SALT LAKE CITY — During Sunday night's historic two-hour missionary broadcast, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints referred to two innovations they will employ to make Mormon missionaries more effective.
It turns out both innovations — allowing missionaries to take their proselyting activities to the Internet and having them conduct tours of LDS meetinghouses — already have been tested successfully in LDS missions.
Indicating that "the church must adapt to a changing world," Elder L. Tom Perry of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that “during less-productive times of the day — chiefly in the mornings — missionaries will use computers in meetinghouses and other church facilities to contact investigators and members, work with local priesthood leaders and missionary leaders, receive and contact referrals, follow up on commitments, confirm appointments and teach principles from (the missionary guide) 'Preach My Gospel' using Mormon.org, Facebook, blogs, email and text messages."
An article on the LDS Newsroom website said church leaders told new mission presidents during a meeting earlier in the day that "missionary use of the Internet and digital devices such as iPads will begin in phases and only in designated missions for the rest of this year."
"The church anticipates these tools will be available to missionaries throughout the world sometime next year," the website reported.
But the concept of online proselyting is old news to Eric Whitlock of Gilbert, Ariz., who served as a full-time missionary in the church's Montana Billings Mission from 2010-12. About six months into his mission, he said, the Montana mission became one of several missions to explore how missionaries could use the Internet to do their work.
"They pretty much said, 'Here's the idea — figure it out'," said Whitlock, who is studying visual communications through BYU-Idaho's online educational offerings. "It started out with just the leadership in our mission — zone leaders, district leaders and people like that. But eventually it spread out to the whole mission."
At first, Whitlock said, "it was, like, scary."
"We had been told to shut down all our Facebook accounts and everything, and to stay off the Internet except to email home," he said. "And now they were telling us to make a Mormon.org profile and open a Facebook missionary page. It was like, whoa!"
Members, too, wondered about the innovation.
"We'd make a Facebook missionary page and start friending all of the members and the youth in the area to which we were assigned, and people were coming to us and saying, 'You know, we think it's great that you're trying to get acquainted with ward members and everything, but you probably shouldn't be breaking mission rules to do it'," Whitlock said. "We were all, 'We're OK! The prophet told us to do this!' We had to explain the new program to them."
But once the members and missionaries understood what they were doing, "it just became a super-effective tool," Whitlock said.
"It was especially effective for us during the winter," he said. "It gets so cold during the winter in Montana, people just don't answer the door when you knock. They just stay inside and watch TV and play on their computers. So we were a lot more effective contacting people online than we would have been knocking on doors."
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