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Orem organization furthers Net dialogue about LDS

By Michael Rigert - North County Staff - | Jul 2, 2008

With the Internet being one of the most popular mediums for communication today whether it be e-mail, Web sites, blogs, chat rooms or instant messaging, an Orem-based nonprofit organization is helping those on World Wide Web learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Created in 2005 by JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman and James Engebretsen, associate dean of the Brigham Young University Marriott School, the More Good Foundation is aimed at aiding Mormons to share their beliefs on the Internet.

At the time, Neeleman was serving as an LDS ward mission leader in his area and expressed frustration that when people investigating the church would do a Google search for more information about its beliefs and members, more often than not, the results would bring them to anti-church sites or links containing misinformation, said Karen Merkley, a foundation spokeswoman.

“The sites left non-members discouraged or deflated and some members disenfranchised,” she said.

As an alternative voice, the More Good Foundation was formed as a solution for the overwhelming need for increased positive and accurate information about the LDS faith, she said. Whether a person is seeking more information about the church or its beliefs or a church member is interesting in starting their own blog or sharing their beliefs online, the foundation is helping facilitate those connections.

Through a network of 120 Web sites in 12 different languages, people of all faiths and backgrounds can interact with Mormons, learn more about what they believe, and discuss similarities or differences. Some of the more popular sites include Christ.org, a site dedicated to outlining the teachings, life and ministry of Jesus Christ; LDS.net, social network where Mormons and non-Mormons can share beliefs, stories, testimonies, blogs and photos and videos; and Mormon Wiki, an online LDS version of Wikipedia on Mormon topics written by members. Others include MormonChurch.com, MormonTestimonies.org and LDSblogs.com.

Jonathan Johnson, the foundation’s president, said the More Good Foundation isn’t meant to duplicate the church’s job of representing itself to the world. What it’s hoping to accomplish is to get people from all around the world, including church members, into the ongoing dialogue about Mormons.

And the fact that the More Good Foundation is an independent, autonomous voice of Mormons sharing their faith may be exactly what those who have questions about the LDS church are looking for. Using the analogy of university students checking a professor rating system on the Internet as a guide to how they pick their classes, Johnson said many seeking to know more about Mormons are more comfortable asking questions of non-authorities before seeking out official sources.

“We are a voice of people trying out the Gospel,” he said. “It’s a marvelous experience to give [members] a voice.”

Through LDS members sharing their own feelings, conversion stories and even hobbies and interests (Johnson said some readers on his blog were surprised to learn he was a motorcycle racing enthusiast), those with questions about the church can learn Mormons aren’t some strange sect of people with bizarre beliefs, but ordinary people who have an extraordinary faith, Merkley said.

“Our mission is to create Web sites where that can a happen,” she said.

And the interaction is taking place. In one month alone, LDS.net received over 450,000 visits. Through the foundation’s encouragement and through messages from official church authorities, church members are increasingly sharing photos, video testimonies and personal beliefs through videos on YouTube.com, Facebook.com, and other blogging sites.

Rusty Curtis, 24, a senior advertising major at BYU and a convert to the church, recently penned an online response to a question about Mormon garments at Yahoo Answers.

“I wanted it to be thorough because for some reason naysayers love to pounce on that specific issue,” he said. “In the past, you got all this anti-Mormon stuff online, but now with my site people can search and find out the full content on what the Church really believes.”

Nearly 1,700 visitors from around the world have gone to his blog about Mormon doctrines and beliefs since December.

Merkley said many members, including those who created the More Good Foundation, have taken to heart a message LDS leader Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, when he recently admonished members to share their stories and gospel through the Internet. In the new issue of the church’s monthly magazine “Ensign” Ballard’s message is reiterated.

“There are conversations going on about the Church constantly,” Ballard wrote. “Those conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them … Now, may I ask that you join the conversation by participating in the Internet to share the gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the Restoration.”

Last week, the foundation held a special gathering of LDS.net contributors and administrators, many of them not LDS church members, in Sandy, Johnson said. Included among the participants were an atheist, an inactive LDS church member, members of other faiths, and newly baptized members of the LDS church. A prison chaplain who used a foundation site to learn more about what Mormons believe became so intrigued he contacted the church and is taking the missionary discussions, he said.

“If that is in any way a slice or representation of what we have on that site, then we feel we’re doing the right thing,” Johnson said.

“There are conversations going on about the Church constantly,” Ballard wrote. “Those conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them … Now, may I ask that you join the conversation by participating in the Internet to share the gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the Restoration.”

Last week, the foundation held a special gathering of LDS.net contributors and administrators, many of them not LDS church members, in Sandy, Johnson said. Included among the participants were an atheist, an inactive LDS church member, members of other faiths, and newly baptized members of the LDS church. A prison chaplain who used a foundation site to learn more about what Mormons believe became so intrigued he contacted the church and is taking the missionary discussions, he said.

“If that is in any way a slice or representation of what we have on that site, then we feel we’re doing the right thing,” Johnson said.

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