Basically, it comes down to personal accountability and following the spirit. It's the same online as it is in physical work. —Eric Whitlock
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."
Part of the "figuring out" process included ways to keep missionaries safe — which Elder Perry said is "paramount in this new frontier of missionary work" — and productive online. Whitlock said they developed their own set of online rules for missionaries, which included spending only one hour per day online, not using it for personal correspondence or online shopping and not using it as a time filler.
"Basically, it comes down to personal accountability and following the spirit," Whitlock said. "It's the same online as it is in physical work. Just as missionaries could sit in their apartment and play Monopoly all day, missionaries could go online and play Farmville. At some point we have to trust that they will follow the spirit and make good choices to be productive missionaries."
If they do so, Whitlock said, they will have amazing experiences sharing the gospel online. During his mission he felt impressed to reconnect online with a friend from home who, it turned out, was going through a spiritual crisis. "As soon as I was able to get on Facebook, I was able to talk to him and help him stay on track, and today he's serving as a missionary himself," Whitlock said.
Another Montana missionary reconnected with a family friend who was living in England. He started teaching her the gospel online, eventually turning her over to missionaries in England. She joined the church and is now serving as a missionary in Estonia, Whitlock said.
"The young people going on missions today really know how to use the Internet and social networking as a way to reach out to people — they know how to be effective with this," he said. "I'm really excited more missionaries are going to be able to do it."
Similarly, Salt Lake attorney James Jardine was excited to hear Elder Perry talk about having missionaries take investigators on tours of LDS meetinghouses. As a former president of the church's California Sacramento Mission, Jardine encouraged his missionaries to teach missionary lessons in LDS Church buildings if possible.
"Holding lessons in church buildings had several benefits, one of which was to increase the comfort of the people we were teaching in entering our buildings," Jardine said. "The missionaries would often then do a tour of the building. They would point out the chapel and sacrament table and explain the sacrament and how our meetings worked. They would show them the Relief Society, Primary and Young Men and Young Women rooms, and explain the block meeting schedule and all the different organizations of the church."
Jardine said he was aware of other missions that had a "very formalized approach to meetinghouse tours," with artwork and other elements arranged to enhance the tours. But that was not the case in Sacramento.
"We didn't have an established Tour Night at the meetinghouse or anything like that," he said. "But conducting those tours with their investigators was something our missionaries regularly did, and it was effective in helping people to feel more comfortable in coming to church."
A third innovation cited during the Sunday evening service was the introduciton of a new web page on the church's LDS.org website called "Hastening the Work of Salvation: A United Effort in Conversion, Retention and Activation," which is intended to help members, missionaries and local church leaders work together more cohesively in what Elder Perry called "the greatest and most important duty (of Latter-day Saints) to preach the gospel."
“Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord’s vineyard to bring souls unto him,” said LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson in a pre-recorded message that wrapped up the Sunday night meeting. “He has prepared the means for us to share the gospel in a multitude of ways, and he will assist us in our labors if we will act in faith to fulfill his work.”
The entire broadcast can be viewed here.