They sing in fields of flowers. They dance in living rooms. They jump ropes and do backflips in open streets. They play guitars and ukuleles. They lip-sync to a Jim Gaffigan shtick and rap to Bible verses, as well as bear testimony and preach from pulpits.
What these young people have in common is the iconic black nametag pinned to their chests — signaling that they are missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and their desire to disseminate the faith via online platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Tiktok.
It is a new age for Latter-day Saint proselytizing, prompted by internet avenues popular among millennials and Gen Zers and by the pandemic that largely limited the young missionaries to their apartments.
Even with the coronavirus subsiding a bit, these evangelizers are embracing the new social media tools with gusto and with mostly church approval.
But are such entertaining videos really successful at conveying the church’s Christian gospel?
Will viewers seek out the religion after watching a handful of “elders” (male missionaries) jive and bounce in a hallway, holding the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon? Will they look up the chapel’s number when they see missionaries save a kid from a snake or watch a pair dancing with a local member? Will they go to Sunday services if the missionaries get the ball in the basket?
Remember, most full-time Latter-day Saint missionaries are between 18 and 24, an age often typified by adolescent attitudes, risky behavior, even crass humor.
The Utah-based faith is doing its best to funnel those impulses and, ahem, talents into appropriate approaches.
“During the pandemic, social media was the primary source for missionaries to find people to teach,” says church spokesperson Sam Penrod. “Facebook and Instagram (Instagram was piloted and offered to some missionaries on a limited basis — less than 10% of all missionaries) are the only approved social media channels at this time for missionaries.”
TikTok is “not used by missionaries, but friends or members may repost content to other platforms such as TikTok,” Penrod says. “Missionaries are taught and encouraged to share posts that reflect the sacred nature of their call and the message they share. Missionaries participate in training courses that help them focus on posting with purpose and beginning with the end in mind. Mission leaders are asked to work closely with their missionaries to encourage dignified content.”
As the former head of the church’s Missionary Executive Council, apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, says in a message:
“We are continuing to learn of the immense good that comes from the righteous and intentional use of technology. Sometimes we think of the internet and social media as an enemy because there can be so much negativity there. However, the internet can be a friend to us when we use it correctly.”
Some missionaries are looping in friends from around the world to assist in virtual teaching. Others are sharing musical messages, gospel games and holding digital “Come, Follow Me” lessons with members and their neighbors.
“We have many success stories of missionaries who have used technology to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in extraordinary ways,” Uchtdorf says. “... The future of missionary work is bright.”
Especially, he adds, if missionaries and members remember to use these tools once the pandemic ends.
The problems, some say, are the uncontrollable nature of the internet, the gap between official and unofficial messages, and the nature of these platforms.
Who are the audiences?
The church long has welcomed new forms of communication as a way to advance its message more widely and rapidly.
Think of the now-defunct “I’m a Mormon” campaign (shut down due to President Russell M. Nelson’s edict against the “Mormon” term).
Some of the two-minute videos were produced by the church, but members were encouraged to make ones for themselves, unfiltered by the higher-ups, says Spencer Greenhalgh, who teaches information technology at the University of Kentucky.
These days the Latter-day Saint professor has been reading and writing on “the tensions between how the church works and how these online platforms work,” he says. “In short, what is ‘authoritative’ on a technology/media platform doesn’t always line up with what is authoritative from the church’s point of view.”
After watching some of the videos on Instagram and TikTok. Greenhalgh notes that some missionary accounts “are using the videos as an outward-facing tool.” Others are “Mormon-facing accounts that are using the same videos not so much for proselytizing but as sort of a collective bonding around the idea and experience of missionary work.”
Many of those are posted on sites like Instagram’s missionarychannel that also sell missionary garb and “modest clothing,” so it’s unclear about the target audience.
“I wonder if there’s a connection there with the idea that Latter-day Saint missions are there to convert the missionaries, not just the investigators,” Greenhalgh says, “by creating a connection with the religious culture.”
Both kinds of accounts “are drawing from the internet/influencer cultures of these platforms,” he says. “On one hand, that’s a smart move, and it makes a lot of sense, but online platforms have their own embedded values, and they may not always be compatible. The church has long been nervous about assimilating too much into the cultures it goes into, and I wonder how much concern there is here.”
Can the church control the message of the individual members turning to these platforms?
Videos range from playful to preachy
Latter-day Saint folklorist Christine Blythe is optimistic about this new direction.
“The shift towards digital missionary labor is obviously a major departure from traditional form. And breaks in tradition can be hard. We’ve long perceived solemnity — what we refer to as ‘reverence’ — as a reflection of one’s spirituality, and TikTok videos are anything but reverent,” Blythe says. “But it has, in my opinion, allowed missionaries to be more authentic representatives of Christ. It’s allowed them to uniquely showcase their talents and personalities.”
Sure, some of it is “cheesy,” the folklorist says. “Not everyone is going to be swayed by an elder in a white shirt and tie dancing with the Book of Mormon in hand. But I’ve loved the fact that we are seeing 18- to 24-year-old men and women, acting like 18- to 24-year-old men and women. I don’t think that undermines the mission of the church or minimizes the incredible sacrifice that LDS missionaries are making — to put their lives on hold for 18 to 24 months to serve God.”
Church leaders “may be worried about social media disasters, and there may be some down the line,” Blythe says. “But many have been moved by the diverse expressive testimonies being presented on TikTok. I think overall, it’s a worthwhile experiment.”
How these skills help missionaries now and later
Across the globe, many of the church’s 400-plus missions have embraced social media tools, even choosing certain missionaries to develop them.
Emily Bishop Miner’s son serves in North Dakota, and he was involved in music and sound editing for the mission.
“The videos were successful because they gave missionaries a spiritually related purpose during the pandemic when it was hard to do traditional missionary work,” Miner writes on Facebook, “and to the extent they involved members and had high production values, they were able to spread locally.”
Samantha Bird, who is serving in Minnesota, says the videos she makes on her social media profile “are stories sharing a restored truth like the Book of Mormon, and on the story I have something interactive like a poll or question box. I usually get a few responses.”
Savannah Cobb of South Jordan is in charge of social media for her mission in Cape Verde, a group of islands off the west coast of Africa.
“Savannah does three things with respect to social media. She creates content. She brainstorms campaigns, writes scripts, films, edits and produces social media-ready videos. She also trains other missionaries,” says her father, Jay Cobb. “She created training aids and over the course of time she trained other missionaries how to create compelling content. She also helps the other missionaries assigned as Facebook page coordinators (there is at least one coordinator on each island) post and keep up with social media.”
His daughter even “tracks social media metrics,” Cobb says, “and they have seen an increase in responses as their content has improved and become more compelling.”
Making videos and social media posts has been “exceptionally fun, and helpful,” says a current missionary in Georgia, who asked not to be named because he didn’t have permission to speak about it. “A lot of the missionaries in my mission don’t enjoy doing it — they prefer more ‘tangible’ missionary work. Personally, I like doing work on social media because it’s a noninvasive way to share the message I have. If someone likes it or wants to hear more, we’ve reached them; if not, that’s totally fine as well, and most of the time we don’t even know. I think it makes it easier for people to make decisions without pressure. I like it a lot.”
He adds, “training ourselves in videography was potentially very useful.”
If big numbers of missionaries learn to write, direct and produce videos (as well as sing and dance) on their missions, those skills could help them in future occupations.
Indeed, rather than taking up door-to-door sales jobs based on their mission “tracting” experience, maybe more returned missionaries will become future filmmakers.