A missionary in the heart of Mormonism
When Travis Kerns was a child, a certain commercial kept popping up on his parents’ television. A man is riding his bike along the road when a Jeep speeds by and sends a cascade of water all over him. Drenched from head to toe, the cyclist catches up to the driver, whose Jeep is broken down on the side of the road. Instead of yelling at him, the cyclist pulls over, gets off his bike, and starts helping the driver as narration kicks in: “This message brought to you by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The ad made an indelible impact on a young Kerns, lodging itself in his memory and reappearing at key moments throughout his life.
“I can still see it,” he says now. “Just like it was yesterday.”
He thinks of it in 1996, as a college student in his New Religious Movements course. The professor is lecturing on Mormonism, and Kerns feels the weight of the thousands of people who haven’t heard the true gospel. On that day, he resolves to live in Salt Lake City someday and take the gospel to Mormons. He thinks of it in 2007 when, as assistant professor of worldview and apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he begins leading short-term mission trips to Salt Lake City, first just with Boyce College students, then Southern students, too. He thinks of it when he cycles — a regular habit he’s developed in recent years and his way of building rapport with unbelievers in his community.
And he thinks of it when the phone rings in October 2012. On the other line is his former pastor, Kevin Ezell, who served at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville and is now the president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB), the domestic missions arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Ezell offers Kerns a position as city missionary with NAMB in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Now, Kerns had earned both his M.Div. and Ph.D. in Applied Apologetics from Southern Seminary. His son, 7 years old at the time, hadn’t known anything but living in Louisville. Kerns was surrounded by mentors like Ted Cabal, Robert Plummer, and Russell Fuller — men who challenged Kerns spiritually and academically, “both on the inside and the outside.” Most of his life was spent in Greenville, South Carolina — he was born there, raised there, went to college there, and met his wife there. If these places aren’t home, then what is?
“Home is Salt Lake City, Utah,” Kerns says now, in a phone interview. “We feel more at home here than we ever felt anywhere else. When we crossed the state line moving here two years ago, we knew it. This is it. This is home.”
Kerns accepted Ezell’s offer, and moved his family — his wife of 16 years, Staci, and his son Jeremiah — to Salt Lake City in 2013. He has served as city missionary for two years, helping NAMB church planters in Salt Lake City and partnering with existing church leaders in the area.
‘What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?’
While the roots of Kerns’ interest in Mormons go back to that television ad, the desire first sprouted when he was a student at North Greenville University during the mid-1990s. When he switched from studying business to religion, he applied for a scholarship available to students in his new major. Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”
“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”
The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”
Twenty years later — though Kerns and his wife had been interacting with Mormons regularly, including leading short-term teams with Southern — the call to full-time missions work in Salt Lake City became unmistakable.
“I always thought teaching was the endgame,” he said. “Every guy doing a Ph.D. wants to find a teaching job. But, as I started coming out to Salt Lake City with mission teams, this place and people really started to stick out to me and I just couldn’t get past it.”
Even though Kerns had been committed to reaching Mormons from the beginning, the Spirit still had to work in his wife’s heart to make it a long-term reality. Staci knew about her husband’s calling, but hoped it might happen closer to her family in North Carolina.
In the summer of 2012, Kerns returned late on a Saturday night from a short-term trip to Salt Lake City. At First Baptist Church of Fisherville the next morning, Brian Payne, currently a Boyce College professor, preached on Luke 9:60: “Jesus said to them, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”
“For about 90 seconds,” Kerns recalled, “he discussed how we can make our families into idols, and it broke my wife’s heart because she realized that’s what she was doing with her hometown.”
They left the service and got into the car when Kerns’ wife turned to him.
“Call NAMB, let’s go,” she said. Three months later, Kerns received Ezell’s phone call.
‘A significant difficulty’
While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”
“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”
In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.
Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.
Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.
“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”
‘We don’t want to become the anti-Mormon guys’
Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.
The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.
Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.
“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”
Kerns says many Mormons believe they are already Christians, so missionaries must first “deconstruct” their understanding of the gospel. Terms like “Jesus” and “gospel” and “grace” mean something different to Mormons than they do to evangelicals.
“We have the same words but use different dictionaries,” he said.
Kerns credited Cabal, his Ph.D. supervisor, for teaching him an apologetic model that values each person, instead of simply using them as a means of proving a point. It’s more valuable to share the gospel in an appropriate and loving way for each person than merely to parrot an evangelistic formula, he said. Kerns even tells new planters not even to talk about Mormonism at first, pointing out that no one would tell a missionary to move to Saudi Arabia and immediately begin proclaiming Islam to be false.
“We don’t want to become the anti-Mormon guys,” he said. “Be pro-Jesus. We’re constantly talking about three things: grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Whatever religion people are in, they need those three things, and that’s especially true of Mormonism. They’re held under such strict, legalistic obligations that grace, mercy, and forgiveness are like a fresh drink of cool water.”
Kerns isn’t interested in publicly debating Mormons about their religious system or proving them wrong. No, his purpose is more important than that.
“God created me to love Mormons,” he said.
Andrew J.W. Smith is a news writer at Southern Seminary and a Master of Divinity student. Photos provided by the North American Mission Board. This story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the Southern Seminary Magazine.