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A Look Back on Digital, Online Developments in Missionary Work

Missionaries read scriptures during an exchange in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Friday, November 12, 2021. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, courtesy of Church News. Copyright 2022 Deseret News Publishing Company.

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By Scott Taylor, Church News

With the increased — and successful — use of digital devices, technology and online proselyting, the days of full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spending their time knocking on door after door to find interested individuals to teach may have gone the way of the flip chart and the flannel board.

And while it may seem like a rather recent move for missionaries around the globe to be equipped with the latest in smartphones and have access to social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, the roots of digital technology and online efforts date back more than a decade.

In the late 2000s, some missions had elders and sisters with flip-style phones to communicate with members and those they were teaching.

In the China Hong Kong Mission, for example, missionaries often taught people with whom they had limited contact — such as domestic workers who couldn’t welcome teaching missionaries, answer doors or even take calls because of work demands or living arrangements.

So missionaries “flipped,” so to speak, to text scriptures, reminders and encouragements as part of their regular — even daily — contact.

And for years, the Church has had its call centers — for people responding to print, TV and, later, online advertisements offering a Book of Mormon, a Bible or a chance to meet with missionaries — staffed by “online missionaries” who for one reason or another were suited for that assignment rather than the demands of traditional day-to-day missionary work.

Digital devices have allowed missionaries to work online in ways they couldn’t before. And low-cost cellular service and internet access allowed the missionaries to move from weekly email interactions with their parents to weekly phone calls or videoconferencing beginning in 2019.

As digital devices for missionaries moved to smartphones at the end of the 2010s and the start of a new decade, the COVID-19 pandemic hit — and the varied uses of digital technology in missionary work grew, with online contacting, teaching and mission videoconferencing becoming the norm.

Sister Lindsey Schmidt, left, and Sister Elise Winger of the Italy Milan Mission teach an investigator via a smartphone in Bologna, Italy, in May 2020. Photo courtesy of Sister Gail Browning, courtesy of Church News. All rights reserved.

And now, a prospective missionary’s application is completed online, a new missionary’s call comes online, and a training missionary starts online.

Following are some focused looks and anecdotes regarding digital technology and online missionary work since 2010.

A Start From the Hill Cumorah

In March 2010, Michael Hemingway was in his final months of a three-year assignment as president of the New York Rochester Mission and set to return to employment with the Missionary Department. He was accepted to fill a new position — director of internet proselyting — as Church leaders expressed interest in exploring social media for missionary work, with a focus on Facebook. “You had better get started while you still have some missionaries you can tell what to do,” he remembers being told.

Not a fan then of Facebook, he set up a Facebook account and found the platform “a marketer’s dream” — providing personal information, interests, backgrounds and connections to friends. But, he wondered, would it work for missionary work?

Hemingway started first with a handful of companionships – the assistants to the president, a companionship of sisters and a senior missionary couple — and held the first meetings in the Hill Cumorah Visitors’ Center.

“I had the thought that if the Lord brought the Book of Mormon out of the Hill Cumorah to introduce the Restoration of the gospel, we should hold the first meetings about using social media, which would change how we did missionary work in the future, at the Hill Cumorah,” recalled Hemingway, now executive secretary at the Provo Missionary Training Center.

The missionaries started with blogging and Facebook accounts, quickly learning that Facebook “tracting” didn’t work any better than knocking on doors. “We also discovered that through Facebook the Lord had connected millions of his children together in ways they had never been connected before,” he said. “We just had to be smart enough to use those connections to do more than talk about what we had for lunch.”

Since the missionaries didn’t have computers or digital devices, they began working in public libraries or Church family history centers with internet connections. They used social media to contact those they were teaching. “We quickly learned that social media solved the problem of staying in daily contact with their friends they were teaching,” Hemingway said. “We also learned that when working online they could share messages, answer questions and invite local members to become friends with those in their teaching pools.”

The online work expanded to more missionaries from the zone leader council and sister training leaders. “Not only did they have success working with those they were teaching online, but they also made additional contacts with people they met in the libraries,” he said. “And because they were working in public, we did not have any problems with missionaries going to inappropriate sites.”

When the Hemingways returned home from their mission in New York at the end of June 2010, they presented to Church and Missionary Department leaders their learnings and successes, with the early online proselyting tests extended to seven missions.

By early 2013, six missions in Utah and Arizona began pilot programs of not only using online platforms for proselyting but testing digital devices — at first iPhones and iPads, then using just the iPads. Missionaries could use the iPads in hand for not only online contacts, but multiple approved or Church-developed apps in the work — maps, calendars, area books, video players for clips during lessons and more.

The digital devices then expanded to two dozen missions across the country and then more …

‘Masters of Technology,’ Not Slaves to It

Starting his service as a General Authority Seventy in Missionary Department leadership in 2014, Elder Brent H. Nielson remembers when President Russell M. Nelson — then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — chaired the Missionary Executive Council, assisted by Elder David A. Bednar, also of the Twelve.

That year, then-Elder Nelson introduced the concept of missionaries using mobile devices, now smartphones, in their daily missionary work. At that same time, Elder Bednar gave a talk at BYU Education Week and shared with the Church the blessing that social media could be if used appropriately.

In a February 2022 devotional broadcast to Latter-day Saints in California, Elder Nielson recalled some mission leaders and parents expressing concerns missionaries being online with digital devices.

A former surgeon using the medical term of “inoculating” missionaries against the evils of online temptations, President Nelson made it clear that, with sufficient safeguards, “our youth need to learn to be masters of technology, and not become slaves to it,” said Elder Nielson, quoting the Church president.

Starting with 20 of the approximately 400 missions, the Missionary Department tried to figure out how to do missionary work using mobile devices and social media. By 2015 they expanded to 80 missions.

“We continued to learn and to grow and to figure out ways that our missionaries could find, teach and baptize using the internet while also becoming masters of technology. Within a few years we were up to 160 missions, and we stayed with those missions for two or three years, learning and growing and determining the best way for missionaries to find people and to teach them using these devices, while remaining spiritually safe from the influence of the world,” he recalled.

In January 2020, under the direction of President Nelson, then the President of the Church, approval was given for every missionary in the Church to have access to a smartphone.

“Think about January of 2020, but most important of all, think about what happened in March of 2020,” Elder Nielson said. “On March 11, 2020, almost every country in the world closed its borders, closed its airports, and international flights were canceled. People were either encouraged or mandated to stay in their homes, and almost all of our missionaries worldwide were unable to leave their apartments. There were many questions proposed to us in the Missionary Department about how we would continue to do missionary work, but I have to tell you that we were ready.

“Way back in 2014, under the direction of two inspired members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, we had begun the process of figuring out how to do missionary work using these devices. When the world closed down, our missionaries stepped forward and performed a miracle.”


During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Smartphones and digital communicaions have permeated missionary work and coordination during the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit worldwide in early 2020 and continues to have impacts through today.

For the China Hong Kong Mission, smartphones allowed President Dennis L. Phillips to direct missionaries in outlying areas to gather in the city and begin evacuation procedures. The confirmation phrase — “Jell-o Nation,” the mission’s secret code phrase — signaled the start of the three-task evacuation process: to not contact anyone, to pack up everything, and to clean out the apartment.

Elders Ezra Johnson, left, and Harrison Steanson of the Germany Berlin Mission are using their smartphone to teach via video, texts and calls over several time zones and several different languages from their Hanover, Germany, residence in May 2020. Courtesy of Sister Trisha Leimer, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

President Philips used a WhatsApp group text to convey his love and concern: “I wish that I could have told each of you personally, but it wasn’t possible. An announcement was just issued by the Church indicating that due to the impact of the virus, all missionaries serving in Hong Kong will be temporarily reassigned. I will be in touch with each of you shortly, but please do not notify your parents or make calls. This is not because it is a secret, but it will complicate our effort to get you home. Here is the press release. Please read it and then we’ll talk. We love you all and would take you in our arms right now if we were with you.”

Cellphones created a unique “conference call” for the Tahiti Papeete Mission, when pandemic precautions restricted groups to no larger than 10 and closed Church meetinghouses. Missionaries were unable to watch April 2020 general conference — and couldn’t listen since the mission-issued phone models then didn’t allow internet accesses.

The week before, 80 missionaries had returned home, and the mission office had a surplus of 19 phones. A senior office couple set up general conference on mission computers, then positioned the surplus phones so that missionaries could call in on separate lines to access either English or French proceedings of the conference sessions.

And the Portugal Lisbon Mission in spring 2020 was representative of others throughout Europe and across the world.

Zone conferences were switched to online Zoom meetings. And mission calls went out for missionaries to go to the store to buy two weeks of food and provisions — for protective in-residence stays that exceeded well past those two weeks.

‘Like a Worldwide Zoom Meeting’

In February 2021, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — and then executive director of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council — sat down with his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, for the taping of a missionary devotional on technology in missionary work.

The setting and medium couldn’t have been more appropriate for the main topic, with the Uchtdorfs interspersed among video cameras and prompters, display monitors showing video clips of full-time missionaries both asking and answering questions, and other screens displaying collagelike views of missionaries in Utah and Washington joining live via videoconferencing.

All for a devotional to be broadcast to full-time missionaries serving worldwide.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf shares some of the lessons he’s learned due to the pandemic in a social media post February 22, 2021. © 2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

Elder Uchtdorf called it “almost like a worldwide Zoom meeting.”

In the devotional posted February 25, 2021, on the missionaries’ online portal, Elder Uchtdorf saluted the elders and sisters of the COVID-19 pandemic era as those who learned to use technology and social media in new and effective ways to proclaim the gospel worldwide.

“When restrictions to our missionary work ease again, don’t just go back to the old ways. Go back to the future,” he said. “Move forward and upward as you apply what you have learned during the pandemic.”

‘Sacred Ground’

What was a tool of necessity during the pandemic has become a standard of not only coordination and communication but teaching, with digital tools also making it easier for members to participate in missionary work.

“This is the season of miracles,” said Elder Marcus B. Nash, a General Authority Seventy serving as the executive director of the Missionary Department, during an October 2021 Church News podcast. “We’re watching members engage at a level and scope that I don’t think we have ever seen, at least in the modern era of the Church.”


Utilizing digital tools also extends to missionary work in the field and “has made a tremendous difference and will continue to make a difference,” Elder Nash said. “We’ve learned that you can teach online by the power of the Spirit, and it is the same experience as it would be face to face.”

Mission presidents also employ technology to improve the work — through Zoom and other tools, mission presidents can have shorter and more frequent trainings with missionaries, said David N. Weidman, the Missionary Department’s managing director. “Missionaries hold things better when it’s short and it’s simple. They also embed it into their heart when they go out and immediately apply it.”

As more resources and online media are available to missionaries, their purpose remains the same. “I was talking with a sister in Morristown, New Jersey, and she was explaining to me the use of technology,” recalled Weidman. “She said, ‘When I go on Facebook, I’m entering sacred ground.’”

The sister explained that those who need the gospel of Jesus Christ are on Facebook, and those who are searching for answers to prayers are on social media. “My purpose is to find them and help them find the Savior, and that’s why it’s sacred ground to me,” she said.

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