Thursday, August 11, 2005

Are We Being Needlessly Confrontational?

I am still a new Utah resident. My family and I moved here from northern California in June, so I am still soaking in the unique culture of Utah, with its large LDS population, compared to northern California's culture with strong overtones of Do-It-Yourself Spiritualities, Neopaganism, and Neobuddhism.

Last month in July a friend and colleague invited me to attend the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. This is an annual drama held in front of a historic LDS temple, and during the course of the pageant thousands of LDS come from around Utah, and many from out of state. I had long heard from evangelicals that this was a "must see" in terms of evangelical efforts to reach Mormons "in the trenches." I thought it was important to attend both to understand more about LDS culture, and to see how evangelicals are engaging Mormons at this important cultural celebration.

The pageant is truly a moving spectacle. It includes drama, stage lighting, music, and narration, that recreates many aspects of the sacred history of Mormonism. I understand why so many Mormons find the pageant an important personal and cultural event. But while the pageant was instructive for me as a student of LDS culture, the activities of the evangelicals who attended was perhaps even more instructive, unfortunately in the negative.

A handful of evangelicals were at the pageant, and many passed out tracts, while still others engaged Mormons in conversation. One evangelical stood out by holding up an inflammatory sign that attacked the founding prophet of Mormonism while also advertising his website. The Mormon crowd was understandably upset by this, and it turned into something of a feeding frenzy, as Mormons were angered, other evangelicals joined in and shouted Bible verses and slight taunts to the crowd, and eventually the police intervened to prevent violence.

As I reflected on the pageant, and evangelical activities at this event, I wondered why many felt this was an appropriate and effective form of "outreach." If we step back for a moment and consider the insights of anthropology, cross-cultural missiology, communications, and self-identity, it seems to this observer that evangelicals were engaging in forms of confrontation and denunciation at an important sacred celebration. This resulted in a combative form of counter-cultural interaction that threatened the individual Mormon's self-identity and I assume caused most Mormons there to be defensive rather than open to the evangelical message.

Would evangelicals think they were being effective in ministry to homosexuals if they held up signs that said "God Hates Fags". Some fundamentalists (and perhaps evangelicals) do think this is appropriate, but the vast majority recognize it is inappropriate and needlessly confrontational. Why then do we think similar approaches to Mormons (and other new religions) are somehow appropriate (and supposedly effective)? Surely there are examples of confrontation in the Bible, but a careful examination of the contexts reveals that they are not appropriately applied to situations and contexts like the Manti pageant. Are we being needlessly confrontational, and acting in ways which make us feel good as defenders of orthodoxy, and in the process not only losing the argument but also losing the individual?

After the pageant I wrote an article on this titled "Reflections on the Divide in LDS Evangelism in Utah: Why I Practice An Incarnational Missions Approach". It can be found in the sidebar of this Blog under "Articles I Have Written". I wrote it in the hopes of stimulating fresh thinking, discussion, and methodology among evangelicals in Utah. I'm still waiting for the dialogue to begin.

1 comment:

alanhirsch said...

Hey JW (ooops, I mean John)

Welcome to the blogosphere. I will visit on occasion. Hope all goes well.