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Up until a year ago, odds were good that you had at least some time answered your front door only to be greeted by a delegation of Latter-day Saints or Jehovah’s Witnesses inquiring about the state of your eternal soul.
Then COVID-19 erupted, the deadly virus doing what generations of awkward porch conversations and the occasional slammed door could not: End unexpected visits by the two most prominent proselytizing American-born faiths.
Now, with the coronavirus in retreat, the literature-laden ambassadors of both faiths look to return to a neighborhood near you — even as they continue and expand online and videoconferencing tools developed to reach out to potential converts during the past year of isolation and social distancing.
Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf told Latter-day Saint missionaries during a February global digital devotional that there will be no going back “to the old ways.”
“Go back to the future,” he urged. “Move forward and upward as you apply what you have learned during the pandemic.”
Indeed, well before COVID-19 struck, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its 54,000 missionaries worldwide had already been cutting back on door-to-door, cold-call proselytizing. Instead of “tracting” — as they called it — missionaries embraced social media, blogs, emails, text messages and the church’s website to learn of nonmembers’ interest. Referrals from those sources then could lead to in-home visits and teaching.
If anything, the pandemic — which, for a time, left the church’s meetinghouses shuttered, temples closed and the 21,000-seat downtown Salt Lake City Conference Center empty as biannual General Conferences went completely online in 2020 and again in April — only underscored the value of a high-tech gospel.
“It’s not so much that we deemphasize door-to-door proselytizing,” says Dave Weidman, managing director of the church’s Missionary Department, “but rather emphasize doing what is most effective in finding those who are searching for answers about life.”
“‘Witnessing’ is what we do’”
For their part, Jehovah’s Witnesses acknowledge they faced a massive challenge when, on March 20, 2020, citing “respect for life and love of neighbor” as the pandemic raged out of control, the faith officially suspended door-knocking, literature cart displays in public spaces, and even in-person services in their Kingdom Halls.
“That was a shock to the system at first [and] a serious paradigm shift,” says Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for the Warwick, N.Y.-based faith. “In our very name ‘witnessing’ is what we do ... that is ingrained in us, and to be told no, well, that was tough.”
Indeed, door-to-door preaching, supplemented by ready copies of the faith’s Watchtower and Awake! magazines, has been a core tenet for Jehovah’s Witnesses since the 8.7 million-strong sect was founded by Pennsylvania businessman Charles Taze Russell in 1879.
To meet the coronavirus challenges, Witnesses not only amped up and expanded their use of new technologies but also wove email, videoconferencing, streaming and online educational offers into their old-school techniques of writing letters and making phone calls to share their faith.
“Before [the pandemic] we walked the streets, [going] door to door,” Hendriks says. “Now, we are ‘walking the streets’ virtually with Google Maps and Google Earth [to] theoretically knock on every door and reach everyone [in each congregation’s district] within the course of a year.”
For Witness Rachel Bullard, that has meant making upbeat voice and videoconferencing calls and mailing handwritten, scripture-based letters of encouragement to her fellow St. George area residents. Before the pandemic, the 40-year-old Bullard often spent full days knocking on doors, presiding over home Bible studies, or standing behind a street corner literature cart, ready to strike up conversations with passersby.
Bullard, one of more than 6,300 Witnesses in Utah, looks forward to reincorporating those time-honored witnessing techniques once the pandemic retreats but acknowledges that “the more I do letter-writing or phoning, I feel like it helps me see things from the other side and understand the people I’m trying to help.”
A fellow Witness, Layton resident Michael Jones, has combined letter writing with his American Sign Language skills and videoconferencing to reach out to the hearing-impaired along the Wasatch Front.
“I write letters explaining what resources are available for those who are deaf,” Jones says. “I share a brief scriptural point as well as explain how to find answers to some of the questions people have about life today, answers that are in full sign language on our official website.”
Pre-pandemic, Jones, who is himself hearing, had regularly included deaf contacts in his in-person witnessing. For the past year, he worked to maintain those relationships through weekly ASL video calls.
“Although I am not out [going] door to door as in the past,” he adds, “I am so happy I still have a way to share a positive message [with] those who can really use encouragement during these challenging times.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses growing despite COVID
Sarah Helmbold says COVID-19 restrictions forced her to mothball her preferred public ministries but believes she and other Witnesses have found new, even more effective opportunities with the emphasis on letters, phone calls and online meetings.
“It seems like my ministry has become even busier,” the 33-year-old Heber City woman says. “I also feel like I was able to express my faith more thoroughly, and more often, since I was not finding empty home after empty home [a not uncommon experience during past door-knocking].”
Virtual outreach has included video Bible studies with several inmates from jails in Wasatch and Summit counties — continuations of contacts Helmbold and her husband, Mark, had made during pre-COVID visits.
Like Bullard and Jones, Helmbold looks forward to resuming in-person, public ministries, but Witnesses won’t abandon the alternative tools and skills they polished during the pandemic.
“It’s very clear that there is no ‘normal’ on the horizon, no going back to the way things were,” Hendriks says. “The positives [of the past year] are very clear to us, one of them being that our virtual meeting attendance has increased in some places up to 30%.
“I don’t think that will change,” he adds. “We’re going to have something virtual, and we will figure out a way to combine [the old techniques with the new].”
Hendriks says the time frame remains undetermined for when he and other Witnesses again will be out knocking on doors or handing out literature on city streets.
“With the [newer COVID] variants raging in several states now,” he explains, “we have to look to the future, and it is uncertain.”
Like 2020′s first-ever all-virtual Witnesses global convention last summer, the faith is gearing up for a July-August run of sessions and media offered for viewing and downloading online.
“The great thing is that we are not in a rush [to resume public preaching]. Our congregants are cared for, our ministry is vibrant, and we’re growing,” says Hendriks, noting that while not on par with the 300,000-plus baptisms — many of those done en masse at public conventions during an unfettered 2019 — 2020 still saw more than 240,000 new Witnesses immersed in smaller, more private settings due to social distancing limits.
The ‘last door’
The past year’s suspension of in-person proselytizing — save for a few exceptions in remote, scattered locations where the virus was less disruptive — was all but universal for the 16.5 million Latter-day Saints worldwide.
Such pandemic restrictions certainly affected church growth. With tens of thousands of full-time missionaries released or reassigned last year, convert baptisms were cut in half, plunging from 248,835 in 2019 to 125,930 in 2020.
The church’s missionaries “follow the guidance of their mission president, who reviews local health guidelines and follows the direction of local area presidencies,” Weidman says. “[But] for much of the pandemic, in-home visits transitioned” to the faith’s burgeoning virtual toolbox.
Throughout the faith’s 191-year history, however, passing out pamphlets or “tracts” in neighborhoods was the predominant way Latter-day Saint missionaries found potential converts.
That’s how young evangelizers found Uchtdorf’s wife, Harriet, whose family in Frankfurt, Germany, lived in an apartment building on the “last door on the fourth floor,” the German apostle related in a 2016 General Conference sermon. “How often have I lifted my heart in gratitude for the two missionaries who did not stop at the first floor. ...How often have I given thanks that they kept going — even to the fourth floor, last door.”
Retired Latter-day Saint scholar Thomas Alexander went door to door during his mission to Germany from 1956 to 1958.
“We enjoyed some success in meeting people,” Alexander writes on Facebook. “During that period, slightly over a decade after World War II, there were many people who had escaped from countries controlled by Russia. Many Germans were forced from the Sudeten and other areas. Some of them were looking for stability, and some joined [the church].”
Missionaries in southern France and French-speaking Switzerland from 1982-83 “tracted a lot, especially after a new mission president came in who had served pre-World War II and had ideas about tracting,” writes Salt Lake City-based historian Ardis Parshall. “He canceled all the other methods we had for finding people (speaking in high schools, teaching English classes, public displays) and insisted on nonstop tracting,” which provided some unexpected experiences.
There was the time “a totally naked man answered our knock,” she says. “That was a first in-the-flesh glimpse this young woman had ever had.”
Overall, though, “it was discouraging. Really discouraging.”
School of hard knocks
In Halifax, Canada, missionaries were expected to converse about the church with “30 people per day either via street contacting or tracting,” says Jaclyn Foster. “This usually meant one to two hours of tracting, depending on the density of the neighborhood and number of people home. It was super ineffective and visibly irritated a lot of people, and exposed us to a lot of people who thought sexual harassment was a fun, cool way to get the missionaries to leave them alone.”
Though by any standard door-knocking was not particularly effective, it was still being routinely done in parts of the world — including the United States — as recently as just before COVID-19.
Nathan Tenney served until late 2019 in the Washington, D.C., mission, where missionaries were required to make 20 new contacts every day.
The mission president was a “traditionalist,” Tenney says, who was convinced that his tracting techniques — including during the “golden hours between 5 and 9 p.m.” — were working because baptisms doubled during his tenure.
“But 25 of the 27 people I baptized came through members or online,” Tenney says. “Being out in the community is really helpful, but I wondered if doing service would be a better alternative.”
In fact, it was for Kathleen and David Cook, who led a mission in Chile from 2013 to 2016.
“When we arrived in Santiago, tracting was the norm for missionaries,” David Cook says. “At the time, they had only flip phones and no internet service so online recruiting was out of the question.”
Still, most homes in their area were gated, preventing door-to-door visits, so they focused on street contacting, public transportation conversations and service projects.
One effort, helping to build an Assembly of God church, won them respect and praise from the Pentecostal pastor.
“Even if we didn’t have an increase in teaching opportunities,” Kathleen Cook says, “service is important no matter what. … Christ spent more time serving other people than teaching. If we want to be his disciples, we have to do what he did.”
Every returned missionary has a story on this door-to-door duty and a perspective on its efficacy. Most agree it rarely brings results, but some still defend it as teaching obedience and fortitude.
It helped Stephen Rapp “become a man.”
His 1969 mission to Cincinnati put him “in a hostile city. I’ve actually felt hate and threats. You either gut up or get chopped to pieces. After a while, you can even start to laugh about it,” Rapp says. “When someone asks me if I’m not afraid about something or other, I always say, “Hey, I peddled Books of Mormon door to door.”
During and after the pandemic
Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints are cautious about predicting when their public, in-person visits and church gatherings will return in full.
“In the past year, we have learned much about using technology and social media to build relationships,” Weidman says. “As pandemic restrictions ease, however, missionaries will move forward with both in-person and online teaching. They will use whatever combination is appropriate for their local needs and societal conditions.”
To be clear, “in-person service, teaching and ministering is still a vital part of what missionaries do,” the church official says. “They will continue to be seen walking, biking and traveling to and from appointments with interested friends and members of the church. They will continue to be a wonderful asset to the communities in which they serve. Technology has provided more opportunities to reach new people, but it does not fully replace the needed benefits of many in-person interactions.”
Rylie Hinds, a student at church-owned Brigham Young University, had a chance to experience both types of evangelizing.
Hinds was assigned to the Dominican Republic, where she worked for about a year. When COVID-19 hit, she was transferred to New Jersey.
“Honestly, it was a faith-building experience,” says the student who returned home to Utah in October. “You don’t get to rely on all the traditional methods you had used for a year to find people, but have faith that someone will pop up on your screen or on social media.”
It was such “a mindset change,” Hinds says, going from being “drenched in sweat” on the streets of the Dominican Republic to “having to rest your eyes because you’ve been looking at your phone all day.”
But it was all missionary work, she says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In the past year, three Latter-day Saint missionaries in the Salt Lake City area have spent their time seeking converts almost exclusively online with referrals from members.
Seth Perrault of Fresno, Calif., started his two-year mission in Guatemala but was transferred to the Beehive State after 10 months due to the pandemic. He is slated to return home next week.
Jakob Ezell of Seattle has been in Utah for his whole 11 months of service, though he was assigned originally to Argentina and hopes to get there soon.
For James Miller of Laie, Hawaii, Utah is where he was called and has served for 20 months.
All three speak Spanish and work with the young single adult wards (congregations).
They have seen some success from their virtual efforts and had service opportunities during the coronavirus epidemic. (They were always masked and socially distanced.)
Now that they can go out, they hope to do more proselytizing in public places like trains and buses.
But not tracting.
In Utah, Perrault predicts, missionaries won’t be “knocking doors from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m ever again.”