Missionary work will never be the same

Sister missionaries from the Kenya Nairobi Mission after a special sacrament meeting with Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve in 2022. (Church Newsroom)

The COVID-19 pandemic flipped traditional methods of missionary work on their head and provided an opportunity to develop a social-media centered approach to spreading the Church’s message.

The 20 months Matthew Day served in the Marshall Islands were typical of a Latter-day Saint

“It was just talking to people face to face, stopping on the side of the street, knocking on doors,” said Day, now a junior at Brigham Young University studying cybersecurity.

However, Day’s daily routine – study, tract, proselyte – which he had both fallen in love with and mastered, was suddenly shattered. After weeks of rumors about missionaries being pulled out of Hong Kong due to a mysterious virus, he and his fellow missionaries were told they had until morning to prepare to leave their Marshallese home.

Within 24 hours, Day and his companions had packed up all their belongings, caught a ferry to the closest island with an airport, and flown to Majuro, the capital of the scattered island nation.

I just remember throughout all of it, it was just like, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening.’

Matthew Day

Two days later they were on their way to North America, with Day returning to his family in North Carolina just in time for the Sunday session of the April 2020 General Conference.

“I just remember throughout all of it, it was just like, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening’,” Day said.

The dramatic end to Day’s mission, an experience shared by thousands of others, now appears in hindsight to be the accelerated beginning of a permanent transformation in the way The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does its missionary work.

The new approach, years in the making but catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, relies more heavily on digital teaching resources and a prominent social media presence to update missionary work for an online era. But while Church leaders have extolled these advances, a precipitous decline in convert baptisms during the pandemic highlights some of the difficulties inherent to Internet-mediated evangelizing.

A trend accelerated

Scott Howell teaches courses in instructional psychology and mission prep at BYU and was able to observe the pandemic-induced shift in missionary work – and its fruits – firsthand as the mission president of the North Dakota Bismarck Mission from July 2018 to July 2021.

“For me, it was a realization that the Lord really is hastening his work and allowing us to maybe reach areas where we could not have reached otherwise,” Howell said.

The North Dakota Bismarck Mission received smartphones in May 2018 as part of a growing experiment that had begun with the Rochester, New York mission in 2010 and had expanded to
around 80 missions by 2015, according to Church News. At the time, smartphones were mainly used to organize missionary records, study the gospel library and communicate with family.

But when COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic in the spring of 2020, these devices took on a central role in missionary work. Only a few months before, in January 2020, President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had approved smartphone access for every missionary.

“That’s huge,” Howell said. “Every mission in the world is now using technology in ways they have not used them before.”

With companionships stuck in their apartments, Howell moved quickly to assign sisters and elders with prior social media experience to advise him on how social media could be used to continue the work and to help their fellow missionaries create and maintain ward Facebook pages, regional Instagram pages, and personal social media accounts based on unique talents and messages.

By the end of 2021, more than 27,000 people had followed local Church Facebook pages in the North Dakota Bismarck Mission, and another 2,100 had followed the local Church Instagram pages. But the mission’s online presence didn’t just result in likes and follows.

“We taught more lessons in social media than we had taught outside of social media because it was so much more convenient,” Howell said. “We had many of our people that we saw join the Church during the pandemic that were reached and taught through social media say, ‘You would not have found us any other way.’”

Against all odds, the North Dakota Bismarck Mission saw the exact same number of baptisms in 2020 as it had in 2019. Howell said he felt like he was living what Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, as chairman of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council, had described in his October 2020 General Conference address.

“The pandemic is revealing new and more creative ways of reaching out to the honest in heart,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “We might have been so tied to traditional approaches that it took a pandemic to open our eyes.”

Miraculously, the COVID-19 pandemic did not slow the work in the North Dakota Bismarck Mission. But for many missions and missionaries around the world, it was a different story.

Challenges to less in-person contact

From 2019 and 2020 convert baptisms fell from 248,835 to 125,930. In 2021 the number remained relatively low, at 168,283, according to the Church’s yearly statistical reports.

“What the numbers show was that the number of baptisms dropped virtually in half,” said David Stewart, founder of the Cumorah Project, a privately funded initiative that performs detailed missiological research on Church growth and missionary efforts.

This sharp decline, followed by only a partial rebound in 2021, reflects the obvious effects of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions as well as a decades-long downward trend, Stewart said.

A comparison of convert baptisms to the number of full-time missionaries in the Church. COVID-19 affected convert baptisms and reduced the number of missionaries. (Brigham Tomco)

Another reason for this recent decrease in convert baptisms, Stewart believes, is the very real limitation that comes along with Internet proselytism, which include a perception that online communication is inauthentic, a decreased sense of obligation among individuals to attend meetings with missionaries, difficulty feeling the Spirit during video lessons and the absence of in-person fellowshipping.

“I’m glad that the missionary efforts are utilizing the Internet strategies more,” Stewart clarified. “But I would also note that there are some trade-offs, and we need to be careful as we embrace the new technologies and adjust to a changing world with, in some ways, less personal contact for reasons beyond our control, such as COVID, less personal interaction, that we also don’t lose our skills and lose sight of the importance and the value of direct personal contact.”

An increasingly online approach to missionary work may also result in missionaries wasting more time on ineffective projects, a worry Howell says has been borne out time and time again. Aside from spending hours scrolling through social media feeds, missionaries might spend time producing content that is merely entertaining, at best, or offensive, at worst.

During the pandemic lockdown, missionaries recorded and posted videos of themselves dancing in people’s living rooms, doing back flips to Harry Styles, lip syncing to stand-up comedy and rapping about the Bible.

However, Howell says these problems were foreseen by Church leaders who still felt that the benefits of increased technological savviness among missionaries was worth the occasional distractions and who published technology safeguard booklets to prevent the worst misuses of smart devices.

And, as Howell pointed out, videos posted by missionaries during the pandemic occasionally provided more positive exposure than any other method.

For example, a video posted by two elders in Greece early in the pandemic, featuring a trick basketball shot and a brief Christ-centered message, garnered hundreds of thousands of views and led to several dozen lessons. And in 2021 another video of two elders singing the Georgian national anthem went viral, earning them a spot on primetime television where they could explain their purpose and message.

Missionary work going forward

“It’s going to take some time to change the culture of the Church, and especially older missionaries,” Howell said, referring to numerous conversations he had with members who felt that the increased amount of time missionaries were spending on computers and smartphones was not a good use of their time.

But Howell is optimistic that the Church’s emphasis on using social media more frequently and more effectively to share God’s word will help members, as well as missionaries, to reach people they never would have been able to otherwise.

On a recent trip to eastern and central Europe, Howell was able to share three copies of the Book of Mormon in three different languages using a QR code generated by the Church’s recently updated Book of Mormon app.

“The missionary purpose does not change – to gather souls under Christ. But the way we do it is different,” he said.

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