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

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

“San Diego was hard because of the topic," Allen said. "Part of the beauty is they are not perfect. This allows missionaries watching to hit pause and break down the situation like game film for an athlete. That’s how they learn. What did they do well? What didn’t go well? How would you do it differently? By the end, they were all dynamic teachers.”

Once "The District 2" was completed, for the first time, missionaries around the world were granted permission to have a DVD player in their apartments so they could study the material.

Footage was also edited to create eight 30-minute episodes of “The District” for BYUtv. According to a 2012 Deseret News article, BYUtv creative director Scott Swofford participated in the San Diego project as the missionary department's media director before accepting a position at BYUtv. Swofford, who helped pioneer the church's "I'm a Mormon" videos, played an important role in bringing "The District" to BYUtv, the article said.

“We realized that, on any level, the real story about what Mormon missionaries do all day long is a very entertaining story,” Swofford said in the article. “Regardless of whether you’re a Mormon or whether you’re even interested in Mormon things, this is really compelling television."

President Lee Donaldson, then-president of the California San Diego Mission, said the experience both energized the mission and blessed individuals. When those involved were struggling, which happened often, priesthood blessings were given. Other missionaries were aware of what was happening but never became jealous. It was all about the work, the former mission president said.

“It’s been fun to see the ripple effect. The experience helped me to develop more love and understanding for my missionaries and what they were going through,” he said. “Another lesson I took away is God will use anybody who is willing. There might have been more charismatic or talented missionaries, but these missionaries were just willing, as many others were willing. It’s never about our talent; it’s what we are willing to do, whether it's serve in front of a camera or in an obscure part of the world.”

Today, Christensen is close to finishing a degree at BYU and works part-time at the MTC as a workshop trainer. At times he wonders how or why he was selected to be part of District 2. He feels he did what any missionary would have done in the same situation.

“I didn’t audition for it. It was definitely one of those surreal experiences where all these dominoes lined up and here I am,” Christensen said. “All I really did, honestly, is go on a mission. I did what every other young man in the church would do. That’s all.”

For Allen, a memorable moment came at the end of filming "The District 2." Everyone who had participated was like family now. For the final day of filming, arrangements were made for District 1 to come to San Diego and meet District 2. When District 1 walked into the room, mouths dropped to the floor, Allen said.

“ 'It’s them,’ they said,” Allen recalled. “It was unbelievably wonderful.”

“This is the work that I am personally most pleased with,” Allen said.

Post-production impact

The missionary department has continued to maintain close ties and friendships with these missionaries as they get married, start families and pursue education and careers. Many, like Christensen, have shared their knowledge and experience as instructors at the MTC. They are recognized everywhere they go.

“They are like rock stars,” Allen said.

The first time Christensen spoke to Jacqueline Tanner, a cute girl in the library and his future fiancée, somebody recognized him from the DVDs and interrupted their conversation. When the person left, Tanner surprised Christensen with a question: “Aren’t you glad I didn’t do that?”

“It turns out she had served a mission and recognized me from the DVDs, but she had forgotten my name,” Christensen said with a laugh. “She thought I was cute.”

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