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Slow Growth Strategy

Attracting newcomers can take years in Mormon-dominated Utah.

Drayton Bailey already had gone through the typical teenage rebellion by stopping church attendance, as well as the early adult rite of cohabitation before marriage. While common practice in American society overall, such behavior among lifelong Utah residents who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rarer.

And few people had longer Mormon credentials than Drayton Bailey. Consider his two great-great-great-great grandfathers: Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Mormon Church, and Truman O. Angell, the architect who designed the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. He also counts pioneer LDS prophet Brigham Young among his ancestors.

Virtually all of Bailey’s living relatives remain in the LDS fold. But after Bailey married his wife, Ashley, in 2010, they went to visit Ashley’s grandparents in Idaho. Wayne and Marjorie Root attended River City Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Boise. That interaction led Ashley to seek out an AG church near their home in November that year.

Initially, Drayton expressed skepticism. Although he no longer attended a Mormon church, he still believed he would return someday; he hadn’t rejected the unique Mormon doctrines that clash with evangelical Christianity.

His first experience of the exuberant praise and worship at Abundant Life in North Salt Lake left him bewildered and yearning for the staid LDS meetings he remembered from childhood. The unprecedented religious experience strained his marriage; he embarked on a plan to defend LDS teachings.

Nevertheless, Drayton agreed to meet with a couple from Abundant Life, Jorge and Courtnee Román, to discuss differences between Mormon and Pentecostal teachings.

“I arrogantly planned to show them how Mormonism was the truth,” says Bailey, 31. “Then I got to the place of realizing maybe I was wrong. Little by little, my eyes were open to the fallacies and discrepancies of what was taught in the LDS faith.”

Indeed, the transformation didn’t happen overnight. He didn’t ask Jesus into his heart until a revival in April 2012. However, Bailey, who is a project manager with an electrical engineering firm, now serves as an elder at Abundant Life.

Leon Burrows says serious family splits can result for those who forsake Mormonism. Abundant Life started in the kitchen of Burrows and his wife, Barbara, in 1984 when church planter Gary L. Royer enlisted eight students from Trinity Bible College to spend six months helping launch the congregation — which met in a mortuary, health spa, and drug store basement before purchasing property to build. Royer is now an adjunct instructor at Southwestern Assemblies of God University.

Burrows, 80, had been born into a Mormon family, the 13th of 14 children. As a teenager he became a “jack Mormon:” although he stopped attending church, he still believed in LDS creeds. Yet Burrows embarked on a spiritual quest, dabbling in transcendental meditation for a time. Eventually he accepted Jesus as Savior after hearing the gospel preached on radio. That decision didn’t set well with some of his relatives.

“The family is still deeply divided,” says Burrows. “Those who are Mormon won’t talk to me.”

Ostracization can be especially noticeable in local commerce connections, according to Burrows, who didn’t have trouble finding far-flung corporate clients as an illustrator.

Salt Lake City native Alex Lucero, who has been Abundant Life pastor for three decades, has seen an evolution of thinking in the mindset of LDS leaders. When Lucero, 59, started ministry, Mormons labeled Christians as apostate; now Mormons want to be called Christians themselves.

Lucero’s mother had been raised Mormon, but as an adult didn’t attend church. A co-worker of his stepfather invited the family to an Assemblies of God church. At 13, Lucero says God gave him a vision of torment awaiting those who didn’t know Him. As a youth, he joined evangelism teams that planted AG congregations around the Beehive State.

After attending Northwest University, Lucero became youth pastor at Valley Assembly (now Life Church) in Salt Lake City in 1980. When he became lead pastor of Abundant Life eight years later, North Salt Lake City had no other non-Mormon church — although it did have 54 LDS wards (congregations).

North Salt Lake, where the population has more than tripled to over 20,000 residents since Abundant Life started, remains dominated by Mormon thought. An LDS temple is in nearby Bountiful. According to the Association for Religious Data Archives, Davis County, where Abundant Life is located, has 599 congregations — 550 of them LDS.

Subsequently, traditional evangelism methods such as door-to-door visitation aren’t necessarily effective as a church growth strategy. Abundant Life has planted a pair of parent-affiliated churches. Calvary Christian Church in Roy has 70 attendees while 80 regulars go to High Pointe, which became the first non-Mormon church in Midway City.

As a distinct religious minority, Lucero has long advocated diplomacy rather than confrontation.

“I don’t allow any speaker in the pulpit to call Mormons a cult,” Lucero says. “We’re here to lift Jesus up as Bible-believing people.”

Although Abundant Life in the early years met a great deal of resistance, the church now is a respected part of the city. Last July, the mayor and city council honored Abundant Life and Alex and Donna for 30 years of involvement in North Salt Lake City. Lucero’s community engagement serving as the chaplain for the police department.

“Time and consistency are the keys to reaching LDS culture,” Lucero says.

More than half of Abundant Life’s 225 attendees have a Mormon background. Some initially are drawn by the worship music or Bible teaching they won’t hear in an LDS meeting. As with Bailey, it often takes multiple visits over a lengthy stretch before they are ready to leave the Mormon life behind.

“There is much social and business pressure to stay in the Mormon culture,” Lucero says. “It may take years to break away. Utah is still a mission field.”

Still, once eyes are opened, it’s worth the wait.

“How deceived I was!” Bailey says. “But God can change anyone’s heart, no matter how long they’ve been in the LDS faith.”

Top Photo: Leon Burrows (from left), Alex Lucero, and Drayton Bailey are leaders at Abundant Life

Bottom Photo: Drayton and Ashley Bailey and their two children

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.