As 10,000 Southern Baptist messengers descend on Salt Lake City during the coming week, they will be well-prepared to carry out the "Great Commission" - to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world.
And while many Utahns - particularly, perhaps, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - believe they already have the truth of Christ's gospel in their own faiths, that doesn't take away the duty Southern Baptists feel to share their own message of salvation.It's a responsibility that Latter-day Saints themselves feel - and act on - as they endeavor to share their message with the world through a missionary force nearly 60,000 strong. Utah Latter-day Saints in particular are used to being the ones to share their own faith - rather than having others witness to them.
Yet Tom Elliff, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Utahns need to understand that Southern Baptists feel just as strongly about being witnesses for Jesus - as they understand him.
"Whenever we go to a city to hold a convention, we have always said it's imperative for us day by day, whereever we are, to be witnesses for Christ. It certainly would be rather absurd to say "as you meet for the convention, we certainly don't want you to witness.
"We want to help folks understand who we are, and we bring our witness with us. For years we've told people (who plan to attend the convention), `Why don't you come early? It's great for the city, and attend the local Baptist churches. During the day, take time to share your faith.' The secondary thing is the (convention) business at hand. The primary thing is sharing our faith. That's the business we're in."
Mike Gray, senior pastor at Southeast Baptist Church in Cottonwood Heights, wants Utahns to understand that there is a difference between "sharing your faith" and "proselyting."
"We're not out to make a bunch of Baptists. The objective is not to proselyte - we stand adamantly against that word," he said. "We don't have to get people from one to another church. The objective is to get them into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ where they are born again and have trust in him."
Indeed, leaders at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention emphasize that they don't believe it matters which Christian church people belong to - as long as the Christ they believe in fits with the historic concept of Orthodox Christianity, better known as the Trinity. When people have faith in and a personal relationship with that Jesus, they are "saved" through the atoning blood of Christ only and will ultimately go to heaven. Good works naturally follow this "born again" state but have nothing to do with actually being saved.
"Does that mean Baptists don't believe in good works? Quite the contrary," says Elliff. "In terms of overseas (humanitarian) relief work, we're in forefront of all religions. We believe Baptists' lifestyle reflects the faith within them. We don't believe any individual can accumulate enough good works and thereby make himself worthy of eternal life. If we could do it on our own, we would not use the term salvation.
"When you refer to someone who is `saved' - using scriptural terminology - that indicates the necessity of an outside agent rescuing you from an environment that would otherwise destroy you."
Elliff's comments help illustrate how Southern Baptist leaders have gone out of their way during the past year to draw definite distinctions between their beliefs and those of the Latter-day Saints. Yet much of what Utahns will see and hear as Southern Baptist messengers share their faith will have a familiar ring.
Terms like salvation, repentance, faith, grace, priesthood, heaven, hell, righteousness and gospel - not to mention God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit - have distinct and very different meanings for Latter-day Saints than they do for Southern Baptists.
In preparing their messengers to "witness" in predominantly LDS Utah, Southern Baptist leaders have outlined the theological distinctions in minute detail, using such tools as "The Mormon Puzzle," a video produced by SBC leadership to outline the differences. Latter-day Saints in Utah, on the whole, have not had such training in how Southern Baptists define such terms.
Yet while the two groups differ markedly in their theological views, when it comes to daily living, there are definite similarities. Feeling a responsibility to share their own gospel message is just one such case.
Southern Baptists on the whole frown on female pastors, though their organizational structure allows for them. Latter-day Saints give the priesthood only to men. Black members of the LDS Church were allowed to hold the priesthood after a revelation to President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. Southern Baptists, in 1995, issued a formal apology for past racism. Historically, the Southern Baptist Convention had been predominately white. In fact, it was founded in 1845, after a Southern slaveholder wanted to serve as a missionary and was rejected. Southern Baptists then split off from a larger Baptist denomination.
Though many Utahns may not realize it, Southern Baptists are among those at the forefront of state and national political efforts to oppose abortion, gambling, gay rights, assisted suicide, euthanasia and drug and alcohol abuse.
They lobby in favor of conservative political measures that seek to protect society and the family from degrading media influences. Their boycott against Disney rises out of their disgust with the company's ever-more-liberal positions in its films and sponsorhip of "Gay Days" at its theme parks, traditionally targeted toward families.
Southern Baptists carry huge political clout and lend leadership to common efforts among Evangelical Christians in such groups as the Religious Right and the Moral Majority.
As part of their Salt Lake convention, Southern Baptists will consider adding a statement on the traditional family to their "Baptist Faith and Message," which outlines the beliefs with which most members agree. (See accompanying story.)
The proposal reflects yet another common concern between Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptists. For all of their differences, the two groups just may find in the coming days that they have more in common than they thought.