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?


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 years—since 2010—and 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.

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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 websites—despite it being an outsider label—in 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.”

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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.

“In every regard except for one they’re better missionaries [than we were],” said Erlend Peterson, a vice president at Brigham Young University who served his mission in New York the early ‘60s. Older Mormons are among the Internet’s strongest supporters. According to Peterson, the one problem with today’s missionaries is their need for immediate gratification. “Because they didn’t come from agrarian societies,” he said, “they don’t have patience. We knew what it meant to sow in the spring and harvest in the fall.”

Sheldon Child, a former mission president, area president, and emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy—one of the top leadership positions in the Church—agreed that missionaries today are “better prepared to go into the mission field than 20 years ago.”

Elder Gary and Sister Kay Batchelor, a senior missionary couple currently serving their third volunteer mission (including 19 months on the Guam island of Chuuk in Micronesia where they taught morning seminary in Chuukese), were one of the most traditional couples I spoke with. During our interview, Sister Batchelor stayed mostly silent, deferring to her husband. Elder Batchelor called me “young lady,” and wanted to discuss my future marriage prospects. At the close of our interview, he told me that he could see I was a believer at heart, and strongly recommended I pray for revelation, on my knees. As a mission president in Little Rock, Arkansas, he made his missionaries handwrite and mail him weekly letters through 2008, even though most missions had used email since at least 2005. He was unfamiliar with texting, and he was dismayed by how many missionaries today arrive in the field “addicted to their cell phones.”

Naturally, I expected him to think the worst of Facebook. But he too was excited to reduce time knocking on strangers’ doors. As a former mission president, he knows how discouraging it can be for missionaries to face constant rejection at doors. He wants the missionaries teaching, not walking streets, and if Facebook can do that, then for Elder Batchelor, “it is a real bless”—that was his colloquial term. “Nobody opens their door anymore today,” he said.

I saw very quickly how much missionaries hate knocking on unknown doors. Known as “tracting,” the door-knocking has long been the backbone of mission work since the start of the 20th century. Missionary handbooks from the 1940s devote an entire chapter to effective tracting methods. This method has fallen out of favor in recent decades, especially in Western countries, and in many missions has been abandoned for a referral-based approach. Much of the optimism around technology has focused on it as a replacement for tracting.

Alan Hurst, a Yale Law School graduate who served as a missionary in Berlin from 2002 to 2004, tracted from nine to noon every morning for parts of his mission. This was intended solely to “put [missionaries] in the missionary mindset, even though it was a fruitless endeavor.” He acknowledged the unintentional benefits of “the old ways”—building resilience—but he said that it was ineffective proselytizing.

Nathan Gunn, who served in Barcelona from 2003 to 2005, agreed. “I don’t think I tracted another day after I became a senior companion,” he said, referring to the senior and junior roles assigned companionships, in which the senior companion determines the schedule. Parts of Africa or Latin America, he said, were receptive to tracting, as well as many immigrant communities in the United States. But “it has to be done in the right place at the right time, and Spain to me was just not the right place.”

“There was less pressure,” Ben Carraway said of online communication. Carraway served in the Philadelphia test mission from 2011 to 2013. “Online it’s online, instead of three people on my doorstep.” When contacted online, people can respond on their own time. Carraway would go “Facebook tracting,” sending Facebook messages at random to people with an explanation of who he was and linking to a church video.

In his web broadcast, Elder Perry acknowledged this shift. “The nature of missionary work must change if the Lord will accomplish His work,” he said. “People today are often less willing to let strangers into their homes. Their main points of contact with others is often via the Internet.” This admission lit up Mormon blogs and newspapers, with Mormons rushing to share their enthusiasm that the days of tracting were coming to an end.

The fact that the Church continued to develop test missions and decided to phase in Facebook, blogging, and iPads worldwide indicates the success of these tools. Within two years of introducing online chats to the Provo Missionary Training Center, missionaries chatting online had converted people in 42 states and 20 different countries. Two missionaries I met on a test mission in Utah got a woman in Texas baptized (baptism is the ritual that formally confirms one into the faith); a mission president in Moscow told me that two sister missionaries were able to baptize a woman by keeping in touch through Skype.

Online dictionaries and digital maps especially can seem like a godsend for missionaries learning foreign languages. More than 57 languages are taught at the Missionary Training Centers, including Hmong, Icelandic, and Samoan. Training lasts two to 12 weeks, depending on the language. Given the complex topics and specialized vocabulary needed, every missionary schedule includes mandatory daily language study for foreign-language missions.

Stephen Sorenson, who didn’t even own a cell phone before becoming missionary president, was quickly won over to the blessings of technology. Mission president in Russia from 2010 to 2013, he will never forget the day a missionary showed him how to search Russian terms on an iPod. “It’s like all of my life led up to that day,” he said, “and the rest of my life followed that day. I can’t imagine doing work here now without this iPod capability.”

“I don’t know that it was a big permission thing,” Ken Woolley said to me when I questioned his introduction of Skype and iPods to the field as a mission president in Russia. “I thought it just made sense.” Woolley is the CEO of Extra Space Storage, and one of the founders of the More Good Foundation, an organization dedicated to spreading knowledge and counteracting disinformation about Mormonism through the Internet. When he received the call to serve as mission president, he began creating a series of websites in Russian, and advertising on Russian social-media sites. Along with his wife Athelia they bought 25 iPod Touches for their 50 missionaries, and loaded them with regional maps, a Russian dictionary, the Mormon scriptures in both English and Russian, lectures from General Conference, and more than one thousand songs—permissible music must “invite the spirit,” which usually means Mormon Tabernacle Choir and anything over 100 years old.

In 2009, Woolley approached his area presidency about the new technology; the area presidency called in to the Missionary Department in Salt Lake City, which never responded. At that point, his area president—Elder Greg Schwitzer—gave him the green light. This wasn’t indefinite permission however, and so Woolley, a numbers guy with a background in the sciences, set out to test the effectiveness of his ideas. He divided his four zones in two, giving half the iPods and leaving half without. The results were incredible.

“The baptismal rate was almost double,” he said of the missionary efforts using the iPods. While the iPods didn’t help missionaries find new people, they were very useful in bringing to baptism people who had already expressed interest. Woolley believes this is because the iPod material made missionaries more effective teachers. They had professional videos illustrating their lessons, and language support. “You’re not substituting the technology for face to face conversations,” he said. “You’re using technology as an adjunct, to better make a point.” Woolley felt that the technology, instead of distracting missionaries, inspired them. “It gave them more enthusiasm,” he said, “because it had more success and they were having more fun.”

Woolley, despite his radical embrace of technology in spreading the gospel, is no media enthusiast. Like many Mormons I spoke with, Woolley felt strongly about the role of the Internet in spreading pornography, which he described as “cybersin” and incredibly destructive to healthy relationships. He was also sensitive to hard rock music or music with vulgar lyrics, which he believed to be spiritually harmful, and felt that many young men waste tremendous time on video games, becoming addicted instead of getting on with their lives. But ultimately, none of these concerns seemed to him substantial enough to ban technology from the mission field, especially when it proved so effective at reaching converts.

“I have nostalgia about the letters, but I don’t have any concerns about the Internet,” he said. “I am very much an optimist, and believe when we give people tools that can be positive, they will use them in a positive way.”

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If anything, it is the younger generation that is more concerned about Facebook and Internet access. “I think my jaw dropped for about 10 minutes after the announcement was made,” said Elder Drew Brown, 19, at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, where he was in language training before heading to serve in Taiwan. Brown worried that he was “going to spend more time inside a room rather than face to face” teaching people, like his father’s mission.

For many missionaries the difficult lifestyle comes drenched in virtue. Most come to the field with hopes of—in addition to preaching the gospel—improving their discipline, concentration, and obedience. Basically, traits the Internet is said to destroy.

“If someone wakes up in the middle of the night, and goes into the kitchen and wants to have a go at it, there is certainly nothing stopping them … you don’t have to sneak out, you can stay right there in the comfort of your home,” said Stephen Sorenson about his early concerns that the iPods would make pornography more easily available.

“I think it is going to be harder for the missionaries,” said B.W., a current missionary. “I mean, if I had Internet access I’d be on eBay looking for ammo deals,” he added.

Younger Mormons, particularly from test missions, are cautious. “Part of me was a little worried,” said Ben Caraway, “because I feel like a brand new missionary shouldn’t be able to use Facebook until he has been out for a little bit. If you are a brand new missionary, home is always on your mind, and it is easy to be tempted to look at home and see what people are doing and what friends are doing,” making it a particularly vulnerable time for Facebook.

“Netflix kills you,” B.W. said when asked how he felt about the addictive nature of technology, adding that visiting families in their homes as a missionary has made him rethink the role of technology in everyday life. “The kids are all watching a movie, playing with Grandma’s iPhone. I don’t want to let technology get in the way of my being a parent.”

As he spoke, his two companions nodded vigorously. “You see kids in member’s homes … turn off the TV and they didn’t know what to do,” one said. “I would play video games for hours, and I lived across the street from a park!” the companion continued, saying he feels more present on his mission than at home. For him, staring at screens “Kind of dims you from the world.”

But not all Mormons agree on the central purpose of a mission. Different Mormons have different emphases.

Sheldon Child was adamant that bringing others to the Gospel must be the principal goal of one serving a mission. “The main reason they go on mission is to invite people to come to Christ,” said Child, who oversaw missionaries both as an area president and as a mission president himself in the 1990s in New York City. “The self-transformation is a byproduct. If you had a missionary who went on mission to become a better person or be a better speaker he would be a less effective missionary,” he said. From this perspective, the only hesitations one would have about technology would be whether it would result in fewer converts.

For many missionaries and their families, however, the personal process of the missionary is equally important. It is a classic coming of age experience, and one that ideally cements traits of discipline and obedience. When Ken Woolley was being trained as a mission president, the message was “beat into” him that “your primary success as a mission president would be manifest by the lives of your missionaries five, 10, 15, 20 years after the fact … the conversion of people was the outgrowth, not the primary objective,” he said.

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In 1974 President Spencer Kimball called on every young man in the Church to serve a mission. As it became more common for Mormon men of all sorts to serve missions, mission rules became stricter. Mormons who served in the ’60s describe it as more adventurous, and certainly less structured. Overseas missionaries never called home, and could go months without hearing from their mission president. Up through the 1970s, missionaries generally were allowed to see movies, read books, write letters on days other than their designated day of the week, and use technology as dictated by their own common sense, including phone calls. They also had a full day off once a week, as opposed to the weekly 11am to 6pm time currently allowed missionaries to do laundry, write letters, go grocery shopping, or get their hair cut. Calling home twice a year became standard only in the late ‘70s. Today’s missionaries also email their mission president once a week.

Erlend Peterson, like many Mormons I interviewed from this generation, owes his faith to his mission. When he began, he woke up every morning at 5:30am. He didn’t need to be up until 6:00am (for missionaries today it is 6:30am), but Peterson wanted that extra half hour to study the Book of Mormon.

“I didn’t want my companion to know that I didn’t have a testimony,” he said over lunch at Brigham Young University, and reading scripture was his attempt to gain faith. A Mormon’s testimony is his or her conviction that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is God’s true prophet, and that the head of the LDS Church is a living prophet. For Peterson, his mission enabled him to gain a firm testimony.

As the Church continued to grow and expand, it was announced that while the call to serve a mission would still be universal, the opportunity to do so would be even more conditional. In an oft-quoted 2002 address titled “The Greatest Generation of Missionaries,” Elder Russell Ballard said, “The day of the ‘repent and go’ missionary is over.” He did not want missionaries who, like Peterson, were still gaining a testimony. “We live in perilous times,” Elder Ballard said, calling on all men to commit to a standard of worthiness. “This isn’t a time for spiritual weaklings. We cannot send you on a mission to be reactivated, reformed, or to receive a testimony. We just don’t have time for that.”

This sentiment was reiterated by President Gordon Hinckley, in an address known as “Raising the Bar.” President Hinckley said, “The time has come when we must raise the standards of those who are called … as ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ. … We simply cannot permit those who have not qualified themselves as to worthiness to go into the world to speak the glad tidings of the gospel.” After this address, the number of missionaries per year dropped from 60,850 in 2000 to 51,067 in 2004, a drop the church also attributes to changing demographics.

By all accounts, and despite general societal despair of the current youth, today’s missionaries are likely the most well vetted, and most committed, cadre that the church has ever sent forth. While younger—the church lowered the age minimum for service in October 2012 to 18 for men and 19 for women—they are certainly the most thoroughly trained. “I don’t know what the MTC was doing,” Sorenson said of his 2013 missionaries in particular, “but this last year the kids were just tremendously sharp. Language, maturity, good judgment, willingness to work hard and be focused on missionary work and not other things.” They are focused, and coming to the field at a time of tremendous change.

It is undeniable that Facebook and iPads and multimedia will change the mission field; it has never been easier to sift out the hostile or ignore the uninterested (though, in other ways, it has become easier to attract the hostile). Missionaries using social media as outreach will face a lot less rejection in their daily work and connect more readily with those interested in hearing their message. They will hear more anti-Mormon messages as well, and have greater access to alternative Mormon histories. They will spend more time staring at screens. Their missions will probably lose some of the adventure of their fathers, walking miles down a dark road on nothing more than a feeling that a house down there was waiting for them. Future missionaries might only visit homes they’ve already called, texted, and confirmed a meeting time with. But for the romanticism lost, a much more effective system is gained. They may yet be the first generation to reinvent the foundational experience of Mormon proselytizing.

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There is a recurring joke that every returned missionary refers to his mission as “the happiest years of his life.” I heard this first-hand before I learned it was a cliché. The first time, I had asked one of my missionaries who was a few months away from the end of his service, if he was looking forward to returning home. He looked down.

“I’m so happy,” he said. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

The life of a Mormon missionary is hard. These kids pay out of pocket to serve, are allowed almost no entertainment, and no break from their work. And yet, technology advances or not, most lit up when discussing their mission. This was certainly not the case for everyone, and many Mormons have serious grievances about the conditions under which they served. But for Mormons today with faith intact, coming home is hard. The advice, often, is to get busy immediately upon returning home. Many Mormons begin school or work mere weeks after coming back from a two-year mission, a turnover rate that surprised me.

“Those first six months were the most difficult of my life,” said Bob Farthingham about coming home from his mission. Farthingham served in England from 1965 to 1967, and as a mission president in Colorado from 2008 to 2011. By the time he said this, I wasn’t surprised. It was the sentiment I heard from countless missionaries, regardless of decade.

There are a number of reasons given. Some Mormons attribute it to a spiritual change in status, that missionaries have a special closeness to the Holy Ghost that leaves when they return. In speaking with missionaries, however, it seems there is something inherently powerful about knowing what to do with every moment of your day, and the confidence that comes from sincere conviction that you are doing important work. Most missionaries are motivated by altruism, believing they are in the field to help other people find the happiness they have found as Mormons. After two years of pushing yourself in the fight, it can be hard to feel you are abandoning the field for more trivial matters.

For recently returned missionaries, Facebook provides a slight antidote to the pain of losing one’s missionary status. Most missionaries today keep in touch with their investigators—individuals considering conversion—through Facebook. “It makes returning less difficult, because you are still doing missionary work,” Elwood said. Though like many emerging adults constructing a Facebook identity, some returned missionaries worried about their investigators seeing them living non-missionary lifestyles, such as going to concerts.

When I began interviewing Mormon missionaries, I assumed the technology innovations would be eroding their productivity, exposing them to temptation and doubt. Instead, I found surprisingly similar stories of struggles and rule-breaking and temptations told across the decades, technology notwithstanding, from men who served in the ‘70s and boys still in the field. I didn’t find my last tribe of Western kids who had tasted life before laptops, who could tell me what I wanted to hear, which was that they were happier without their devices, and that they had deeper friendships because they hand-wrote letters to one another; that superficial communication and splintered attention spans are modern problems, easily attributable to technology.

Instead of fear, I found incredible optimism and excitement about technology in mission work, albeit alongside caution. Instead of second-hand nostalgia for the past, I found some rare faith in the future.