. Don't assume you know what "Mormons" believe or that your friend accepts every element of traditional Mormonism. You don't know what anyone believes or values until they tell you.
Serve your neighbor. Love is the soil in which seeds of truth grow. We demonstrate our love by acts of practical compassion. Offer to babysit or help with a yard project. This may lead to an invitation to come over for a cookout or to go to a movie or ballgame.
Learn to tell stories and speak of experiences. Mormonism is not mainly defined by theological statements of doctrine as much as it is by experiences and stories. Learn to frame your beliefs in story form rather than just a list of theological declarations. Tell your own story of how you have experienced the reality of Jesus in your life.
Be prepared to answer key LDS claims. At some point in a relationship, certain ideas will come up. Your LDS friend will assert certain central claims, including the idea that God guides the LDS church through revelation, that only the LDS church has authority to act in God's name, that Christianity fell away into a great apostasy after the first apostles died, and that the Book of Mormon is scripture. Learn at least some basic answer to these questions so you're ready when they come up.
Be sensitive about issues that offend Latter-day Saints. Avoid anything mocking or disrespectful. Mormons can be thin-skinned about criticism. They will get defensive if you mock Joseph Smith or the temple.
Be aware of terminology differences. Mormons use much of the same faith vocabulary that we do, but the same words often have different meanings for the two groups. We may assume that we are understanding each other or that we agree because we are not aware what the other party means when they use a certain word.
Major on Jesus and the good news of God's grace. We have a lot to offer Mormons. The point is not to tear down their faith or to get them to reject Mormonism. The point is to help them respond in faith to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
"Latter-day Saints need what we have to offer – the grace of Jesus Christ – so it's worth it to enter into a relationship with them to be able to share your faith with them," Anderson said. "This takes perseverance, because it may take a long time to build trust. But when things go wrong, your Mormon friend has someone to turn to, and it opens the door for sharing (your faith)."
Anderson's books are available on Amazon.com and on his website, www.utahadvance.org.