The COVID-19 pandemic has practically turned the world upside down, including the world of missionary work.
With many missionaries having to spend more time in their apartments and navigate other social restrictions to their work, they need to find new ways of sharing the gospel. As the Savior said, “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles, else the bottles break and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17). Yes, new wine in new bottles—that’s something that we can all get behind.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, current Chair of the Missionary Committee, recently said that the Church has been looking for years at new ways to meet people who live in gated communities or secure apartment buildings where missionary access is limited. He noted that social media and the Internet provide just such an opportunity.
Our goal for the future is to continue to learn and become better at using the Internet to proclaim the gospel and to bless God’s children. It is through our everyday actions—including our social media interactions—that we invite others to come and see, come and help, and come and belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . . I hope that we will not yearn to move back to something that didn’t work well in our lives before COVID-19, but rather look to the future with hope.
Here are four ways missionaries can adapt, and thrive, in their new normal.
1. Staying Creative in a Changing Landscape
Full-time missionary activities have been highly structured in the past with expected times to arise, exercise, leave the apartment, and the like. Most missionaries have liked it that way. But it’s a new world with the pandemic. Nowadays, the watchword is less about following old proselyting ways and instead is more about being creative.
It’s a “sea change,” one mission leader said. He noted that mission leaders don’t quite know how to handle it. They are struggling to find out what works and what doesn’t, what is inbounds and what is out-of-bounds, what’s temporary and what’s the longer-term future. He said it’s causing a lot of stress among the missionaries.
A big part of that changing landscape for missionaries is spending more time in small apartments with their companions. Learning to thrive in that situation is an adjustment. And the missionaries may not know why they are feeling anxious or uncertain.
Recently astronaut Scott Kelly—who spent more than a year in space—compiled a list of suggestions on how to deal with confinement and isolation. Maybe missionaries can learn something from astronauts who have learned something about living in confined and isolated conditions for extended periods of time. Here are some of his suggestions:
- Follow a schedule: Having a daily schedule—even if it changes from one day to the next—can help reduce stress and promote better sleep patterns.
- Go outside: Research has shown that even a simple walk noticing nature can help us to be more upbeat and hopeful.
- Keep a journal: NASA has found when astronauts who spend weeks or months in space regularly write in a journal, it helps them have more personal resilience.
- Take time to connect: Connecting with family, friends, and others seems to actually help our immune system and can be important in other ways as well.
Changes in how missionaries do their work are not likely to revert or return back to the old ways once the pandemic ends. Elder Uchtdorf offered this perspective in a virtual missionary devotional:
When public restrictions are lifted again, be wise to resist the temptation to go back to the “old ways” which too often didn’t work too well anyway. You need to “go back to the future”—and I promise you a very bright future with new and exciting opportunities.
Elder Uchtdorf noted that new ways of proselyting are here to stay. Rather than resisting or remaining uncomfortable with them, he urged missionaries to use their already acquitted pre-mission electronic skills to communicate with others about the gospel in “normal and natural ways.”
One of the ways this can occur is for missionaries to join interest groups online. For instance, a missionary reassigned to Boston during the pandemic from a Portuguese-speaking mission in Brazil joined several expatriate groups. Like them, she was new to the state and asked to join community groups interested in connecting and speaking in their native language. She also asked about people who may have emigrated from her mission area and talked about their adjustment and friends. By visiting with them in “normal and natural ways” she was able to make several new friends, offer advice about living in America, and eventually teach a family that likely would not have opened the door to strangers, partially because they were uncomfortable with their English skills. In a way, they first found a comfortable place online together, and then after getting acquainted in natural and normal ways, the missionaries begin teaching the lessons using Facetime video.
2. Intentionally Study How to Be a Virtual Missionary
Creating an activity—making up a game, studying something intently, learning a new skill like baking or drawing— is a useful antidote to the boredom, distress, and restlessness aggravated by confinement. For missionaries, engaging in a meticulous study of how to be a “virtual missionary” could alleviate their restlessness and be a powerful way of sharing the gospel. One missionary in the California Ventura Mission did just that. He decided he was going to make an informed study of what works and what doesn’t when proselyting online. He placed Facebook ads. He joined interest groups. He looked at online classifieds websites and offered his and his companion’s service. He tried randomly messaged strangers on Facebook and introduced himself. He examined how each approach was received, what seemed to help, and what got in the way of getting to a gospel conversation. He enlisted other missionaries by asking them to take careful notes. He began conducting small-scale experiments. Here’s what he says about it:
Initially, I did all of this to keep from going bonkers myself. I just didn’t have enough to do. But when I decided to really study various ways of online contacting, I got excited and forgot about my own worries. I had something valuable to learn and to do. I set out to do it in a systematic way with the advice and support of others. They got excited, too. We aren’t finished yet, but we see ourselves as trailblazers. It’s turned things around not only for me but also for our entire district and much of our zone.
The process of learning—in a systematic way—how to approach different types of people using different types of methods has given these missionaries a sense of purpose they had lost when they were first confined to their apartments during a statewide lockdown. At first, they saw only the things they couldn’t do: unable to go outside, knock on doors, or meet in members’ homes. But now, these missionaries had a new purpose. No longer content just to place ads and message random people on Facebook, they experimented with different types of messages and mediums, and began carefully assessing what seemed to work. It is now a study with no end in sight.
3. Find Shared Interests, then Share the Fruits of the Gospel
In their book Consequential Strangers, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingermann describe the importance of everyday encounters with strangers and how they can be turned into life-changing moments. The authors describe the importance of the many casual strangers we meet—standing in line at a grocery store or waiting for a bus or messaging on Facebook—and how these mini-experiences either make or break our day.
Researchers note that during a crisis—including this current pandemic—that people are looking for positive ways to connect with strangers but are often unsure how to begin. For missionaries, messaging others online is a good place to start—but there is a distinct pattern they should follow in doing so, a pattern outlined by President Dallin H. Oaks in his October 2016 General Conference talk on “Sharing the Restored Gospel” where he notes:
We need to remember “that people learn when they’re ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them.” 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.
We must carefully and prayerfully seek discernment on how to inquire about others’ interest to learn more.
Missionaries who have followed this pattern online when messaging strangers by (1) discerning others interests, (2) sharing the fruits of the gospel, and then, (3) sharing the doctrines of the gospel have found much more success than those who start by explaining doctrinal principles to someone they have never met.
A sister missionary in the Oregon Portland Mission, working with six other Elders and Sisters on a designated social media mission team, said that when she previously began messaging people by saying she was a missionary, she would often be blocked or cut off from any future conversation.
Recognizing this tendency, she began applying President Oaks's suggestion to discover their interests first rather than simply declare doctrinal principles. She said:
I didn’t hide my calling as a missionary, I just didn’t lead with it. I waited until it came up naturally after getting acquainted. Then, when others were curious about what I was doing and my background, I shared the blessings in my life and family from living gospel principles. I’ve made lots of good friends this way, sent a number of referrals to other missionaries, and have seen some of these newfound friends baptized because they decided they wanted the gospel in their lives, too.
In the Washington Tacoma Mission, they began placing Facebook ads last summer. Some generated positive responses from sincere seekers wanting to know more, while others only generated angry messages from skeptics and critics. As the pandemic has continued, more people seem to be turning to the Bible and Bible messages offering hope. These type of Facebook ads seem to resonate now more than before with a wider group of people. There is common ground in the Bible and an uncommon message of redemption in the restored gospel.
Finding and starting from common ground is a fundamental basis for genuine communication whether in-person or online. At other times, missionaries have found common ground through mutual interests. In the Nevada Las Vegas Mission, a new sister missionary joined a women’s group and found others who were new to the area. They had a common interest in learning more about the area and positive activities for single women. Curious about why others had moved the area, this sister asked lots of questions and showed genuine interest in each woman’s background and aspiration. As others eventually asked about her background, she was able to share her calling as a missionary and responded to their questions. Several wanted to know more and had off-line discussions leading to teaching opportunities and at least one conversion so far.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
Many people don’t like to be told what to do, even when it benefits us. Our curiosity is easier to satisfy when we are in control. The Internet is perfect in that regard. It lets us decide what we want to find out more about and at what pace. I keep in touch with President David Corey Sanders of the Ghana Accra West Mission, where I served as a mission president. He recently sent an email to me about a young person in West Africa who found out about the gospel from two sister missionaries he’s never met in person in the United States because they had a compelling, visual post on Facebook. President Sanders described his experience:
I attended a convert baptism in the Anyaa Ward a couple of months ago. The young man being baptized was interested in the church because of a Facebook post done by a couple of Sisters in the U.S. The U.S. Sisters handed off the teaching to the Anyaa Elders and he stayed in contact with the Sisters throughout the teaching process. The Sisters watched the baptism on WhatsApp video and the young man has voiced a desire to prepare to serve a full-time mission. A small experience maybe, but the finding would not have happened without social media.
Loving and Sharing as the Savior Would
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous challenges and many hardships to the people of the world, but these difficult times have also created opportunities to relate and to share our common humanity and the gospel message of hope in new and unique ways. Elder Uchtdorf has said that “we are continuing to learn of the immense good that comes from the righteous and intentional use of technology.” He further emphasized that we should “seek personal revelation from heaven for ways we can use technology to connect with others during this time.”
If the Internet does anything, it connects people to each other. Full-time and everyday missionaries alike are discovering new ways to connect to those who are searching for meaning in their lives and bringing messages of hope through the great plan of happiness.
Those who listen to our heartfelt expressions of family and faith become closer friends even if they choose not to take missionary lessons or attend church. When we share something personal that matters to us, others appreciate it; just as we like hearing about their cherished values. When we love others for who they are and focus less on changing them and more simply on being friends, we not only love as the Savior loves but also share the gospel as He would have us share it.