A church planter – planning to come to Utah – asked me a very insightful question this week about ministry strategy in Utah. This planter has a lot of experience cross-culturally around the world, and now he is doing an internship with a large church in another state to prepare for coming to Utah. The strategy my friend has used successfully elsewhere is to establish discipleship communities that happen to corporately gather, and that have an entry point through the smaller communities (think small groups, house churches, or something along those lines), not through a Sunday service. He has some good reasons to consider this model in Utah.
I told him that I think there are some good reasons to consider Sunday services as the entry point rather than smaller communities. The churches that are most successful in evangelizing Latter-day Saints in Utah use this approach. I believe that is largely because these churches have thought carefully about the religious-cultural context where we serve. This conversation illustrates how to think like cross-cultural missionaries in Utah.
Here are some reasons why I favor an approach that makes Sunday services the entry point for newcomers and investigators:
1. In LDS culture, the practice of attending Sunday church in a building is pretty deeply embedded as the normal way of doing church. As a result, we’ve discovered that when people around here start to perceive a need to begin a spiritual pursuit, their first thought is typically: “Go to church.”
2. Latter-day Saints grow up conditioned to be suspicious of (or at least cautious toward) other faiths. In my experience, they tend to prefer an environment where they can retain anonymity. This makes a smaller group too intimidating for a newcomer from a Mormon background.
3. There is no equivalent in LDS life or experience that parallels a small group or house church type of setting. Smaller, interactive groups happen only on Sunday in the Priesthood meeting (men’s) and Relief Society (women’s) meetings that occur in the church building after sacrament meeting (the congregational assembly). Because they don’t ever really meet in decentralized groups, this is a foreign experience and creates a conceptual and emotional barrier.
At Alpine Church where I serve, we have adopted Sunday as the gateway, from which we then move people into relational discipleship environments as they grow more comfortable. We recognize that LDS culture may not always be so Sunday- and building-centric. But for the majority, for now, it is. There are some planters in Utah using a more decentralized approach where the smaller discipleship environment is the entry point. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of this approach. My hunch is that such approaches will become more important as the Mormon culture changes. But right now they may just be too far ahead of the curve.