One of the benefits of attending the Mid-America Conference on Preaching each year is the opportunity it affords for catching up with DBTS alumni. Last fall, I found myself sitting next to alumnus Matt Ortega in a workshop session. Both of our families have grown significantly in the past few years, and it was good to catch up with him a little bit. I recently had the opportunity to ask Matt about his ministry out West in a region that is definitely “rocky” ground.
Matt, Can you tell us a little bit about the ministry you are involved in (e.g., where you are, how long you’ve been there, and what the community is like)?
I am involved in a church planting ministry. My desire is to plant a church, stay and pastor the church and then as God wills, I want to plant churches throughout the Salt Lake and Utah Counties. Our church is located in the northern portion of Utah County, in the city of Eagle Mountain, which is about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. We have been here for seven years. The community in which we minister is 99% Mormon.
Can you tell us a little about your family and how they are involved in ministry?
My wife is in charge of all children’s ministries, serves in the nursery and as a Sunday school teacher. She also holds a ladies’ fellowship on the last Friday of every month, ministering the Word and cultivating relationships. From the moment we began, all of our children who are able to walk have participated in canvassing neighborhoods with flyers; we canvas about 20,000 homes a summer. The older children have been helpers with our annual “Back Yard Bible Clubs” (VBS’s held at multiple locations at the same time). This past summer they really became interested in making animal balloons for the kids attending our clubs, so I believe this is how they will contribute on a consistent basis (smile). Finally, given the age range of our children, they are able to help out with the set up and break down of our facility on Sundays. We rent a charter school so we have to set up our areas of ministry as well as break everything down at the end of our Lord’s day. Our children also participate in various Christmas programs that we hold each year.
In addition to studying at DBTS, what other means were helpful in preparing you for the work?
One of the areas the Lord used to prepare me for church planting was my involvement in ministry. I have been involved in numerous areas of ministry over the years. For example, I have served as a deacon, taught Sunday school, led evangelism and have been involved in bus ministry to name a few. Participating in various ministries has been a tremendous help in planting and pastoring the church. I have been amazed to be able to look back over my life to see how the Lord has used so many of my experiences to mold and shape me specifically for this area of the country. One example that I hope will suffice…I served in the Marines Corps from 1988 to 1994 and the Marine Corps way is the hard way. You can think of a variety of ways to do the same thing, but the Corps will have none of it, we will do it the hard way. Having ministered here for the past seven years, I am convinced that Utah is one of the toughest places to minister in the world. Yes, the world! It takes a different mentality to minister here because of the difficulty. The Marine Corps formed that mentality in me. Prior to my arrival in Utah, the one thing that was told me by several men who ministered in Utah was, “We need guys that are going to stick it out.” It takes a different mindset to handle ministry here.
What would you tell a seminary student who is considering church planting out West?
Since most churches do not support state side church planters for life, you have to be prepared to work to support your family financially. Churches here are not self-supporting due to smaller congregations. I know pastors who faithfully serve the Lord, who have been here for 30+ years, and are still on some sort of missionary status. So my recommendation to college students who are contemplating church planting in Utah is to get your undergraduate degree in something marketable yet with the flexibility to be able to focus on ministry; then go to DBTS and get your MDiv. Then come out to Utah and plant a church.
What special challenges do church planters/pastors face in Utah?
Utah is a high turnover area. People do not seem to stay in Utah for long. With the exception of two families, our congregation has completely changed twice in seven years. For three years we had about 60 people who formed the nucleus of our ministry; 60% of them ended up moving away. Since then the Lord has been growing our numbers. Part of the reason for the turnover is that wages are lower here than most places in the country. A roofer might make $16/hour here, but he can make $20/hour in Michigan doing the same job. And the cost of living is not significantly different.
Another challenge is the Mormon population. Mormons are not going to just come to your church. They already go to church. So in an area like ours you are not going to see visitors on a regular basis no matter what you do. Also, surprisingly, most Mormons do not want to talk to you about spiritual things (the reason being…they don’t know much about spiritual things even as it relates to their own belief system) so evangelism here is primarily relationship oriented. This being said, you really have to try to find other areas of ministry (Bible studies in group homes, prison ministries, campus ministries, chaplaincy, etc.).
Could you summarize a few of the key teachings of Mormonism? Are there any particular resources you’d recommend as helpful in trying to minister to Mormon people?
Summarizing the teachings of Mormonism would require a lot of time. Suffice it to say that Mormons believe in ongoing revelation (the President of the Mormon Church is believed to be a modern-day prophet); their Jesus is not the Jesus of the Bible; they believe that God the Father was once a man like us and then became a God through a process over time; they also believe that marriage to one’s spouse is meant by God to be eternal; repentance is a multi-step process that must result in total elimination of the sin in order for genuine repentance to have occurred. These are but a few of the tenets of Mormonism.
Three resources I recommend to help one in their ministry to Mormons:
2. Mormonism by Anthony Hoekema. Hoekema’s work looks at Mormon teachings and their relationship to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
3. Is the Mormon My Brother? by James White. This is a very practical book which asks and answers the question suggested in the book’s title. James White lives and ministers in Arizona which has a very high concentration of Mormons, and so he has written a few different resources which are extremely helpful.