PROVO — Not all the efforts in the LDS Church's Provo Missionary Training Center are focused on instruction, training, preparation and role-playing.
There's also real missionary work going on — honest-to-goodness contacting and teaching.
Just not in person — but rather online.
While nearly all of the missionaries arriving at the Provo MTC stay there for three to 12 weeks for training purposes before being sent across the globe, a handful of missionaries are assigned there full time for the entirety of their missions to help staff the chat services on mormon.org for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
"We teach people from all over the world," said Elder Joshua Albright of Lakewood, Wash., one of the Provo MTC's small group of "chat missionaries" or "online missionaries" that over the past two-plus years have helped convert people in 42 states and 20 different countries — as well as some right here along the Wasatch Front.
A typical day starts like that of any other missionary — getting up, getting ready, having breakfast, followed by a couple of hours combined for personal study and combined study. Then, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., they're logged in and ready to respond to mormon.org visitors clicking on those hot-pink "chat with us" boxes found on every page of the web site.
Joining them to help man the services 24/7 are Provo MTC instructors, sister missionaries at Salt Lake City's Temple Square and others in Mexico City and the Philippines.
Studies show the typical person going to the mormon.org chat site is 15 to 20 years old, a high school or college student with some questions or uncertainties. Missionaries obtain parental permission before continuing with those under the age of 18.
The chat starts with a question and often leads to a conversation or exchange, with the online missionaries helping to facilitate needs or answer inquiries — whether the person is looking for a Book of Mormon or other church materials, trying to find a nearby meetinghouse or wanting to make contact with the local missionaries.
"We try to transition them from curiosity to wanting to learn in a medium that's comfortable for them," said Elder Bryan Sabin of Poway, Calif.
So not to scare off those starting the chat, missionaries are identified initially by first name only — such as Joshua, soon followed by Elder Joshua Albright and then simply Elder Albright.
The optimum is to have a pair of missionaries — a companionship — engaged together in the same chat.
And the user can exit out of the chat whenever he or she wants.
Online missionaries work differently depending on the circumstances or the individuals they chat with — they may give some directions or information, engage in lengthy online conversations during which principles and doctrine are taught, or even set up an online appointment for a follow-up chat.
"We try to get them to the local missionaries and make sure the local missionaries are the primary teachers," Elder Sabin said. "But we don't end our contact, even when we step back from teaching."
In fact, it's not uncommon for someone who started with the online missionaries and is being taught by the local missionaries to go back to the mormon.org chat and re-engage again — either to ask questions they were too embarrassed or shy to ask of the local missionaries or to confirm elements of what they were taught.
But sometimes local missionaries are not an option. "We've taught people where there are no missionaries nearby or if they're in countries where there are no missionaries present," said Elder Albright, adding "we joke around here that we do everything but baptize them."
While the anonymity of an online chat is appealing to some, it can create a cloak of identity invisibility used by unscrupulous users.
"Some people come in to prank us, some come in to argue," said Elder Sabin. "But the people who are sincere really stand out."