CE Interview: Roy Gruber, Lead Pastor, The Heights Community, Ogden, UT
Roy Gruber serves a multisite (three campuses) congregation of 1,800 people in a thriving evangelistic field – Utah – where 49 percent of people within 20 miles of the church have no current involvement with faith of any kind. “My biggest underestimation in coming here was thinking that the LDS faith was merely a set of beliefs,” he says.
“It is that, but, even more so, it is a way of life, a culture. Mormonism exists as a way of life much like the Jewish faith includes culture and belief and it is difficult to separate one from the other,” Gruber, 48, says.
You said that God is doing something special in Utah right now. In what ways?
God is currently building his church in Utah in ways never before seen here. Evangelical churches in the Ogden area and the greater Salt Lake valley currently reach people with the Gospel like never before. Utah exists as the “least reached” state in the country. Only 3 to 5 percent of people have put their trust in the Jesus of the Bible, but that sobering reality is changing. Churches used to exist with a survival mentality, seeking to maintain and not to lose numbers. Today, a more missional approach of reaching out continues to grow. It’s not just one or two churches growing through conversion, but many churches of several different denominations.
Do former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) move to evangelical churches?
Many folks who grow up Mormons and leave their faith move into the growing group of those who have no contact with any church due to feeling “burned” by their experience. Many of those who are not connected to any faith grew up in a church and have not given up on God, but they have given up on their church experience.
What approach works in evangelizing Mormons?
Event evangelism does not work in Utah, whereas a relationship found in community provides the ideal environment for people to discover who God really is and what it means to know Him. What does work on a practical level are relationships with neighbors and coworkers. This relational reality exists around the world, but what is true in Utah is this: Without relationships there is no outreach impact. The starting of new churches also makes an impact. Right now there are a record number of church planters in northern Utah and that is a wonderful and welcome development.
What doesn’t work in reaching Mormons?
What does not work is debating over quirky doctrines of Mormonism. Many LDS folks feel embarrassed by some of the previous or current beliefs of the church. It does not make an impact to win the “sprint” of momentary debates, but impact comes on the longer road of relationships. By definition, outreach through relationships is not a strategy but an everyday way to live out faith.
Spiritual conversations happen easily in Utah. In those conversations, speaking the truth in love helps us examine the differences in faith. Our Mormon friends sacrifice much to leave the LDS faith. A good amount of that sacrifice often includes relationships.
Recapturing the vision of biblical community fills the void often left behind for someone leaving the LDS faith. We also offer a class that respectfully compares the beliefs of Christianity and Mormonism called “Fresh Start.” This class seeks to provide a safe environment for someone to examine the differences in belief with the Bible serving as the final authority.
Say you meet a Mormon in a coffeehouse, what few things can you initially say about Christianity if they express interest?
It can be helpful to share the human struggle. In Mormonism, there is little room for people to struggle and have issues. Yet, we all know that we struggle, and to share our own struggles with an LDS friend makes an impact because our salvation is not due to our spiritual progression and sin-free efforts. We also need to share God’s grace and not just leave it with our struggles. The solution to what ails us is not accomplished by us, but has already been accomplished for us by Jesus.
Do you sense a “shading” of Mormon theology in order to fit into a Christian point of view?
It is hard to know if there is a “shading” of Mormon theology as that hints at motive and we cannot know motives. There has been a change within the last generation of Mormonism toward Christianity. Joseph Smith claims that God communicated to him that all churches on earth were corrupted and he was called to reinstitute the true church on earth. For many generations, Mormons would not want to be included under a “Christian” umbrella. That has changed in our day, especially in the last 20 to 30 years. The change is clear, but the reasons for that we don’t know.
How should a Christian relate to a Mormon friend, neighbor or coworker when religion comes up in a conversation?
Expect it to come up! Mormon friends love to talk about faith. Respect them. Speak truthfully and honestly about beliefs. It’s all right to say “I don’t know.” Listen to your friend and truly seek to understand them. Share your journey toward and within faith. Ask them if they have any questions about their own faith, as often this is the case. Study those questions to see the differences between the LDS faith and historical Christianity.
How does your congregation mobilize thousands of people for ministry?
The way in which this is happening is through small groups. Groups exist in the marketplace and in communities and through that vehicle, people are realizing they are “ministers,” that is, those who meet the needs of others. All of our groups have a three-fold purpose: (1) Grow spiritually; (2) Care about each other; and (3) Serve together.
You lead a multicampus church. What does the future look like in reaching a wider region?
There are currently three campuses within the Heights Community. A vision for multisite was born out of a deeply held belief that more churches were needed in our area. Church planting is one good way to address that need. Thankfully, many church planters have come to Utah in recent years. We believed that our contribution to the effort to grow the church here existed in multiple campuses.
We possessed the resources and the passion to move in this direction. Another contributing factor was the sad reality of churches closing their doors. With vision and resources provided we were convinced that struggling churches could experience a whole new chapter of effective ministry.
In 2010 God led us to merge with a church in our own association 20 miles south of us. We also began another Spanish-speaking campus in downtown Ogden, 10 miles to the north of the original campus. We believe God will lead us to more sites in the future. Multisite ministry changes the way you think and do ministry. Don’t dabble in multisite as we need to be “all in.” It is also wise to walk through the merger experience with a consultant. Merger discussions are delicate and you are best served by someone who can be an impartial guide to all.
I understand you want to run the Boston Marathon. How close are you to being ready to do so?
My qualifying time for Boston is sub 3:25:00. This past May I ran the Ogden Marathon in 3:26:16, so I missed qualifying by less than 2 minutes.