When Paul Robie moved to Utah as a church planter in 1998 he had no idea that in the 20 years that followed the church he planted would grow to encompass six campuses in five locations with more than 3,200 attenders.
What Robie did have was a sense of urgency for reaching Mormons with the gospel.
“I had developed a holy discontent for the situation in Utah, where there were very few churches that were reaching out to LDS (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) people, and I was basically deciding that that was an unacceptable situation,” Robie says. “I thought I could actually do something about that.”
That passion remains today, and South Mountain Community Church (SMCC), a multisite church which Robie serves as lead pastor, is growing steadily at a rate of about 150 people per year in a state where only 1.5 percent of people are evangelical, he says.
SMCC campuses are light in the darkness
Five of SMCC’s campuses are located in Salt Lake and Utah counties within 30 miles of each other, while St. George is 300 miles from Salt Lake City in southwest Utah.
Approximately 1.5 million people live in the Salt Lake Valley, where Robie estimates there are fewer than 20 churches with an attendance of more than 200.
In Utah County, where SMCC Lehi is located, only three self-supporting churches exist, and fewer than 1 percent of the county’s more than half a million people are evangelical, Robie says.
SMCC Lehi campus pastor Eric Nelson says on any given Sunday, 50 percent of attendees come from an LDS background. Utah County, which is home to BYU and the Missionary Training Center, is about 90 percent LDS.
“There are very few churches in Utah County that are growing and healthy,” Nelson says. “Two years ago we started this campus, and we can say we are growing and healthy.”
Ministry in a highly religious community is challenging. Utah has the highest teen suicide rate in the U.S., double the next state per capita, Robie says. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the first leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 in Utah. Utah also has the highest antidepressant drug use in the U.S.
“On the outside, people are smiling, and they’re super friendly, but you scratch the surface and you’ll see that there’s a whole lot of people that are very unhappy,” Robie says. “Because that’s what religion does to you. It just weighs you down.”
Many people have lost all trust in the church.
“The Mormon church is hemorrhaging people at a rate that is unprecedented in their history, so that’s the good news,” Robie says. “But usually those people go to some form of atheism because they’ve lost any kind of trust that anybody’s going to tell them the truth.”
SMCC services designed to reach Mormons
Robie began to consider church planting while serving as an associate pastor at Laurelglen Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif. In March 1998, Robie, his wife Jini and their two sons moved to Draper, Utah, a town of 28,000 people without any Protestant churches.
As the Robies met people, they started a home Bible study, then another, then invited youth and music pastor Mike Bell to join the staff. The church held its grand opening in October 1998 with 50 people in attendance.
With continued growth, SMCC outgrew its 2,000-square foot meeting space, expanding to an 8,000-square foot warehouse. Expansion happened twice more to incorporate an additional 15,000 square feet in the adjoining units.
Robie attributes SMCC’s early success in reaching Mormons to being well-supported and tailoring the message to a specific audience.
“From Day 1, our goal was to be the first church that came to anyone’s mind when their Mormon friend, neighbor or coworker agreed to give a Protestant church a try, leaving Mormonism,” Robie says. “So we tailor-made our services, much like a missionary would try to understand the culture that they were entering into and adapt their forms and approach to that culture.”
Robie says SMCC was intentional about ensuring an LDS person would understand everything he or she heard at church and find it hopeful and helpful. The church chose not to talk about Mormonism, instead critiquing and correcting LDS theology without ever naming it, using the term “religion” instead.
“A lot of churches, in order to encourage an ‘us versus them’ mentality, openly criticize Mormon leaders and the Book of Mormon and Mormon theology on Sunday morning,” Robie says. “We didn’t do that.”
The Bible is central to SMCC’s teaching.
“In the Mormon church, their prophet is their authority, the scriptures are not,” Robie says. “So we want to highlight the contrast between us and Mormonism where we all submit to the Bible instead of to a prophet.”
Because LDS people are wary of top-down denominations, SMCC describes itself as a nondenominational Christian church with a voluntary affiliation with the Mennonite Brethren, Robie says, adding that Mennonite Brethren function with more autonomy as a conference of churches built on a familial model.
Robie says SMCC never assumed the audience had Bible knowledge, explaining every term and biblical figure presented.
“We want people walking out on Sunday going, ‘That was really helpful. I am so glad I came. It was interesting, and I don’t feel kicked in the gut like I do every time I go to the Mormon church,’” he says.
These strategies began to bear fruit, and as LDS people began coming to SMCC, they in turn reached out to their LDS friends.
“I think the first year we baptized 25 people and probably 20 of those were LDS,” Robie says. “So right away, we had success at reaching Mormons, and so the philosophy of ministry really did pay off.”
The SMCC Way provides consistent strategy
Robie says he did not set out to create a multi-site church. It was an idea that came later, after SMCC planted Shadow Mountain Church in West Jordan in 2003.
Over time, Shadow Mountain—an autonomous church without covenantal obligation to SMCC—strayed from SMCC’s philosophy of ministry, which Robie says resulted in a lack of effectiveness in reaching LDS people and was disheartening given the investment. This caused SMCC to rethink its strategy for growth.
“At that point, we decided that’s not what we want to do anymore,” Robie says. “We want to make sure that everything we invest in actually follows the SMCC Way in order to maximize results and get a better return on our investment.”
The SMCC Way, Robie says, is a document clearly defining SMCC’s mission, target and strategic initiatives, which every campus pastor signs and agrees to follow.
With a new vision in place, the initial SMCC—which is now the Draper campus—began birthing new sites, beginning in South Jordan in 2006; then St. George—formerly The Springs Church with which SMCC had a loose alliance—in 2009; then an international campus (SMCC Campus Internacional) that shares the Draper facility. Draper moved into a 42,000-square foot facility in 2012.
In 2015, Shadow Mountain returned as a campus and was renamed SMCC West Jordan, and finally, Lehi was birthed later that year.
“We probably put about $2 million into these campuses that we raised internally,” Robie says, adding that USMB played a partnership role as well. “Both U.S. and Pacific District Conference, I think, have participated in some way in all of those campuses. They’ve been partners in each one of those, including Shadow Mountain, our original daughter church.”
MB Foundation has also partnered with SMCC in three campus building projects.
Each location has a campus pastor: Rick Henderson in Draper, Kile Baker in West Jordan, Tom Mertz in St. George, Nelson in Lehi, Rob Ryerson in South Jordan and Alberto Lopez at the international campus.
Robie provides oversight as well as leads the Campus Support Team, which provides centralized bookkeeping, human resources, web, graphic arts and social media for all campuses. To maintain a sense of unity, updates are given across campuses.
“We try to celebrate wins across all campuses,” Robie says. “That’s really kind of a neat and fun aspect of being multisite. You feel like you’re part of something bigger than just your own deal.”
SMCC values help to create a safe place
SMCC’s values, as listed at www.smccutah.org are: members value and serve the guests, everyone can belong before they believe, maturity is measured by how well we love God and others, we trust the process in which God changes us from the inside out, and the truth of the Bible is explained in a helpful and hopeful way.
In a recent survey, Robie says 23 percent of people attending the Draper campus identified as not yet baptized believers in Jesus.
Rick Henderson, Draper campus pastor, says SMCC’s values create a culture that lets people breathe.
“It makes it safe to ask questions and explore at their own pace,” Henderson says. “We’ve discovered that a switch flips in people. Their entire lives they went to church because they had to. Now, they come because they want to.”
Theological confusion is a common theme among LDS attenders. In order to win influence with a Mormon friend or family member, a person must be able to give helpful answers to tough questions such as “Why do you believe in the Trinity?” “Why would you trust the Bible?” and “Why do you obey if everything is given to you by grace?”
“Mormon theology uses the same terminology that we use,” Henderson says. “They just have different definitions. This requires patience and precision whenever we preach or even engage in conversation.”
Nelson says the questions he hears most are both cultural and theological. Mormons may question why the church serves coffee or if pastors and staff are paid. Theological questions typically regard the deity of Christ, the triune nature of God, the authority of the Bible and if people are married in heaven.
Another challenge is facing the reality that if a person leaves the Mormon church, he or she is walking away from their community and will be treated differently because of it, Henderson says.
“In Mormonism, the only people who go to hell are the people who apostatize,” Henderson says. “Every first-time Mormon visitor carries the weight, ‘If I’m wrong about this, I’m condemning myself to hell.’ This is not a casual transition. There is a world of hurt, anxiety and anger that is commonly churning inside of each guest.”
Looking ahead to continued growth
Citing an elder report, Robie says SMCC had an average weekly attendance of 3,204 people in January 2018. The church continues to grow steadily. Last year, church giving grew by about 18 percent over the year before, Robie says.
Another opportunity for growth came on Jan. 30, when Robie, Henderson and four former Mormons participated in a Mormon Stories interview at SMCC Draper with host, John Dehlin, a current agnostic who was excommunicated from the LDS Church two years ago. Dehlin’s podcast reaches thousands, Henderson says, and has resulted in new visitors to SMCC every Sunday since.
In light of continued growth, Robie requests prayer for the health of the church and a unified staff.
“I don’t think there’s anything about the Mormon church that will stop us from growing,” he says. “If we stop growing, it’s because we stopped ourselves, we’ve done something stupid. I think that as long as we’re faithful to steward the gifts that God has given us and are faithful with the people that God entrusts to us, I think we’ll always be growing. Always, my prayer is that we stay spiritually, emotionally and relationally healthy.”
The 2018 USMB National Pastors’ Conference and Convention will be held July 24-28 in Salt Lake City. During the convention, Paul Robie will present a workshop on Mormon culture, beliefs and practices. MB Foundation is sponsoring a tour of SMCC campuses that will also outline the church’s ministry and will include a stop at Temple Square to better understand Mormon culture.