Mormon missionaries: switching from bikes to iPads?

From CBS News:

SALT LAKE CITY — The common image of Mormon missionaries has long been two young men wearing white shirts and ties walking through neighborhoods, knocking door-to-door.

I can attest to that image.

Just last week, while on a reporting trip to Nicaragua, I kept running into Mormon missionaries fitting the above description — on a dirt street in a poor neighborhood, at a pizza place in a busy commercial district and elsewhere.

Now, it seems, that image may be about to undergo an overhaul.

More from CBS:

But in a few years, that image may be replaced by one of young Mormons sitting with an iPad, typing messages on Facebook.

Recognizing the world has changed, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders announced Sunday night that missionaries will do less door-to-door proselytizing, and instead, use the Internet to recruit new church members.

The strategy shift reflects the growing importance of social media and people's preference to connect over sites such as Facebook rather than opening their homes to strangers, church leaders said.

Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack is typically on top of breaking news in the Mormon world, and that's true in this case.

The top of her Salt Lake Tribune report:

The LDS Church is moving further into the digital age, unveiling plans to do less door-to-door missionary "tracting" and instead do more social media networking to find potential converts.

In what was billed as a "historic" meeting Sunday, Mormon apostle L. Tom Perry announced that the Utah-based faith’s largest missionary force ever — more than 70,000 strong — will tap online tools to help them connect with and teach their "investigators."

"The world has changed," Perry said. "The nature of missionary work must change if the Lord will accomplish his work."

People today are often "less willing to let strangers into their homes," he said. "Their main points of contact with others is often via the Internet."

And so, LDS missionaries are now authorized to use the Web "during the less-productive times of day," Perry said, "chiefly in the mornings."

In reading both the CBS and Tribune stories, I found myself wanting to know more about current rules concerning Internet use by Mormon missionaries.

Years ago, when I did a feature for The Oklahoman on a "day in the life" of Mormon missionaries, I remember including this background:

The missionaries also devote four hours a week to community service, such as helping with the food pantry at the Edmond Hope Center.

What they don’t do is watch television or play on a computer.

Their apartment has neither.

“It’s so we don’t get distracted,” Crawford said. “We’re out here to serve the Savior.”

 To its credit, CBS nailed the answer to my question:

Many of the details about how the social media work will be carried out by missionaries and monitored by mission presidents have yet to be ironed out, church officials said.

But it's clear that the new rules mark a significant change in the way the church governs Internet access for missionaries.

Previously, Internet use for missionaries was limited to once a week and only for communicating with friends and family back home or accessing official church sites. Those rules were designed to reduce distractions and temptations for missionaries expected to devote all their attention to serving the Lord, while leaving behind personal affairs.

I'd love to see an enterprising journalist use the Mormon news as a peg for a larger religion story.

That potential story: How are religious groups in general tapping social media — or not — and what best and worst practices have emerged?

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