The story behind the missionary reality TV 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.”
“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.
“Let’s do a reality TV show. Let’s go film missionaries doing this,” said Allen, who has a background as an executive TV producer. “So many of our youth today are visual learners. We can train missionaries, film them and use it as a training tool.”
The missionary department requested permission to select one district of four elders and two sisters in one U.S. mission, train them and film them. Permission was granted. Under Allen’s supervision, they began making arrangements for the ambitious undertaking in San Antonio around 2007.
The Texas San Antonio Mission was chosen because it was a mission that had a lot of baptisms. The missionaries there knew how to find people to teach, Allen said, so it provided a good setting for an instructional DVD that would focus on demonstrating principles of planning, finding and working with members.
The first step was to assemble the district. After observing and consulting with Texas San Antonio Mission President Derrill C. Larkin, a list of candidates was narrowed down to six missionaries. The group included district leader Elder Jacob Reis of Hawaii and his companion, Elder Chris Bernal of Colorado; Elder Shawn Hallam of California and his new companion fresh from the Missionary Training Center, Elder Darren Walkenhorst of California; and Sister Krystal Myers of Oklahoma and Sister Shelisa Payne of Utah.
Each missionary came with a unique background.
For instance, Bernal had joined the church only two years earlier. Myers only considered serving a mission as she turned 21. Although she had a boyfriend awaiting her return, she agreed to extend her mission six weeks to participate in “The District 1.”
Walkenhorst was selected en route from the Provo, Utah, MTC to Texas, and he provided an example of the new missionary experience. Reis was originally called to a mission in Mexico in 2003, but neck, back, shoulder and jaw injuries suffered in an automobile accident just before he left forced him to return home for medical attention only a few months later. His recovery was slow and painful. He battled discouragement for the next year while praying for a doctor to approve his return to the mission field. When a doctor finally signed his release, Reis was reassigned to San Antonio.
The day of his transfer into District 1, Reis was pulling his luggage into an LDS meetinghouse when a man he didn’t know tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You were sick for a reason.”
“What?” Reis said.
As Reis recalled, “He looked me in the eye, more like into my soul, and said, 'You were sent home from your first mission for a reason, and you will soon find out why.' It was the first time I met Brother Allen.”
The team of missionaries was pulled into a room with the mission president and members of the missionary department and informed they would be part of a reality TV-type training film. Their reaction was one of genuine shock, followed by feelings of extreme inadequacy. "We were overwhelmed, to say the least," Reis said.
Payne immediately flashed back to a bad memory of when as a 10-year-old she auditioned for a talent agency, only to have a woman tell her she had “no talent and would never look good on camera.” The experience so destroyed her self-confidence that she refused to let anyone take her picture for a couple of years. Her immediate reaction to the news was, “Oh no, you picked the wrong girl.”
“Despite this scene from my childhood coming back to haunt me, I smiled and said I would do my best,” Payne said. “The Lord truly answered my prayers and qualified me to accomplish what I had been asked to do.”
The second phase consisted of intense and exhausting training. Personnel from the missionary department and the MTC spent significant time instructing each companionship every day for several weeks.
Once filming began, the crew could only observe the proceedings. They were not allowed to offer the missionaries any tips or instructions. The filming style was to be up close and personal, Allen said.
The crew captured the missionaries knocking on doors, teaching investigators, meeting with members, planning, studying and attending baptisms and other activities. The cameras were set at eye level so the audience would feel like they were part of the discussion. Written permission was obtained before any members or investigators participated.
The missionaries wanted so badly to help produce something motivating and inspiring, yet at times they struggled and became discouraged. They didn’t want to let the missionary department or the church down, Reis said.
At a district meeting, Reis said, Allen could sense the group was feeling stressed and made a phone call to Utah that lifted their spirits.
“I remember him walking into the room and saying, 'There is someone who wants to talk to you.' He had it on speaker, and we huddled up,” Reis said. “It was President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (second counselor in the First Presidency). It was moments like that that made me want to do my best to represent the Lord.”
As they continued to work, the missionaries became more accustomed to the equipment and crew. They were able to be themselves and follow the promptings of the Spirit.
“The camera was right in your face and you could always see the boom mic hanging over your head, just distractions everywhere,” Reis said. “But the miracle and memorable thing for me was once the prayer was said, the Lord calmed my soul and it was like the cameras had disappeared. It was me, my companion and the person in front of us.”
Once the filming phase was over, more than 800 hours of film was processed and edited by reality show experts and professional directors, then enhanced by customized music, Allen said. The final product was presented to church leaders and received approval just in time to be shared at the annual mission president seminar in the summer of 2007.
“The Lord blessed us because he wanted it,” Allen said.
With the rollout of "The District 1" over the next two years, the missionary department observed improvement in the principles emphasized but identified “teaching” as an area of concern. So Allen and the missionary department proposed the idea of producing a second DVD set to demonstrate principles of teaching. This time, the work would be done in San Diego with “The District 2.”
“We wanted them to be better teachers,” Allen said.
District 2 consisted of six elders and two sisters: the district leader, Elder Steve Bott of Utah and his companion, Elder Jon Hepworth of Idaho; Elder Mike Moreno of Utah and Elder J. Tyler Christensen of Florida; Elder Alex Murray of Utah and Elder Tevita Tuituu of Guam; and Sister Janet Zaldivar of Utah/Argentina and Sister Laura Voyles of Mississippi.
There were a few differences between District 1 and District 2. First, District 1 often appeared too good, so more flaws were on display with District 2, Allen said.
“Missionaries will prefer this because it’s more real,” he said.
Another lesson taken from "The District 1" was the importance of sharing each missionary’s pre- and post-mission story. The missionary department felt their individual stories were powerful and would connect them with viewers.
“They all have fascinating stories,” Allen said.
Bott came from a less-active family. He didn’t take an interest in the church until he was a teenager. Before deciding to serve, Christensen was a member of a rock band. Hepworth almost died of cancer at age 13.
A few weeks into the filming, Voyles’ brother died. It was a difficult topic for her to talk about on camera.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two projects was the amount of time involved. The San Antonio district took less than a month to film. It took about five months to capture the San Diego district, Allen said.
“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.
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.”
The eight missionaries from District 2 are also known outside of missionary circles. Life-size photos and videos are on display at an exhibit in the LDS Church’s Washington D.C. Temple Visitors' Center called “Eight Stories.” Elder Harden Eyring, a senior missionary and director of the visitors' center, said the exhibit is especially popular among young people who tour the visitors' center while waiting for a turn to participate in baptisms for the dead. Elder Eyring recalled one young woman who told the sister missionaries she came from a broken family situation but that after visiting that day, she had gained a new positive outlook on life.
“You get a lot of comments like that. Afterwards many say, ‘I’m sure going on a mission now,' ” said Elder Eyring, brother to President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency. “It really does have an enormous impact on anyone who watches their stories. It’s life-changing.”
The DVDs have also influenced countless missionaries in the field. Danny Payne, the young brother of Shelisa, said the visual media has blessed him as a missionary and later as an MTC instructor. It also helped him to see his older sister in a more Christlike way.
“It gives missionaries a standard to shoot for. If you know what something looks like, it enhances your vision of how to get there,” said Danny Payne, who later met some of the people his sister taught in Texas. “I was able to see some of the fruits of her labors. Seeing her example in the DVDs also motivated me to hold myself to a higher standard.”
Summer Draney, another former missionary and current MTC instructor, was inspired by the example of missionaries in both districts. As missionaries in Iowa, she and her companion would watch the DVDs with an investigator in mind and hit pause frequently.
“We would seek revelation for how we could best help them,” Draney said. “We also realized that you don’t have to be perfect to be a great missionary. You just have to be your best.”
Myers, now married and a mother of three, summarized the feelings of all involved when she expressed gratitude for taking part in this "special experience that created so many strong spiritual bonds of friendship."
“It was humbling to be part of something of such importance and so guided by the Spirit," she said. "There were so many spiritual experiences that strengthened my testimony in ways I didn’t think possible. When missionaries come around and see ‘Sister Myers,’ I love to share with them. Anything that takes me back reminds me of what a sacred experience it was and that I have a lot to cherish and live for. I hope it helps other missionaries realize we were ordinary and they can reach the same potential or be even greater missionaries if they will learn and apply these important principles.”
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