Home Features ‘Fighting criticism with curiosity’: A conversation with Pastor Jeff McCullough of Hello Saints

‘Fighting criticism with curiosity’: A conversation with Pastor Jeff McCullough of Hello Saints

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‘Fighting criticism with curiosity’: A conversation with Pastor Jeff McCullough of Hello Saints

“I think we’re in a really unique age right now, a unique time where I think we’re all ready to have diplomatic and dignified conversations with each other.”

During his college years, Jeff McCullough, an evangelical, visited an Islamic Mosque. Though the experience was unfamiliar and uncomfortable, it set the stage for him to explore ideas different from his own.

Several years later, a pastor with his own ministry, McCullough started a YouTube channel, Hello Saints, dedicated to documenting his exploration of Latter-day Saint beliefs and culture. No, he is not an investigator seeking conversion; his purpose is to establish an honest and dignified dialogue between evangelical Christians and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Scroll had the opportunity to interview him.

The exchange has been edited for clarity and length. To read the full interview, click here.

Q: What is Hello Saints? What are you all about? Why did you start it?”

A: Hello Saints is a YouTube channel I started earlier this year; it was in March of 2022. It came about because of a lot of different things that were transpiring for me. One being that I grew up evangelical in the Midwest, and I hear people in Utah and Idaho talk about that if you’re a Latter-day Saint, that’s kind of a bubble. And you’re not exposed to a lot of other … faith groups, not to say that there aren’t any, but it’s primarily Latter-day Saint. You go to the grocery store, chances are the clerk is a Latter-day Saint, right? That type of thing. But the same thing exists where I live in the Midwest.

On some maps, I’m part of the Bible Belt and on other maps, I’m not. But for all intents and purposes, I am. Most people I know are evangelical or Catholic. So, I was just humming along doing ministry as a pastor, and things were going well. We go into the pandemic, and I start to rethink about maybe some different ways I could do ministry, as opposed to just a congregational role. And I co-run a video production company, and so during the pandemic, as I’m kind of mixing video production with ministry because we had to because we couldn’t meet together, that … began to perk my interest of maybe doing something a little bit different. But I didn’t know what that was until I went to Utah, and I entered into a different bubble.

I went from my Midwestern traditional historical Christianity into this Latter-day Saint bubble that was just fascinating to me. And the reason why it was fascinating to me is because I had a preconceived notion about Latter-day Saints, and they weren’t very kind. It was all stuff tied to polygamy, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young — things with very negative undertones. So, I didn’t always stay away from it, I never really engaged in it. And I had, I think, a pretty inaccurate view on Latter-day Saints just culturally. So, when I went to Utah, I was like, ‘Wow, they’re everywhere. They’re devout. They’re clearly passionate.’ And as I’m interacting with them, it’s like they’re not only normal, but they remind me of my people. They remind me of evangelicals. Set all beliefs aside, on a heart level, on a relational level, on a social level, I felt like there was such a familiarity there. It really opened the door for me to say, I think I could and maybe should explore this a little bit more. This is fascinating. Hello Saints is really just that.

It’s a little confusing I think, to some people. Because they might think that I’m exploring the Church because I’m interested in possibly converting, or that I’m primarily interested in taking down the Mormon Church and making additional evangelicals. Neither one is accurate. I’m trying to bridge a conversation between two faith groups where there aren’t a lot of bridges and to do so in a way that is charming and respectful and dignified, where we can safely say we’re similar in some ways and safely say we’re pretty different in some other ways. And that’s really what I’m setting out to do with Hello Saints.

Q: I know there has long been — like you were describing a bit — a rift between evangelical Christians and Latter-day Saints. A lot of that has to do with our history as well as doctrinal disagreements. What do you think are some things that we as Latter-day Saints might get wrong about evangelical Christians? Some misconceptions we have?

A: Well, there’s a lot of things that go into the rift. I like that word. I haven’t heard too many people use that. The rift is complex. It’s multifaceted, I will say. I think one of the things that is difficult from our standpoint is the premise or the basis of the Church on a foundational level. Latter-day Saints (believe that) the Restoration is that there was a great apostasy and that all other Christian denominations, like their creeds, are an abomination … Those are pretty strong statements. I can appreciate where Joseph Smith was coming from when he was asking those questions because a lot of people were asking those questions. This is post-enlightenment, Second Great Awakening America, revolutionaries, right?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him asking the questions. I would have if I were alive in 1820. But those conclusions that essentially discount any other church other than the Restoration was probably one of the reasons why there were so many individuals surrounding the growing restoration movement at the time that said, ‘What are you talking about? We’ve got it wrong? And suddenly you’re coming on the scene, getting new revelations saying that you’re the only ones that have it right?’ So, we didn’t get started off on the right foot.

That being said, this is also in the Westward Expansion, Wild Wild West, renegade, revolutionary America. So, you have all of these guys, Latter-day Saint and Protestant, these gunslingers, these people who still tar and feather people, taking matters into their own hands and just not engaging in a way that really did anything more than cause each side to sort of dig in. And that has become so ingrained, I think, in both cultures’ regard for each other. Everything from the Mormon Wars and Missouri where Latter-day Saints were horribly, horribly treated by Protestants and Missourians. It’s sad and scary to me that Latter-day Saints were treated that way. But then, on the other hand, also you have sort of this defiant movement with Brigham Young taking them out West and some of the riffs and all that took place. We’re just so hardwired to see each other in a negative light. Then you add into that sort of the evangelical mindset in the 20th century of fire and brimstone street preaching apologetics approach to try to engage Latter-day Saints in faith conversations; that just didn’t go over well.

So, I think we’re in a really unique age right now; a unique time where I think we’re all ready to have diplomatic and dignified conversations with each other because this is really important stuff to us. And that was just really the sense that I’ve been getting with Hello Saints. I think we’re kind of tired of all the online debates and spats, all of the protesting, all of the ‘we’re right, you’re wrong,’ and instead to just see each other as human beings that have a lot in common that we can talk about. So, I think that all has clouded, it’s muddied the waters. And, … it’s led to a lot of misconceptions you’re talking about.

So, I think one of the misconceptions that I’ve been wanting to clear up between Latter-day Saints and Protestants is that there are a lot of different denominations. And some of us feel pretty strongly as to why different denominations have it right or have it wrong. But the vast majority of Protestant Christianity, we still believe that at the end of the day we are all God’s church. We’re all Christ’s body. We’re all the Church. We don’t believe that Methodists have it better in Heaven than the Baptists or anything like that. Or that the Lutherans are getting it wrong, and that they’re not going to go to Heaven, but the non-denoms are. That’s really not a thing. We really feel that we are all the Church — capital C — that is talked about in the New Testament. And even though we have disagreements on issues of practice and worship and governance, on a salvation level we all agree on core essential, biblical doctrines. And we feel united in that. And I think that’s something that a lot of Latter-day Saints don’t recognize.

Q: In a lot of your videos, a lot of titles I noticed contain the word honest. You say, “honest talk,” “honest conversation,” “honest reaction.” How important is honesty in having productive conversations with people you disagree with?

A: That is a fantastic question. Thanks for picking up on that. Well, what are we all driving toward? We’re driving toward the truth. And I think that it’s impossible to drive at truth without honesty because what is honesty? Honesty is the commitment to truth and authenticity. So, the reason why I’m wanting to give honest feedback is because it’s really important to me that Latter-day Saints recognize that I’m wanting to have dignified conversations. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be honest about my perspective.

Evangelicals have done a really poor job at being very incendiary with our honesty, giving people hard truth, tough love. ‘This is why you’re wrong.’ And I think there’s more than one way to be honest with people. I think that whenever I’m delivering a perspective from an evangelical or Protestant standpoint, I’m recognizing that it might make a Latter-day Saint audience uncomfortable and squirm for a couple different reasons. One, because a lot of times when evangelicals are honest, like I said a second ago, we’re just unkind. The second reason is because no one likes their faith to be questioned or to be challenged in some way.

So, I’m really saying ‘honest’ a lot so that people recognize that the purpose of this channel is to have honest conversations. And on one hand where I really am wanting to be disarming, because I am, and I’m wanting to be kind and respectful, that really is the heart of the channel and I never want that to change — that doesn’t have to be at the expense of honesty. I think that’s where there’s true substance and meaning in our conversations: is when we can be honest as opposed to just being kind with each other.

Q: How would you say you do that in practice? Because I think most people probably want to be civil, right? But then, like you said, they also don’t want to do that at the expense of not being truthful, not saying what they truly believe. So, what do you think is the best way to go about that in practice and in a real conversation?

A: My favorite word to use as I’ve been walking through this whole journey is the word dignity. In this western mindset that we have, we tie so much of our value to knowledge, to what we know, whether it’s academic or whether it’s being an expert in something. So, to challenge what someone knows can, if we’re not careful, be a direct assault on someone’s dignity. And I think in practice, what it looks like is to build as much rapport and relationship as possible so that both people in that conversation feel that their dignity can remain intact even if there’s a disagreement.

So, I’m always trying, and I get in trouble for this to be honest with you from evangelicals, I’m always trying to bring affirmation into the conversation for Latter-day Saints. It makes a lot of evangelicals uncomfortable for me to make this type of statement – I think Latter-day Saints are beautiful people. I think that they are devoted, committed, family-centered, service-oriented, loving people. Those are some of the most important virtues and values that any people group could have, that any human can have.

So, I’m always wanting to affirm that with Latter-day Saints and to allow those things to remain intact even if on a faith level I’m bringing in honesty that might get into an area of disagreement. So, I think to answer your question, working super hard to maintain a posture of love and dignity for the other person is really key for me.