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For many missionaries, the world is their area

Looking for the nearest Salvadoran restaurant? Google it.

Can’t remember last year’s Heisman Trophy winner? Google it.

Searching for deals on a new set of tires? Again, Google it.

But what about those deeper, Church-themed questions people have been asking for almost two centuries: So, what are Mormons — and what do they believe? Where can I get a copy of the Book of Mormon? And what’s the deal with those missionaries I see pedaling around town?

No surprise, more and more people are relying upon Google and other search engines to glean information about the Church. Last year, more than 21 million unique visitors clicked on Mormon.org. They’re finding responses to queries about God, Jesus Christ, basic Mormon beliefs and life’s purposes. And, yes, they can chat online with the missionaries — or request a home visit from the local elders or sisters.

Almost two years ago, Kaila Taylor was connecting with a few Mormon friends via social media. Her friends were facing an array of challenges — but they seemed to know how to deal with them. Was it because of their faith? Intgrigued, the Tempe, Arizona, woman pulled up Google and searched for “Mormons.”

“I went to Mormon.org and clicked on the option for a free Book of Mormon,” she said.

She was chatting a short time later with a sister missionary serving at an LDS Online Teaching Center in Hawaii. Arrangements were made for missionaries in Tempe to deliver her copy of the Book of Mormon.

“The missionaries began teaching me and challenged me to pray to know that the Book of Mormon was true,” she said. “I received an answer. I knew it was true.”

Kalia was baptized. Her parents joined the Church a few months later. Last month, she married Brady Taylor — one of the missionaries who taught her the lessons — in the Gilbert Arizona Temple.

The Church “has been such a great blessing.” she said. “It’s helped put everything into perspective.

Would she have listened to the missionaries had they knocked on her door? “Probably not — going online was a lot less intimidating.”

Technology’s making the world a global neighborhood — and for missionaries, the world is their area.

“The world is changing ­— so the way we do missionary work is changing as well,” said Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, the Young Women general president and a member of the Church’s missionary executive committee.

Missionary work around the globe
Missionary work around the globe Photo: Joseph Tolman

Missionary work: an assignment without borders

Sister Rebecca Hinkey and her companion recently taught the missionary lessons to a man named Victor. They prayed and studied scriptures together. And when Victor had gospel questions, the sister missionaries helped find answers.

Weeks passed and Victor accepted their invitation to join the Church. He was soon baptized.

A fairly typical missionary/conversion story — but with a geographical twist.

Victor lives in a remote region of Venezuela, hours from the nearest missionaries. Sister Hinkey serves in the Utah Salt Lake City Temple Square Mission, more than 3,000 miles away. The two have never met face to face. Yet they shared several traditional missionary-investigator moments thanks to smart phone technology.

Sister Hinkey spends three hours each day serving at the Temple Square Online Teaching Center, a facility filled with dozens of computers and call stations. “We were able to teach Victor all the lessons from the teaching center, so all that the missionaries in Venezuela had to do was [travel to his home] and interview him for baptism,” she said.

Long-distance, online conversion stories like Kaila’s and Victor’s are becoming increasingly common.

Yes, missionaries are still finding people to teach by knocking on doors, contacting in public squares and working with local members. But ubiquitous global technology such as smart phones and laptop computers means missionaries can reach millions more.

The Church operates 20 Online Teaching Centers around the world.

“At any moment or time, there are literally tens of thousands of people asking spiritual questions,” said Missionary Department Managing Director Gary Crittenden, noting that the centers’ unlimited, 24-hour reach has already proved remarkably successful.

The Church began utilizing Online Teaching Centers about six years ago. Now almost any curious person with an electronic device, anywhere in the world, can speak to a missionary and ask, “What’s a Mormon?” “Can you tell me about the Book of Mormon?,” or, perhaps, “Just what is it that you believe?”

Most would-be investigators contact missionaries serving in Online Teaching Centers via Mormon.org. Many of the millions of visits prompting phone calls and online chats with the missionaries. Approximately 140,000 people were taught online in 2017.

Sister Hinkey and her companion, Sister Caitlin Burke, are counted among the 600-plus missionaries teaching online at the centers in more than 30 languages.

On a recent Thursday, the Temple Square Online Teaching Center buzzed with activity. Sister Hinkey, Sister Burke and several other sister missionaries sat across from large-screen monitors befriending, teaching and sometimes even praying with people from all corners of the world.

Some callers asked for copies of the Book of Mormon. Others requested visits from the missionaries. Typically, their “journey” begins with a visit to Mormon.org. Then the elders and sisters at one of the many centers take initial steps in building trust and sharing the gospel.

“It’s an easy way for visitors to feel comfortable speaking to us,” said Sister Burke.

Like millennials everywhere, Sister Burke and Sister Hinkey grew up texting and utilizing social media. “It’s how people their age out in the world communicate — they’re used to it,” said Elder Brent H. Nielson, a General Authority Seventy and the Missionary Department’s executive director.

With more and more missionaries around the globe now using smart phones, it’s possible for almost any humble missionary apartment to double as a part-time online teaching center.

The day will come, said Elder Nielson, “when all the missionaries in the world will be teaching people around the world [online] in their downtime.”

Missionaries, of course, have traditionally taught people in living rooms or around breakfast tables — places where it’s intimate and spiritually inviting. Sharing the gospel from a teaching center “is a different experience,” admitted Sister Burke, “but our investigators are able to feel our love, even though it’s over the phone.”

The teaching center missionaries interact as companions with their online investigators. They teach together and stay updated and involved with the people they teach.

Sure, they wish they could attend the baptisms of the their online investigators. But they say they are grateful to have played a key role in their conversion. “We know that the important thing is that they are being baptized and making promises to God,” said Sister Burke.

Sister Hinkey said, smiling, that she never imagined her mission including so many hours spent talking on the phone or chatting online.

“But this makes finding people so much easier because they come to us.”