Evangelism in the LDS Context, II

In my last post I raised the issue of whether a traditional mass evangelism event – like a Billy Graham Crusade or something similar – makes sense in Utah’s cultural context. I had the opportunity to explain to several dozen Utah pastors why I think this is the wrong tool to use for this job. If we think like cross-cultural missionaries, how do we evaluate an issue like this?

Let’s take a look at LDS culture, including attitudes, experiences, and practices. I believe that there are particular traits of LDS culture that work against mass evangelism. In this post, let’s consider how Latter-day Saints make spiritual decisions.

When a prospective convert is presented with LDS truth claims, the prospect is urged to read the Book of Mormon and to pray for a personal witness from God that the Book of Mormon is true. Latter-day Saints believe that God will manifest the truth of the Book of Mormon to the sincere inquirer. People who grow up within the LDS Church are also urged to “gain a testimony” of the Book of Mormon – that is, to experience a conversion of their own. Once the Book of Mormon is accepted as divine scripture, all the rest falls into place. It validates the work of Joseph Smith and the authority of the LDS Church.

The most notable difference between this kind of conversion event compared to an evangelistic mass meeting is that the pursuit of an LDS testimony is a private quest. Latter-day Saints make spiritual decisions privately. This is portrayed in the film “God’s Army,” where the questioning young Mormon missionary finally confronts his doubts about his faith by praying alone all night in the kitchen of his apartment, until he reached a moment of assurance. This is paradigmatic. He did not confront his doubts by studying, but by prayer – seeking a direct spiritual witness. And he did not make his decision at a public meeting, under the exhortation of a speaker or authority figure, but in the solitary quiet of his home.

There is nothing in LDS practice that approximates the kind of public decision called for at an evangelistic mass meeting. Latter-day Saints do not practice an “altar call.” The way spiritual decisions are expressed publicly among Latter-day Saints is after the fact. The new convert will bear witness of his or her conversion by undergoing water baptism. Then, on the first Sunday of each month, members have opportunity to “bear their testimony” in the congregational worship gathering. They do this by reaffirming aloud their assurance of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and of the LDS Church, and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and perhaps the current prophet as well.

My analysis suggests that the type of spiritual decision called for at a mass evangelism rally would simply not make sense to a Latter-day Saint. He or she would have no category in experience for understanding the meaning of such an invitation. Certainly there is no biblical mandate for the traditional “altar call” or for other kinds of public decisions, like the raising of hands. Thus it seems to me that an approach involving public conversion decisions would be less likely to be effective in Utah than one inviting personal prayer leading up to a private faith decision. Such an approach would be biblically permitted and also culturally intelligible.

In my next post, I want to consider another cultural factor that informs our evangelism strategies here in Utah: how Latter-day Saints practice proselytizing themselves.

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