The Facebook of Mormon

Since 2010, the Mormon Church has been conducting, largely in secret, an experiment: What happens when missionaries can use the Internet for their work?
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The woman that he was trying to reach almost never picked up her phone, and she lived more than 50 miles away. Plus, he had to watch his gas mileage. So Brandon Gonzales, a then-20-year-old missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, stationed in Slatington, Pa., looked her up on Facebook. The young Mormon found that she was almost always free to chat online in the mornings, and soon they were chatting every day. He would send her links to church videos and sermons that explained aspects of Mormon faith, family life, or church theology.

This was 2010, and, as far as most Mormons knew, what he was doing was completely forbidden.

Restrictions on technology have long been a defining feature of life during the Mormon mission, a full-time proselytizing effort that typically lasts two years for men and 18 months for women. Missionaries don’t use personal cell phones, browse the Internet, or even watch movies, excluding certain church-produced films. They read nothing outside of the Mormon scriptures and missionary-relevant texts. They call home only twice a year: on Mother’s Day and on Christmas. Up until April 2013, these missionaries kept in touch with friends via handwritten letters. Today they have access to email on a church-operated server for a limited time once a week. The lifestyle is constructed to minimize worldly distractions, and focus missionaries on the task of preaching their gospel. Which is why it was a pretty big deal that Brandon Gonzales was on Facebook.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Gonzales, who grew up in West Valley, Utah, and now studies accounting in Salt Lake City, was serving in one of several largely secretive test missions, started by the church in 2010 to evaluate the risks and benefits of introducing social media to the mission field. While the church won’t release any data about these test missions, there are at least 30 test missions worldwide, some which have run for two or three yearssince 2010and others are just starting. Some, like Gonzales’s in Philadelphia, were particularly successful with Facebook. At a test mission in West Billings, Montana, each missionary kept a blog to serve as a public face for potential converts. A mission in Moscow distributed iPod Touches to the missionaries, complete with pre-downloaded dictionaries and Russian-language scripture.

The new technology highlights what has always been a dual purpose of the mission: to gain converts and to confirm young Mormons in their faith. As a current missionary, L., explained to me, the general wisdom is that “you have to convert yourself before you can convert others.” (Current missionaries asked to not be identified, as they were not speaking in their capacity as missionaries). By preaching every day for two years, missionaries also testify to themselves. For many, the isolation that came with disavowing social media was critical to their spiritual growth. This was an experience few teenagers in America could imagine—two years without Facebook.

* * *

The Mormon Church has always been tech-savvy. America’s first transcontinental telegraph line could not have been built without Mormon volunteers, motivated by the enthusiasm of Brigham Young for new communication technology. The television was invented by a Mormon. In the age of the Internet, the church re-adopted the term Mormon for their outreach websitesdespite it being an outsider labelin recognition that people don’t Google “Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints.” In 2011, they launched the “I am a Mormon” campaign, further leaning in to the power of the Internet. (The Church has not shied away from leveraging other secular developments: When the Book of Mormon musical swept Broadway, the church took out ads in the playbill, inviting theatergoers to read the real Book of Mormon. Missionaries stood outside theaters, asking people if now they wanted to meet a real Mormon missionary.)

But the Internet allowance still shocked the missionaries. “I mean, everything up until that point was about avoiding any contact with the outside world,” said Brendan Elwood, who in 2010 became one of the first four missionaries at the Philadelphia test mission to use social media. He is now a strategy consultant at Adobe Offices in Orem, Utah. “But it was exciting. The mission president called four of us into his office and said, ‘Our mission has been chosen as one of the pilot missions for this program. I’d like you four to try it out before we get the wheels rolling.’”

Gonzales thought the whole thing was a joke. “I was just kind of shocked,” he said. “I just didn’t see it coming, and could see it being a prank very easily,” he said.

Despite the suits and ties, missionaries are still 19-year-old boys away from home, and pranks, like filling a friend’s bathtub with Jell-O or faking a proposal from a girlfriend, are not uncommon. But this was no prank. Gonzales, six months into his service, was given the choice of making a new Facebook page or using his old one. He stuck to his original page, deleted some pictures, and put up a status saying his Facebook use was strictly for missionary business. When asked about further rules, Gonzales said the missionaries were told only to “be smart” and that his companion had to always be able to see his screen.

Missionaries serve in pairs that must remain together at all times. “Companions,” as each member of a pair is known, can change every six weeks. Companions sleep in the same room, attend the same events, even accompany one another on walks around the block. They are same-gender and, like all missionaries, refer to one another as “Sister” or “Elder,” respectively. One of the oldest features of organized Mormon mission work, companionship protects against “spiritual and physical danger,” according to the mission handbook, and is the bedrock of missionary self-policing. The handbook specifically instructs against seeking alone time by waking up or going to bed without one’s companion. Even missionaries allowed limited email access once a week must use their computer in the sight of their companion.

There are three main concerns voiced against Internet use: wasting time online, pornography access, and safety. On all of these fronts, Gonzales trusts that most missionaries will make wise decisions about their limits. This may mean choosing, as several missionaries in his mission did, to not go online. But such a decision is rare. Many feel that the Internet is no more a temptation than the world itself. When asked if being online ever exposed him to unholy content, Gonzales laughed. “I live in Philadelphia. You can’t delete what’s on the street.”

* * *

On June 23, 2013, Elder L. Tom Perry, 91, a member of the Twelve Apostles, the ruling council of the church, announced in a public web broadcast that all Mormon missionaries would begin phasing in social media and Internet use in the coming year. The reactions to Elder Perry’s announcement were overwhelmingly positive, if startled. While the occasional article about a specific test mission had been published in Deseret News, a Mormon-operated newspaper, very few people were aware that social media was being tested and considered. “This change is huge,” said Lon Nally, President of the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, as we went on a tour together of the building. “Traditionally they’re knocking on doors, and now with these hand-held devices the methods of work will change.” That was seen as a good thing. True to its optimistic reputation, most Mormons I met with had only faith in the upcoming generation.

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Shira Telushkin is a writer living in New Haven, Connecticut.

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