Cover Story

A Meeting with Mormons

Historic event brings Evangelicals and Mormons together to hear evangelist Ravi Zacharias

tabernacle photographAs a young boy, Greg Vettel Johnson ’89 sat in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, and looked down in awe as the prophet spoke from the podium. “I thought appearing on that stage would be the greatest thing I could ever do,” he recalls. “It was something I never expected to happen.”

But 25 years later, he stood at the same podium and addressed nearly 7,000 people packed into the tabernacle. As he spoke, he raised his eyes to the section where he sat as a child.

The circumstances were very different than he could have imagined as a youth. Instead of being a Mormon, he is the president of Standing Together, an evangelical ministry and association of about 100 churches based in Salt Lake City. He spoke in the tabernacle as the emcee for “An Evening of Friendship,” an historic meeting between evangelicals and members of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Nov. 14, 2004.

Standing Together invited Christian philosopher and evangelist Ravi Zacharias to speak at the tabernacle on the topic, “Who Is the Truth? Defending Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.” The last non-Mormon to appear on that stage was Dwight Moody in 1899. Not only did the local newspapers and television stations cover the unusual event, but the Associated Press carried a story, which papers such as the Washington Post picked up.

Zacharias presented a total of three lectures in Utah on the theme “In Pursuit of Truth.” At the University of Utah, he addressed, “The Basis for Truth: Defending the Notion of Absolute Truth.” His topic at Weber State University was “The Loss of Truth: The Crumbling Moral Foundation. During his stay, Zacharias also met with Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS leader.

In his hour-long tabernacle talk, Zacharias discussed what makes Jesus Christ unique. He emphasized the wickedness of the human heart and identified the resurrection as the greatest hope for the world. Acknowledging the differences that exist between Christianity and Mormonism, he affirmed his belief in central doctrines such as the Trinity and salvation by grace.

Professor Ronald Enroth represented Westmont and sat on the tabernacle stage with other evangelical leaders, including Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Craig Hazen, professor of Christian apologetics at Biola University, and Joseph Tkach Jr., pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God. A number of Brigham Young University faculty and Mormon leaders joined them, including Professor Robert Millet, a prolific LDS author and member of the BYU religion department. Christian singer Michael Card performed several musical numbers.

“It truly was an amazing sight looking out at the audience of nearly 5,000, seeing evangelicals and Mormons singing together,” Enroth says. “It was an emotional moment, and I’ll never forget it. I was honored to be invited to sit on the platform.”

Group photograph"We practice convicted civility. We can be convicted about our beliefs and still be civil to each other. We do not compromise our beliefs."

The historic event grew out of the vision of one man: Greg Johnson. “My heart has always been to reach the Mormon church,” he says. “I want them to know the truth about God. My first approach was confrontational apologetics; I studied Mormon doctrine and prepared to do theological battle. But this model of confrontation wasn’t effective. After nine years as a pastor in Utah, I began to look for a thoughtful, respectful way to engage Mormon culture. I paid attention to the entire verse in I Peter 3:15, ‘Always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.’

“We look at people who don’t know Jesus Christ with empathy, compassion and concern,” he adds. “But we think Mormons are crazy and if we just tell them they are wrong, they will see the light and leave their beliefs. This is not the way we reach out to people on the mission field. Mormons have their own culture, and we need to understand it and and build relationships with them just like we do with other groups of people.”

Greg started Standing Together in 2001 to unite Christians in Utah and to reach Mormons in a more positive way. Not only does the organization support evangelism, but it brings in well-known evangelical speakers and holds workshops for Utah Christians, who are a distinct minority in the state. Standing Together employs three full-time employees, and three interns also work in the ministry.

“Standing Together has slowly become a kind of resource to media and political entities in Utah, where they can hear the evangelical voice,” Greg says. “We have found a way to express some evangelical solidarity and establish a greater platform.”

“I have been so impressed by Greg’s approach and attitude,” says Enroth, a sociology professor who has kept in touch with his former student, a social science major at Westmont. “Greg has engaged Mormons on many different levels, including church leaders and BYU faculty. By being respectful of their views, he may eventually open a dialogue with rank-and-file Mormons.”

After graduating from Westmont, Greg attended Denver Theological Seminary and earned a master’s degree in divinity. He became the associate pastor of outreach at Washington Heights Baptist Church in Ogden, the largest Protestant congregation in Utah. He then planted Ogden Valley Baptist Church and later served as associate pastor of Orem Evangelical Free Church.

Greg met Zacharias as a seminary student and brought him to speak to Utah Christians in 1994. For years, Greg dreamed of inviting Mormons to hear the Indian-born evangelist, who is a gifted and powerful speaker. “Ravi will go anywhere to talk about Jesus Christ,” Greg says. But he knew Mormons weren’t likely to attend an event at a church — or even at a neutral site.

“We have found a way to express some evangelical solidarity and establish a greater platform.”

What if Zacharias appeared in the tabernacle? In 2002, Greg started making inquiries. Would Mormon officials be willing to invite the author and philosopher to speak? “After a year of exploration, I realized it would never happen,” Greg says.

Ravi Zacharias photographThen Standing Together did something that opened the door for Zacharias. In April 2004 the organization and seven local congregations sponsored a gathering of 84 people at Temple Square — but not to pass out tracts to Mormons or carry signs denouncing LDS beliefs. Some Salt Lake street preachers had become so notorious for their hostility and extremism that Greg and 23 Christians spoke out against them at a 2003 press conference.

Greg and his fellow believers tried a radically different approach: expressing love and kindness. For two days, they simply greeted people passing by. “We said, ‘Good morning,’ ‘God bless you,’ ‘Have a nice day,’” Greg explains. “We identified Standing Together and the churches involved. Mormons had never seen different church members together. They asked us about Standing Together and wondered why we were being so nice. At first they were suspicious. But by the second day, Mormons were hugging us. They had never seen a group of Christians be nice to them. The response was overwhelming. We received media coverage and appreciative letters from two LDS apostles.”

After this experience, Greg asked one more time if Zacharias could appear at the tabernacle. “Within two weeks, I received a letter from the First Presidency, the senior LDS leadership, inviting him to speak and offering a meeting between Zacharias and the prophet. Letting us use the tabernacle and being willing to meet with us gave us an amazing level of credibility and acceptability. The LDS leadership promoted the lectureship on their Web site and printed the 7,000 tickets issued — those tickets had the LDS stamp of approval. What an amazing thing God did!”

The event engendered criticism as well as praise. Some Christians denounced Zacharias and Standing Together for seem-ingly legitimizing Mormonism. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, spoke briefly at the event and issued an apology. “I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community,” he stated. “Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you.” A number of evangelicals, including those with ministries in Utah, took exception to such a blanket statement and denied that they had misrepresented Mormonism.

Ron Enroth photographWhile he acknowledges that Mouw’s remark doesn’t apply to all evangelicals, Greg believes it has merit. “We have not listened well to Mormons,” he says. ‘Some Christians have demonized them and told them what they believed.”

“We have entered a new era of dialogue between two faith communities,” he adds. “Standing Together honored our intentions – we preached Christ and didn’t preach against Mormonism. There is a place and time to confront the truth, but we have to establish a relationship first. We began by lifting up the name of Jesus Christ. And when we have a conversation about truth, it needs to be undergirded by love.”

Enroth agrees that some Christians have misrepresented Mormons. “We need to learn as much as we can from them so we can be fully informed when talking with them,” he says. “Educated Christians need to understand other world views. I’m excited that evangelical scholars are meeting with Mormon scholars, and I hope we don’t abandon this promising avenue of dialogue and discussion. Some BYU religion professors have become interested in the concept of grace, and I personally think they are very serious in wanting to know more about evangelicals.”

Greg quotes a phrase coined by Richard Mouw to explain his conversations with Mormons. “We practice ‘convicted civility’” he says. “We can be convicted about our beliefs and still be civil to each other. We do not compromise our beliefs.”

When asked if Mormons are Christians, Greg responds, “That is not an easy question to answer. Mormonism is not a doctrine consistent with Christianity. Some Mormons may have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, but I can’t call Mormonism Christian. But it is not up to us to determine who is saved. Evangelicals can be too quick to make such pronouncements.”

Greg practices convicted civility on a regular basis when he presents “A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,” with Robert Millet, a former dean of the faculty at BYU and Richard L. Evans professor for religious understanding. The two men have appeared at nearly 30 schools, churches, seminaries, and Mormon chapels, including Westmont and Harvard Divinity School. They are working on a book, “Bridging the Divide: A Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and a Evangelical.”

The evangelical-Mormon dialogue began in 1997 with “How Wide the Divide: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation” (InterVarsity Press). Denver Seminary Professor Craig Blomberg and BYU Professor Stephen Robinson discuss their differences on issues such as scripture, the Trinity and salvation. They dedicated the book to Greg, who facilitated their first meeting.

“We have entered a new era of dialogue between two faith communities.”

Enroth endorsed the book and his quote, “This is a landmark book,” appears on the cover. He describes the work as “an engaging dialogue between scholars of two ‘opposing’ religious communities presented in a context of civility and mutual respect.”

For more than 30 years, Enroth has written extensively about new religious movements. “I used to define Mormonism as a cult,” he says. “But that is a word I am using less and less because of its pejorative nature. I reserve it for extreme groups, such as Heaven’s Gate, which committed mass suicide.”

But Enroth doesn’t consider Mormonism to be Christian. “We are honest about the differences,” he says. “We have not capitulated in our beliefs. But thanks to Greg’s approach, some Mormons heard a winsome presentation of the gospel in the tabernacle. That had never happened before.”

Despite the criticism he has received, Greg will continue reaching out to Mormons and building relationships with them. “I plan to keep planting and keep watering — I will let God be in charge of the results,” he says.

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