Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 4
If you’re an evangelical Christian about to make Utah your home, you’d better like small churches — very small. In a state of 1.7 million people, there are less than 20,000 evangelical Christians; the rest are mostly Mormon — a veritable mission field within our own borders. The average church membership is only thirty people.
What you’ll probably miss greatly are churches with strong, capable leadership — churches which boldly but lovingly proclaim the gospel from a solid biblical base. If you miss it badly enough, you need to give Ken Mulholland (RTS ’77) a call. Ken is president and co-founder of the Utah Institute for Biblical Studies, a school dedicated to the idea that Utah evangelical churches can grow and become strong by training their laymen to become leaders. In fact, UIBS is the only school in the entire state providing college-level Bible instruction for laymen.
“One of the greatest problems out here is that most churches are pathetically weak,” explains Ken. “Many mainline churches have a feeble biblical base. On the other hand, numerous evangelical congregations are fortress churches waiting for the Second Coming or just servicing people passing through Utah.”
“Actually, for over one hundred years the Christian churches in Utah have struggled. I don’t think this means that the church in Utah is inherently weaker than the church in other parts of the world. The church around the world grows in much more hostile environments than Utah. I believe the problem lies in wrong thinking.”
“Most congregations in Utah are pastor-centered,” continues Ken. “They place terrific expectations and burdens on him. Consequently, the average stay of most pastors is short. With these short-term ministries, it is no wonder our churches are weak and ineffectual.”
Ken believes the solution lies in training laymen in the local churches to use their spiritual gifts to become effective leaders in their churches and to provide needed stability. The entire ministry of UIBS exists to provide this biblical and practical education for the laity.
The aim of the Institute is to train strong leaders, who will then have an impact on the Mormon community. This aim is crystallized in its purpose: to equip Christians to think for themselves from a biblical framework, to grow in devotion to Jesus Christ, and to serve the Lord effectively in their local churches. The Institute has four distinct educational goals: to teach the Bible, to teach ministry skills, to encourage spiritual growth, and to encourage a Christ-centered attitude. Courses emphasize practical hands-on training, and students are encouraged to apply what they learn in real-life situations.
Since its beginning in 1984, over 260 students from twenty denominations have enrolled in UIBS; attendance stands at about forty-five per quarter. In the spring of 1988, the first two graduates received their diplomas.
Classes meet two and one-half hours a week for ten weeks. Over thirty courses are offered each academic year. Noted theologian J.I. Packer has lectured at the Institute, and Sandra Tanner, well-known Christian apologist to Mormons, is a regular faculty member.
Students represent a broad cross-section of the population; professionals, homemakers, blue collar workers, grandparents, young people, and many ex-Mormons all study together at the school.
Already, more mature Christian leaders are taking newly acquired knowledge back to their congregations and creating much more healthy, biblically-oriented environments in their churches and they are becoming magnets.
“In Salt Lake City, the best evangelism is taking place in two churches, and we have students from them both,” relates Ken happily. “Each of these churches has an excellent worship service; the Bible is faithfully taught, but there is no strong emphasis on converting Mormons. These churches simply declare Jesus and the gospel. They are warm, loving fellowships, and they are growing phenomenally.”
Whom are they attracting? First, many non-Mormons with no religious background — a significant number exist in Utah. They are open because religion is a hot topic; being confronted on all sides by Mormons literally forces people to take stock of what they really “do• believe.
Many Mormons are also attending. Why? Because they are finding something that they have not been getting at the Mormon church–the gospel. They are not only becoming Christians, but they are also becoming part of the Christian community and bringing their families and friends to church.
A NEW APPROACH TO MORMON EVANGELISM
The fact that so many Mormons are being drawn to warm, relationship-oriented, gospel-preaching churches bears out what Ken has felt for a long time — Mormons do not respond to direct evangelism, that is, an attempt to argue them into the kingdom. Instead, they are attracted to a healthy Christian community where people talk about their walk with the Lord and their struggles with the Christian life. They are attracted by the goodness of the gospel. Mormons don’t have a gospel, and whether they know it or not, the Christian gospel sounds good to them.
Ken is elated that so many Mormons are responding because he knows that many are open to the gospel. Not only are many non-practicing Mormons receptive, but there are also those who have become disenchanted with the LDS (Latter Day Saints) church. The disenchanted might have become Christians, but, because of their previous experience, are bitter toward the Mormon church and generally shun organized religion.
“Ironically,” explains Ken, “most evangelicals use the approach of cold reason with Mormons, and it doesn’t work because a Mormon’s faith is based on feelings and subjective experiences — truth is a ‘burning in the bosom.’ Consequently, using the confrontational approach to show them that their faith is non-biblical and non-rational is very frustrating. You both are speaking different languages.”
“Realizing this, I finally decided to tell stories, to recount my own struggles, to talk about the history of the church. I manage to bring some Scripture into the conversation and talk of how God used it in my life. I’m giving them the Word of God, but I’m wrapping it up in life stories, and they love to hear it. I am showing them that Christians have experiences, too, but they are based on the Word of God, not on a free-floating mystical experience.”
SEEING THE NEED
Ken’s burden for Utah goes back many years. When he came to the state in 1977 as an Intervarsity staff worker, his vision was to train young Christian leaders for the Utah church. He did train them, but they kept leaving the state, many for the foreign mission field (see inset).
Thus, he was back to the drawing board to evangelize Utah. In 1981 he and some friends began praying seriously that God would move. That same year, they started a small extension program in Logan and Salt Lake City using video tapes to gauge interest in Bible teaching. People were so hungry for biblical teaching that they were paying $100 each just to come and watch a handful of videos.
But in the summer of 1982, just as it seemed that a program might gel, Ken realized he was burned out on ministry and enrolled at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, to work on a master’s degree in theology under J.I. Packer. The step proved to be a good one, and Ken enjoyed a year and a half of spiritual refreshment.
He returned to Utah in January, 1984, and still found tremendous interest in a school from people who were already involved in ministry in local churches.
“But we knew if we were going to do anything really serious we had to be in Salt Lake City where the action was,” says Ken. “In 1984 I approached some pastors in Salt Lake, and they thought I was crazy. Back in Logan I said, ‘Lord, if it’s your idea, make the pastors in Salt Lake contact me.’ About two weeks later a friend of mine asked me to talk to the Evangelical Ministerial Association. They had noted that there was no place for people in their churches to get any advanced biblical education. I shared my idea, and they took the ball and ran with it.”
Three months later the school had a statement of faith and a purpose, but no faculty, no facilities, and no money. But God was gracious; extremely gifted professors with strong academic backgrounds, deep commitments to Jesus Christ, and active involvement in ministry began volunteering to teach part-time with no pay. A local church agreed to share space with UIBS for the first year. And an amazing eighty students showed up for the first registration.
DIXIE CUPS OR DAMS?
UIBS has come a long way. From a vision and a starting budget of $600, it has grown to a vital ministry with a $60,000 budget in 1989. Although times have been lean for most of the Institute’s life, no one has ever been turned away for lack of ability to pay.
The big goals now are to acquire permanent facilities, hire a full-time administrator, increase the operating budget, pay the part-time faculty, and eventually have a full-time faculty. Ultimately, one of Ken’s dreams is to add a seminary with graduate-level courses.
There is still much foundational work to be done, and often it seems that little is being accomplished. Yet, Ken knows that taking the time to build a firm base will reap benefits in the long run.
“This is dry country out here. If you want water, you can scurry around filling Dixie cups during a spring run-off and try to store water for the year. Or you can build dams, which involves a lot of capital outlay and heavy-duty work; in the short run, it doesn’t look like anybody will get any water.”
“At the Institute, we are trying to do the heavy spadework no one has done in order to make this place really blossom into something spiritual. Everybody wants a quick fix, but the real solution is going to take a lot of time, a lot of sweat, and a lot of prayer.”
Ken Mulholland: A Heart for the Utah Church
Ken Mulholland came to Utah for the first time in 1976 during his seminary days, but God had to drag him there. Although he was fascinated by cults and interested in studying them as a hobby, he certainly did not want to go live among their followers. So, when his summer seminary job with Christian Ministry in the National Parks actually placed him in a Utah park, his feet grew extremely cold.
“I’d never been any farther west than Texas,” remembers Ken. “The closer I came to Utah, the more depressed I became. When I arrived in the state, I was really downcast. But after a few weeks, I found Mormons weren’t the monsters I thought them to be. By the end of the summer, I was convinced that Utah was one of the greatest mission fields of North America.”
He still is convinced. And for the last twelve years, the thirty-seven-year-old Mississippi native has made it his personal business to strengthen the church in Utah.
Ken’s ministry and witness is so powerful, perhaps, because he has had to work through a lot of confusion and misunderstanding in his own faith. Although brought up in a Christian home, his early years were unstable. He joined the church when he was about twelve — so that he could vote on the deacons. “I thought it was neat that a little kid could cancel out the vote of an adult,” Ken remembers ruefully.
In high school he was a member of the debate club, a quasi-fraternity of guys who walked on the wild side. While Ken worked hard on debate and enjoyed the intellectual challenges, he also enjoyed the social life of the group, which included a lot of drinking. In 1970, he entered the University of Mississippi for three reasons: “I didn’t want to work, I wanted to be in a fraternity, and I wanted to go to football games.”
“It was in my first year of college that I became aware of the meaningless of my life,” says Ken. “I had absolutely no direction. My girlfriend’s mother was a Christian, and she challenged me on some of the blasphemous things I said around her. So, I decided to read the New Testament; then I could say with integrity that I did not believe it. I hated the gospel and loathed Christians; I thought they were hypocritical.”
However, while reading the gospels, Ken was arrested by the person of Jesus. “I had always thought of Jesus as a milquetoast,” says Ken. “Yet, I was floored by His authority in the Bible. I began to be intrigued by Him, but He also frightened me.”
And so began Ken’s search for the meaning of faith. He attended many churches, but instead of finding someone to explain to him what it meant to have faith, he heard only platitudes. Finally, he confessed Christ after a campus evangelistic meeting.
“I was very depressed when I went into the meeting because I did not know whether I was a Christian or not,” Ken recalls. “I was very depressed after I left because then I knew I was a Christian and that my lifestyle was going to have to be different. The changes came, but not overnight.”
Overall, for the next three years, his Christian walk was unstable, mainly due to his inability to fellowship with other believers and grow in faith. This isolation made it impossible for him to work out his beliefs; consequently, he skated dangerously close to some cults.
His dislike for Christians caused him to shun any organized church or para-church activities. An Intervarsity campus worker tried to involve him, but Ken would have nothing to do with him. Ironically, Ken worked with Intervarsity for five years after seminary!
Even though he was not spending time with other Christians, he read his Bible diligently. But then he would indulge in a wild streak and be guilt-ridden for days.
“I was zealous, though unbalanced,” says Ken. “Once I gathered together a group of about sixty guys in the fraternity house for a Bible study and managed to kill it off in three weeks because of my zany beliefs.”
After college, Ken felt God calling him to seminary, but he didn’t know where to go. Several people suggested RTS, but in his rebellious state, Ken would not listen. Besides, he didn’t know anything about theology. Yet, after seeing an ad for summer Greek at RTS, he decided to try it, even though he had flunked Spanish in high school.
“I figured I would go for the summer,” says Ken, “and if this were the Lord’s will, He would open the door for me to stay. If not, then I had not lost much time.”
At RTS God used professors and friends to set Ken’s life solidly on course for Him. Surrounded by friends who lovingly discipled him, for the first time in his Christian life Ken became a stable believer. Spiritually and intellectually, he grew rapidly.
After graduation, Ken felt God’s call to campus ministry and joined the staff of Intervarsity. By this time he had developed a real desire to influence the state of Utah for the gospel. He reasoned he could do this most effectively by training college leaders who would go back to their towns and be stalwarts for the gospel. But it did not work out that way.
“I was given two campuses, Utah State in Logan and Idaho State in Pocatello, Idaho, neither of which had an active group,” remembers Ken. “Only two other Intervarsity staffers worked in Utah. In essence, I was supposed to start something I had never seen. Yet, when I left five years later, there were some solid groups from which students had scattered in ministry all over the world.”
“While I was glad they entered missions, I was distressed. Everyone I had trained was leaving Utah! That’s when I knew we had to form a school for indigenous laypeople in Utah.”
And now, with courage and vision, he has spearheaded the movement to bring vibrant Christianity to Utah. All of us should be praying that this unique venture might have God’s greatest blessing.