“I took my son there just for a life lesson,” says Hill, an evangelical pastor from South Jordan. “I knew what happened at conference ... but my son was just devastated. I said, ‘Let’s pray and think how we can show [LDS members] love.’ ” The answer: hugs.
Hill’s approach is known by some evangelical circles as “hugs not thugs,” and is even considered by some as a counter-protest to street-preacher evangelicals who are a regular presence outside the Salt Lake City LDS Temple and at the Conference Center on conference weekend, waving picket signs and denouncing LDS Church President Joseph Smith as a false prophet. Fundamentally, Hill agrees more with the sign-wavers than with the conference-goers, but their method, he argues, is not based in scripture.
That’s why, at the recent April LDS General Conference, his congregation was offering free hugs to conference attendees to balance out the vitriol from fellow evangelist street preachers.
“They would yell, ‘You’re hugging them straight into hell!’ ” Hill recalls with a laugh. “Well, so be it then. We’re at least doing what Jesus said to do.”
Hill is just another sign that the local evangelical community is making itself known in Utah less for confrontational antics and more for bridge-building with the dominant Mormon faith. Recent developments such as his “hugs not thugs” campaign along with overtures between LDS and evangelical leaders seem to suggest a détente between the faiths. But while a neighborly approach may pay off in better relations, not all in the local evangelical community is ready to start playing nice when it comes to matters of salvation versus damnation.
The zeal of many evangelical Christians in Utah has helped them establish a reputation in Utah—for better and worse—despite the small size of the various churches. A survey by nonprofit Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that, nationwide, 26 percent of Americans surveyed were believers of evangelical Protestant faiths, while only 2 percent of Americans identified as LDS. In Utah, not surprisingly, that figure is more than flipped, with 58 percent of Utahns identifying as LDS and only 7 percent identifying as evangelical Protestants.
“That’s really why we were drawn here,” Hill says. “We didn’t know anybody.”
Having moved to South Jordan in July 2009 to set up his One Community church—which now has roughly 130 members—Hill took heart from other denominations in the state who have not only taken up the difficult business of converting the largely LDS population to the evangelical faith, but also to convincing fellow evangelists that shouting about fire and brimstone is not a good way to start a dialogue on faith.
Links on his website ChazzDaddy.com to videos of street preachers at past conference mocking LDS members and dragging the Book of Mormon on the ground by a fishing line, Hill chastises this brand of in-your-face proselytizing: “Jesus did not say: ‘Win them with scare tactics and by acting like thugs when you disagree with someone.’ He said, ‘They will know you by your love.’ ” But for Hill, civil discussions don’t have to mean compromising on the fundamentals of his faith.
“We’re able to say the LDS Church doesn’t agree with our theology, and we don’t agree with theirs, but do we have to be idiots about it?” Hill asks.
“The confrontational style has been the norm for a long time,” says Greg Johnson, a Utah pastor since 1992 and founder of Standing Together, a nonprofit ministry created in 2001 that emphasizes better relations between Mormons and evangelicals. “But I think [street preachers’] turf is getting smaller and that’s why they’re very critical of the kinder, gentler approach.”
Johnson has written a book about difference between evangelicals and Mormons with Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet and, since 2009, hosted 60 civil forums with Millet across the country. Such fellowship is the kind he cites for recent progress in the past decade between the faiths, such as when evangelical leader Ravi Zaccharias spoke at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 2004—the first evangelical to do so in more than a hundred years. In 2009, famed Australian evangelist Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, also spoke in the tabernacle. And as recently as March 13, board members of the National Association of Evangelicals met for a private audience with LDS Apostle Jeffrey Holland. Johnson recalls the local evangelicals feeling jilted in not being a part of the audience with Holland.
“They feel they’re marginalized,” Johnson says. “But they’ve really marginalized themselves.” He points out that one of the advantages of the evangelical movement is the diverse nature of its congregations. Followers will find formal robes and organ music in some chapels and blue jeans and rock bands in others. He says that diversity of styles also extends to missionary work, and with recent successes, Johnson feels civil debate is winning out over confrontational approaches.
“I have nothing to be afraid of as an evangelical Christian when I say to my Mormon friends, ‘Let’s talk about truth and see where it takes us,’ ” Johnson says.
But for Rob Sivulka, president of the West Jordan based Courageous Christians United and founder of the Websites JosephLied.com and MormonInfo.com, the mission shouldn’t be about being nice, especially if it means losing evangelicals to the LDS faith.
“There is a reason why the Bible warns about taking false prophets into one’s home,” Sivulka writes via e-mail. He notes one local pastor who has documented multiple evangelicals converting to Mormonism after attending some of the debates hosted by Johnson and BYU’s Millet. Sivulka says the verdict on ministry styles is not out yet, either, pointing to the fact that Biola University, a private Christian university in southern California stopped doing spring break trips with Johnson’s ministry.
“I look at my stats every day on MormonInfo.org and it sure doesn’t appear to me that I’ve been marginalized,” Sivulka writes. “Sure, Greg’s made news by doing big events, but we aren’t seeing the conversions from his ministry. We see LDS saying, ‘Oh, that’s so nice how similar we are,’ but we don’t see serious challenges to the LDS faith that would cause LDS to convert to traditional Christianity.”
Hill, however, doubts confrontation equals conversion. He plans to repeat the free hugs event, with the possible addition of offering free high-fives for people not comfortable hugging strangers. Even a high-five might not mean a new member of his flock either, but he’s fine with that.
“More than likely you’re not going to convert,” Hill says. “But we can still love one another, we can absolutely dialogue, and we can absolutely be friends.”