“Welcome to Mormon.org chat.”
“A missionary will be with you shortly.”
“Please continue to hold for the next available missionary.”
What sounds like a customer service dead end is actually the automated start of a session on Missionary Chat, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ platform for online proselytizing.
Mormon.org launched in 2001 to provide an official portal for news and information about the Church. In 2008 the chat function was added, providing missionaries a new way to answer basic questions about their beliefs. Hundreds of baptisms have resulted from conversations that began on Missionary Chat in the past five years, and up to 5,000 strangers sign in each month.
I logged on to Missionary Chat one Sunday afternoon to see how the church’s teens and twentysomethings are using digital technologies to reach new audiences. Missionaries at chat centres in Provo and Salt Lake City, Utah greeted me with delight. Beyond Utah and the continental U.S., online missionaries cover multiple time zones in Hawaii, England and New Zealand.
Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Church’s missionary department, recently discussed how new technologies and social media are changing the missionary’s traditional role.
“Social media and technology is a wonderful development for missionary work,” he said, noting that many young missionaries and church leaders are now using Facebook and Twitter to preach the gospel. The Mormon.org Facebook page has 4.9 million likes and @LDSChurch has more than 95,000 followers on Twitter. That’s impressive considering there are only about 15 million Mormons worldwide.
Evans expects that more missionaries will start using tablets, smartphones and new social media platforms to enhance their work in the coming year. “We anticipate that this technology and the use of digital devices will begin to be broadly available throughout all of the world where it’s safe to do so and where we can legally do so,” he said.
That legal caveat is a crucial one. At last count more than 80,000 Mormon missionaries were serving in over 150 countries. In many predominantly Muslim states and repressive countries like mainland China, Cuba and North Korea, Mormons are legally barred from preaching the gospel or converting new members to the church.
Mormon officials and missionaries say they respect those laws online as they do offline.
“Some governments have internet filters that block mormon.org along with other religious sites. In some cases people still get through, but we are aware of the laws and kindly explain the limitations we have in talking with them,” one missionary said. “When someone comes on from Pakistan, we get a prompt from the system indicating that we can answer questions that they have, but we can’t invite them to meet with missionaries or attend church.”
I asked a friend in Abu Dhabi, where proselytizing is illegal, to log on to Missionary Chat and see what happened. Rather than the friendly though somewhat generic greeting I received, his chat window said: “Missionaries are not available to chat with you at this time. You may return to Mormon.org to learn more. The chat session has ended.”
After a few hours chatting from London, I switched on my virtual private network and instantly relocated my Internet Protocol address to the United States. Millions of people in countries with internet restrictions use VPNs, proxies and other tools to fake their physical locations and experience an uncensored web.
Knowing this, and assuming missionaries and church officials do too, I was surprised that no one asked where I lived until the end of each conversation, when some politely asked to send missionaries to my home.
I filled out the “Request Missionary Visit” form using my London address and made a fake appointment in Pakistan, which is available in the “Select a Country” dropdown menu. Both prompted the message: “Thank you for requesting a visit from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You should be contacted by missionaries in a few days.” Such contact would presumably be illegal in Pakistan and in many countries.
Eric Hawkins, senior manager of media relations for the Church, said these apparent oversights should not be interpreted as foul play. “We go through the front door. We only proselytize where we’re formally recognized and welcomed by governments,” he said.
In addition to reaching new audiences, online missionary work serves other practical functions. Most Mormons who use Missionary Chat still spend a majority of their missions offline. Some work online full-time temporarily until they receive a field assignment. For missionaries with physical disabilities, the chat function allows them to serve in ways that would have once been impossible.
Tyson Boardman was born with congenital muscular dystrophy. He served a full-time online mission at the Provo Missionary Training Center in 2009. “Regardless of who you are, you can be an instrument in the Lord’s hands,” he said in a brief documentary.
Digital technologies may enhance proselytizing, but offline efforts are still necessary. Missionaries I chatted with noted that people cannot convert to Mormonism online because baptism requires physical contact, according to church doctrine.
Although 76 percent of missionaries are men, women also spread the gospel online and off. Last year the Mormon Church lowered the minimum age for missionary work from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women. I asked one female missionary: who made the change and why? “God did. It was announced at the General conference by our current prophet Thomas S. Monson and we believe it was a revelation from God,” she said.
Young missionaries work in teams of two. Women are paired with women and men with men, even online. When I asked why an individual’s sex mattered for Missionary Chat, one Mormon said, “those we work with are right next to us. [My partner] is two feet away from me. That way we can talk to each other and make sure we are on the same page.”
I asked missionaries what they hoped to accomplish via online chat. One said: “I think it has the potential to be more far-reaching. There are certain individuals that simply will not let people in their homes, but they will gladly participate in an online chat. The world is becoming more reclusive and suspicious of someone knocking on their door. This chat service provides a way for all people with internet access to have their questions answered about the church.”
Another added: “I really like that I get to talk to people from all over the world. It is sad that I don’t get to see them face-to-face, but I’m so happy that we are using this technology to spread the word of God.”
But surely there must be online trolls logging on to start a fight?
“People come here with different intentions. Many are insincere,” one missionary said. Another elaborated: “Some come on as a joke, some hoping to argue, but the majority are people who just want to know more. If those we chat with are crude, vulgar, argumentative, etc. we don’t hesitate to let them go and invite them to come back later.”
I logged on and tried a bit of light theological prodding and spamming to see how the missionaries would react. After trying to engage me for 30 seconds or so, one logged off with “Have a nice day!” Another signed off “God Bless.”
A version of this post appeared in the winter 2013 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.