I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.
A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism
I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.
First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:
Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”
“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”
The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”
I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.
Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.
But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.
The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.
Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.
“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”
People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:
Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.
I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)
I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.
Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:
While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”
“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”
I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.
But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.
In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.
Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.
Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.
“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”
I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.
None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.