Mormons turn to Internet to preach, but sometimes it turns on them
The LDS Church has embraced the virtual universe with unalloyed enthusiasm, hoping to harness its global reach to bring converts to Christ, while some local Mormon leaders have used the same tools to monitor — and occasionally discipline — longtime members.
Whether to proselytize or to punish, social-media outlets are part of the LDS landscape, and leaders and members alike are struggling to adopt and adapt guidelines for getting along in what they see as God’s kingdom.
The 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now hands out digital devices to nearly half its 85,000 missionaries. It employs contemporary advertising techniques to promote its beliefs in various online venues. And the faith’s sophisticated software allows millions of eager researchers to use Mormon files to discover and document their ancestors.
Excerpts from LDS Church Internet guidelines
» “When carefully used, the Internet can help coordinate the work of the church, strengthen faith, and minister to the needs of others. The Internet can also help people connect with one another and share church content with friends and family. However, members should remember that electronic communication should not replace opportunities for in-person contact, where feasible.”
» “Members are encouraged to use the Internet to flood the Earth with testimonies of the Savior and his restored gospel. They should view blogs, social networks, and other Internet technologies as tools that allow them to amplify their voice in promoting the messages of peace, hope, and joy that accompany faith in Christ.”
» “Members are encouraged to share messages from official church websites and social accounts, as well as their own words, images and media. As members express their own thoughts and feelings, they should not give the impression that they represent or are sponsored by the church.”
» “As members use the Internet to hasten the work of the Lord, they should exemplify civility and focus on sharing praiseworthy messages that strengthen those with whom they come in contact.”
Source: “Handbook 2: Administering the Church”
Meanwhile, individual members have flocked to social networking as a way of finding other Mormons who share, say, their love of art or history, their commitment to the Constitution or gay rights, or their desire for in-depth discussions from a believing or questioning perspective. LDS congregations and missions often have their own Facebook pages and members quickly become one another’s "friends."
Some local church leaders have found individual pages, for example, a good way to learn the needs of their congregants.
"The focus of our ward council and other leadership meetings in our ward is always on the well-being of our members," says Ross Trewhella, a Mormon bishop in England. "The Internet, especially Facebook, is a major social outlet for a lot of people, so it is natural that the things people have written are discussed in our meetings when we are discussing someone’s welfare."
Trewhella, who has been in his position for six years, says those meetings are never about intimate details or about political or cultural opinions but rather about the ward members’ needs.
"I have always found that the more information I have, the better I can serve someone," he writes in an email. "So, for example, if we find out someone is sick from their Facebook [page], we make sure the resources of the ward are taking care of them. There is a fine line between using information to help people and just being nosy."
Trewhella has never spoken to a ward member about online posts, especially those noticed by another member, he says. "I can’t abide by tattling and gossip anyway."
Other local LDS leaders have acted on what they have seen members put on the Web.
One woman says she was in a stake Young Women’s presidency until she posted a photo of herself nursing her daughter on her private Facebook page. A man — who, like others, requested anonymity for fear of further sanctions — was released as "elder’s quorum president" after someone informed his bishop of his online posts in support of same-sex marriage. After posting photos from a Pride parade and a feminist event, a Utah couple were removed from leadership of a youth conference and told that they could not have any future assignments or access to LDS temples. A woman in Australia was not given a calling or asked to give a talk for two years after moving into a new ward. When she asked the Relief Society president if she could get assistance with her newly adopted daughters, the president replied that if she wanted help, she "should stop posting all that feminist stuff on Facebook."
Such actions are decided by local LDS leaders.
As for church headquarters in Salt Lake City, it does not track members’ online comments, Facebook posts, tweets or blogs, says LDS spokesman Dale Jones.
The Utah-based faith does have a Strengthening Church Members Committee, whose purpose, Jones writes in a statement, "is to pass on public information to local leaders about members participating in abuse, fraud and other activities that may endanger others. It oversees pre-baptismal interviews of those formerly associated with polygamy."
The committee, the spokesman says, "does not make recommendations to local leaders."