Evangelical Questions: Is It True? How do you know?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about truth – and how you learn it. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Our scripture this week comes from John 7:15-17. Jesus has gone up to the temple to teach and we get this:
The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (NIV)
So, the question is: Do we approach gospel learning differently? Both groups, Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals are highly interested in gospel learning. And yet, we do seem to go about it in very different ways. We’re going to start with the question on a really practical level – what do the 2 groups do when they’re trying to engage in gospel learning, and then we’re going to look at the experiential level that Jesus is talking about in this section of scripture.
First, let me make an outsider’s observation. I’m new enough to being a Latter-day Saint that I can still see some things as an outsider. Both groups, Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints fret a lot on this topic. We both worry that people sitting in the pews don’t know their scriptures well enough, that the youth are uninterested in gospel learning, that things were better in a previous generation where more people were interested in studying. Lifeway Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptists frequently puts out studies showing the state of how frequently their people engage with scripture, and much hand-wringing ensues. Pew Research, which is not denominationally based, also regularly puts out studies on how much scripture study various groups do.
My observation is that people in both groups – Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints – fear that their people are not doing this enough and that others are doing it better. I don’t have a study to cite here, but my sense is that many comments get made in Latter-day Saint Sunday School about how we need to do better studying scripture. There might even be worries that Evangelicals do this much more frequently than Latter-day Saints do. And it might surprise you to know that Evangelicals look at Latter-day Saints and think we’re doing better. So what does the research say?
In a 2017 study, Lifeway Research noted that 49% of Evangelicals read a little bit of scripture every day. That’s pretty good and it clearly shows that they’re interested in gospel learning. The same study – done in 2017, so prior to the introduction of Come Follow Me – says that 77% of Latter-day Saints read a little bit of scripture every day. Now, this is survey research, so we’re taking people’s word for it that this is actually what they’re doing – and it’s true that there could be some inflation here. But it’s also safe to assume that if there is inflation on the Latter-day Saint responses there is also inflation on the Evangelical responses. This isn’t a “we win” conversation (in other words, you don’t get to use this information to be a jerk and lord it over your Evangelical friends) but it does show one view into how we both approach gospel learning. But it is just one view, so here are some others.
What Kind of Information
Another way to look at this question is to consider what kind of information the 2 groups are taking in – in other words, what forms the basis of their gospel learning? If you’re a Latter-day Saint the main things are probably: talks in Sacrament Meeting; Lessons in Sunday School/EQ/RS or youth classes; Seminary and Institute classes; General Conference talks, family or private scripture reading, Come Follow Me reading and the various podcasts about them, resources like FAIR, books on gospel topics, and maybe a few other things.
And Evangelicals have a fairly similar list. They listen to sermons in church; they have Sunday School and classes for youth; they don’t really have an equivalent to Seminary and Institute in the same way we do – what they call seminary is an academic graduate school program that most “normal” people don’t ever attend. I was a weirdo and went to Evangelical seminary and got a Masters in Divinity, but most Evangelicals don’t access that kind of learning. While they don’t have something to compare to General Conference talks like we do (where the words said are coming from the centralized authority of the church) they do have a wide range of various conferences they attend. And they have books, podcasts, and organizations that try to supplement and increase people’s learning.
Lectionary reading vs. spontaneous reading
And while both groups do a lot of gospel learning through scripture reading, the recent Come Follow Me change adds an interesting contrast. I’ve only been a Latter-day Saint since the invention of CFM, but my understanding is that prior to that the Sunday School curriculum followed roughly the same pattern (a year for OT, a year for NT, a year for BoM, and a year for PoGP) but that family or individual reading was based on need or preference of the individual family or individual who is reading. And this is roughly the system Evangelicals live in. Their churches set the topics/scriptures for their classes and groups, but they decide for themselves what to engage in for private scripture reading. Some churches do a corporate push toward something like, “We’re all going to read through the Psalms this summer.” But those are special initiatives and not the regular pattern.
Interestingly enough, the invention of Come Follow Me actually places Latter-day Saints in alignment with most of the rest of the Christian world outside of Evangelicals. You might not realize this but CFM is a Lectionary. What’s a lectionary? A lectionary is a set list of which scriptures are to be read during which weeks. The most commonly used one around the world is called The Revised Common Lectionary and is used by millions of Christians around the world. It runs on a 3-year cycle, compared to our CFM which runs on a 4-year cycle. CFM is also different because it includes some commentary, ideas for discussion, ideas for family and the like, but in essence, it’s a lectionary. Most Evangelicals would turn their noses up a bit at the idea of following a lectionary because they are fiercely independent and want to decide for themselves even down to the question of, “Which scripture should I read today?” There are pros and cons to that attitude, but that would be a significant difference in how we approach gospel learning.
Another way that both groups engage in learning the gospel is through listening to talks or sermons. And Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints are roughly in the same category here. The biggest difference is that Evangelicals usually have 1 person, or perhaps a small team of people, who are delivering sermons week after week. While Latter-day Saints spread that responsibility around to everyone. And Latter-day Saints you already know the kinds of content you hear in Sacrament meeting talks, so let’s look at what Evangelicals are preaching about.
In 2019 the Pew Research Center analyzed 50,000 sermons that were posted online from over 6,000 churches (Evangelical, Catholic, Mainline, and Historically Black). They compiled the data to look for trends. The average length for an Evangelical sermon was 39 minutes, which is roughly comparable to the total number of minutes that Latter-day Saints spend in Sacrament Meeting listening to talks. We’re probably under that by a bit, but not much. The researchers wondered what the distinctive things each group was talking about, and found that the unique things (this doesn’t mean the most common things – this means the things they’re talking about that others are not) Evangelicals talked about were 1) Eternal Hell 2) Losing salvation 3) Trespassing or sin. It’s a bleak list and we might be tempted to look only at the bleakness of it but on the upside, it does show that Evangelicals are thinking hard about these topics. Evangelical speakers also made far more references to other books in the Bible. They might be preaching a passage from Luke but will take care to show how that passage relates to or references other places in the Bible. Latter-day Saints have their own version of this – we just tend to make connections to modern-day talks more than other sections of scripture. Another trend was that the bigger the Evangelical church, the less likely they were to mention anything at all about the Old Testament. We might have some underlying feelings in common here when it comes to knowing how to talk about the Old Testament.
There are a lot of other practical level ways to think about this question, but I want to switch over to thinking about how gospel learning happens on the experiential level.
Service and Life
Similar to Latter-day Saints, Evangelicals talk a lot about learning gospel principles through serving others, serving their families, and serving God in a general sense. This seems to be a major way both groups are living out Jesus’, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”
Both groups also have a good understanding of the fact that the principles of Jesus have to make sense in real life, not just as philosophies. Latter-day Saints don’t love philosophical types of thinking much for our own reasons, and Evangelicals don’t love it because it’s not practical. They are very pragmatic and not usually inclined to care about something that works in theory, but can’t be tested in life. If you’re looking for points of connection, this is a big one where we end up at the same spot.
To make the next part of my point I need to compare Evangelicals to Catholics for a moment. If you think of the typical Catholic service (even if you’ve only seen it on tv) you probably picture priests in robes, the congregation doing a lot of standing, sitting, responding, and lots of ritual, liturgy, and lots of symbolism. This kind of worship is called “high church” and it’s main characteristic is that the service is trying to teach the people something through ritual, beauty, repetition, and experience. Evangelicals generally hate this stuff. It’s too theoretical and not practical enough. It’s not at all what you might expect to see in their services. An Evangelical service would be called “low church” for this reason. It’s not an insult (as if “high” means high value) it’s just a way of describing how much ritual or symbolism is used.
Here’s where it gets kind of interesting.
In this sense, a Latter-day Saint Sacrament Meeting is very similar to an Evangelical meeting. Things are pretty plain-spoken, there isn’t anything mysterious happening, very little ritual. I suppose the passing of Sacrament or communion trays is as close as we come, but outside of that everything is pretty grounded and there is not a lot of learning through experience going on. Latter-day Saint Sacrament Meetings, like Evangelical worship services, would easily be called “low church.”
Latter-day Saints also have access to all the beauty, mystery, ritual and symbolism that is offered in a high church service – we just access it in the Temple. Our temple worship is highly symbolic, full of ritual, very liturgical, full of meaningful words being repeated or used over and over, full of beauty, and very interested in teaching by experience. In this sense, we sort of have the best of both worlds – the down-to-earth practicality of a low-church service, with the experiential learning of high-church in our temple worship. It’s really a compelling combination and most other churches do not have access to both worlds – high and low church. Temple worship is nothing if not experiential.
The other bit of being experiential that comes out is in our theology around why Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. In Evangelical theology it’s only a punishment. In our theology part of the reason why they have to leave is to go learn from their own experience. The Old Testament tells us many times, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and we put some emphasis on the fact that Adam and Eve had to learn what it was like to be separate from God (kicked out of the garden) so that they would know what to do to be close to him (stay true to the covenants they had made.) The fear of the Lord here is “not liking what it feels like to be out of God’s presence” so the beginning of wisdom is, “so we learn to do the things that keep us in his presence.”
Well, this was a lot – I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the similarities and differences here, and that maybe you picked up a way or two to have these conversations with your Evangelical loved ones. Join us next time and we’ll pick up another topic.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.