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Utah needs more church planters, especially in the rural parts of the state

By Eric Johnson

Before I go any further, let me state the intention of my article in very plain language:

The number of quality Christian churches for people to attend in the state of Utah is deficient. Some people in the rural parts of the state have to go many miles to find a biblically-centered church to attend. Therefore, those who are considering church planting ought to consider coming to Utah and finding a town or city that desperately needs a Christian presence.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, let me explain some facts. In most parts of the United States, “church shopping” begins by driving around the neighborhood. Typically there will be a variety of denominations and styles available within a five-minute drive of many communities. But move to the state of Utah and you will notice something different. Oh, don’t believe the 2010 survey saying Utah is the “most Christian” state in America and that 80% of the population is Christian.  You will soon learn that the “selection” of potential churches is generally made up of white buildings with no crosses adorning their steeples with the words Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the wall. With a well-manicured yard and a posted sign near the front door declaring “Visitors Welcome,” the local LDS chapel offers an attractive-on-the-outside appearance to newcomers who will quickly come to understand that good Evangelical Christian churches in Utah are not in abundance. A Pew Forum poll said about 7% in Utah are Evangelical Christians, though even that statistic is really hard to believe. 

According to the official Mormon website, there are at least 1,210 LDS meetinghouses in the three counties of Salt Lake, Davis, and Utah. (These are three of the largest and most populated 29 counties in Utah.) As analyzed by the Salt Lake Tribune (“Mormon Chapels: In Utah, they are here, there and everywhere,” September 30, 2014, special General Conference section), this means that there is/are:

  • 1 LDS chapel for every 2.5 square miles (this includes plenty of mountains, wetlands, and desert where nobody lives.
  • A chapel for every 1,614 residents
  • 30 instances in the three counties where two chapels are less than a block apart
  • 6 instances where chapels are adjacent to each other
  • Some buildings with 2 chapels inside. While technically this looks like one meetinghouse, the building serves as two chapels

According to the Census records, the second largest religion in Utah is the Roman Catholic Church. Yet there are only 24 meeting places in these three counties, or one for every 127 square miles, or one for every 81,404 residents as compared to 1,210 LDS chapels, one for every 1,614 residents.

As far as Protestant (more specifically, Evangelical) churches go, there are indeed some quality  churches in this state. Yet there are not enough! Many Christian churches are small, with a majority (I believe) having fewer than 100 people attending Sunday services. (I have no statistic evidence to support my case, but I’m just going on experience.) 

There are also a fair number of churches that we cannot recommend because they hold to heretical teachings or focus on peripheral issues, such as overly stressing the gift of tongues as necessary for salvation or requiring water baptism for justification of sins. In effect, the Gospel gets garbled, which is worse than no gospel at all (see Galatians 1).

Other churches are so liberal that what ends up being preached is nothing more than a “social gospel.” Consider one church’s website invitation:

We invite all people, regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, or station in life, to be on their journey of faith. . . . We are less concerned with doctrinal statements and dogma and are more concerned with seeking the wisdom of scripture, tradition and our own faith experiences in making sense of our lives today and counting on the Holy Spirit to reveal it to us. . . . We acknowledge that there are many different faith traditions and experiences that draw people into deep relationship with God. __________ Church has been an inclusive, progressive voice in Salt Lake City for over a century.

Talk about losing the salt and light in a congregation that is biblically commanded to not merge with the culture!

During a week in July 2014, I purposely visited more than 200 Utah Christian church internet websites. (You can see MRM’s recommended list of churches here.)  My goal was to compile a list of churches that we could recommend. I scoured the doctrinal sections to see if these churches held to biblical essentials, including:

  • One God in three Persons (Trinity)
  • The Bible as God’s source of truth
  • Salvation by grace through faith (not earned through works, including baptism)

I wanted to see a balance of doctrine, with no overemphasis on peripheral (side) issues that could cloud the gospel. Besides correct doctrine, I looked for churches that were large enough to host an internet website. Churches come and go, especially in Utah. If a church isn’t stable or even progressive enough in the 21st century to have its own website, it’s just not one I want to recommend. 

I should say that when I’m asked to recommend a church, I’m cautious. This is especially true if the inquirer just left Mormonism for Christianity. The last thing I want to do is send a person to a place that will bring discouragement or even lead to further heresy. Just like choosing a spouse, I think it’s prudent to be picky.

While it can be argued that there are never enough “good” churches, I am going to say that cities like Brigham City, Draper, Provo, Riverton, Salt Lake City, Sandy, and St. George have plenty of selections available for their populations, thank you very much. If you live in these cities, it should take less than 10 minutes to find two, three, or even more biblically sound churches. This type of potential buffet is unprecedented in the rest of the state.

Christians who live in the rest of the state may have to drive at least 15 minutes or more to find a good church. But consider this: Utah has a total of 29 counties. For five counties, I was unable to find a single church that we could recommend. This represents a land mass of approximately one-sixth of the entire state! (If you’re interested, these were Beaver, Millard, Morgan, Piute, and Wayne Counties.)

But that’s not the end of it. In
the list that I compiled, I was able to recommend just one solitary church in each of 14 different Utah counties.  Read that again: About half of Utah’s counties covering hundreds and hundreds of square miles are limited to only one good church each. A faithful Christian believer may have to drive an hour in either direction just to attend services. Nonbelievers in these areas might as well be considered “unreached people groups”!

Let’s state it another way. I could only recommend 14 churches for 19 different Utah counties. When you do the math, you’ll see that the other 10 Utah counties (about one-third of Utah’s total counties) host approximately 90% of all of MRM’s recommended churches. When I realized the discrepancy, I have to admit I was shocked.

Utah is a mission field. Perhaps the church planters who come will need to be bivocational because rural community churches are desperately needed. If you’re interested in this opportunity, pray and see if God might be directing you to plant a church in Zion.

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