As I write this blog post, I am with our Utah Mission Team as we conclude our 2016 trip to Manti, Utah. Our team this year consisted of 37 folks; 26 from First Family Church, and 11 from Crossway Community Church in Wisconsin, where John and Jenny Andrus are members. Keith and Nikki Ryan and their two oldest daughters also joined us from their new home in Reno, NV.
The most exciting aspect of our Utah Mission Trip is seeing our young people engaging in ministry and in street evangelism. What else can top seeing a 14 or 15-year-old student sharing their faith and the gospel with an LDS student of the same age? This is the cherry on top of all of the hard training and preparation for the trip!
Nothing can help cement the gospel into the heart of a young person like being forced to defend their faith in conversation with a person with a very different belief system.
Utah is a changing landscape when it comes to the LDS church. Not unlike the evangelical church, the leadership team in Utah sees a massive shift towards secularism within the younger generation of Latter Day Saints. Because of the Internet and the influence of television and movies, the Mormon church is struggling against a tide of secularism that is invading their ranks.
One Manti veteran who is on his 17th annual trip to Utah told our team he has seen a seismic shift in the last 10 years. There was a time when he knew what answers to expect when in conversation with a Mormon regardless of the age. Now, he sees a distinct difference between the older generations (35 years and up) and the younger generations. The younger generation sounds more "Christian" in their conversation, but they are just as lost. This makes witnessing to them even more difficult, because their doctrine is a blend of Mormonism and Christianity, yet they are missing the essential elements of the gospel, and are therefore unbelievers.
There is still a tremendous need for solid, Christian churches in Utah. Those who live in Utah tell of news reports that suggest as many as two-thirds of Utah Mormons are not active in the church and are transitioning out of Mormonism, but instead of turning to a healthy church, they simply fade into agnosticism or even atheism. One Utah resident, who is active on a weekly basis ministering to Mormons, told our team there is a tremendous need for churches that would simply focus on reaching families who are transitioning out of Mormonism.
Our Church Is Not Immune to the Influence of Secularism
For those of us who are comfortable and secure in our Christian homes and churches, we need to observe what is happening to the Mormon Church and how it is being impacted by the secular society in which we live. Sometimes it is easier to see how trends like secularism are impacting someone else than to see how the same trends are impacting us.
As I watch the shifting landscape within the American Church, I see several trends that suggest to me we are approaching a tipping point within the Church. Each generation must struggle with new dynamics within the culture and how they impact the church. The last major shift within the Protestant church happened in the 1960s. Visit with our grandparents, who were Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or any of the other mainline denominations, and we would learn how orthodox and doctrinally sound these churches were in the mid-20th Century. Yet, we would also see liberalism invading the church and destroying the institutions of the church, starting with the seminaries.
In response to the shift to liberalism, we saw the the rise of the Evangelical Megachurch movement. By the mid-1970s, churches like Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Community Church were starting to form, and by the mid-to-late 1980s, these churches were transforming the model and philosophy of the church. They were no longer strongly tied to a denomination, and essentially began to serve as their own denomination in areas of missions and church partnerships.
Today, I believe we are seeing a shift away from the Megachurch model. Many of these churches are becoming murky in their doctrine and beliefs and continue to follow the impulses of culture in an effort to grow their church. These multi-million dollar corporations continue to expand their influence through franchises and largely human-driven efforts, but their impact is diminishing. In 10 years, I believe we will see many of these Megachurches following the way of the mainline churches--physically large an impressive, but spiritually dead.
Over and over again, starting with the Tower of Babel, we see God frustrate and ultimately abandon movements by man that begin to build upon the strength and wisdom of man. God desires a faithful people who have one desire––to worship Him in Spirit and Truth. It is His Kingdom and His dominion, but man is often motivated by building his own kingdom and spreading his own dominion. Even when we do so in the Name of God, our motives can easily become infected with pride.
For me, this has been one of the lessons we need to take away from our time in Utah. It is a blessing to see our young people growing in their faith and striving to share the gospel with others, but at the same time, we are not immune to the disease that is impacting the LDS Church. The world and its ways are attractive, and each generation must make the choice whether to go the broad, inviting way of the world or follow God along a narrow, ancient path.
Thus says the Lord:
“Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’"