When Haley O’Day was a freshman at Union, she fell in love with her elementary Greek class. Moved by the need for missionaries around the world, she pictured herself living in an African hut and translating the Bible for unreached people groups.
Now four years out of Union, Haley is indeed living among one of the world’s largest unreached people groups, but her newfound home is not halfway across the world. Shocked to learn that 98 percent of Utah’s population was lost, she realized she was needed in the United States, and her time at Union equipped her with the tools to serve there.
“Church planters here need to understand theology because Mormonism presents itself as a Christian religion,” Haley said. “But when you start asking questions, you realize it’s not that way at all. They use the same language so you have to really know the truth.”
Haley, class of 2011, made the move out west with her husband Timothy, class of 2010, and their baby Julia at the end of July. The couple met as high school students during a church lock-in in their humble hometown of West Plains, Missouri. Eventually they would both end up majoring in biblical languages at Union.
Like Haley, Timothy knew he wanted to do something related to ministry but didn’t know what that would look like at first. Split between becoming a pastor and traveling overseas to do mission work, he declared the major that would help him understand the scriptures best.
“The first church I went to in Jackson actually split my junior year, and that left me pretty bitter and cynical,” Timothy admitted. “But I became a member of a healthy church, and my plan after graduation was to move to Utah because I heard about the need there.”
But after confiding in his pastor, Timothy decided to stay back in Jackson for a while and take the time to heal his own heart in preparation to minister to the people of Utah.
Over the past five years, Timothy said he has been blessed to have faithful friends invest in him, and he grew to understand the importance of the church—both inside and outside the classroom.
During a February 2014 visit, the O’Days experienced a “spiritual darkness” in a place where believers were in the minority and felt the Lord calling them to Riverton, Utah. From that point on, they worked to raised support and awareness for what they were doing.
The O’Days now rely on partial funding from the North American Mission Board and partial funding from a coalition of Jackson churches—Cornerstone Community Church, First Baptist Church, Calvary Baptist Church, City Fellowship Baptist Church and Northbrook Baptist Church.
That support is not only financial, but spiritual. Those congregations are walking in partnership as co-laborers, Timothy said, quoting 3 John: ‘It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.’
“This isn’t just something that we’re doing,” Timothy said. “This is something those congregations are doing with us.”
Seventy percent of Utah’s population is Mormon, and only two percent claim to be evangelical Christians. Essentially everyone the couple encounters is unfamiliar with the gospel, Haley said.
Rather than researching Mormonism to prepare for ministry, the O’Days focused on studying biblical scriptures so they could best teach others why they believe what they believe.
“The average Mormon isn’t going to be great at defending their faith because it’s very subjective—we’ve found it to be a mile wide but an inch deep,” Timothy said. “A lot of our prep time was figuring out the best methods of engaging people with the truth of the gospel.”
That process of engaging others is quite different than it would be in the context of Jackson. Here, churches and organizations hold events when they want to share the gospel, but in Utah if a Christian church throws an event, Mormons won’t go, Timothy said.
The couple has had to rethink the way they meet people, focusing on building relationships that lead to gospel conversations. Timothy said he made one of his best connections with a dad when he was teaching 3-year-olds in a soccer camp.
One of the most challenging parts of making the move to Utah was leaving behind close Christian relationships in Jackson. There was an instant connection with the people in their new church because of their bond with Christ, but building strong friendships takes time, Haley said.
Although constantly surrounded by people, Timothy said there is a new kind of loneliness he has never experienced before—the loneliness that comes when people don’t respond to his evangelistic efforts.
“That’s hurtful and lonely on many levels,” he said. “When they reject Christ, you can’t help but feel rejected yourself, and you’re devastated the person is rejecting the only way of life. It’s hard when you see people not accepting the truth—you can feel quite alone in what you hold dear.”
Mormonism is so ingrained in people’s identities that it is rare for a Mormon to convert. Leaving the faith often means losing families, relationships and potentially even jobs, Haley said.
Timothy compared the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to an Islamic culture, emphasizing the great cost that comes with leaving the religion. It’s a journey that could take several years, and converts tend to lose social and economic benefits found in the culture.
“When you’re asking someone to leave Mormonism, you have to have a context for them to jump into where they have family and friends immediately,” Timothy said. “One of the benefits of the church we’re a part of here is that it’s small and intimate. It’s a necessity to really live life together.”
Although it’s difficult for Mormons to leave their faith behind, Timothy said a lot of people are leaving the faith as they learn more about the “ghosts” of the past—Joseph Smith practicing polygamy, for instance.
As the Mormon faith starts to crumble, the O’Days are faced with special opportunity.
“There are a lot of people here that are just ready to hear the truth, but there aren’t enough people to share the truth with them,” he said. “Mormons need to be engaged and have their questions answered—not only at church, but at recreational activities.”
In the next year, Timothy and Haley will focus on two cities. Since they already have a healthy church in their community, they want to branch out to neighboring regions and hope to plant a church in the not-too-distant future.
Lehi, Utah is the fifth-fastest growing city in the United States. But in a city the same size as Jackson, the O’Days have only been able to find two evangelical churches.
“Imagine Jackson only having two churches,” Timothy said. “We’re targeting that area because it has such a strong need for evangelical presence. More work needs to be done.”
Nearby Murray, Utah wasn’t originally in their plan, but the O’Days have made connections there and seen people take an interest in getting to know them.
Once the couple builds a foundation for a church, Haley said they will need more mature believers from various academic backgrounds to move to the area.
“If you’re going to have church growth here, we don’t just need Christian studies majors,” she said. “We need people who want to come out here and get jobs and be a part of the community.”