Mormon missionaries go global with help from online campaign

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2013, file photo, Mormon missionaries walk through the halls at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Mormon missionaries will soon spend less time knocking on doors and more time chatting online with potential converts after leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Sunday, June 23, 2013 that it's critical to adapt to a changing world in which many people prefer to connect over social media. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mormon missionaries have been doing more proselytizing online than ever, and 600 missionaries assigned to 20 visitor centers around the world spend their days chatting with prospective converts online.

Bonnie Oscarson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Young Women program and a member of its Executive Missionary Council, said the approach is not new but has become more sophisticated.

The operation started as a simple social media experiment at Provo’s Missionary Training Center a decade ago. Since then, it has grown into a global operation with missionaries speaking 30-plus languages.

A partnership with Google — for an undisclosed fee — allows the church’s site to be among the first listed when someone searches the word “Mormon” or “LDS,” Oscarson said.

The site had more than 21 million unique visitors last year, she told reporters last Thursday.

Neither Oscarson nor Brent Nielson, executive director of the church’s Missionary Department, had figures for the number of seekers who subsequently joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Gary Crittenden, managing director of the church’s Missionary Department, said the number of people contacted on the street still remains higher than those contacted via the internet, but he said the ratio is tightening.

The Utah-based faith wants people who are searching for transcendence online to see Mormonism as a “source of spiritual information,” Crittenden said.

Eva Stahle, a missionary from Finland, spends about three hours a day at the Salt Lake City center responding to queries as well as reaching out to those who have asked online for a Bible or a Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture.

“We take chats and phone calls,” Stahle said, “as well as texts and emails.”

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