Mormons and Baptists compete for converts

August 6, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

Jake Pulsipher’s first day as a working missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began at 6:30 a.m. with prayer and exercise, followed by breakfast and study.

Then he put on a black suit, white shirt, and red tie, along with his official name tag, and headed out to knock on doors and tell people about Jesus. In doing so, he became the latest of 20,000 Mormon missionaries in the United States.

In Knoxville, Tenn., Southern Baptists Kevin and Kristi Cabe quit their jobs and sold their cars and most of their belongings. They’re moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., where they’ll spend their two years as two of the 4,000 who the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board placed nationwide.

Every year, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spend tens of millions of dollars to spread their takes on Christianity. They rely heavily on thousands of faithful volunteers willing to spread out across the country to share their faith.

The two groups are among the four largest denominations in the United States ― Southern Baptists are second and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fourth, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches from the National Council of Churches. The Catholic Church is No. 1 and the United Methodist Church is No. 3.

They are also competitors for converts, says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“Methodists are not out knocking on doors. Mormons are,” he said.

For the Cabes, who are newlyweds, the decision to become missionaries started two years ago. Kevin Cabe was on an airport layover in Newark, N.J., returning from a mission trip to Poland. Instead of hanging out in the airport, he took a quick trip into New York and felt a calling to spread his faith there.

The Bay Ridge community that the Cabes will serve has 70,000 people and one Southern Baptist church. As a missionary, Kevin Cabe will help lead worship services and neighborhood outreach. His wife will work with children and women in the church.

“We are going to live on faith,” he said. “We believe God is going to provide.”

The Cabes are among the 1,037 volunteers of the Mission Service Corps. Most decide on their own where to go and what kind of work they will do.

The Mission Board, which has a $110 million annual budget, has been evolving in recent years. They’ve cut more than 100 staff from their headquarters in Alpharetta, Ga., and began spending less money in the South and more in the Northeast and Western U.S., where there are fewer Baptists.

The cuts allow more money to be spent on start-up churches. In 2011, the board spent 28 percent of the budget on new churches. That number went up to 42 percent for 2012 and eventually will be half of the budget.

Instead of the national office deciding where new churches go, Southern Baptists rely on local congregations to make those decisions.

Richard Bliese, associate professor of mission and president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., said most denominations used to plan their outreach and missionary work from a central headquarters. But they’ve found that approach doesn’t work for them anymore.

“It used to be that there were these three-ring binders and everyone did evangelism the same way,” he said.

The main exception is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For Mormon missionaries, from what they wear to where they will serve comes from the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City.

That gives Mormon missionaries tremendous brand recognition, said Elder David Evans, executive director of the missionary department.

Anyone who sees two young men in black suits walking down the street will likely think they are Mormon missionaries, Evans said. 

Evans said that Mormons’ mission work started with missionaries going door to door with copies of the Book of Mormon back in the 1800s. They still do that today, but also use modern technology. The church is currently running an “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign, featuring the stories of everyday church members. When someone responds to the ads, a text message is sent to a missionary, who then hand-delivers church materials.   

The Mormons’ missionary system also relies on thousands of young men and women who say yes to the call to become missionaries for two years at a time. Most are 19 or 20 years of age. Each of them works for free and pays $400 a month for housing and utilities while a missionary.

For some Mormons, the call comes later in life. William McKee, 57, is president of the church’s Nashville mission, where he oversees about 140 missionaries. McKee, who served a missionary in Sweden when he was 20, said coming to Nashville was an act of faith.  

“When the prophet calls, you go,” he said.

Bob Smietana writes for “USA Today.” He also reports for “The Tennessean” in Nashville.

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