SWBTS Students encourage church leaders in Utah/SW Idaho
by Katie Coleman
Reprinted from Southwestern News, November 9, 2021
FT WORTH, Texas – During a fall mission trip to the Intermountain West, a team of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students ministered to Christians serving throughout Utah and southwest Idaho, traveling more than 1,600 miles to visit with 34 Christian leaders and their families, October 2-9.
Travis Kerns, associate professor of apologetics and world religions, led the trip. Describing Utah as the most “un-Christian” state in America, he said short-term mission trips to a state with a majority Mormon population are not conducive for “parachute evangelism,” and often do more harm to the relationships and ministry of long-term leaders and missionaries to the area.
Kerns, who previously served as a Salt Lake City Send City missionary with the North American Mission Board, further explained that many pastors in the area not only struggle to receive acceptance from a community generally skeptical of “outsiders,” but often battle discouragement and loneliness as some are many miles away from the nearest Christian pastor.
In light of this, Kerns said encouragement and spiritual investment from other Christians such as the Southwestern Seminary team are essential to investing in Kingdom work in Utah and southwest Idaho.
Additionally, Kerns said, one of the objectives of the trip was for students to step out of their usual context and to experience the “spiritual warfare” that happens elsewhere and “to get a sense of what it’s like doing evangelism and missions in a minority Christian culture, to get a sense of what it’s like living there as a believer, and the ostracization that happens.”
Master of Theological Studies student Sarah Wester from Princeton, Indiana, has lived in a variety of American cities and has served on multiple international mission trips, but described her experience in Utah as “being in the belly of the beast when it comes to the spiritual oppression.”
As the team met with ministry leaders, Wester said she was particularly struck by how quickly emotions surfaced during their conversations and how they expressed gratitude for having trusted believers with whom they could share their burdens and receive encouragement.
“It became so clear the desperate need for encouragement and fellowship, and for them to feel like they weren’t alone,” Wester said.
For Master of Arts student Brittany Barfield from Tucson, Arizona, the trip made evident the need for discipleship alongside evangelism.
“I think it is an outflow of discipleship that sharing the Gospel comes,” Barfield said. “You cannot have evangelism without discipleship. If we are not making strong disciples, there will be no evangelism.”
Barfield said she was glad to have the opportunity to edify fellow believers as they seek to minister in Utah and southwest Idaho. This type of trip, she said, is a way Christians can support and invest in already existing ministry and work.
“If believers that are there on the ground right now are not being encouraged in any way, they’re going to burn out,” Barfield said.
Kerns said he hopes to lead similar trips to Utah at least once a year and noted the need for faithful Christians to commit their lives to reach the people of Utah with the Gospel, and to support the missionaries and pastors serving in that region. Utah, Kerns added, has an average daily death rate of 54 people, with 53 of those who die without knowing Christ.
“So, the real question about ministry work in Utah is not, ‘why should I go there,’” Kerns said, “but ‘why should I not go there?’”