Mormons test online mission work

Elder Jeff Black, left, and Elder Andrew Limon missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints check for emails on the computers at the Sycamore church.
Elder Jeff Black, left, and Elder Andrew Limon missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints check for emails on the computers at the Sycamore church.

The message is the same, but how they’re getting it out may change.

In a surprise move, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as Mormons, announced a pilot project last year that allows missionaries in specific regions to experiment with “proselytizing online through Facebook and other social media.” Previously, church officials had put extremely strict restrictions on missionaries’ use of the Internet.

Elders Jeff Black, 20, and Andrew Limon, 18, are missionaries from Arizona assigned to the Sycamore Ward, which covers the surrounding area, including DeKalb. They are among approximately 80,000 missionaries – mostly men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 and retired couples without children – who have been called by church leaders to spread their beliefs. Like the 1 million missionaries who have served before them, dating back almost to 1830 when Joseph Smith founded the church, Black and Limon go door-to-door, trying to recruit people to their faith.

“We are here to tell people we can help them find happiness and joy,” Black said.

DeKalb is Black’s fifth assignment and Limon’s first. Unlike past missionaries, the two are among the select group allowed to use social media in addition to their visits.

“The world is changing and going door to door isn’t as effective as it once was,” said Elder Prince, a missionary who covers the Rochelle area for the Sycamore Ward. Prince refused to give his first name. “This is not only to teach people, but to find people. ...We can reach anyone in the world through Facebook.”

The LDS church is the fourth-largest denomination in the U.S. It has 14 million members worldwide, and 400 missions throughout the world. According to Kristen Howey, LDS public affairs at the national church in Salt Lake City, Utah, missionaries always work in pairs and pay their own expenses. Men serve two-year terms and women serve for 18 months.

Paul Neumann, former Sycamore Ward bishop and now public relations director for the Rockford stake – which includes 10 wards, including Sycamore – is quick to point out that the church isn’t excluding the traditional way.

“They will always go door-to-door,” he said. “This is just a way of adding a new dimension.”

Neumann said the online aspect is still in a pilot phase and church leaders haven’t yet decided “if it’s going to take or not.” Howey said church officials will have more to report once the testing phase is complete.

“The church has done an amazing job with technology,” said Bishop Mark Malley of the Sycamore Ward.

Black and Limon check their email several times a week at the Sycamore church, mainly seeking referrals and church updates, Black said. Since social media doesn’t come with directories like a phone book, he said they can’t really use social media for making new contacts.

“We have a Facebook page, and that’s about it,” he said.

For Limon and Black, the traditional way of spreading the word is working out just fine.

“It’s awesome,” Limon said. “Contacting someone on email isn’t the same as meeting someone face to face.”

Neumann, whose son is currently a missionary and who served in Germany as a missionary himself, said missionaries learn and grow by seeing so many things.

“You learn to get along with others who are different from you,” Black said.

Perhaps the friendliest message the pair got last week was a text message from their local leader, informing them they didn’t have to make any new calls during the bitter cold streak Jan. 27 and 28. As bad as the weather has been, it’s even worse if you’re from Arizona.

“It was quite a shock,” Limon admitted, adding that Black has already lost two gloves this winter.

“It’s probably worse for him because he just got here in November and I’ve been here longer,” Black said. “It is cold.”

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