After nearly 350,000 internet contacts last year, Mormon missionaries are expanding their online teaching

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune The heavily bookmarked Book of Mormon of Sister Gadiane sits within reach as she speaks to contacts. Missionaries showed how they use social media and video technology to connect with and teach people who want to learn more about the church, Thursday, March 8, 2018.

What began as a simple social media experiment at Provo’s Missionary Training Center a decade ago has mushroomed into a global online Mormon proselytizing effort.

More than 600 full-time missionaries — almost all of whom are women assigned to 20 of the faith’s visitor centers around the world — are chatting via the internet with potential converts, teaching Mormonism in 30-plus languages.

The approach is hardly new but, since the program’s birth, “the technology has changed,” said Bonnie Oscarson, president of the church’s Young Women program and a member of its Executive Missionary Council. “It’s become more sophisticated.”

A partnership with Google — for an undisclosed fee, Oscarson said — allows the church’s mormon.org site to be among the first listed when someone searches the word “Mormon” or “LDS.”

Last year, that site had 21,086,887 “unique visitors,” Oscarson said at a news conference Thursday in the computer area in the North Visitors Center on Temple Square, “and 349,670 chats, 91,250 calls and 299,665 information requests.”

Out of all of those conversations, she said, missionaries — stationed at far-flung visitor centers (typically tied to Mormon temples and historic sites) stretching from Portland to Paris — taught more than 140,000 seekers.

Neither Oscarson nor Brent Nielson, executive director of the church’s Missionary Department, had figures for the number or percent of those seekers who subsequently joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The internet has become a powerful tool to find new members, said Gary Crittenden, managing director of the Missionary Department.

The number of people who are contacted by missionaries on the street remains higher than those who come to the faith via social media, Crittenden said, but that latter number “is growing rapidly.”

The Utah-based faith wants people who are searching for transcendence online, he explained, to see Mormonism as a “source of spiritual information.”

Eva Ståhle, a missionary from Finland, spends about three hours a day at the Salt Lake City center responding to queries as well as reaching out to those who have asked online for a Bible or a Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture.

“We take chats and phone calls,” she said, “as well as texts and emails.”

Some are “trolls” who aren’t truly interested in Mormonism, Ståhle said. The women are told to be polite but not spend much time conversing with them.

Others may be lonely and just want to voice or text with someone, she said, or they want help with a relationship.

“I tell them I am not equipped for that,” quipped Charlotte Blocker, Ståhle’s missionary companion from Dallas.

This online push is part of the LDS Church’s current missionary strategy (one that includes arming many of its 68,000 full-time evangelizers with “smartphones”) to reach “investigators” they are teaching.

These days it makes sense to use mostly women in its online push, since their numbers have surged from 13 percent of the missionary force before 2012 to 30 percent after the church dropped the minimum age requirement for women from 21 to 19.

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