The story behind the missionary reality TV show, 'The District'

Published: Friday, April 18 2014 10:00 a.m. MDT

Four camera crews followed eight LDS missionaries in San Diego for several months during 2009. The resulting footage was initially purposed to create training videos, but now it's also the source material for the new BYUtv reality show "The District."

Provided by LDS Church Missionary Department

Elder J. Tyler Christensen saw his opportunity and didn’t hesitate.

“From what you have been telling us, over and over again, is your willingness to follow Jesus Christ,” said Christensen, whose eyes were fixed on a stout young man with curly black hair. “Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized by someone holding the priesthood authority of God?”

“I will,” said German, wiping at his eyes.

Although only in his first lesson with the two San Diego Mormon missionaries, German was ready to quit smoking. He was ready to embrace the LDS faith and change his life.

“I am willing and I accept,” German said. “This is the opportunity I have been waiting for all my life, to get baptized.”

A date was set. Elder Mike Moreno promised German they would help him prepare for his baptism and handed him a picture of Jesus to remind him of his commitment. German said he would place it next to a photo of his grandparents.

Fade to black and return to menu.

The spiritual scene, less than three minutes long, is titled “Invitation to Be Baptized: German.” Unscripted and featuring real people, it’s one of a series of training videos on two sets of DVDs produced by the missionary department of The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the past eight years. The DVDs provide a visual model for teaching missionary skills in connection with the church’s missionary guide, “Preach My Gospel.”

The whole story behind these DVDs, “The District 1” and “The District 2,” has never been shared, said Stephen B. Allen, an Area Seventy and the managing director of the LDS Church’s missionary department. From Texas to California, the process involved selecting the right missionaries, special training, camera crews and editing thousands of hours of footage. The final product is not only assisting in the work but also inspiring young people to want to be missionaries. Much of the footage of District 2 also became a show on BYUtv.

“We were modeling missionaries and missionary work. Everything the church had produced (before these projects) was scripted or straight documentary,” Allen said. “This is reality television. We had stepped into a new arena.”

Visual learners

“Preach My Gospel” was published in 2004 as the standard curriculum for anyone associated with missionary work in the LDS Church. Several church leaders have said it was inspired. In his April 2005 general conference address, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve said that while former missionary materials were effective for their time, “Preach My Gospel” was designed to help missionaries teach the gospel in their own words as guided by the Holy Ghost.

"Missionaries throughout the world now get into their minds and hearts the message of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ," Elder Scott said in 2005. "These lessons are then given in their own words as guided by the Spirit. This focus has dramatically improved the effectiveness of missionaries that use it."

Following the release of "Preach My Gospel," church leaders and the missionary department closely observed its implementation with high expectations. But Allen said it became clear that the missionaries needed help utilizing the principles of the new system.

An idea emerged. Perhaps it would make a difference if missionaries could see an effective demonstration of methods and fundamentals.

When popular reality television shows such as “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “The Amazing Race” were considered, the solution became evident, Allen said.

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