From knocking on doors to Facebook posts: Missionary work moves online

Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP/File
Hundreds of people gather to welcome missionaries returning home from the Philippines at the Salt Lake City International Airport on March 22, 2020. Marcus Adams was among those called home due to the pandemic. “I didn’t feel like I had done enough … and that just tore me apart,” he recalls.

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Limited by the pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scaled back physical outreach and intensified virtual proselytizing.

In fact, some current missionaries say they’ve never knocked on doors. Instead, virtual outreach may include promoting their faith on social media via original posts, videos, and messages; teaching over Zoom; and collaborating with local members to update church profiles on Google and Yelp.

Why We Wrote This

Among the traditions upended by the pandemic are religious rites of passage. Yet some Latter-day Saint missionaries are finding that going virtual still yields personal growth.

For some, including Sister Kimberly Russon who had been scheduled to go to Portugal, the switch was disappointing. But encouraged by her younger brother, Ms. Russon forged ahead. 

Now based in Colorado, she’s shared her gospel with countless people online and in person over the past year. She says her faith has deepened, too, despite having to overcome heartbreak.

Partway through her mission, the brother who had encouraged her died. 

Yet the pain of loss has been countered by something she calls sacred. After her brother’s death, Ms. Russon began to notice how many of her contacts had also lost a loved one. Painting a promise of hope for others has in turn comforted her.

“What better to help you with grief than to turn outward,” she says.

When missionary Marcus Adams heard the news, he went out to the courtyard to cry. He no longer noticed the sticky, midday heat of the Philippines, a country he’d grown to love but now was forced to leave.

In mid-March 2020, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to fly thousands like Mr. Adams back to their home countries. Seven months into his two-year mission, he’d just begun to master the Tagalog language. He’d become more comfortable approaching the cinderblock homes of strangers, who would often welcome him in for a stir-fry meal. 

“I didn’t feel like I had done enough … and that just tore me apart,” he recalls.

Why We Wrote This

Among the traditions upended by the pandemic are religious rites of passage. Yet some Latter-day Saint missionaries are finding that going virtual still yields personal growth.

After four “stir-crazy” months back home in Utah, he was reassigned to a mostly virtual mission in the Oklahoma City area. Mr. Adams says he was instructed to meet new people by joining Facebook groups, and once conversation started, try to “segue it to the gospel.”

In both locations, he says the highlight of his mission was deepening his empathy for others as he grew in his faith.

“That is the greatest gift … bar learning a language, bar trying fancy food, or going across the sea,” says Mr. Adams, who is now adjusting to post-missionary life back home.

Limited by the pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scaled back physical outreach and intensified virtual proselytizing, calling on the flexibility and social media savvy of young missionaries. Along with disappointment, that brought complications, yet ​in an America whose share of self-described Christians continues to decline while religious “nones” rise, these Latter-day Saints still see their role as spreading hope. And some like Mr. Adams say their missions, even the virtual parts, yield personal growth. 

In fact, character development is central to the program. Missionaries gain “a foundation, an understanding, and an ability to learn that life isn’t just about themselves,” says Elder W. Mark Bassett, assistant executive director of the Missionary Department. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Elder Ryan Fagergren (left) and Elder Trevan Palmer stand at a church in Aurora, Colorado, Aug. 21, 2021. Mr. Fagergren had originally been called to serve in Japan, and Mr. Palmer in Thailand, but now the missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are making the most of domestic reassignments.

Digital natives rise to the occasion

Latter-day Saint missionaries date back to 1830, the year Joseph Smith founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While its leadership prefers the full title, the global religion that claims more than 16 million members is also widely known as the Mormon church. Its missionary tradition remains popular within the church, despite the imperial undertones some Americans may associate with missions in general.

Male, full-time missionaries, addressed as “elders,” serve for two years. “Sister” missionaries serve for 18 months. Missions are voluntary and largely funded by the individuals themselves, who are typically under 25. Unmarried missionaries are constantly accompanied by a “companion” of the same gender.

Nearly 32,000 missionaries – almost half of those serving full time pre-pandemic – returned to their home countries in spring 2020, with the option of deferring their mission or pursuing reassignment, which often involved virtual outreach. 

“I don’t see us going back to just knocking doors. … We’ll see a combination moving forward,” says Mr. Bassett. 

Some current missionaries say they’ve never knocked on doors – not even once. Instead, the Utah-based faith has increasingly relied on the skills of its digital natives, says Mr. Bassett. Virtual outreach can include promoting their faith on social media via original posts, videos, and messages; teaching over Zoom; and collaborating with local members to update church profiles on Google and Yelp.

Sometimes, though, virtual meetings lead to in-person encounters. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Thomas Bulles (left) and his nephew, Dino Aikne, stand with Elder Ryan Fagergren at a church of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Aurora, Colorado, Aug. 21, 2021. Mr. Fagergren had just delivered a sermon in Marshallese at Dino's baptism.

Baptism during the pandemic

The boy holds his breath. A room full of silent, masked guests watch his immersion underwater, guided by his uncle who, like the boy, is dressed in white.

Dino Aikne resurfaces moments later, symbolizing his rebirth.

“I want to go to heaven,” the middle schooler later says in a shy voice. His jet-black hair shines as it dries.

Double doors close on the baptismal font of this Aurora, Colorado, church. Toward the end of the August service, Elder Ryan Fagergren steps to the front. Eyes shut and hands clasped, the teenager from Texas prays aloud in Marshallese, a language of the Marshall Islands spoken by Dino and his family. This is the culmination of a series of religious lessons, both virtual and in person, Mr. Fagergren shared with Dino with the hope that he’d “be able to grow closer to God” and, with parental support, seek baptism.

Mr. Fagergren is supposed to be in Japan. He wanted to serve there like his grandfather, who used to share mission stories as they drove around in his truck. Mr. Fagergren studied Japanese throughout high school. Then he received his call to serve in Sapporo in early 2020, but the virus upended his plans.

After “praying long and hard,” he opted for reassignment. At first, Mr. Fagergren says he was unsure how to cultivate contacts in Colorado during quarantine, but he began posting church-related content to personal and mission Facebook accounts. He also taught church doctrine and English virtually.

Besides Marshallese, Mr. Fagergren is learning Spanish and Portuguese to widen his reach in the Denver suburbs. He reports having spoken to “hundreds” of people, in person and virtually, about a year into his mission. The outreach has also uplifted him.

“My faith in myself, my faith in God is way higher than what it used to be,” he says. “I’d say I’m definitely more patient and more humble.”

Changing with the times 

Leveraging social media to reach pandemic converts recalls how Western churches and agencies funded radio stations during the Cold War “as a means of evangelism into areas that would otherwise not be accessible,” says Kirsteen Kim, associate dean for the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary. Some denominations also use television and the internet as avenues for outreach.

“The medium of the message keeps shifting according to the global conditions, and according to what’s available,” says Dr. Kim. 

In fact, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gradually piloted and permitted more missionary use of the internet and digital devices over the past decade. Today, all 404 missions worldwide allow the use of cellphones. 

“Almost by necessity, they have really ramped up the use of the internet. Now they try to keep control,” says Robert Lively Jr., author of “The Mormon Missionary: Who Is That Knocking at My Door?” 

“There is the expectation that you will be very careful in using the technology, and that your companion is going to help you do that,” Dr. Lively adds. For example, companions review each other’s social media posts before they’re published. They’re also expected to be within sight of each other’s screens whenever they’re being used – a practice former missionary Mr. Adams calls “four eyes, one screen.”

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Sister Rylee White (left) and Sister Kimberly Russon sit in an Arvada, Colorado, church's Family History Center on Aug. 23, 2021. The Latter-day Saint missionaries sometimes use computers here for mission-related social media outreach.

Connecting virtually through loss 

Some missionary training centers have begun to reopen in person as more foreign posts resume. Over 53,000 missionaries are currently serving full time, among them a smiling Sister Kimberly Russon. But back in the summer of 2020, she wrestled with doubt as she sat behind the glow of her laptop screen for hours a day during online missionary training.

Raised in the church, the 20-something from Utah had put her life on hold – including a boyfriend and job – for a mission to Portugal. After COVID-19 canceled those plans, she settled for a domestic mission. 

“I was just feeling really down, and wondering if I, you know, made the right decision – if I was going to be capable to serve in the way that I wanted to serve others,” she says.

Her brother came to comfort her one night. Sitting on her bed, the teen assured her everything would be OK, that he looked up to her and loved her. 

Ms. Russon realized the mission was a way to serve as a role model for him, to honor her family. “This isn’t about me,” she says. 

Now based a state away in Colorado, she’s shared her gospel with countless people online and in person over the past year. She says her faith has deepened, too. 

But she has also had to overcome heartbreak – far beyond the disappointment of not going to Portugal.

Partway through her mission, her brother – the same one who comforted her in her moment of doubt – died. The teen was the life of the party, she says, loving to make others laugh.

Yet the pain of loss has been countered by something she calls sacred. After her brother’s death, Ms. Russon began to notice how many of her contacts had also lost a loved one. Painting a promise of hope for others has in turn comforted her.

“What better to help you with grief than to turn outward,” she says.

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