An advance team from the Southern Baptist Convention was in Salt Lake City Thursday and Friday planning for the arrival of 11,000 or more of their church colleagues in June for a convention and mass evangelizing effort.
Predictions are already being made about how the Baptists will present themselves - and how they will be received - in the heartland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.LDS Church members fervently teach the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored through a modern prophet and that revelation from God to prophets continues. Baptists say, with equal zeal, that such beliefs make LDS Church members non-Christian.
The result when the Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptists mix in June is something neither group can predict.
"We certainly avoid, to the extent that we can, unfriendly confrontation," said A. William Merrell, Southern Baptist Convention vice president for convention relations.
LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told a group of religion newswriters in Albuquerque in September he hopes Latter-day Saints will welcome the Southern Baptists with open arms. "I hope that we will be gracious and respectful toward them."
Two LDS apostles, President Boyd K. Packer and Elder Russell M. Ballard, have spoken boldly in defense of the church's belief in Christ recently in juxtaposition to the Southern Baptists' labeling of the faith as non-Christian.
Bringing the convention to Salt Lake City has drawn criti-cism from former President Jimmy Carter, whose religious books and activism have made him one of the best-known Southern Baptists.
"I think that the worst thing that we can do, among the worst things we can do as believers in Christ, is to spend our time condemning others who profess faith in Christ and try to have a narrow definition of who is and who is not an acceptable believer and a child of God," he was quoted as saying in December. Phil Roberts, director of interfaith witness evangelism for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, said the convention's evangelism effort June 5 and 6 will be no different than at other annual conventions held in past years in and out of the Bible Belt.
Seminary workshops with an LDS focus are planned June 1-4, with convention sermons and meetings scheduled in the Salt Palace June 9-11.
A record number of journalists are registering with the convention and plan to come early to see the Southern Baptist missionary effort on the streets of Salt Lake City, said Herbert V. Hollinger, Southern Baptist Convention vice president for convention news.
"There's been an incredible amount of interest from the media," Hollinger told the Deseret News Thursday. "They probably think there's something going on here."
San Francisco Chronicle religion writer Don Lattin has written extensively about LDS Church members and has covered previous Southern Baptist conventions.
"I'm sure the story will be portrayed kind of as a battle of two great missionary machines going head-to-head," Lattin told the Deseret News. "People are so used to seeing the Latter-day Saint missionaries knocking on their doors and stopping them on the street in San Francisco and everywhere around the world. This is a turnaround kind of situation with Baptists knocking on Mormon doors."
Southern Baptist-sponsored newspaper ads, television spots and 180,000 pieces of mail to homes in the Salt Lake area will preface the convention and the county-wide "Crossover Salt Lake" evangelism drive, said Roberts. Convention proceedings will also be open to the public.
The Southern Baptists began circulating a video titled "The Mormon Puzzle" at their convention last June. The video is designed to teach Southern Baptists about LDS beliefs.
Robert L. Millet, dean of religious instruction at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, was interviewed for the video and talked extensively with Southern Baptist Convention leaders for the project and about the finished product.
He said he was very disappointed that the topic of one-third of his 90-minute interview - the LDS belief regarding grace and salvation - was edited completely from the video. But look past the video's incriminating name and the eerie music underscoring descriptions of LDS doctrine and "everything else in the video is, frankly, not bad," Millet said.
BYU's religion faculty saw the video about a month ago. "There comes a point when they're listing the major doctrines about God, man, Christ and salvation, and one of my faculty turned to me and said, `That's really well done,' and it was."
Still uncertain is whether there will be any official contact between the Southern Baptist Convention leadership and LDS Church officials in June. Merrell said he is unaware of any official invitation by LDS Church leaders for a courtesy visit. However, he said, Southern Baptist Convention leadership would accept such an invitation.
Members of other churches will also encounter the 1,000 to 3,000 Southern Baptists expected to participate in the Crossover blitz. Clergy from several other denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Cath-olics, declined to comment specifically on the convention but told the Deseret News they will watch things unfold.
"So, what's going to happen when they come? I haven't the foggiest idea," Millet said. "I hope they find us good hosts. I'm excited to have someone come to my home."