From a Bible study group 20 years ago, a five-campus evangelical church has grown in Utah, bringing a Mennonite presence to the heart of Mormon country.
South Mountain Community Church is affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Its campus in Draper, 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, will host part of the USMB national convention July 27.
Paul Robie, South Mountain’s founding pastor, felt a “holy discontent” for Utah because of the dominance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Where in the United States could you go to a suburb . . . near an urban center — 20,000 people in a city — and no real Christian witness?” Robie asked. “I felt bad for LDS people who wanted to leave the Mormon Church but had nowhere to go.”
Mormons identify as Christian but differ theologically from orthodox Christianity.
After 10 years at USMB’s Laurelglen Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif., Robie and his family began a church plant in Draper, starting with a Bible study in their home in 1998.
Today, South Mountain Community Church has four campuses in the greater Salt Lake City area and a fifth in southwest Utah. A sixth group, the Spanish-speaking Campus Internacional, meets at the Draper location.
Added together, the congregations have around 3,000 regular attenders and have seen more than 1,000 baptisms.
Robie now serves in an oversight role, preaching occasionally at all the campuses.
In Utah County, “evangelicals were less than half of 1 percent [when we started],” he said. “. . . Now we’re all the way up to 1 and a half percent.”
‘Detox from religion’
The newest campus opened in Lehi in October 2015, bringing around 200 Draper campus members to meet in an area closer to their homes.
South Mountain’s Lehi campus pastor, Eric Nelson, felt a burden for Utah County’s half a million people, the majority of whom are Mormon.
“I was drawn to the culture as a place where the gospel could be spread,” he said.
Originally from Portland, Ore., Nelson spent five months on staff at the Draper campus, then led the launch of the Lehi campus, which today sees around 300 in two Sunday services and has had 30 baptisms.
“[Utah County is] a place that’s incredibly religious,” Nelson said. “Ninety percent of people would identify as religious. Because of religion, you have a lot of people working very hard to live very moral lives. But that pressure can be exhausting. . . . The religious climate can be oppressive at times.”
South Mountain has a focus on reaching out to Mormons.
“We want to be the very first church that comes to people’s minds when they think, ‘Where can I bring my Mormon friend?’ ” Robie said. “We are organized around that idea.”
Nelson said that because of the Mormon emphasis on behavioral standards, South Mountain avoids laying expectations on those who come.
“They have to detox from religion, and they do that by sitting in our services and taking as much time as they need,” he said. “We never expect anything of them; we just continue to invite them to take the next steps.”
Nelson described South Mountain as a space for people to transition out of religion and into the gospel.
“We need to be a church that’s full of grace and truth, a church that gives people the time and space they need to belong before they believe,” he said. “. . . We honor the process that God changes people from the inside out.”
Emphasis on Jesus
USMB national director Don Morris said South Mountain assumes a nondenominational identity because its leaders believe that is the best way to minister in a Mormon context.
“We feel like they are just as much a part of our MB family as any other church,” Morris said via email. “. . . SMCC has experience, knowledge and systems in place to continue to be effective in the Mormon culture.”
Morris said many evangelical church plants in Utah have failed because they did not understand the culture, but South Mountain is an example of success.
“We know that we have to have planters who understand how to reach the Mormon culture if they are to be successful in Salt Lake City,” he said.
“The culture is unique, and people respond to certain things and outright reject other methods. So, without the knowledge that has been established by SMCC, it’s not very feasible to just go in and try to begin a new work in Utah.”
The national conference continues to financially support South Mountain’s expansion.
In 2013, USMB helped plant Greenhouse Community Church in Saratoga Springs — south of Draper, between Salt Lake City and Provo — which sees around 40 attenders each Sunday.
Greenhouse church planter Jason Quiring said Mormons perceive divisions in the church as a sign that the LDS church is the true church.
“It’s easier to just say we’re a nondenominational Christian, Bible-based church,” he said. “We’re wanting people to see Jesus, not just our church or denomination.”
Quiring’s MB background was important in his faith formation. He was youth pastor at South Mountain’s Draper campus from 2006 to 2009, and he and his wife, Nicole, fell in love with the people and the place.
“I think there are a lot of Christians who put more emphasis on their church than on Jesus,” he said. “We want to gather to experience community and loving people, but we also want to scatter to serve the world.”
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