Social Media Certification Great Preparation for How To Be a Social Media Missionary

The Utah National Parks Council of the Boy Scouts of America is offering a Social Media Certification program, in six levels, complete with a patch for each level. The certification program has been put together by a Social Media Certification Advisory Panel that has designed the CORE Certification program to be earned in about 2 hours and the additional levels to each sequentially be more difficult yet impactful.

The Social Media Certification program will be great preparation for LDS youth and adults to teach them How to Be a Social Media Missionary to share social and digital media tips, techniques, and best practices. The Social Media Certification is non-denominational and applies to any non-profit, church, business, or personal use of social and digital media.

The levels are:

The Social Media Certification Patch has 6 sections: Core, Coach, Curator, Creator, Collaborator, and Consultant

The Social Media Certification Patch has six sections: Core, Coach, Curator, Creator, Collaborator, and Consultant

Level 1 = CORE Certification
Level 2 = Coach
Level 3 = Curator
Level 4 = Creator
Level 5 = Collaborator
Level 6 = Consultant

The Social Media Certification program is designed for both youth and adults. The focus of this certification program is:

  • Safety with social and digital media
  • Purposeful use of social media
  • How to prepare content for your own social media
  • How to comment and connect on social media
  • How to collaborate to improve your social media exposure
  • How to create great content on social and digital media
  • To encourage sharing of your story and beliefs
  • To increase capacity to share and support scouting

Why do People Use Social Media?

A Pew Research Internet Project asked why people use social media. Here were the reasons:

67% – Stay in touch with friends
64% – Stay in touch with family
50% – Connect to old friends
14% – Share hobbies
9% – Make new friends
5% – Follow celebrities, athletes, or politicians
3% – Find a date

A very recent author, Ken Mueller, of InklinMedia.net cites these reasons in a very popular article:

  1. We desire community
  2. We desire to extend our communities
  3. To connect and reconnect
  4. To move beyond isolation
  5. Real world connections
  6. Be involved in more causes and activities
  7. Having our own voice
  8. Safety, privacy, and control
  9. To be “insiders”
  10. A more level playing field
  11. A chance to succeed

Onepoll.com shared results from Whiting and Williams who interviewed a range of social media users and explored what keeps them coming back to social networks.

  • Social Interaction – Social Media, Not Surprisingly, Allows People To Be Social. They Meet New People And Keep In Touch With Friends, Acquaintances And Family.
  • Information Seeking – This Refers To The Process Of Finding Information About Products/Services, Keeping Up To Date With Real-World Social Events, And Learning New Things.
  • Passing Time – Social Media Is A Great Time Killer And Can Cure Boredom Whether At Home, At School, Or In The Work Place.
  • Entertainment – Games, Music And Videos Are All Accessed Through Social Media. Watching The Stream Of Updates From People Is Also A Form Of Entertainment – Whether Intentionally Humorous Or Not.
  • Relaxation – Whilst People Find Others Updates Humorous, They Also Find Them Relaxing. Social Media Is A Way To Alleviate Stress And Escape From Reality.
  • Expression Of Opinions – Expressing Thoughts And Opinions, Criticizing Others And Blowing Off Steam (Either Anonymously Or Named) Is Regularly Undertaken Through Social Media.
  • Things To Talk About – Like The Daily Newspaper, Social Media Provide Subject Matter For People To Talk And Gossip About With Others.
  • Convenience – Social Media Is Readily Accessible, Even More So As Mobile Devices Become Ubiquitous. Furthermore, People Can Talk To Several People At The Same Time.
  • Sharing Information – People Can Use Social Media To Broadcast Things About Themselves. By Publishing Updates, Videos And Pictures, People Market Their Own Personal Brand Or Business.
  • Knowing About Others – Social Media Allows A Window Into The Lives Of Others. By Checking Out Other Profiles, They Can Be Nosey Or ‘Keep Up With The Jones’’.

 

 

The Elder Bednar Social Media Challenge and Apostolic Promise

“My beloved brothers and sisters, what has been accomplished thus far in this dispensation communicating gospel messages through social media channels is a good beginning—but only a small trickle. I now extend to you the invitation to help transform the trickle into a flood. Beginning at this place on this day, I exhort you to sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth—messages that are authentic, edifying, and praiseworthy—and literally to sweep the earth as with a flood.”

Elder David A. Bednar speaks during the annual Campus Education Week at the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

Elder David A. Bednar challenges us to turn the social media trickle into a flood that sweeps the earth, and makes an apostolic promise to those who do

“As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I invoke this blessing upon you: that you may come to understand more fully the spiritual significance and blessing of living in the dispensation of the fulness of times, that you may have eyes to see clearly both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the remarkable technologies that are available to us today, that you may increase in your capacity to use these inspired tools appropriately, and that you may receive inspiration and guidance about the role you should play in helping to sweep the earth as with a flood of truth and righteousness.”

“As you press forward in this holy work, I promise you will be blessed in mortality in the individual, specific, and necessary ways that will prepare you for eternity. I so bless you.” – Elder David A. Bednar, from his address on August 19, 2014 at Campus Education at BYU

Lindsey Stirling’s Top 10 YouTube Videos: The Best Social Media Missionary Ever!

At last count, Lindsey Stirling had 675 million views of the dancing violinist and her amazing YouTube videos.

Lindsey Stirling may be the most prolific digital and social media missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - at last count she had 587 Million Views just on her YouTube Channel

Lindsey Stirling may be the most prolific digital and social media missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – at last count she had 675 Million Views just on her YouTube Channel –

Here are her top 10 most recent YouTube videos with dates and views:

YouTube Video Date Views
Crystallize 23 Feb, 2012 101,594,516
Elements 18 Sep, 2012 46,783,355
Shadows 9 Jan, 2012 41,581,935
Skyrim  3 Apr, 2012 38,640,725
We Found Love 7 May, 2012 23,896,725
Moon Trance 23 Oct, 2012 22,646,918
Lord of the Rings Medley 2 Feb, 2012 22,031,426
Phantom of the Opera 31 Jul, 2011 19.099,950
Zelda Medley 26 Nov, 2011 18,170,168
Spontaneous Me 18 May, 2011 17,622,733

Lindsey has performed well known numbers that include everything from What Child is This? to Star Wars Medley, Assassins’s Creed III, Zelda, Halo, Game of Thrones, Mission Impossible, Violin Rock, Pokemon, to Silent Night.

Her tours take her to Europe and her filming as far as Kenya.

Her collaborators have included Pentatonix for the Covery of Imagine Dragons, Peter Hollens, to Tyler Ward, to Alex Boye & the Salt Lake Pops, to Kuha’o Case, to William Joseph, to Megan Nicole, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Her first YouTube video called Violin Rock and playing at an NBA Halftime Show soon got her on America’s Got Talent only to be told by Piers Morgan that the world had no place for a dancing dubstep violinist.

 

“But being voted off 2010’s “America’s Got Talent” at the quarterfinals turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to her. Rejection simply strengthened Stirling’s resolve to be herself. “The same reasons I was told I wouldn’t succeed are the reasons people travel hundreds of miles to see me now,” she laughs. “Because it’s different. Because it’s something you haven’t seen before…” Since the show, Lindsey has flourished as an artist.”

She is one of the biggest artist development breakthrough stories in recent years. A classically trained violinist from Gilbert, AZ, Lindsey has entered a futurist world of electronic big beats and animation, leaping through the music industry with over 675 million views on YouTube, Billboard chart-topping hits and sold out tours worldwide.

Lindsey Stirling already served an LDS mission in NYC but may be the most prolific digital and social media missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – at last count she had 675 Million Views just on her YouTube Channel alone.

She isn’t afraid to share her testimony either,

“I am so comforted that there is a living Prophet today. In biblical times, there were prophets such as Moses, Noah, and so on. God loves us every bit as much as he loved people in those times so it makes sense to me that of course he would have a prophet in our times too. The world is constantly changing; everything from politics and social norms, to weather patters and and health tips. It is very comforting for me to know that God has always called prophets to direct his children. As the world changes, this allows for Christ’s Gospel to stay the same. Yes, we can all receive our own individual answers to pray but a Prophet is God’s mouthpiece to the world.”

She also shares her story of battling anorexia, “There was a time in my life when I lost all my ambition, I had no purpose, and I began to hate myself. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was an essential light in my life that helped my love myself again. I always believed that God had a plan for me but through the scriptures, through personal revelation and through the words of a living Prophet, I was able to come to know that I am a daughter of God, and that God’s plan is a plan of happiness. This changed everything; I was able to discover my passions, I regained a desire, a desire to do… anything again, and I found the happiness that I had forgotten I could feel.”

Living her faith on the road has been a challenge, “The music industry has a set of standards of its own. I cannot count the number of times I have been offered drugs backstage, or invited to participate in a number of other activities that could harm me or others. I live the gospel every day as I make decisions that help me stay true to my standards. I am a touring musician and I love that there is a clean, drug free, respectful and safe atmosphere on my tour bus. I’ve heard horror stories about the touring life and the awful drama that automatically is incurred. However, because the standards that have been set for my tour, there is no drama, and we have all become best friends that are having the time of our lives.”

“Where ever I am at in the world, I can find an LDS Church to attend on Sunday and it makes me feel like I am back home.”

Thanks for the great example Lindsey!

4 Social Media Guidelines from Elder Bednar

The following four social media guidelines come from Elder Bednar’s address during Campus Education Week at Brigham Young University on August 19, 2014 entitled, To Sweep the Earth as with a Flood.

1- Be Authentic and Consistent. “First, we are disciples and our messages should be authentic. A person or product that is not authentic is false, fake, and fraudulent. Our messages should be truthful, honest, and accurate.  We should not exaggerate, embellish, or pretend to be someone or something we are not. Our content should be trustworthy and constructive. And anonymity on the Internet is not a license to be inauthentic.”

“Authenticity is strengthened through consistency. The gospel messages you share will be accepted more readily if your Christlike example is evident in the ongoing pattern of your posts.”

4 Social Media Guidelines from Elder David A. Bednar at BYU Education Week in his address To Sweep The Earth as a Flood

4 Social Media Guidelines from Elder David A. Bednar at BYU Education Week in his address To Sweep The Earth With a Flood

2- Edify and Uplift.

“Second, we and our messages should seek to edify and uplift rather than to argue, debate, condemn, or belittle. As Paul counseled the Ephesians, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).”

“Brothers and sisters, share the gospel with genuine love and concern for others. Be courageous and bold but not overbearing in sustaining and defending our beliefs, and avoid contention. As disciples our purpose should be to use social media channels as a means of projecting the light and truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ into a world that increasingly is dark and confused.”

3- Respect Intellectual Property.

“Third, we and our messages should respect the property of other people and organizations. This simply means that you should not create your own content using someone else’s art, name, photos, music, video, or other content without permission. To assist you in creating uplifting gospel messages, we are pleased to announce that the content in the Media Library on LDS.org, unless otherwise indicated, has been cleared for use by members without seeking permission from the Church. Additional information about the use of Church media can be found at social.lds.org.”

“When you share messages online, make sure others understand that you are expressing your personal thoughts and feelings. Please do not use the Church logo or otherwise suggest that you are speaking for or on behalf of the Church.”

4- Be Wise and Vigilant.

“Fourth, be wise and vigilant in protecting yourself and those you love. We should remember that the Internet never forgets. Anything you communicate through a social media channel indeed will live forever—even if the app or program may promise otherwise. Only say it or post it if you want the entire world to have access to your message or picture for all time.”

“Following these simple guidelines will enable members of the Church around the world to create and share gospel messages that will cause the light to “shine forth out of darkness” (Mormon 8:16).”

A summary of the four guidelines given by David A Bednar for Social Media Missionary work in the LDS Church

A summary of the four guidelines given by David A Bednar for Social Media Missionary work in the LDS Church

He quoted the seventh chapter of the book of Moses in The Pearl of Great Price:

“And righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, to bear testimony of mine Only Begotten; his resurrection from the dead; yea, and also the resurrection of all men; and righteousness and truth will I cause to sweep the earth as with a flood” (Moses 7:59–62; italics added).

Then Elder Bednar gave an apostolic invitation:

“My beloved brothers and sisters, what has been accomplished thus far in this dispensation communicating gospel messages through social media channels is a good beginning—but only a small trickle. I now extend to you the invitation to help transform the trickle into a flood. Beginning at this place on this day, I exhort you to sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth—messages that are authentic, edifying, and praiseworthy—and literally to sweep the earth as with a flood.”

Then he left an apostolic blessing:

“As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I invoke this blessing upon you: that you may come to understand more fully the spiritual significance and blessing of living in the dispensation of the fulness of times, that you may have eyes to see clearly both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the remarkable technologies that are available to us today, that you may increase in your capacity to use these inspired tools appropriately, and that you may receive inspiration and guidance about the role you should play in helping to sweep the earth as with a flood of truth and righteousness. As you press forward in this holy work, I promise you will be blessed in mortality in the individual, specific, and necessary ways that will prepare you for eternity. I so bless you.”

And then he closed with his personal witness of Jesus Christ.

“I witness the Father and the Son live. The Savior stands at the head of His Church in these latter days. He is hastening His work, and no unhallowed hand can stop this work from progressing. Of these things I testify in the sacred name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.”

Elder Bednar Urges Use of Social Media to Spread Gospel at Education Week

Taken from Daily Herald Article on August 19, 2014

Watch the full video of his talk at Education Week

Read the full text of his talk ‘To Sweep the Earth as a Flood

Hang onto your hats. Things are changing.

Elder Bednar urges use of social media to spread gospel at BYU Education Week - Daily Herald - Photo Ian Maule

Elder Bednar urges use of social media to spread gospel at BYU Education Week – Daily Herald – Photo Ian Maule

For decades, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been warned about the impact various media can have on them. Tools in and of themselves, they can be used for both good and evil, members were told.

The media have changed, and so has the emphasis.

General authorities of the church have begun using social media. The LDS church has an official Instagram account and has posted photos from around the world.

“The members of the First Presidency themselves specifically chose the photos to be posted,” Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said Tuesday at a devotional at BYU Education Week. “Some of the brethren now have their own Twitter accounts, including Elder Ballard, Elder Holland and me.

“Additional members of the Twelve may be active on Twitter in the near future. All of the brethren also have their own Facebook pages on which they communicate important gospel messages.”

The church also approved production of a feature-length film to help others better understand the LDS people. Called “Meet the Mormons,” the film will be distributed worldwide through digital channels. That will begin after the church’s October general conference, first in the United States and then in other locations.

The church has also announced content in its media library, found on www.lds.org, has been cleared for use by church members without seeking permission from the church.

“As Elder M. Russell Ballard explained,” Bednar said, “‘In Shakespeare’s time, he was limited generally to the Globe Theatre, but we now have a global theater. … The doors to the world are literally opened wide.’”

Bednar said the Twitter and Facebook presence, and the motion picture, are a start, and more will be coming. Some efforts have been made by the church itself; others have had their origins in the members.

“What has been accomplished thus far in this dispensation communicating gospel messages through social media channels is a good beginning, but only a small trickle,” he said. “I now extend to you the invitation to help transform the trickle into a flood.

“Beginning at this place on this day, I exhort you to sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth — messages that are authentic, edifying and praiseworthy — and literally to sweep the earth as with a flood.”

Part of the beginnings of that flood have included messages and images created by the church and its members and communicated through social media.

Bednar cited examples including a short video entitled “Because of Him,” which presents the message of hope, healing and salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ.  It was viewed more than five million times during Easter week alone, in 191 countries and territories of the world.

Members have also posted photos of themselves on various media, telling about times when they pray and why. Another posting presents a 365-day program for reading the Book of Mormon in a year.

During broadcasts of the church’s general conference in October and April, there was a hashtag included on the screen. However, the idea is not new.

“Members have used this hashtag to promote general conference for years,” Bednar said. “The first use of the #LDSconf hashtag dates back to October 2008, when it was created by a faithful member looking for an opportunity to follow and share conference-related tweets — long before the church started using it.”

The technology that makes such communication possible is inspired, Bednar said. And it has been with a purpose in mind.

“The Lord is hastening His work, and it is no coincidence that these powerful communication innovations and inventions are occurring in the dispensation of the fullness of times,” he said.

“I believe the time has come for us as disciples of Christ to use these inspired tools appropriately and much more effectively to testify of God the Eternal Father and His plan of happiness for His children, of His Son Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, to proclaim the reality of the restoration of the gospel in the latter days, and to accomplish the Lord’s work.”

The use of social media will continue to be more widespread among church missionaries.

“Approximately 40 percent of our worldwide missionary force soon will be using digital devices as tools in the work of conversion, retention and activation,” Bednar said.

It’s been more than 30 years since Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley anticipated this day.

“We are confident that as the work of the Lord expands, he will inspire men to develop the means whereby the membership of the church, wherever they may be, can be counseled in an intimate and personal way by his chosen prophet,” said Hinckley during the church’s 1981 general conference. “Communication is the sinew that binds the church as one great family.”

Bednar also referred to other church leaders who foresaw the communication technology, including Brigham Young.

“Every discovery in science and art, that is really true and useful to mankind, has been given by direct revelation from God, though but few acknowledge it,” Young was quoted as saying. “It has been given with a view to prepare the way for the ultimate triumph of truth, and the redemption of the earth from the power of sin and Satan.

“We should take advantage of all these great discoveries, the accumulated wisdom of ages, and give to our children the benefit of every branch of useful knowledge, to prepare them to step forward and efficiently do their part in the great work.”

Bednar also noted LDS Church presidents David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball for their remarks on the matter.

“Discoveries latent with such potent power, either for the blessing or the destruction of human beings, as to make man’s responsibility in controlling them the most gigantic ever placed in human hands. … This age is fraught with limitless perils, as well as untold possibilities” (David O. McKay in Conference Report, Oct. 1966, 4). 

“I believe that the Lord is anxious to put into our hands inventions of which we laymen have hardly had a glimpse. … With the Lord providing these miracles of communication, and with the increased efforts and devotion of our missionaries and all of us, and all others who are ‘sent,’ surely the divine injunction will come to pass: ‘For, verily, the sound must go forth from this place into all the world, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth—the gospel must be preached unto every creature’ (D&C 58:64)” (Spencer W. Kimball. “When the World Will Be Converted,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, 10–11).

Spencer W Kimball quoted in Elder Bednar's Talk

Spencer W Kimball quoted in Elder Bednar’s Talk

He urged members to keep their lives in balance and emphasized a warning of consequences of misusing the media.

“Too much time can be wasted, too many relationships can be harmed or destroyed, and precious patterns of righteousness can be disrupted when technology is used improperly,” Bednar said. “We should not allow even good applications of social media to overrule the better and best uses of our time, energy and resources.

“We need not become social media experts or fanatics. And we do not need to spend inordinate amounts of time creating and disseminating elaborate messages.”

He also quoted Elder M. Russell Ballard, who taught that digital technologies should be our servants and not our masters.

But the combined small efforts of millions of members can have a great impact.

“May our many small, individual efforts produce a steady rainfall of righteousness and truth that gradually swells a multitude of streams and rivers,” Bednar said, “and ultimately becomes a flood that sweeps the earth.”

Huffington Post Article on the Church’s Online Missionary Service

The full article is available at:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/0…on&ir=Religion

Ryan Tucker, left, Christopher Parrett center, with their fellow missionaries.

Ryan Tucker, left, Christopher Parrett center, with their fellow missionaries.

Until three years ago, Aubert L’Espérance had no idea who Mormons were or what they believed. All he knew was that he liked messing with them.

To be fair, L’Espérance, then 15, was clueless about most religions. The preppy-chic Québécois had never been to church, grew up agnostic verging on atheist and assumed “Mormon” was just another name for the Amish when he first stumbled on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints online. He’d been browsing his favorite timewaster — the Art of Trolling, a website less holy, more holy ****. And there, between funny snapshots of misspelled signs, he discovered a new religion and an addictive pastime: pranking the missionaries manning the official “Chat with a Mormon” homepage.

Hoping to attract converts, the church invites people to come online and message anonymously with missionaries who can answer “whatever questions you may have about any Christian topic.” L’Espérance, like thousands of other Internet trolls, abused it spectacularly, logging on with a fake persona and bombarding the Mormons for hours with nonsense questions.

But then, L’Espérance’s hoaxing gave way to something that surprised even him: a genuine curiosity in a group he says he’d assumed was “just some sort of tribe” living in “really remote parts of the universe.” Less than a year after first fooling around with Mormon missionaries, L’Espérance was baptized. Ryan Tucker, a missionary who helped convert him in the church’s chatroom, hailed it as a journey “from troll to testimony.”

“Those chats were so amazing,” says L’Espérance. “Before I even knew much about the church, I really felt its power immediately.”

The teenager’s unlikely route to baptism helps explain why the white-haired patriarchs of the Mormon church stunned their followers last summer by lifting a ban barring missionaries from social media.

During a worldwide broadcast in June, the church leaders heralded a new era of redemption through screens. All 84,000 of the church’s missionaries would eventually be able to proselytize over the web using a previously forbidden arsenal of media, including blogs, email, text messages, Skype and even Facebook. Along with their in-person preaching, missionaries can now use social networks to check in on potential converts, or woo new ones with status updates about the Heavenly Father.

“The principles missionaries have always been taught actually just work better online,” says Gideon Burton, a professor at Brigham Young University who has advised the church on its Internet missionary work. “It’s going to be a lot more efficient.”

For Mormons, this about-face on social media was nearly as radical as ending the ban on beer. Until the June announcement, the Internet had been off-limits to missionaries to shield them from “worldly entertainment,” like the Times and Twitter, that could distract them from their religious calling. The missionaries, who can serve from age 18, could go online just once a week, and then only to blog about their faith or email their family. Phone calls home were permitted just twice a year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The same tools recently eschewed as slippery slopes to temptation have now been sanctioned by the church to convey the most sacred of messages and fulfill one of the holiest of Mormon duties.

In what marks a new phase in the evolution of one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, which has doubled in size since the 90s, the Mormon church is doing for religion what Amazon did for stuff: embracing the web to make shopping for a new faith easy, convenient and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Despite its conservative reputation, the church has actually been an early adopter of any tech that might deliver baptisms. Just as it did nearly 200 years ago, when the church pioneered mass-market distribution of its Bibles by printing a half-million texts, and a century ago, when it released a feature film on the Book of Mormon, now it is pinning its hopes on the marketing muscle of a technology with even broader reach: the web.

Missionaries at the Referral Center Mission.

Missionaries at the Referral Center Mission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
In an age of Internet-enabled instant gratification, the church is betting the demand for instant salvation can’t be far behind.

The shift on social media actually began over five years ago, in 2008, with a quiet experiment at the Referral Center Mission in Provo, Utah. The first online-only mission — and the official headquarters of “Chat with a Mormon” — launched as a call center-type operation set up to answer basic questions about the church and accommodate injured or disabled missionaries who’d have difficulty marching through neighborhoods. Believing that accepting a new faith would be far too profound a revelation for mere chatrooms, the church instructed the inaugural Internet missionary to funnel potential converts to local missions, which could take over offline.

Wrong move, they discovered. People like L’Espérance preferred the safety of a screenname to the awkwardness of lectures from two strangers in suits.

Even within a church legendary for adding converts with machine-like efficiency, the Internet-only mission has been an outlier. Whereas traditional Mormon missionaries convert, on average, six people during their 18- to 24-month service, the online apostles in Provo have averaged around 30 converts per missionary per year, says Burton. And these people stick around. Ninety-five percent of the Internet converts have kept active, a retention rate more than triple the norm.

“It’s unheard of,” says Burton. “[The Referral Center Mission] was equal to the highest-baptizing missions that are out there.”

Damning influences be damned: Church leaders realized these so-called “Facebook missionaries” were getting results too impressive to ignore.

Tracting, or sending missionaries house to house, has since the 1830s been a pillar of the church’s expansion that helped it grow to over 15 million members. In the past few decades, however, the number of converts has shown a concerning drop, from a peak of 331,000 a year in 1990 to just a little over 272,000 in 2012, according to official church records. Sometime between the car phone and the iPhone 5, people stopped opening their doors to the itinerant pairs of neatly dressed proselytizers. Plunging missionaries into the very epicenter of worldly entertainment looks like the best shot at fixing a problem that otherwise may only grow worse.

A recent "Chat With a Mormon" discussion.

A recent “Chat With a Mormon” discussion.

A recent “Chat With a Mormon” discussion.“Now, many people are involved in the busyness of their lives. They hurry here and there, and they are often less willing to allow complete strangers to enter their homes, uninvited, to share a message of the restored gospel,” lamented Elder L. Tom Perry, a 91-year-old member of the church’s top leadership body, when he introduced the digital strategy. “Their main point of contact with others, even with close friends, is often via the Internet. The very nature of missionary work, therefore, must change if the Lord is to accomplish His work.”

This e-proselytizing not only marks a change in the machinery of the church, but also suggests a rewiring of our own instincts. As the Mormon church has learned in the course of its experiment, we’d rather discuss life’s most intimate topics through the impersonal anonymity of the screen.

“[W]e could knock on their door and they’d never let us in,” says Emilee Cluff, a missionary who served between 2011 and 2012, of her efforts to proselytize. “But they’d accept our friend request on Facebook all the time.”

Members of the Mormon church believe they’ve been blessed with the “gift of tongues,” an uncanny talent for languages that allows them to preach the Gospel anywhere, to anyone. Tucker, a square-jawed 21-year-old from Syracuse, Utah, will tell you he used this gift to be a more effective missionary. Only, in his case, his “tongue” was the language of email, texting and instant messaging.

Between June 2011 and July 2013, Tucker served at the Referral Center Mission, joining the ranks of dozens of other college-age men who’ve been tapped for the church’s online-only service. He received little initial training — “they just turned the missionaries loose,” says Burton — and Tucker had to continually improvise a strategy for making himself and his faith seem friendly through the sometimes sterile medium of typed messages.

Tucker at a cubicle at the Referral Center Mission.

Tucker at a cubicle at the Referral Center Mission.

The youngest of six children in a devout Mormon household, Tucker, who has muscular dystrophy, had been looking forward to his mission for as long as he could remember. And yet when he received his call to serve in Provo, he was devastated. The church’s forays into online evangelism were then still largely unknown beyond the innermost circle of the church elite. From what Tucker could glean, he figured he would be put to work filling orders for copies of the Book of Mormon.

But after the mandatory two weeks of missionary training, Tucker realized he’d be counseling more people each day than most missionaries meet in a week, chatting privately online with potential converts as far off as Albania and Ghana for 11 hours a day, six days at a stretch. Tucker would set up Skype- or Facebook-based appointments to tutor prospects in the key principles of his faith. (The church requires these “investigators,” as they are known, to be taught four lessons covering such topics as “the plan of salvation” before they can be baptized.) Most of the time, however, he was juggling two, three or even five chats at a time with anyone who signed on to “Chat with a Mormon.” He’d answer questions about polygamy, take abuse from argumentative atheists and tell people about going to church.

“At the end of most days,” he says, “the number one feeling was exhaustion.”

In the lulls between chats, Tucker used his Facebook profile and personal blog to post digital breadcrumbs like Bible verses or church videos that might lead people his way. (“How did you see the Lord’s hand in your life recently? This is a legitimate question — I want answers!”) The church discourages online tracting — approaching people at random with messages about the Gospel — so while Tucker’s friends were trudging through neighborhoods searching for sympathetic ears, the missionaries in Provo just had to sit back and wait for people to come to them.
Which they did, in droves.

Of the thousand-odd strangers who log on to “Chat with a Mormon” each day, slightly more than half have a genuine interest in learning more about the religion, according to missionaries who have served in Provo. This leads to more baptizing with less effort: Missionaries can now put their legwork aside and focus on reeling in a self-selected cohort curious enough to reach out directly. What’s more, the Facebook missionaries also get an all-access pass into neighborhoods their traditional counterparts have struggled to touch.

“This kind of reversed the entire arrangement with how missionaries work: Rather than us knocking on peoples’ doors, they were knocking on our door,” says Burton. “People are much more reachable who would otherwise be out of reach — people in gated communities, remote areas or areas of the world where the church is not allowed to proselytize. We’ve had converts in Asia and other places where the church is not formally recognized, but where people have found the church online.”

“Chat with a Mormon” asks only for a first name, and the anonymity has emboldened people of all ages to sign on for reasons both spiritual and sacrilegious. Chatters come to find, mock, scold, convert, question and berate the missionaries, as well as to confess sins, air doubts and seek advice. A missionary who served in Provo recalls messaging with people so lonely, they sat through weeks of the missionaries’ lessons, only to return, under a different name, hoping to be taught again “because it gave them someone who cared about them.” Even though the pseudonyms attract Bart Simpson-esque trolls, they also bring people who can indulge a vague interest in the church without the headache or embarrassment of inviting gangly teenagers into their living rooms. The online missionaries have also tapped into a hidden constituency: members of the church who experience crises of faith that they’re too ashamed of taking up with their fellow believers.

“I think one of the best things about the chat is the anonymity a person has,” says Tyson Boardman, the first-ever Internet missionary. “They’re able to be completely open with us about any questions they might have reservations asking a person at church. Because of that, we were able to get down to a lot of people’s primary concerns.”

A survey of people converted by the Internet evangelists found that 60 percent “preferred having online discussions during the conversion process,”according a 2010 story in LDS Living magazine. One college-age convert used “Chat with a Mormon” to ask questions anonymously and ensure her Mormon friends weren’t twisting their answers to tell her what they thought she wanted to hear. Michael Johnston, a 20-year-old from Oklahoma who was baptized in 2010 after chatting with Referral Center missionaries, liked the safety of knowing he could quickly exit the chat any time he got uncomfortable.

“On the Internet, if something were to happen, I could just blame it on an Internet error or say, ‘Oh, my computer crashed.’ I didn’t necessarily have to fully commit to talking with them,” says Johnston. “If I hadn’t had Mormon.org, I don’t feel like I would even be a member of the church.”

One of Ryan Tucker's Facebook status updates, posted during his mission.

One of Ryan Tucker’s Facebook status updates, posted during his mission.

From 11 a.m. through 10 p.m., Tucker worked side-by-side with five to 30 other young men in a utilitarian room with the industrial carpeting, low ceilings, fluorescent lights and gray cubicles of a car dealership. (Female missionaries also field chats in Provo, though none serve full-time there.)

Tucker and his partner took each chat together as a pair, and would monitor each other’s screens for any illicit tweeting or Poking. Slip-ups do happen, even among the saintly. A “sister” who served in a California mission — one of a handful that tested the combination of traditional tracting and online follow-ups that will soon be standard — says a few young men were caught using Facebook to flirt with girls they’d met on their neighborhood rounds. It’s known as the “flirt to convert,” and, though the peccadillo pre-dates social media, it’ll get missionaries kicked off their Facebook accounts.

Since the online missionaries operate a click away from sin at all times, Tucker and his fellow proselytizers had to put up with extra chaperoning by Referral Center Mission staffers who reviewed each message going in and out of the Provo office.

This was “a point of frustration for us because we always felt like we were watched,” says Tucker. He remembers being chastised for sympathizing with a skeptic to whom Tucker had admitted he had personally struggled with the same point of dogma before coming to accept it.

“One of the leaders came back and said, ‘I don’t think it’s good to say you’ve questioned a point of doctrine,’” Tucker says. “I personally think it makes us more reliable to say we’re not just uncritically accepting this, and that we are thinking through this.”

“Chat with a Mormon” missionaries don’t stick to a set script, but do quickly steer conversations toward the virtues of their faith. A pair of proselytizers will begin with low-pressure banter — they introduce themselves, ask the visitor if she has a question — then try to use her query to initiate a chat about her beliefs. “My companion is typing up a response,” a missionary might say. “But while you wait, why don’t you tell me what brought you to Mormon.org?” As they go, they’ll test chatters’ sincerity and try to weed out the trolls by giving “micro-commitments,” such as an article to read. If someone can’t be bothered to click the link, the missionaries assume she isn’t serious and politely wrap up the chat.

Tucker also obsessively analyzed the snippets of text onscreen for clues about each visitor’s receptivity to the Word. He says with help from his “gift of tongues,” he could tell if something was amiss just by a subtle switch in punctuation — from exclamation marks to ellipses — or by the length of time it took for a chatted reply. He and other missionaries found smiley face emoticons, paired with references to “peace,” “comfort” and “enlightenment,” were good hints their pupils had been moved by the Holy Spirit, meaning they believed the teachings about the Gospel to be true.

“It became fairly easy to recognize people who were less than serious. The hard part was not treating them as such,” says Tucker. “The second we say, ‘This person’s a troll,’ is the second that we give up on helping them.”

Missionaries at the Referral Center Mission.

Missionaries at the Referral Center Mission

This person’s a troll, Tucker figured when he first spoke with L’Espérance.

It was the fall of 2011 when L’Espérance, then 16, logged on to “Chat with a Mormon” and, by chance, was paired with Tucker in a chatroom. It was eight months after the peak of L’Espérance’s trolling, and L’Espérance confessed to Tucker that he’d messed around with the missionaries before. Still, he insisted he was back now to learn about their faith. For real.

L’Espérance’s older brother was then recovering from a near-fatal car crash, and L’Espérance, who’d replaced pranks with prayers in the wake of the accident, had sworn to no particular god or faith that he would join a church if his brother pulled through. Now he felt he owed it to the missionaries to at least hear them out after all the hours he’d harassed them.

Tucker, not entirely convinced, shrugged off L’Espérance with a vague suggestion to read the Book of Mormon. To Tucker’s surprise, L’Espérance actually did. The next time the Canadian returned to Mormon.org, the two scheduled a time for L’Espérance’s first lesson on Skype. Each chat session opened with a prayer, then Tucker and his companion would guide L’Espérance through the tenets of his faith using church websites, online Prezi slideshows and short, church-approved YouTube videos. Tucker might dive into the intricacies of church history or explain the Mormon take on “the character of God.” Every part of the conversion process — save attending church and entering the baptismal waters — could elapse over instant messaging.

L’Espérance saw immediate benefits to confining any and all conversion talk to his computer. For one thing, he didn’t have to involve his parents, agnostics who looked askance at religion. After L’Espérance ordered a copy of the Book of Mormon, he discovered with some dismay that it came with a pair of missionaries who showed up at his doorstep one evening.

L’Espérance refused to invite them in, worrying it would disturb his family. So instead, the shivering missionaries spent 30 minutes huddled with L’Espérance on the porch of his house, narrating the life of Joseph Smith Jr. in the chill of the November night.

“If you could possibly imagine the worst circumstances for a missionary lesson, those would be the circumstances,” recalls L’Espérance.

Yet on the Internet, Tucker was never an inconvenience. L’Espérance could message the missionary any time he saw Tucker’s screenname pop up on Skype and the two would have daily, informal chats, even between their official lessons, undisturbed by disapproving parents, intrusive siblings or the need for formality. Missionaries in turn see such talks as a chance to forge stronger bonds with their acolytes and prove Mormons aren’t “robots” — a concern expressed by more than a few missionaries.

“We understood our job was to teach him, yeah, but also to be his friend and help him,” says Tucker.

A Prezi presentation Tucker shared with potential converts online.

With missionaries in the U.K., Mexico and New Zealand now helping man the “Chat with a Mormon” service, anyone can instantly reach a missionary whenever the urge strikes, and in a two-dimensional format many already know and love. The church can even take advantage of people’s “rabbit hole” indulgence online — a tendency to get lost in an endless progression of sites and Google searches that crop up when someone explores a random topic that catches their fancy. Liza Morong, for example, went online one evening after seeing the irreverent “Book of Mormon” musical. The 21-year-old visited Mormon.org, purely to “see just how insane they were,” she wrote later. She impulsively signed on to “Chat with a Mormon” to “destroy everything those missionaries were ‘told’ to believe,” but ended up sending a Facebook friend request to the missionary she talked to, then casually messaging about his faith. Three months later, Morong was baptized.

Even after L’Espérance received his parents’ blessing to invite the two missionaries into their home, he still saved the more delicate topics about the Mormon church for Skype. He especially welcomed the privacy of the screen when it came to one of the church’s most challenging commandments, and one nearest to the hearts of 16-year-old boys: the law of chastity, which forbids masturbation, sex before marriage and same-sex intercourse.

“To be very blunt: You don’t really want to discuss things like masturbation with people you don’t know, in person,” says L’Espérance. “It’s a little bit hard looking someone in the eyes and telling them you have problems living the commandments with regard to chastity. And in another regard, it’s a little bit tough talking about those things out loud when your family is around.”

“It was easier online because you don’t need to actually speak certain things,” L’Espérance adds. “It’s more of an impersonal thing when you’re online.”

More impersonal, but more honest. The two missionaries who’d been teaching L’Espérance offline were the first to learn that he’d decided to convert. But L’Espérance turned to Tucker for help with the full-on crisis that followed L’Espérance’s baptism that December. “Overwhelmed with horrible feelings” about his decision to convert, L’Espérance debated expunging his name from church records just moments after taking his vow. He rushed home, where he says he “cried my life out,” masturbated and refused to speak to anyone.

“I felt like I needed to reject everything that I’d received,” he says.

In an earlier age, L’Espérance might never have addressed his doubts and slowly faded away from the church, like the 70 percent of all converts who fail to stay active after their baptisms. Instead, L’Espérance logged on to Skype to share his breakdown with Tucker, who said he was sorry and told L’Espérance to pray. The new convert followed Tucker’s advice. He says he later felt “an overwhelming sense of peace” about his decision.

Today, L’Espérance’s entire Facebook persona seems to have become a tribute to his faith. The church actively encourages its members to engage in their own, informal Internet missionary work by using social media to talk about their beliefs to their friends.

“Your fingers have been trained to text and tweet to accelerate and advance the work of the Lord — not just to communicate quickly with your friends,” David A. Bednar, a member of the church’s second-highest governing body, said in 2011. “The skills and aptitude evident among many young people today are a preparation to contribute to the work of salvation.”

On Facebook, a beaming photo of L’Espérance — Book of Mormon in hand — sits over a string of posts about “God’s power” and “brethren in testimony.” His online nickname is “AubertBelieves.” And this spring, L’Espérance will be fulfilling his God-given responsibility to spread the Word as he sets out on his own mission.

L'Espérance's Facebook profile photo.

L’Espérance’s Facebook profile photo.

In July of last year, as Tucker’s mission was coming to an end, L’Espérance decided to fly from Quebec to Salt Lake City to surprise Tucker on the very first day he came home from his service. The two had never met in person, but it seemed to L’Espérance that a deep bond had grown over the months they’d spent messaging about intimate topics and his deepest doubts. Tucker had learned the most personal things about L’Espérance, and had guided him to the most important decision in L’Espérance’s life. If they could be so close over the Internet, imagine the kindred spirits they’d be when they finally met in real life.

After his 8 1/2-hour flight from Canada and two nights in Salt Lake, L’Espérance went to the church where he knew Tucker would be speaking at a Sacrament meeting. L’Espérance went up to introduce himself as soon as Tucker finished his talk. The reunion wasn’t quite what L’Espérance had hoped for.

“I expected him to react more strongly, but it was like, ‘Oh, it’s cool you’re here,’” L’Espérance says, laughing dismissively. “Obviously he was excited about coming home, but I don’t think he understood everything that my presence implied — my coming over, and all the planning and the scheduling. That’s cool, you know. That’s not his approach.”

Real life may have brought them face-to-face, but in that moment it lacked the intimacy of the Internet, with its seamless harmony and easy honesty. The gathering of people paled next to the merging of pixels.