They met online. But not through a dating or a relationship app.  It wasn’t even an online sales call or an Influencer  event. She’s a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints originally assigned to the Czech Republic Mission but reassigned to the Nevada Las Vegas mission during the COVID pandemic.

Since she was new to the area, she joined the Las Vegas Women’s Group on Facebook and started to meet others who were also new to the area. She asked questions. She got to know other people. She didn’t hide her calling as a missionary but she didn’t emphasize it, either. She just wanted to meet other women by getting acquainted and socializing online.

She made several new friends and exchanged stories from time to time about her day and listened to and commented about others’ weekly experiences as well. One of these new friends eventually asked her a question about the Bible. She replied as a natural and normal part of their ongoing conversations together. Soon, her friend was asking more questions and eventually this sister missionary and her companion remotely taught their online friend the missionary lessons. The new-found friend is scheduled to be baptized later this month.   

Sharing the gospel online is not all that different from sharing it in person. Sure, there are a few unique aspects. Appropriately, good people are cautious about running into weirdos and trolls online just as they are cautious about high pressure sales people on the phone or on their doorstep.  Breaking through the filters that people have about online contacts is a challenge for anyone. But with ingenuity and sincerity, online proselyting can at times be easier than bumping into someone for the first time on the street or giving an unexpected knock on the door. Why? Two reasons: online is less personal and intimidating than a face-to-face contact; and, secondly “talking” online doesn’t require an immediate response. There is less pressure and more time to reflect before responding online than in person. For introverts, this is especially appealing. The first step in all of this is simply making friends.

Making Friends Online Without Seeming Weird

With more people using online technology, making friends online is becoming an increasingly common occurrence. The success of dating apps and LinkedIn business contacts are proof of that. And the process works about the same way in the virtual world as it does in person. We join groups, participate in activities, and start conversations with others who have similar interests. 

The best rule of thumb for online or in-person meetups is simply to be yourself. If you are a full-time missionary, say that; but include other aspects of your personality and personal interests as well. Some people can be put off by the term “missionary” simply because they’ve had interactions with other religious groups that were pushy or demanding.  Instead of starting by declaring doctrinal principles, start by sharing your background and interests and get to know others with similar backgrounds and let gospel conversations evolve naturally. Everyday members and full-time missionaries alike can meet new people online this way.

For instance, a sister missionary in Washington who played in a jazz band before her mission joined an online jazz group in her proselyting area.  She said she had moved to Washington to serve a mission but hoped to keep up her musical interests as well. She talked online with several local musicians who shared her passion for jazz and general interest in music. Impressed by her versatility and background, one of these musicians began asking questions about her beliefs. He attended church and later began taking the missionary discussions from the Elders in the area when she and her companion were reassigned elsewhere. 

Thousands of missionaries returned from overseas assignments before being reassigned Stateside.

If there’s anything the Internet is good at, it’s connecting like-minded people who would have otherwise never have met. Of course, not everyone in the virtual world is who they might appear to be. Just like in the physical world. It’s important to do enough “due diligence” to know who you are really talking to and ensure that you are safe and protected before going too far in a developing friendship. Asking for background details and cross checking them with others may be necessary.

But “putting yourself out there” virtually can help you find new friends with similar interests–and sometimes people to teach– that you might never have met otherwise. A missionary returning from the Benin Cotonou Mission to his home in Tahiti was delayed in Paris due to COVID restrictions.  Rather than spend all his time reading in his room or going sightseeing, he spent several hours each day contacting people and groups in Benin through the internet. While online, he introduced himself to  educators and business people, tourist agencies and philanthropic groups.

He also offered his perspectives on topics of interest to him on Facebook, message boards, and websites. His comments were so thoughtful that often people wanted to know more about why he had been in Benin. Conversations evolved naturally as he connected local missionaries to several people he met online. A prominent agency official who later joined the Church commented: “I would never have listened to the missionaries had they knocked on my door or met me on the street. But since I could control the conversation on my end online, I kept asking more questions. I went from curiosity to interest to inquiry because we first talked about his insights about my country and that later led me to ask about his background and missionary service.”  

“That I Might More Fully Persuade Them to Believe in the Lord Their Redeemer”

Nephi saw the Book of Mormon as a powerful witness but also one that still requires us to do more than simply tell others about it.  The scriptures can’t do all of the work themselves, we must help by overcoming the filters that others may have about religion in general and the Book of Mormon in particular.  In fact, Nephi  noted:

Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.”    (II Nephi 26:27 italics added)

We are commanded to do more than simply declare the good news of the gospel, we are also expected persuasively to share it. Sometimes persuasion gets a bad rap. It is seen as equivalent to being manipulative or underhanded. It’s not. No one responds well to someone who has a hidden agenda and most of the time we can see though people who have one. There is no substitute for being genuine. And in today’s day and age, genuineness and goodness are both obvious and disarming. President Dallin H. Oaks has advised:

“When we seek to introduce people to the restored gospel, we should do this in ways that are authentic and in loving concern for the individual. This happens when we are trying to help others with problems they have identified or when we are working with them in community service activities, such as relieving suffering, caring for the poor and needy, or enhancing the quality of life of others.”

For many people, doing something together is the best way to get acquainted. This could include a common project, a joint activity, a neighborhood game, a dinner party. While similar activities can be challenging online it is still very possible to have virtual events or interactions online. For instance, after returning home from serving as a Mission President, I started an online mentoring project with school children in rural areas in Ghana.

After coordinating with local principals in several schools, I arranged for mentors–college students and retired persons mostly–to meet weekly for one hour over Zoom or WhatApp with middle school students and help them prepare to pass national exams in math, science and English. Some of these mentors began commenting on social enterprise websites or Facebook pages about their volunteer work and engaged in personal and gospel conversations that might never have occurred without this initiative. 

Too often full-time and everyday missionaries candidly declare their beliefs on social media and find few, if any, positive responses. In our day and age, it is simply not the best way persuasively to share the gospel. In an October 2016 General Conference address President Oaks reminds us that what we are interested in may not hold the same interest for others and then he gives us a simple formula for sharing the gospel:  

“What we are interested in, like the important additional doctrinal teachings in the restored Church, usually isn’t what others are interested in. Others typically want the results of the doctrine, not the doctrine.  Therefore, we must carefully and prayerfully seek discernment on how to inquire about others’ interest to learn more.”

In fact, research at Stanford University on how to engage others confirms this approach. Their research would suggest that uncovering others interests, not simply declaring gospel doctrine, is the key to enabling others to set aside misinformation they’ve heard in the past or biases they may have developed and had reinforced over time. Discerning others interests is often no easy task. But if we are open ourselves, many times others will respond in kind. Then, a helpful dialogue can occur.

Instead of overt church themed doctrinal messages on Facebook or elsewhere, perhaps a better approach then is to find others with common interests, become genuinely acquainted, share details of community and volunteer activities, and then respond to gospel questions as they come up.  

Brené Brown, a University of Houston professor, has famously said “Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees.”  By getting past the facades that we often erect and share personal interests with like minded people, we can develop a wider circle of friends, and perhaps along the way, share a gospel message when others are ready to hear it rather than when we want to declare it.    

Can You Feel the Spirit Online?

The Church has a long history of using electronic media and related tools to share the gospel message. The first time General Conference was broadcast by radio was in 1923 and the first television transmission occurred in 1949. Conference sessions were viewed on television beyond the Intermountain region beginning in 1953 with satellite broadcasts beginning in 1975 with Internet availability for General Conference starting in 1999. Conference messages were first translated into different languages in 1962.

According to the Church’s website, General Conference is viewed in 175 countries and territories, and it is translated into 94 languages. About 595,000 households in North America typically tune in on television for the Sunday morning session with sessions broadcast overseas having many thousands more watching and  listening to the latest messages from inspired leaders. Tens of thousands of viewers would testify they have felt the Spirit while listening to these virtual General Conference broadcasts. 

Missionaries around the world today are proselyting virtually and teaching remotely and having success when creatively approaching people online following President Oaks’ advice to learn about their interests first. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who now leads the Missionary Committee of the Church, has said that Church leaders have been examining missionary practices–where traditional “finding” has been limited by gated communities, inaccessible apartment buildings, and changes in social communication practices–for many years. 

Masks became as ubiquitous as name tags for missionaries during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 accelerated our thinking about this tremendously and opened our eyes for new ways” including the use of technology, he has said. “The Spirit can work wonderfully as we use new and unfamiliar ways of communicating with each other.” Regardless of their circumstances, missionaries “have the wonderful opportunity of going forward by finding, teaching, baptizing, and making disciples” with the aid of technology and social media. “The work goes on irrespective of whether there is an epidemic or smooth sailing.

Elder Cannon Hawkes, initially called as a full-time missionary to the Thailand Bangkok Mission and reassigned to Texas for the past year, has found that using Zoom,  Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger can all be helpful in teaching remotely. In a recent letter, he relayed that he taught a follow up lesson (over Facebook messenger) to a recent convert with this result: 

“We were able to bear our testimonies of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and invite her (the recent convert)  to do the same thing. There is a certain, tangible, spiritual presence when we really think about it that comes from genuine testimony bearing.  You could feel the presence of the Spirit in that conversation, and we knew Jan was feeling it also. She later told  us that just by taking that opportunity (for her) to share her testimony (over a voice transmission) that she was able to strengthen her own testimony. It was a very special experience for all of us that was made possible through the blessing of technology.”

Testimony bearing is especially persuasive when it is heartfelt regardless of the physical or virtual presence of people with each other in the same room, across town, or even across country.  Despite the skepticism of unbelievers, there’s no real rebuttal to a personal testimony, a witness borne of the Spirit. But breaking through initial barriers of skepticism may be more challenging online than face-to-face simply because virtual interactions can seem less personal. 

A few small adjustments can increase the sense of personal connection when teaching online whether it’s done by full-time missionaries teaching contacts or everyday members  teaching each other in Sunday School or other classes. Sitting close to the camera, replacing small talk with friendly banter (and knowing what that includes), asking engaging questions, and using visuals aids all make remote teaching discussions more personal and meaningful. In the next article in this series, we’ll explore the various ways that local leaders, local teachers, as well as full-time missionaries can use technology better to teach, lead, counsel, inspire, and learn together online.

Summary

Missionaries and members alike are adjusting to new circumstances caused by the global pandemic. Some of these new requirements may actually open up new avenues for sharing the gospel by full-time missionaries and everyday members alike that won’t change when “things get back to normal.” Like many innovations, “necessity is the Mother of invention.” These virtual proselyting and remote teaching skills are not taught in most classrooms nor are they included in the MTC curriculum.  But there is a growing body of evidence pointing the way on how we can all be more successful and have better experiences sharing the gospel online. We can and should learn from the experience of others so that with  practice and experimentation we learn to master both the art and science of proselyting online.