Four Southern Baptist church plants are in their early stages in Utah County, traditional Mormon country but home to First Baptist Church of Provo since 1948.
The 65-member strong First Baptist Church of Provo, Utah looks beyond its walls to spread the gospel through the four church plants it currently has underway.
Pastor Russ Robinson has led the Baptist congregation to plant other churches rather than expand its church building, a former Mormon or Latter-day Saints (LDS) “ward meeting house” the church bought in 1963. Located in an out-of-the-way residential neighborhood, First Baptist Provo, founded in 1948, is at near-capacity for the perhaps 100 people who worship there Sunday mornings.
“We’re very much invested in proclaiming the gospel in Utah County and to the ends of the earth,” Robinson told Baptist Press. “We’re a small church but we think we can do a whole lot more.”
Among First Baptist Provo’s church plants is one in Springville, a town south of Provo that has more than doubled in size since 2000, but has only one evangelical church for its nearly 35,000 residents. Another congregation is set for southeast Provo, home to more than 10,000 college students and perhaps 10,000 more young families. Others are planned for Lehi, which has increased by 13,000 people since 2010, and among the area’s growing Hispanic population, about 12 percent of the county’s population.
Despite its size, First Baptist Provo already is doing “a whole lot more” than it was when Robinson was called from Tennessee seven years ago to his first pastorate. Missions giving then was less than 1 percent of the annual church budget, but is budgeted at 10 percent for 2017.
A recent church planter ordination at First Baptist Church in Provo, Utah included church members, friends and family of Joe Concepcion, Zach Thompson, and Caleb Murdock, who were ordained into the gospel ministry. A fourth church planter, Kirk Shull, was already ordained when he came to the church.
Mission trips were non-existent then, except for Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief. Now the church goes to Haiti at least once a year to work with an orphanage and local churches there in evangelistic outreaches. A new missions endeavor to southwestern Wisconsin in partnership with the Salt Lake Baptist Association is being planned for the summer.
Mission partnerships were unheard of with the church seven years ago. In the summer of 2016, First Provo housed 175 short-term missions volunteers from various churches to work in Utah County, and trained them in evangelizing Mormons and other groups.
This is essential because the area’s dominant religion, Mormonism, teaches that God was once a man, and that men can become gods. Numerous other doctrines – such as salvation – deemed essential to Christians are different for Mormons, Robinson explained.
First Baptist Provo conducts various types of evangelism, including relational, event-driven and door-to-door, aimed at “the gospel being presented clearly, compassionately and boldly,” Robinson said. “Our training usually focuses heavily on making clear the doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness.’
“Most Latter-day Saints will agree with you that Christ died for sins,” Robinson said. “Almost all will disagree that we can be seen as righteous as Christ today by faith, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is a necessary point of the gospel that needs to be made clear to LDS neighbors who trust in their own righteousness for salvation.”
Pastor Russ Robinson
Many Mormons believe that everyone is going to at least one level of heaven, “affirming a gospel of religious relativism and pluralism, although you won’t find that in their scriptures,” Robinson said. “When you preach a gospel of the exclusivity of Christ, there are some real obstacles of faith.”
In a population the U.S. Census Bureau said was 516,564 in 2010, Utah County tallied a total of 2,540 evangelical Christians, 6,792 Catholics, 423 mainline Protestants, 211 African American Protestants, and 459,847 Mormons, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA). ARDA statistics “can be computed to show that Utah County is 0.49 percent evangelical/mainline,” Robinson said. “Keep in mind the International Mission Board’s definition of ‘unreached and unengaged’ is 2 percent or less.”
Mormons are dominant in Utah County primarily because Brigham Young University (BYU), the religion’s flagship school, was started in Provo by Young in 1875. More than 33,000 students attended BYU during the fall 2016 semester.
At the same time First Baptist Provo is sending out four families to plant churches, the congregation is planning to “develop a person to lead in missions training and biblical counseling,” Robinson said. “We want to send out more short-term missions teams, and we have suicide and prescription drug abuse epidemics here. And … almost every person who comes to us out of Mormonism has a great load on them.”
First Baptist Provo seeks to identify God-called church planters, nurture them, guide them, mentor them and help them locate areas that need a gospel witness, but because of its size, it cannot underwrite all the church plants members believe God wants them to help start, Robinson said.
“We perceive we need more financial resources,” the pastor said, “and we’d love to have more missions-minded people who would invest their lives here in our community.
“Here’s what we don’t have, which is our dream, our prayer, what we’re laboring for,” Robinson noted. “The indigenous person. The goal is for churches in Utah to be led by people from Utah, to reach the people of Utah with the message of biblical grace that isn’t earned through works but is a free gift that comes from God the Father through the work of Jesus Christ by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)