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How LDS missionaries are using social media to reach an evolving audience

JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Simply posting quotes or memes from general conference talks on Facebook wasn't drawing the kind of attention Sister Sadie Johnson and other missionaries in the Florida Jacksonville Mission wanted.

As they struggled last June to leverage the social media platform to reach more people, mission leaders told Johnson, of Cedar Hills, Utah, and her companion, Sister Sarah Anderson of Paul, Idaho, about a new idea. The mission would host a Facebook event called "Discover the Book."

That's how Johnson and Anderson found themselves at the LDS meetinghouse on Hendricks Avenue. In front of a colorful exterior brick wall, they took photos of one another holding the Book of Mormon in front of their faces. With their iPads, they cropped the photos. Then, at the appointed time for the event on June 10, they posted the photos on Facebook along with their stories of how they first discovered the Book of Mormon and what it meant to them.

They invited their friends to join them, then invited them to invite their friends.

The event exploded across Facebook. The hashtag #discoverthebook became one of the social network's hottest trending hashtags. More than 18,000 Facebook users joined the mission's Called to Serve page in less than a week as missionaries and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the region shared their photos and stories about the Book of Mormon, including LDS celebrities like dubstep violinist and Internet sensation Lindsey Stirling.

"It was a more focused way to use Facebook to reach out to a lot of people," said Johnson, 22, who returned home on March 6. "Teaching opportunities in our mission increased and we learned a lot about Facebook."

The Jacksonville mission continues to use Facebook events. Johnson said at least one convert joined the church due to the ongoing social media efforts.

Evolving audience

In important ways, missionary work hasn't changed at all since the resurrected Jesus Christ told his apostles to take the gospel to all nations, said Elder W. Craig Zwick, assistant executive director of the LDS Church's missionary department.

That will be evident Saturday, when the church's 185th Annual General Conference continues and it reports how many people joined the church in 2014.

"In 1830 we were a missionary church," Elder Zwick said. "In 2015 we're a missionary church. What changes is how people communicate."

Missionaries in one era require different tools from those in another.

Communication today is very different than Elder Zwick's own experience as a young missionary in Argentina in 1967, where under the direction of his mission president, Richard G. Scott, who today is a member of the church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, he and other missionaries bought horses and swam them across a river to enter Bolivia and begin missionary work there.

"Today," said Steve Allen, managing director of the Missionary Department, "the way missionaries teach has to reach a different population, it's a different audience, it's a technology audience. They learn differently. The onslaught of messages coming at us is so different here than it was in Bolivia for Elder Zwick. Missionaries have to learn to communicate to different audiences.

"It's not just learning Spanish or a different language, it's learning to get in their hearts."

New tools

Elder Zwick is a member of the church's First Quorum of the Seventy. Seventies are traveling ministers with a special calling to preach the gospel, which for Latter-day Saints includes messages about the centrality of Christ and that he has a prophet today, President Thomas S. Monson.

"The world in real-time has connectivity to a prophet much more than we ever did when I was a missionary," Elder Zwick said. "And largely that's the electronic age we're in. So how do we use it?"

The answer is, broadly.

Several thousand missionaries have been using Facebook for up to 18 months now in 30 of the church's 407 missions. Missionaries in the Illinois Chicago West Mission can use Facebook to proselyte for an hour a day, said Kyle Rusick, who returned home to Highland, Utah, on Wednesday.

Rusick said his former mission is now piloting a new training program for Facebook missionary work. While that 12-week pilot program is underway, missionaries have temporarily stopped using Facebook.

Johnson, the former Florida missionary, said most of the people she and her companions interacted with on Facebook first contacted the missionaries after their events.

Rusick, 21, said Facebook also was "a great way" to follow up with people interested in the church and with church members.

An even broader example of social media reach is the missionary department's videos about Christ. The department's media team produced one for Easter last year called "Because of Him" and released it via social media. It drew 5.5 million video views across the world.

Another video released before Christmas, "He is the Gift," drew 34 million views. This week, the missionary department released "Because He Lives," another Easter video. The church once more has purchased the masthead ad on YouTube's homepage to promote the new video, said Greg Droubay, the missionary department's director of media.

The LDS Church has a long history of using video to share messages, but Droubay said the missionary department has learned a lot in the past year about how to use it on social media, especially how to involve church members in sharing videos.

Facebook proselyting pilot programs began in 2010.

The church also has sponsored major media campaigns like "I'm a Mormon" that have found broad purchase on social media.

Still, said Zwick and Allen, who has been in the missionary department for more than 30 years and has overseen tremendous change, ranging from roles in media messages to missionary training curriculum, the core of missionary work is the same.

"The work hasn't changed," Allen said. "It's the exact same message. The doctrine is constant. The tools we use may be different. ... The basic way of teaching, by the Spirit, has never changed, nor will it. The process of conversion is the same is the same for a person living today in 2015 as it was for a person living in 33 A.D. The spirit has to bear witness to them, they have to have an open, receptive heart to the message, and they're going to feel something.

"It doesn't matter what age a person has lived in, that's been constant."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com