The techniques that Evangelicals use to convert Mormons to ‘traditional Christianity’ do not work. The same cannot be said for the method proposed by David L. Rowe in his new book.
After years of missionary work in Utah, Rowe has learned a few things. He understands that our history of persecution means that we will not abide attacks on our faith without putting up walls. (This is why the usual methods are ineffective.) Because he realizes that the Church is a culture, not a cult, Rowe is able to propse a method for exploiting the weak spots in LDS culture, which provides an opening to entice Saints to consider ‘traditional Christianity.’ He points to four main areas; for each one, I’ll outline Rowe’s suggestion, briefly discuss the cultural weakness it exploits, and then propose ideas for how we might shore up that levee before it breaks.
2 Nephi 25:23 teaches that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Rowe takes the argument over faith and works beyond some abstract theological tussle and realizes the effect that it can have on real life. You probably know (or are) a Saint who can feel overwhelmed by the ‘to do list’, the guilt over incomplete home teaching, the constant whirl of meetings and family responsibilites. It is not hard for me to imagine someone like this Relief Society President being seduced by an invitation to accept Jesus, be born again, be saved, and never have to attend another ward council meeting. Here, Rowe exploits an LDS cultural weakness: we have a culture of perfectionism, and if you aren’t living up to every obligation you have made, you are not, according to his reading of 2 Nephi 25:23–but also according to the sense that many overwhelmed Saints can have–worthy of God’s grace or salvation. We need to figure out how to encourage people to do better without beating them up. We need to emphasize that direction is more important than speed. We need to tolerate people who are struggling without tolerating sin. It’s a tall order and it is hard to pull off in every lesson, every talk, every conversation in the hallway. But it may be essential in helping our sisters and brothers not to feel overwhelmed and become easy prey for a doctrine that looks like it sure would make things easier.
A personal relationship with Jesus
Apparently, Evangelicals used to be wary of praying with Mormons. But Rowe has realized that Mormons will sometimes hear the earthy, informal prayers of an Evangelical and realize that that person sure sounds as if they have a close relationship with God. He is exploiting here several of our cultural weaknesses: hollow public prayers, formal prayer language that suggests remoteness, a natural tendency to want to be closer to God. We may need to do a better job of praying in public and not letting the language of prayer detract from the experience.
Rowe begins the book with an anecdote of an LDS soccer coach who encourages his elementary-aged girls to “forget that Sunday School stuff” and “maim” (!) their opponents. He contrasts this with an Evangelical friend who acted the way a coach should–and whose example led to five LDS families leaving their church for his. Rowe is right that personal example is huge. It should go without saying that he is exploiting our weakness as humans, and that we need to be more Christlike.
Most Saints don’t understand this issue. Many Evangelicals don’t, either, and to the extent that they acknowledge it, they simply say that it is stupid to make decisions based on one’s ‘feelings.’ But Rowe gets it. He encourages Evangelicals to speak ‘Mormonese': to tell of answers to their prayers, their religious feelings, to, well, bear their testimony. I imagine that this technique will throw some Saints for a real loop, because they aren’t used to hearing others use our rhetoric of religious experience. He’s tapped in to a real LDS weakness: we sometimes act as if no other Christians know anything about God, pray, have their prayers answered, etc. The assumption that no one outside the Church can have a meaningful relationship with God can lead a Saint to marvel; combine this with the idea of unconditional grace and you can just see it, can’t you: “You mean no more Elders Quorum Moving Company and my prayers will still be answered? Sign me up!” A simple acknowledgement by the Saints that what other Christians lack is priesthood authority and its ordinances, not the ability or the desire to know God, may save some souls.
David Rowe seems to genuinely love the Saints; he’s the first mission-minded Evangelical I’ve encountered who didn’t snarl. He knows what won’t work: lobbing isolated Bible verses or Church history factoids at the Saints as if they were grenades with enough force to blow up a worldview. He also knows what may work: exploiting some of the toxic or unchristlike elements of Mormon culture. Rowe is a wolf very capable of picking off weaker members of the flock–unless the undershepherds (that’s you and me) provide better watchcare.