After a forced year off from in-person celebrations of our Lord’s triumphant resurrection, Christian congregations worldwide rejoiced to once again gather on Easter Sunday.
What did your church emphasize during its Easter service? Mine focused on the completed work of Christ for us, the “DONE” of the gospel, and the comfort it brings for life and eternity. The theme of my pastor’s sermon was “Hope is ALIVE!”
This year, as happens every few years, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints DID NOT gather for Easter Sunday services. The reason for their staying home this year was not Covid-19-related but rather General Conference-required.
What did the LDS church and its leaders emphasize during their Easter weekend talks? NOT a Hope in Christ and Christ alone focus on DONE, but a focus on the church, commandments, commitments, the United States Constitution, doing, and deeds, all without room for doubts.
In this April 2021 General Conference reaction, I won’t summarize or address each of the conference talks individually but will respond to the conference as a whole.
As I did with the October 2020 General Conference and plan for future General Conferences, I will provide reflections, contemplations, and a “What does this mean for our witnessing?” summary based on three primary themes that stuck out to me. I know there were many more themes and topics, and I would love to hear your takeaways. Please share them by email or in the comments section below.
Where, When, & What Took Place
On Saturday, April 3, and Sunday, April 4, 2021, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints held its 191st Annual General Conference. For the third consecutive conference, this bi-annual event, typically attended by tens of thousands in person, was hosted as a virtual-only event watched by millions. Only the speakers, leadership, and support staff appeared live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Although many speakers gave talks live from the main stage, a significant number prerecorded their talks. All of the music was prerecorded from past conferences or small groups performing during the Coronavirus time.
Unlike the October 2020 General Conference, which was doctrine heavy with a substantial focus on spiritual “preparation” and “progress” “step-by-step” on “the plan of salvation,” the April 2021 General Conference was focused more on the church and its member’s deeds as “an every growing testimony.”
A “this is who we are as the LDS Church and individual members,” “this is what we have done as a church and as members during the pandemic,” and “this is what we need to do and be” now spotlight was paramount. Topics covered included everything from “the gathering of Israel,” cyberbullying, and pornography to the Constitution, Rwandan Genocide, and abortion/adoption. Again, although there were many interesting threads to pull at, the three themes that stuck out to me most were:
- Don’t Doubt the Church, See Its Strength
- Embrace Unity and a Call for Reconciliation
- Behold, the Growing International Influence of the LDS Church
Don’t Doubt the LDS Church, See Its Strength in its Doings and Deeds
In 2020, although many wards ceased in-person sacrament meetings and temples worldwide were closed, the LDS church and its members were not sitting idle. Even though the statistical numbers for missionaries, baptisms, and coverts were way down in 2020, the church used the year of the Coronavirus to ramp up much of its technological and media infrastructure and plant its stakes deeper in strongholds old and new. We’ll cover more about this less visible global growth in the final reaction section.
In his “Welcome Message,” President Russel M. Nelson underscored how the church has continued to find direction and do good deeds during these problematic days saying, “Some lessons that I knew before have been written on my heart in new and instructive ways. The Lord directs the affairs of his church; he has executed the hastening of his work — even during a global pandemic.”
Nelson went on to say, “The strength of the church lies in the efforts and ever-growing testimonies of its members,” which “are cultivated in the home” and carried out in communities around the world. He warned members to deal with their doubts about the church by listening to the church, not dissenters. His encouragement was to observe the church and its strength to find strength for one’s testimony.
“See the Church’s Strength and be Strong.”
This “See the church’s strength to know its true” idea that has been a mantra of Russel Nelson’s presidency is something many Mormons are buying into wholeheartedly. An LDS missionary recently said to me, “Even if I might doubt some of the church’s teaching and some of what the prophets have said or done, I know the church is true because of all the good it is doing in the world and people’s lives. It couldn’t be a false church because it is so successful.”
Not surprisingly, in keeping with this “see the strength” theme, supplemental General Conference content exhibited how the church and its members were not just “telling” their testimonies but “showing” them. In several video segments aired between the Saturday morning and afternoon sessions, members of the church saw how the church and its members have been as busy as bees over the past year. The LDS church’s humanitarian efforts and its members stateside and worldwide were significant, startling, and even somewhat shaming of true believers as to their scope and substance.
In the world’s eyes, the LDS church does appear strong, but does strength always mean truth?
How are we to deal with the apparent visible successes/strength of the LDS church in our witnessing?
Start thinking about that question and possible answers. I will come back to that question with some thoughts after reflecting upon two additional interconnected themes.
The documentary-style videos and interviews that highlighted the “strong” partnerships between the LDS church and other sacred and secular organizations also highlighted a second April 2021 General Conference theme, a call for “unity” and “reconciliation” among members and non-members across congregations, communities, cultures, and continents.
Heed the Call for Unity and Reconciliation
The between-session “living testimonies” pieces included a compelling story about a member of the “Black 14” and his reconciliation and recent partnership with the LDS church. The video explained how the “Black 14” football players from the 1969 University of Wyoming football team spoke out against and planned protests about racial injustice, including restrictions on the priesthood. Leading up to their game against BYU, the U of Wyoming dismissed the 14 black “trouble maker” players from the team, and the whole event blew up for the U of Wyoming, BYU, and the Mormon church.
Now, years later, because of the “living testimonies” of church members and the willingness to take simple steps, reconciliation has been taken place between several members of the “Black 14” and the LDS church” Additionally, one member of the “Black 14” is partnering with the LDS church to carry out humanitarian aid efforts that have resulted in tens of thousands of individuals being served.
Other highly produced segments showed the LDS church and its members working with and supporting long rejected and ridiculed Native American communities in Utah and providing food and supplies to cultures and communities worldwide. These emotional stories of unity were very compelling.
A Kinder & Friendly Church
Building on the theme of “unity and reconciliation,” in his talk, “Hearts Knit Together,” Elder Gary E. Stevenson echoed the videos’ sentiments, stressing that “kindness is a fundamental, healing principle of the gospel.” He explained, “The Lord expects [Latter-day Saints] to teach that inclusion is a positive means towards unity, and that exclusion leads to division.” Stevenson concluded that the church members must “teach Christlike behavior to the rising generation in what we say and how we act. It is especially important as we observe a marked societal shift towards division in politics, social class, and nearly every other man-made distinction.”
Stevenson’s words are again striking and at the same sobering to Christian ears. What he said is true, but at the same time not, because the LDS church and its gospel are FALSE.
Building on Stevenson’s words, in his talk, “Hope in Christ,” President Russel M. Ballard encouraged LDS members to make special in-reach efforts in welcoming and uniting with singles in the church, both those who have never married as well as those widowed. Ballard urged, “The gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to unite us. We are ultimately more alike than we are different. As members of God’s family, we are truly brothers and sisters.”
Again, if the LDS gospel were the true gospel, Ballard’s encouragement to ministry to singles would be exemplary. The true gospel of Jesus Christ does have the power to unite us; the Mormon gospel ultimately does not.
Challenging Things to See
Once again, we must wrestle with the question, “How can a church that looks so strong and appears in some significant ways so Christlike not be the true or at least part of the true church?” (I will eventually provide some answers.)
The amount of humanitarian aid the LDS church accomplished this past year because of its “kindness” and “unity” is truly astounding. In a sense, it is also aggravating and challenging because it makes the LDS church look like such a strong entity and one which is at least from its well-marketed perspective more united and in-reach and outreach-focused than most Christian denominations.
In a year marked by strife, division, and calls for reconciliation, it is challenging to see the false church that calls itself the true church, at times taking more significant steps towards reconciliation and unity than true churches. Another challenging thing to see is how the LDS church has doubled and redoubled its outreach efforts to spread its enticing gospel globally.
The Growing International Influence of the LDS Church
In 2020, although the LDS church’s statistical growth was down significantly both in the US and internationally, that doesn’t necessarily mean that either the national or international presence of the LDS church was damaged or diminished. Even though on the surface, it might appear to be a setback year for LDS local and global expansion, they have strengthened themselves for decades to come.
2020 was for the LDS church a get-ready-for-the-future kind of year.
If LDS efforts, during Holy Week 2021, with their internal and external communications and advertisements indicate the LDS church’s direction, they will be doing even more than ever to market themselves as the better, kinder, friendly, and authentic version of Christianity.
Like so many trendy exports, will the rest of the world embrace Mormonism as the best America has to offer? What is the true church to do?
Answers are coming soon, I promise.
The Changing Faces & Places of Mormonism
In addition to restructuring how their army of 18- and 19-year-old missionaries do their witnessing work, posturing mostly to online efforts, the LDS marketing gurus have integrated and intensified their print and digital in-reach and outreach communication efforts. With a new worldwide magazine, the Liahona launched in January, and extensive updates and enhancements to their websites, apps, and social media platforms, the LDS church has well-positioned itself to spread its poison to far corners of the globe for decades to come. Like, imperial colonizers, from its mecca in Salt Lake City, Mormonism’s modern masterminds have their sights set on world domination.
During the Sunday afternoon session, President Nelson announced the location of TWENTY new temples. Nine of those temples will be built in the US, primarily fortifying intermountain west strongholds. The eleven international builds will increase LDS entrenchments in Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, and Europe. The TWENTY new temples will bring the world total to 251 announced, under construction, or operating. With these temple additions, LDS leadership has made it easier for hundreds of thousands to be involved in the temple work, which conference talks past and present are deeming essential for all LDS members. These new temples also increase the visibility of Mormonism in cities and countries around the globe, in which it has placed significant stakes to claim territory for its treachery. Those 20 new LDS temples will cost hundreds of millions, and they will be visually impressive inside and out, but they will be devoid of the life and eternity they claim to embody.
A Glimpse Into Mormonism’s Future
As a mirror into the church’s future, Sunday morning’s session was distinctly international, reflecting the LDS church’s global gains. Each speaker hailed from a different country, and the music was performed by a variety of choirs from around the world singing compilation pieces in their native languages.
I have to admit that it was hard to see all of the multiethnic children’s smiling faces singing about a false American gospel. One of the songs, a favorite of primary students, “I Am a Child of God,” had a reoccurring refrain, “Teach me all that I must do to live with him someday.” That song, like all the others, shared during the conference, was filled with conditional statements, “Celestial glory shall be mine / if I can but endure,” and “If I but learn to do his will / I’ll live with him once more.”
Troubling Questions & Some Answers
How do we know that the LDS church that looks so strong and kind and united in its purpose and mission isn’t true? What’s the difference between the true church and a false one, the true gospel and a false one?
Even the most straightforward LDS childrens’ song shows and tells us.
It’s the difference between “do” and “done,” between “conditional” and “certainty.”
Joseph Smith and every false LDS prophet since him have preached a gospel of “do,” negating the gospel of “done” that Jesus preached and was. The LDS church is all about what it and its members must still do and be if they want to live with God (and be a god) one day. The true church is all about proclaiming what Christ has DONE to make us right with God now and for all eternity. It’s a certainty.
It’s the difference between human strength and God’s true strength hidden in perfect weakness.
On Good Friday, we behold the Lord of All Creation, hanging helpless, naked, and dying on a cross, paying for the sins of the world, for his bride the church, in all her ugly brokeness. Chad Bird explains this strength/weakness paradox well when he wrote of the messy, unimpressive church:
Christ shows up week after week to do his thing: he gives us himself. Over and over, more and more. He rides into our midst Palm Sunday style: on the back of simplicity, astride normality. His home is our home. And he makes our messes his messes. Into the void of hopeless hearts he speaks words pulsating with life. He strips off the filthy rags of prodigals, washes us with pure water, puts sandals on our feet, rings on our fingers, and robes bleached white in the blood of the Lamb.
All this he does camouflaged in the ordinary stuff of church. Hymns. Homilies. Baptisms. Prayers. Suppers. Nothing to write home about. Nothing really worthy of Instagram. But this is the way of the God of the cross. The Son who hung naked on that ugly tree, with nothing to attract our attention, and much to repel us, still walks into our assemblies in unassuming, even offensive, ways. He dares call us to repentance. He dares tell us we’re not enough. And, more surprising still, he dares to love us when we’re supremely unlovable.Chad Bird, God Loves Your Messy, Unimpressive Church
The true church exits where Christ’s Words and Deeds are declared.
Searching for the One True Church
Although it was Easter weekend and many of the April 2021 General Conference Sunday morning talks drew from biblical resurrection appearance texts, the comfort and certainty of the hope of eternal life in the resurrection of Christ were absent. As might be expected, hope was clouded and confused by a conditional gospel that finds its source of substance in sentimentality and sensationalism.
It was hard to watch the real tears induced by stories of individuals taking comfort in a conditional and uncertain gospel for spiritual resurrection and reunion. Those tears highlighted the necessity of proclaiming Christ to Mormons both in America and increasingly around the world.
Mormons are victims of a religion’s lies and deceits and trapped in a suffocating church, one that at first appears to give them everything they have ever dreamed of and more. Many are pulled into Mormonism’s clutches because the LDS church’s captivating beauty attracts them.
When Joseph Smith went looking for the true church, it was all around him but broken and bruised just as it is today. He was looking for unity and strength and instead found weakness and division.
The Church Broken, Yet Beautified in Christ
Today, as we observe the true church’s brokenness, we are ashamed but not surprised. As we survey the churches around us, consider the congregations in Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus to whom Paul wrote such harsh letters just a few decades after the ascension of Christ.
Filled with weakness and sin, those early Christian churches clung to the only hope they had and were made beautiful through Christ. We trust this same Savior to wash away our failures and shame to present us as his perfect bride.
On Easter weekend, the LDS church focused on how the church and its members can make themselves beautiful, but the only one that can do that necessary beautifying is Christ. Talking about the relationship between human brides and grooms in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the beautiful relationship between Christ the great groom and his bride the church.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-28)
A beautiful church doesn’t come about by the doings and deeds of the church.
The church is beautified because of and through Christ and Christ alone.
Don’t let the gold, good deeds, or gospel of the false Mormon church convince you otherwise.
What does this all mean for our witnessing?
Go in True Strength
As you witness to your LDS friends and family, you do so, not with a resume of strength and man-manufactured beauty; instead, you go with the strength of God’s unconditional promises connected to the power of the Holy Spirit. And as you go, you won’t proclaim a church or about Christians and their deeds; you will proclaim Christ crucified and risen for sinners like you and the rest of the church.
Don’t Let Shining Temples Discourage You
Last month, on a visit to Utah, well before the rising of the sun, I headed out on a 20-mile training run. The path I chose led me up onto a hillside above Draper with Salt Lake City and much of the valley in my field of view. From my various vantage points during the run, I saw four LDS temples glowing in the darkness and dozens and dozens of white stakehouse spires piercing the dawn. It was overwhelming to see those strategically planted “stakes” so boldly claiming captured territory, those temples so brazenly announcing, “This valley is ours.”
For a moment, discouraged by this demonic display, I started to lose hope. In my sorrow, suddenly, I stumbled, but then I looked up and saw right before my eyes a solitary cross hiding on a tiny Christian church, humbly tucked away on the hillside.
That cross, the darkness, and all that I was thinking about caused me to remember in reverse verse order one of my favorite hymns, “Abide with Me.” There in that valley, which had caused me to be so blue, I started singing as loud as my labored lungs would allow.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me
Abide with me, abide with me
As I sang, I slowly made my way back towards the hotel. The sun finally rose, and the whole valley filled with light, glorious, life-giving light. The temples and steples were still there. But now, with the cross and sun/Son emboldening my eyes, I saw differently. My focus was drawn to the tens of thousands of homes, belonging to those living in the darkness of unbelief, waiting to be immersed in the light of life.
No longer discouraged, I was re-energized to go and tell, seek the lost, and share Jesus with an anthem ringing in my ears, “Christ is the Light of the World, the Light no darkness can overcome.” On Easter, Jesus, the perfect Son of God, rose victorious. Sin, death, and satan are defied and defeated. Hope is ALIVE.
Thanks for taking the time to work through this material with me. Again, I look forward to reading your thoughts on April 2021 General Conference. Please send me an email or add your thoughts to the comments below.