Last fall, the Maryland Baltimore Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints launched a social media initiative to better demonstrate who and what the church’s full-time missionaries are all about.
The idea, coined #SocialMediaSplit, was born in the Ohio Cincinnati Mission by church members and public affairs gurus Geoff Thatcher and Paul Beck, as a friendly response to the touring production of "The Book of Mormon" musical. It was later adopted and significantly adapted by President Mark L. Richards of the Maryland Baltimore Mission.
In recent months, the idea has spread from Baltimore to Oklahoma City and Montreal to Chesapeake, Virginia.
In Maryland, President Richards has invited leaders, members and missionaries across the six stakes in the mission boundaries to call the third Saturday of the month “#SocialMediaSplit Saturday.” All day long, members either split or team up with missionaries for activities like teaching, giving church tours or performing service.
(Traditionally, the word "split" is used when both members of a companionship of missionaries — two elders or two sisters — pair up with a local church member to double the work. The term “team up” is typically used when a member accompanies a companionship in a trio.)
Understandably, on a busy Saturday, local church members might not have as much time as they’d like to work with missionaries. But whether they spend 30 minutes or three hours, if a member takes an appropriate photo that accurately depicts what missionaries do and then posts it on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, that’s a #SocialMediaSplit.
With nearly six months of #SocialMediaSplit experience under his mission’s belt, President Richards emphasizes that it’s not intended as a burdensome new program or requirement for working with the missionaries. Participating in a #SocialMediaSplit simply means sharing your experiences with the missionaries online. On popular social media tools, “hashtags,” or theme trackers, allow similar content to be grouped, tracked and followed. Hashtags are like the index at the back of your scriptures, but for social media.
Leaders sometimes liken it to the reporting of home or visiting teaching. Even if not recorded, making those monthly visits is extremely important, but accurately reporting them allows others to track and follow the progress of the Lord’s work.
Likewise, spending time with the missionaries is important, but recording those experiences with the hashtag #SocialMediaSplit allows leaders and others on social media to immediately identify and track that type of content.
“It’s so simple,” President Richards said. “The #SocialMediaSplit initiative gets the members out with missionaries and allows them to participate arm-in-arm. It reminds us all that we are both on the Lord's team, doing his work in a united way.”
While the initiative is about souls and not numbers, the results speak for themselves. The mission’s total for the last #SocialMediaSplit on Saturday, March 21, was a whopping 426. That’s not posts, pictures or events. That’s individual members spending time with the full-time elders or sisters in their wards and branches in a single day.
Of course, it’s about more than those 426 — it’s about the connections of those 426 on social media. Take Facebook, for example. According to the social media giant, among adult users, the average number of friends is 338. That makes the one-day total potential audience for all members participating in a social media split almost 150,000.
The exponential value is even more jaw dropping. Those 150,000 have over 50 million social media connections. Every “like” and “share” has the potential to ripple around the world.
That, as Elder David A. Bednar counseled during Brigham Young University’s 2014 Campus Education Week, is how we “sweep the earth as with a flood.”
Amazingly, this wave of uplifting content isn’t limited to members. President Richards has challenged missionaries, when appropriate, to also invite non-members to participate. “What better way,” President Richards asked during a recent interview, “to demonstrate the good our missionaries do than by inviting a friend learning about the gospel, or even a street contact, to take a great photo and share it with their social media audience?”
President Richards, whose mission ends in July, is passionate about the potential. He often shares anecdotes of member friends both inside and outside his mission boundaries asking questions and expressing curiosity about the church as a result of a simple photo of missionaries shoveling snow, teaching a lesson or picking up trash on the side of the highway in between appointments.
One of his favorite stories is about a young man with a friend serving in the mission whose interest in the church began by seeing this missionary participating in a #SocialMediaSplit. He saw a photo on Facebook, asked some questions and within a few months was baptized 2,000 miles from where the #SocialMediaSplit occurred.
In a recent interview, President Richards, known for his humility and self-deprecating humor, was quick to deflect attention for the success of #SocialMediaSplit to a long list of others, including his wife, Karlan, and the stake presidents, bishops and ward mission leaders.
“But may I call out two in particular?" he said. "At the top of the list sits our area Seventy, Elder Jack Gerard. He just 'got it' from the very beginning and his leadership, blessing and support were critical."
"The other," he continued, "is Michele Calderon." President Richards described how Calderon, a public affairs representative for the church and member of the Jones Falls Ward in the Baltimore Maryland Stake, drove the idea across every corner of the mission.
"Without her, we never would have made it past the first month."
He added that Calderon's entire public affairs team demonstrated faith in the program not just by talking, but by doing. He recommends any ward, stake or mission that experiments with #SocialMediaSplit rely heavily on the divinely called and well-trained public affairs specialists who serve in their respective parts of the world.
Other church members who’ve participated in a #SocialMediaSplit are quick to testify of its benefits. Demere Knecht, a member of the Shenandoah Valley Ward in the Winchester Virginia Stake who has participated each month since the November launch, offered advice to uneasy members: “Don't worry that you are not the ‘perfect’ example of living the gospel. Often times, we don't want to highlight our lives online because we are afraid that we aren't the perfect examples of everything in the world. Our car may not be washed in the background or our hair may not be perfect. But as we try our best to authentically live the gospel of Jesus Christ, Heavenly Father will use us to help spread the gospel and hasten the work, and he will direct our paths.”
Knecht suggested that the #SocialMediaSplit reaches farther than we anticipate. “This may sound scary, but it's actually miraculous. The people most affected by my #SocialMediaSplits are those that I never dreamed of, and they are people that were just acquaintances to start with. Perhaps one of the greatest miracles is that once you break your own inner barriers of fear and inadequacy, you are more open to the promptings of the spirit to share the gospel online and in your daily life.”
Knecht added that the results are not measured in conversions: “A #SocialMediaSplit may not result in a baptism in the next two weeks. But, I have friends and neighbors approaching me and my children with questions about the church and about missionaries. Yours will be successful if it helps people to understand The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a little bit better. And I think that our neighbors in our little city of Virginia have a better understanding and a more favorable view of who we are and who missionaries are.”
The next time you’re out with the missionaries at a baptism, barbecue or bringing the spirit of the Restoration into a humble living room, consider taking a picture. Ask permission to post it. Then tag it for all the world to know.
Congratulations. You just participated in a #SocialMediaSplit.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks or by email at email@example.com.