Can people feel the Holy Sprit through a screen? Or accept a new faith via Facebook?
Tyson Boardman had no idea. No one did. But as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' first -- and, back then, only -- online missionary, it was his job to find out whether salvation could be delivered over broadband.
When Boardman first sat down at a cubicle in the church's Provo, Utah, mission six years ago, 52,000 other Mormon missionaries were also trying to convert new members to their faith. These traditional missionaries were able to knock on doors, sit in living rooms and look people in the eye while explaining why their Lord was the one true Lord. But Tyson had only his keyboard. Touchy-feely meant, at the very best, emoticons.
Boardman was the first missionary recruited for the Mormon church's unprecedented experiment in Internet-based proselytizing, which would turn out to be a wildly successful undertaking and is the subject of a new feature story I wrote for The Huffington Post. This past June, thanks in large part to the wave of converts added by missionaries following Boardman's lead, the church announced it would put previously banned tools like Facebook and text messaging into the hands of all its missionaries.
"I remember being in a meeting with the church and they said, 'There are a billion people on Facebook, and God has always promised he'll send his missionaries where his people are. So of course he'll send his missionaries to Facebook,'" says Emilee Cluff, a former missionary who served between 2011 and 2012 at a mission testing a hybrid of online and offline evangelizing.
Tyson Boardman at his computer doing online missionary work.
As the inaugural Internet-only Mormon missionary, Boardman's experience offers a glimpse into the very beginning of this e-proselytizing push, which was an accidental success that surprised even its early advocates.
It all started at Provo's Missionary Training Center, a bootcamp for outbound missionaries housed in complex of squat, tan buildings that, at least according to one missionary, look "kind of like a prison." Boardman, then 19, had dreamed his entire life of pinning a church nametag to his breast and setting forth with thousands of other missionaries to proclaim "the good news of His restored gospel" to the world. But Boardman was born with muscular dystrophy, which prevented him from doing the door-to-door preaching that's become a trademark of the Mormon church, and there were doubts he'd be able to serve at all.
Had Boardman applied for his mission just a few months before he did, in early 2008, he probably wouldn't have. "It was just good timing," Boardman's mother explains in a 2010 video on her son's service. That spring, church leaders had decided to test putting more manpower into staffing an online chat service they'd launched as a kind of PR tool to correct myths about Mormonism. And so Boardman, with little idea of what to expect, left his studies in electrical engineering at Brigham Young University for a two-year stint in Provo.
Mormon missionaries walk through the halls at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. (AP/Rick Bowmer)
He was called by the church to message one-on-one with anyone who clicked the "chat" tab on Mormon.org, the church's public-facing online home that debuted just before Utah hosted the 2002 Olympics. Since he was the sole missionary of his kind when he arrived, he lived alone in an apartment near the Missionary Training Center. As more young men were tapped for the online work, the missionaries were moved to dorms at the center.
Boardman followed the same strict routine as other missionaries around the world. He'd wake at 7:30 a.m., then exercise, pray and plan the day’s agenda with his partner. He'd be at his desk at 11, dressed in the traditional suit-and-tie uniform, and aside from an hour for lunch and dinner, he’d be online at his computer until around 10 p.m. each evening. He’d have an hour to review his work that day and plan his goals for the next before lights out at 11:30 p.m.
Juggling between 50 and 60 conversations each day, Boardman chatted with a mix of trolls spouting abuse, spirited debaters challenging him to defend the church's view of homosexuality (Boardman served during California's Prop 8 debate) and lonely people who just wanted someone to talk to.
The role of these online missionaries was to "find, teach and prepare investigators" -- what Mormons call potential converts -- "to meet local members and missionaries by helping them read the Book of Mormon, pray and attend church," according to an online presentation created by Daniel Ware, a manager at the Missionary Training Center who helped champion the online proselytizing.
A Prezi presentation created by Ware, a manager at the Missionary Training Center who helped bring Boardman and other online missionaries to the Referral Center Mission.
By 2010, when Boardman finished his mission, some 15 other missionaries had joined him at the center. They were fielding an average of 2,000 to 3,000 chats a day, according to an LDS Living magazine story that appeared at the time. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in July 2010 that online evangelists were, each week, taking an average of 10,000 chats, referring 3,500 individuals to missionaries for in-person meetings and teaching 1,200 people the lessons that are a prerequisite for baptism. ("The church is big on record-keeping," says Cluff, who notes the missionaries "did report numbers every week" on how many people they taught online and how many they baptized.)
By then, a few more missions across the country -- beginning with one in Rochester, N.Y. -- had also begun dabbling in Facebook, requiring traditional missionaries to supplement their offline work with an hour a day online.
Certain mission leaders were still wary of the new technology. According to former missionaries, one mission president in California considered the female missionaries "more trustworthy," and he gave these "Sisters" immediate access to Facebook, while making the boys prove over weeks, or even months, they deserved it.
And yes, Boardman ultimately discovered, Internet investigators could feel the Holy Spirit, a sign they believed in the principles of the Mormon faith.
"It was unique to recognize that even in something as impersonal as chat," says Boardman, "We were able to develop such close and personal relationships with them and also recognize that they felt the Holy Ghost as we talked with them."
Boardman estimates that he helped convert 30 to 40 new members during his time in Provo, about five times the average.
One has the sense the total might have been higher had it not been for a logistics snag: Says Boardman, "There's no way to baptize right now via the Internet."