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How technology is changing Mormon missionary work: Inside the Temple Square online teaching center

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SALT LAKE CITY — As soon as the two missionaries logged into the system, a window popped up with a long list of people waiting on Mormon.org to ask questions. Sister Megan Pazos clicked on one and began an online chat with a Spanish speaker.

"Hola, como esta?"

"What brings you to Mormon.org today?" added her companion, Sister Kimeme Ackley, using Google Translate to convert the question into Spanish.

"I've wondered what a Mormon is," the man wrote back. "I've heard good things about Mormons, but I want to know what their purpose is. I'd be grateful for an answer."

For the next hour, Pazos and Ackley, each 20 years old, sat together at a desk in a spartan room inside the North Visitors Center on Temple Square and used computers to chat comfortably with the man, a 26-year-old Mexican native living in Denver, via their Mormon.org interface and Facebook messenger. He and the missionaries freely shared their feelings about God and life's biggest questions.

Their conversation is one example of the many ways technology is changing Mormon missions from Temple Square to Tokyo. Today, more than 600 missionaries — mostly young sister missionaries — of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are manning 20 online teaching centers in the United States, Mexico, Europe and New Zealand.

"The world is changing, so the way we do missionary work is changing as well," said Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, a member of the LDS Church's Missionary Executive Committee. "We recognize our methods need to change with technology. Our missionaries are growing up with technology and are well-versed in it and comfortable with it. They are using technology to do missionary work more effectively and more efficiently."

'They reach out to us'

The man in there sent "a thousand apologies" because he speaks only Spanish, but that's no problem for Pazos, who is from Puebla, Mexico, and Ackley, who hails from the Marshall Islands. Both are dual U.S. citizens and seasoned missionaries who serve as zone leaders in the all-female Utah Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission.

Last year, missionaries in the LDS Church's online teaching centers taught more than 140,000 people online. They conducted 349,670 chats and 91,250 phone calls.

During this chat, Pazos and Ackley also connect with the man on Facebook and exchange cell phone numbers. "I'm glad to know there still are young people connected to God," typed the man, a lapsed Catholic.

This is exactly the type of interaction LDS leaders want to generate. Worldwide, 68,000 Mormon missionaries spend the majority of their time finding people to teach, but "knocking on doors hasn't gotten any easier," said Gary Crittenden, managing director of the faith's Missionary Department.

Meanwhile, Mormon.org had more than 21 million unique visitors in 2017. Many arrived there after a simple Google search.

Sister Megan Pazos and Sister Kimeme Ackley pray before working in the Temple Square Online Teaching Center at the Temple Square North Visitors’ Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Sister Megan Pazos and Sister Kimeme Ackley pray before working in the Temple Square Online Teaching Center at the Temple Square North Visitors’ Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

"Rather than knock on 90 doors," said Sister Oscarson, the church's General Young Women President, "we can go directly to the one person who is reaching out to us. And they are reaching out to us."

The man chatting with Pazos and Ackley is one of them. As they shared their beliefs, he told them, "I'd like to be a part of it."

Important transitions

On Thursday morning, the Temple Square online teaching center was a roomful of teaching opportunities. A total of 46 sister missionaries — all digital natives who require little training, Crittenden said — busily fielded questions online, many via video.

That's the goal. Convert baptisms have been consistent, Elder Brent H. Nielson, executive director of the Missionary Department, said last month. To "move the needle," finding more people for missionaries to teach is a major priority for the Missionary Executive Committee, now chaired by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve.

That desire has led to the focus on technology for a worldwide missionary force that is stabilizing at around 68,000 to 70,000 missionaries.

"We are in an unusual and extremely important transition in our missionary work," President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, told new mission presidents in June. In October, LDS leaders unveiled a number of the changes he foreshadowed. They said they would replace tablets with smartphones to assist missionaries in their study, finding and teaching and increase the use of technology to help find people interested in religion. The number of missions using mobile devices is increasing from 87 to 162. They also released a uniform list of interview questions for prospective missionaries and said they would trim the number of missions from 421 to 407 to fit changing needs around the world.

Now missionaries with smartphones can use an app called "Area Book Planner" and a tool named "Smart Sort" that helps missionaries look up people in a neighborhood who have had contact with missionaries in the past. Also, all Mormons can use their "LDS Tools" app to send missionary referrals directly to the missionaries in the referral’s neighborhood.

"Everybody's online today, so The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has to be there," Elder Nielson said.

Digital connection

"We don't know his face," Pazos said of the man in Denver. "We know very little about him. At first, it was hard for me to connect with someone I can't see. I prayed a lot for charity, and I also learned that we're not the only way he can learn about Jesus Christ. We're just one tool in the Lord's hands."

Pazos and Ackley woke up Thursday morning and soon checked the smartphones they received in November as part of the Missionary Department's efforts to introduce more technology into missionary work. They looked for messages from the missionaries they oversee in their zone and for assignments to help with tours on Temple Square. Ackley is fluent in American Sign Language.

Pazos and Ackley made the 15-minute walk from their downtown apartment to Temple Square with other sister missionaries and checked in at the mission office in the South Visitor Center. Then they walked between the historic Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle to the North Visitor Center. They passed 13 murals of Jesus Christ's life, resurrection and ascension and swiped their passes on a nondescript door at the west end of the first floor.

From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. inside a spartan room, sister missionary companionships rotate through the Temple Square online teaching center. Each companionship spends three hours a day in the center and seven hours a day out talking to people on Temple Square or leading tours at Welfare Square or Beehive House.

They work in the online teaching center seven days a week, including one hour on their weekly preparation day.

"With smartphones, we can stay connected to people we've met online before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m.," Ackley said. "On P-day, we can still stay in contact on Facebook to pray with them or answer their questions."

Invitation to church

Pazos and Ackley invited the man in Denver to attend an LDS Church on Sunday near his home. He accepted, but he had one problem.

"I don't know anyone there," he typed.

Pazos and Ackley assured him the local missionaries would welcome him and guide him. They called the local missionaries and began the process of helping them contact him. Meanwhile, Ackley sent a note to someone they've been talking to in Ghana. The contact wants to chat with them on Saturday morning, but that's the middle of the night in Utah.

The sisters will continue to interact with both men by phone or Facebook and they might use Skype or Facebook to join by video any lessons they take.

"We encourage them to have a longer gestation period, so an investigator gets to know them," Crittenden said.

More LDS Young Women are learning to share the gospel online even before their missions, Sister Oscarson said. Women now comprise about 25 percent of the Mormon missionary force. They have success in ways that men don't, Sister Oscarson said. So do online missionaries.

"Some people love the face-to-face interactions, but other people are more open online, when we can't see their face," Ackley said.

'I like this'

While Pazos and Ackley chatted with the man in Denver, a library of references is displayed next to the chat window. Here, the missionaries can find resources and information about an array of topics and simply copy and paste those into the chat.

Pazos said she once chatted with a California man without knowing he had delayed his baptism over questions about the way the church treated those who experience same-gender attraction. She used the library to find the church's official website on the issue, mormonandgay.org, and answered his questions. He later was baptized and last month attended an LDS temple for the first time.

"I was in the right place at the right time to do what the Lord wanted," she said.

Both women said they enjoy sharing their beliefs over social media and online teaching.

"Before our missions, digital was about ourselves and entertainment," Pazos said. "Now it is for helping others come to Christ. I like this better."

"I feel like I wasted a lot of my time on social media before my mission," Ackley said.

They are excited for the Denver man's interest, but they take no credit.

"Not everyone comes with the real intention to know more," Pazos said, "but every once in a while we get a tender mercy like this."