The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spreading its missionary work in the digital age as people come to them via mormon.org, Facebook, texting, video conferencing and chatting on social platforms.
More than 20 years ago, President M. Russell Ballard, now the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, introduced to late-night television viewers the opportunity to contact the church for a free Bible or Book of Mormon.
Since then, the means of preaching and spreading the religion have changed vastly.
“This is a natural evolution of that project,” said Gary Crittenden, managing director of the Missionary Department of the church. “In principle, what we are doing is the same idea.”
On Thursday, the church presented a new initiative, operated through social media, called Global Online Teaching. With help from sister missionaries at 20 visitors centers around the globe, the goal of Global Online Teaching is to answer questions and teach people who contact the church with questions.
Global Online Teaching has been part of missionary work for a few years, but the impact is not readily known.
In 2017, Mormon.org had 21.1 million unique visitors. Each day, about 600 missionaries are teaching online around the world, speaking more than 40 languages.
Missionaries who teach online have received 349,670 chats, 91,250 phone calls and 299,665 information requests. Missionaries have taught more than 140,000 people online in just 2017.
At the North Visitor’s Center at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, 22 sets of sister missionaries are online at any given time, fully involved in preaching and teaching the gospel.
Sister Jamie Schmidt, from Frankfurt, Germany, and her teaching companion, Sister Hannah Dossett from Virginia, said they have had many wonderful experiences with online teaching, as well as video conferencing during missionaries lessons as those learning about the church are introduced to their local area missionaries.
The sisters, through the online services, can follow investigators through all the lessons, and to their baptism day, by video conferencing during discussions. They answer questions with local missionaries and are even invited to join in prayer during the lesson.
“My first chat was from Denmark,” said Schmidt, who speaks German, Danish and English.
Dossett added, “Many people aren’t prepared to see missionaries face-to-face. We help them feel comfortable.”
Schmidt is like many young adults. She said before her mission, she was on social media almost every waking hour of her day, whether on a mobile device or her computer.
“I’ve seen four people get baptized because of the teaching center,” Dossett said. “I took a chat from a man that at first, I thought was just trolling. He got his information and we found he was sincere and wanted to be baptized. We had him meet with the local missionaries.”
The sisters say they try to teach the first two lessons, but sometimes they are with the investigator all the way through all the missionary lessons.
Sister Bonnie Oscarson, Young Women general president, is thrilled young women, who are familiar with social media, have a way to use it to preach and teach.
“We are seeing our youth using technology and teaching with their friends,” Oscarson said. “Missionaries are using smartphones in 162 missions.”
Oscarson said they are constantly changing the youth curriculum to help young men and women in the church prepare to serve missions.
“I’m grateful the church responded to what is going on in society,” Oscarson said of integrating technology into missionary work.
“It a wonderful thing,” Crittenden said. “It’s a way for people to find us. There is less risk to go online. The people have questions of the soul.”
Crittenden added, “We are teaching the whole world.”
He noted that a handful of missionaries from the Salt Lake City South Mission have, on a trial basis, been using computers in ward meetinghouse family history rooms to connect online. He said the results were successful, and it would not be surprising if, in the future, missionaries throughout the world could spend a few hours a day preaching online.
“We wanted to let people know about Mormon.org,” said Elder Brent Nielson, executive director of the church’s missionary department and member of the Quorum of the Seventy.
Nielson said the church has Global Teaching Centers at visitor’s centers and historic sites including the Hill Cumorah, Palmyra, New York; Kirtland, Ohio; Hawaii and the Mormon Battalion Museum in San Diego, California.
With more than 20 centers in time zones worldwide, the global outreach is 24/7.
“Through Mormon.org, people wanted to talk to us. We can break through barriers,” Nielson said. “Missionaries can even record lessons and send to their investigators through messenger.”