Georgia pastors enjoy the view of a natural arch in Utah, a state of incredible beauty. The pastors have completed a “vision trip” to Utah to identify ways to help strengthen the state’s churches.
By Enrique Durand
SALT LAKE CITY – Working together to spread the gospel – that’s the center of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s strategy for reaching the state, nation and world.
With that in mind, regional missions consultant Keith Ivey led a group of northwest Georgia pastors on a “vision trip” to Utah to identify ways they can partner with churches to help them spread the gospel.
Ivey, an employee of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, described the pastors’ reception in Utah as “tremendous,” adding that he “could not imagine a more genuine, open welcome.”
“What we found were people who are committed to reaching their communities, people who are engaged with realistic strategies for sharing the gospel,” Ivey said. “Our pastors are excited about partnering with Utah churches. They’re excited about having to think outside the box, because Utah makes us think outside the box.”
The Georgia Baptist Mission Board and the Utah/Idaho Southern Baptist Convention have forged a strong partnership in recent years, and the vision trip was birthed from that partnership, said Buck Burch, the Georgia missions catalyst.
“We have committed to help them in any way we can,” Burch said.
During their time in Utah, the Georgia group split into teams to visit different areas of the state. One team drove south over four hours from their starting point in Salt Lake City to Blanding, Utah. Another went north to the more populated areas of Ogden and Logan. The Georgia pastors were struck by the differences between their home state and Utah, one being the distance between isolated rural communities. In the case of one of the evangelical churches they visited, the nearest other evangelical church was 50 miles away.
Another difference is the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah and Idaho. While 50% of residents of Salt Lake City identify as Mormons, in smaller communities that number can be as high as 95%.
Mormons are very open to spiritual conversations, according to Ivey. He says one pitfall in those conversations is the idea of witnessing by proving others’ beliefs to be wrong. In the case of Mormons, that reinforces their teachings about persecution and is not productive. Rather, says Ivey, the approach should be “about Jesus, pointing to Jesus, and what grace really is.”
Methods that might seem strange to Georgia Baptists can have an impact in Utah. Ivey said the pastor of one rural Utah church sings in Mormon events and invites Mormons to lead hymns in his church, using the power of song to build relationships and open doors.
The team returned from the trip with several ways in which Georgia churches can support their Utah colleagues. Something as simple as helping churches set up a Vacation Bible School can have a huge impact, as Mormon parents will often allow their children to attend such events.
Churches can also organize local service days and engage with their Mormon and non-Mormon neighbors to show concern for the community, which Ivey describes as a “big deal.” Providing basic training for pastors in Utah and Idaho, such as sermon writing, pastoral care training, hermeneutics, etc., is also beneficial.
Likewise, the pastors talked about how the Utah churches could encourage their Georgia counterparts by sending representatives to Georgia to share their testimony and tell their stories. Going forward, Utah churches could partner to send missionaries internationally as part of a team from a Georgia congregation.
The future of these partnerships is up to the churches. While Ivey and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board staff facilitate the meetings, the pastors and churches are responsible for making them work. The key for Georgia churches is to understand the different challenges faced by their partners in Utah and Idaho in order to encourage and help them develop their own local strategies for reaching their communities.