Dr. George Wood, former general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, told Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in a recent podcast that he used to avoid conversations with missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, he welcomes them. “I go up and say, ‘Do you know Elder Holland?’ and their faces light up. I say ‘He’s a friend of mine’ and then it cracks through all the barriers,” said Dr. Wood, who lives in Springfield, Missouri.
As prominent faith leaders in the evangelical and Latter-day Saint communities, Dr. Wood and Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have what some might deem an unlikely friendship.
But their association has built “historic bridges,” said Gregory Johnson, host of the Building Bridges with Greg Johnson podcast and founder of Standing Together, a ministry seeking to build unity among evangelical pastors in Utah.
During the 65-minute podcast which aired Sept. 11, Elder Holland and Dr. Wood reflected on their relationship over the years, how general relationships between Latter-day Saints and evangelicals have improved, and how both faiths can do more to share love and goodwill, rather than animosity over differing points of view.
“Little seeds sown can bring a real harvest, because they have,” Elder Holland said. “And more work is yet to be done.”
An instant bond
Elder Holland and Dr. Wood met in March 2011 when Elder Holland was invited to address members of the National Association of Evangelicals at a meeting in Park City, Utah. Following his remarks, he opened it up for questions.
Dr. Wood was the first to pose a question: “What keeps you up at night?” Elder Holland was emotional as he stated his concern for the rising generation. For Dr. Wood, it was a mutual worry. He felt his heart “intertwined” with Elder Holland.
The two continued to talk after the session, sparking an instant bond of friendship. Dr. Wood remembers Elder Holland’s transparency, honesty and respect. Elder Holland said, “It was the highlight of the evening for me.”
Over the next decade, Elder Holland and Dr. Wood hosted each other at various meetings and engaged in memorable conversations about their beliefs. Their wives, Sister Pat Holland and Jewel Wood, became great friends also.
“I admire Jeff for his willingness to be my friend, for his kindness, unbelievable kindness to me and to Jewel,” Dr. Wood said. “I would have never imagined this, but the Lord provided this opportunity for friendship, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to become a friend to Jeff. …
“We recognize that there is a love for each other that transcends differences that we have.”
An increased dialogue between Latter-day Saints and evangelicals has made it easier to have an evangelical presence in areas like Utah and Arizona where the majority of people are Latter-day Saints, Dr. Wood said. Such dialogue has “set a tone of kindness and hospitality and civility that works both ways.”
Peaceful, irenic dialogue produces better results, Dr. Wood said, and the Holy Spirit is the persuader. “I’m not the persuader. I don’t have to persuade anybody. That way I can love everybody, and I can respect where someone else is coming from.”
Elder Holland said the Church is encouraging missionaries to find common ground, rather than leading with what may be controversial doctrine. “We start from where we agree, we start from brotherhood and sisterhood, and work our way out from that.” Often, the divide isn’t as wide as expected.
Another focus for missionaries is service in the community. “We’re trying to have our missionaries see themselves first as true disciples of Christ, and a significant element of their time on their missions is devoted to service,” Elder Holland said.
The missionaries’ key message is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Part of that message should always be the kindness, love and goodwill with which it is presented, he added.
Dr. Wood said he wishes everyone could have the kind of relationship he has with Elder Holland, with someone who believes differently than they do. “I think this would be a better world, a better America, a better place if we had a bond, a friendship, a love between us, which really anchors us.”
Concluding the podcast, Johnson said of Elder Holland and Dr. Wood, “I hope many of us will learn from their example and follow it in our own friendships at school, at work, or wherever we might be.”