An article by a similar name appearing a few weeks ago in the Salt Lake Tribune caught my eye. Having worked for the last six years with many prospective and newly-called (and newly-returned) missionaries in the YSA (Young Single Adult) program at USU, I pondered on the unique proselyting methods of today, the message, the effectiveness, and what the Tribune was now describing as the controversy.
“They sing in fields of flowers. They dance in living rooms. They jump ropes and do backflips in open streets. They play guitars and ukuleles. They lip-sync to a Jim Gaffigan shtick and rap to Bible verses.” The article opened with this reference to a highly personalized trend in Latter-day Saint missionary messaging, evidenced most recently in video clips on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook.
I’ve seen a few. The most memorable was a video of an Elder who sets up an obstacle course for his bicycle and tumbles head over handlebars at the first hurdle, ripping his Swedish knit pants right through the seat!
After almost two centuries of tracting (door-to-door proselyting) across the globe, the church finds itself looking for more unique, more productive, updated ways to glean converts. Knocking doors seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns, and leaders and missionaries are bent on finding new, more effective methods.
The question on my mind, and on the pen of the Tribune’s writer was this: “Are such entertaining videos really successful at conveying the church’s Christian gospel? Will viewers seek out the religion after watching a handful of Elders jive and bounce in a hallway, holding the Book of Mormon? Will they look up the chapel’s number when they see missionaries save a kid from a snake or watch a pair dancing with a local member? Will they go to Sunday services if the missionaries get the ball in the basket?”
When I was a missionary some 40 plus years ago, we were taught that it is the Spirit that converts, and to support its work through reverence, obedience, and the simple sharing of testimonies. Dignity was important; a missionary’s behavior must be seemly.
At least that’s the way I remember it, but I’m getting older and my memory is reaching the stage where it’s whatever I want it to be. A friend who served at about the same time recalls that, back then, we focused more on employing sales tactics than anything else. Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was our TikTok. She reminded me that the result wasn’t so bad, we created some dynamite pest control salesmen!
Certainly, videos of the tasteful sharing of talents or a heartfelt rendition of a hymn can add to a missionary’s message. Many of our young missionaries are more at home expressing their feelings this way. Much good can come from sharing the “joy of the gospel” through authentic, “visual” witnessing. Sincere testimonies borne on social media spread light and hope.
However, when we try too hard to fit in with off-topic, boisterous, silly, or funny videos our uniqueness gets lost, our message becomes jumbled, and we unintentionally distance ourselves and our investigators from our core focus. Perhaps showcasing our missionaries’ “human side” will help investigators better relate to them, but when the missionaries move on, converts must rely on an honest, Spirit-based conversion to remain active and faithful. Too many ultimately leave because they were converted to the missionary, or the culture.
One thing we know for certain: these young elders and sisters have a lot of enthusiasm for their callings, and hope to be as useful and successful as they can be. They are dedicated and full of love for the Savior and their sisters and brothers throughout the world. If TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook fall short, they’ll find another way. Missionaries have more autonomy today than we did in 1980, when our activities and words were more tightly controlled (think rainbow discussions).
In the final analysis, perhaps this is nothing more than simply the end justifying the means that these new methods are just ‘clickbait’ to a higher purpose. Although proselyting methods have changed with the times, are they really that different?
Marc K. Ensign