A major challenge throughout has been to involve church leaders from both communities whose participation really could make a significant long-term difference in attitudes and perceptions among Mormons and Evangelicals on a much more widespread scale than pure academics are usually able to generate. In the last few years this has actually begun, though it seems too early to tell whether or not it will continue and continue to grow to the level of involvement that will precipitate long-term changes, either in clarifications of what each group itself truly believes or in external perceptions of what the other group believes. Of course, evangelicalism is an amorphous group of theologically conservative Protestants who have no president, pope, prophet, or patriarch, while the magisterium of Mormonism more resembles Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox hierarchies. These disparities create both opportunities and obstacles.
On the one hand, it is far easier for the LDS officially to change in any area, big or small; all it requires is an announcement by the Church's President or those who speak for him at a General Conference or via some other official means. But the LDS leadership will do this only on rare occasions and for issues they deem to be of great importance. On the other hand, it is comparatively easy for individual evangelicals, institutions, parachurch movements, and even entire denominations (especially small ones) to change, even on major issues, through formal and informal politicking, often initiated at the grass-roots level. But with no one to impose such changes on the entire movement, with only a loose unity (and at times not even that) and a loosely defined unity among the various branches of the movement, seemingly unending diversity of opinion accompanied by rancorous struggles among competing camps can afflict evangelicalism for decades on end (witness the ongoing gender-roles conflicts as a classic example).
What has resulted from the Evangelical-Mormon dialogues of the last fifteen-or-so years? How successful have they been? Usually one answers questions like those in terms of goals fulfilled. If that criterion is applied here, then the gatherings have been wildly successful, because, to my knowledge, goals have been deliberately quite modest.
One is reminded of reports of East-West diplomacy at the height of the Cold War. Sometimes a victory was simply agreeing to meet again and news reports commented merely that "frank and open discussions were held." I doubt things have ever been quite that bleak with us. Instead, especially in the earliest years, we went into our meetings not hoping to resolve some conflict, not expecting to convert anyone to our points of view, but merely for building friendships, good will, trust, and mutual understanding.
Evangelicals had met with and even published the results of dialogues with Catholics, liberal Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even such fringe groups as the Unification Church led by Sun Myung Moon, but where were any comparable efforts, at least within the last half-century, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Mormons regularly invited more liberal Christian scholars, Jews, and Muslims (and no doubt others) to conferences at Brigham Young, participated in groups like SBL and AAR both nationally and regionally, including in deliberately arranged pluralistic settings, but, apart from the individual personal friend of someone or the other, when were Evangelicals en bloc given any attention or invited to participate in these events? Now all this has changed and hopefully not just in the short run.
But has anything more happened on the North American religious landscape worthy of the kind of full-scale scholarly scrutiny conventionally associated with the American Academy of Religion? Have the seeds been planted deeply enough in good soil so that fruit will inevitably flourish that actually changes the face of either Mormonism or Evangelicalism on this continent and perhaps beyond? Or if that seems far too ambitious, have seeds been planted that at least will change the perception of one or both groups about each other in any widespread fashion? I personally believe the answer to the second question is "yes" and to the first question, "it's too early to tell." But as we all know, unexpected developments, including larger world events, can quickly move us in entirely unanticipated directions, positively and negatively, forward and backward. So the sanest answer, no doubt, is to say that we must wait to see.
Craig L. Blomberg is the Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and the author of numerous books. He is presenting this paper at the American Academy of Religion, Montreal in November 2009. It is published here with permission.