Southern Baptists plant gospel in Mormon heartland
    February 26 2015 by Jim Burton, NAMB & Seth Brown, BR Content Editor

    You’ve looked out the front window of your home and seen them coming. Two young males wearing white shirts and black ties are riding bikes in the neighborhood. When they knock on your door, what do you do?
     
    North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary Travis Kerns would encourage you to love them. That’s what he has learned to do. His love for Mormons grew to the point that he now lives 35 miles from downtown Salt Lake City, Utah and serves as city missionary for NAMB’s Send North America: Salt Lake City.
     
    Kerns has a doctor of philosophy degree in applied apologetics with a focus on Mormonism from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Ky. During his undergraduate studies in 1996, he had a class on new religious movements, and Mormonism was the first they studied.
     
    “It took hold of my heart,” Kerns said of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). “In school, every paper I wrote was geared toward Mormonism.”
     
    When he began teaching at SBTS in 2007, Kerns started taking students to Salt Lake City. On the flight home after his sixth trip there in 2012, Kerns said there were fires on the mountains. As he viewed the smoke filling the Salt Lake Valley during the plane’s ascent, it became a fresh vision.

    kerns2-26-15-(1).jpg

    NAMB photo by John Swain
    2015 Send North America Week of Prayer missionary Travis Kerns moved with his wife, Staci, and son, Jeremiah, to Salt Lake City to help reach the city with the gospel. Kerns serves as city missionary for Send North America: Salt Lake City.

     

    “What it said to me was that this city is on fire and burning,” Kerns said. “I just lost it; started crying like a baby.”
     

    Mormon heartland

    Salt Lake City, where LDS headquarters is located, is the religious center of the Mormon faith. “Utah is 70 percent LDS,” Kerns said.
     
    “LDS members run the state government. The majority of judges, police officers, firefighters, lawyers, real estate agents and bankers are LDS. Almost everyone here is LDS.”
     
    When Kerns moved into a home with his wife, Staci, and their son, the neighbors already knew it was the “NAMB” house.
     
    “They knew right away we weren’t Mormon,” Kerns said. “Plus, we didn’t show up at the meeting house on Sunday.”
     
    Mormons attend meeting house (comparable to church) meetings based upon their residence. Between Logan and Provo, Kerns estimates there are over 4,000 meeting houses or halls.
     
    “It’s so Mormon here, many have never met or heard from anybody who is not Mormon,” Kerns said.
     

    Church planting challenge

    Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in Utah, but the presence is minimal. Most Protestant churches run between 50 and 100 people.
     
    “The hardest part about any Christian church (in Utah) is that the average tenure for pastors is 14 months,” Kerns said. One key to success, he believes, is to keep showing up.
     
    As city missionary for Send North America: Salt Lake City, one of 32 Send North America cities, Kerns oversees church plants in the metropolitan area.
     
    “The Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention has a goal that by 2020 they want to double the number of churches [in the two-state convention],” Kerns said. “That means another 150 churches. We want to be one third of that number, 50 new churches by 2020.”

     
    neisers2-26-15.jpg

    Contributed photo
    Ben and Lindsey Neiser and their two daughters made the move from Wake Forest to Utah in 2014. They are praying toward the planting of a new church.

    By 2014, there were 18 active Southern Baptist church plants through Send North America: Salt Lake City, with 12 having started within the year. Kerns spends much of his time mentoring the current church planters while recruiting and assessing future church planters. Utah County, which Kerns calls the cultural capital of Mormonism and the home of Brigham Young University, garners most of his attention.
     

    Accepting the church planting challenge

    Ben and Lindsey Neiser, former members of North Wake Church, Wake Forest, N.C., moved to Utah with their two daughters in July 2014.
     
    They chose Provo-Orem as a place to plant a church for a few reasons. Neiser kept an open mind as he and his wife considered locations. “God, you’ve given us a heart for church planting,” he said, “now You fill in the blank.”
     
    Neiser was already engaging LDS missionaries around Wake Forest while attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Then in a seminary class, he saw a list of the 50 most unreached metropolitan areas in North America; Provo-Orem topped the list.
     
    The International Mission Board classifies a people group as “unreached” if it is less than two percent evangelical. Provo-Orem rates 0.6 percent evangelical. “It’s really heartbreaking,” said Neiser. “What reason do we have not to go?”
     
    The religious atmosphere in Utah is unlike North Carolina, though. “This is not like planting a church in any other context that’s within the United States,” Neiser said. It’s more similar to an international church planting effort among an unreached people group.
     
    Neiser’s posture toward church partnerships also resembles church planting efforts in international contexts where there are few evangelicals.
     
    The couple joined First Baptist Church Provo (FBC), and they are serving the church in various ways as they become acclimated to the area.
     
    “Everything that I do … comes from a very high view of the local church,” Neiser said. They teach Sunday School classes at FBC and lead a campus Bible study at Brigham Young University.
     
    Neiser’s plan is to start a house-church under the oversight of FBC after a period of pastoral assessment. He also wants to “plant pregnant,” meaning they hope to take along one or two families from FBC with the intention of planting another church in the future.
     
    Neiser would like to see other church planters come to Utah as well. “There’s plenty of opportunity. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. Though it is difficult, according to Neiser. “But what keeps us here – what holds us here – is a deep sense of God’s calling.”
     

    Church planting needs

    The cultural challenges church planters face in Utah often translate into logistical challenges too. Whereas in most major cities church plants can meet in public schools, that does not happen in Utah.
    Most new churches spend much money on rent, typically commercial space. The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® (AAEO) and Cooperative Program (CP) help new churches meet those challenges.
     
    “That money goes directly to our church plants to help them reach people,” Kerns said. “Without CP and AAEO, there would be no Send North America: Salt Lake City. There’s been no shortage of resources when I’ve asked. It’s because of the generosity of Southern Baptists.”
     
    Kerns was close to tenure at SBTS when he accepted the call to lead Send North America: Salt Lake City. Through his research, Kerns has built relationships with many LDS leaders.
     
    “In 18 years of doing this, I’ve only seen two people convert from Mormonism to Christianity,” said Kerns who notes that on average it takes from two to seven years for most Mormons to convert, the majority being much closer to seven years. “Being around leaders of the LDS church to share my faith with them drives everything that I do.”
     
    The goal for the 2015 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is $60 million.
     
    To learn more about the Week of Prayer, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and how your church can be mobilized to push back lostness in North America, visit anniearmstrong.com.
     

    2/26/2015 12:19:27 PM by Jim Burton, NAMB & Seth Brown, BR Content Editor | with 2 comments
    Filed under: missions, Mormons, NAMB, Utah




Comments
Mad Organist
I don't mind if the Kerns, Neiser, or any other families share their faith with whomever, wherever. But anyone who believes that converting from Mormonism means becoming a Christian has failed to grasp even the most rudimentary insight about Mormons and their faith. By any reasonable definition, Mormons are already Christians. Anyone wishing to have a fruitful conversation will at lease acknowledge that fundamental foundation of their faith.
2/27/2015 3:10:18 PM

Daryl Tanner
Travis Kerns makes several mistakes in his quotes:
Utah is 62.1% Mormon according the the last census and has changed little over the last 3-4 years.
Mormon church buildings are referred to as "chapels" as well as meeting houses much more common religious description.
The Mormon church does not review real estate transactions for religious affiliation which cannot be included in real estate documents by law. Individual Mormon neighbors may find out through other means if the new persons are Mormons but it is not an "official" activity.

Richard Mouw: I am now convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you. The God of the Scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in things we have said about you. We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe.
2/26/2015 9:35:08 PM

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