Even within a church legendary for adding converts with machine-like efficiency, the Internet-only mission has been an outlier.Whereas traditional Mormon missionaries convert, on average, six people during their 18- to 24-month service, the online apostles in Provo have averaged around 30 converts per missionary per year, says Burton. Ninety-five percent of the Internet converts have kept active, a retention rate more than triple the norm. “[The Referral Center Mission] was equal to the highest-baptizing missions that are out there.” Damning influences be damned: Church leaders realized these so-called “Facebook missionaries” were getting results too impressive to ignore.In an age of Internet-enabled instant gratification, the church is betting the demand for instant salvation can’t be far behind.The shift on social media actually began over five years ago, in 2008, with a quiet experiment at the Referral Center Mission in Provo, Utah.“[W]e could knock on their door and they’d never let us in,” says Emilee Cluff, a missionary who served between 20, of her efforts to proselytize.“But they’d accept our friend request on Facebook embers of the Mormon church believe they’ve been blessed with the “gift of tongues,” an uncanny talent for languages that allows them to preach the Gospel anywhere, to anyone.ntil three years ago, Aubert L’Espérance had no idea who Mormons were or what they believed. To be fair, L’Espérance, then 15, was clueless about most religions.The preppy-chic Québécois had never been to church, grew up agnostic verging on atheist and assumed “Mormon” was just another name for the Amish when he first stumbled on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints online.
“The principles missionaries have always been taught actually just work better online,” says Gideon Burton, a professor at Brigham Young University who has advised the church on its Internet missionary work.
Ryan Tucker, a missionary who helped convert him in the church’s chatroom, hailed it as a journey “from troll to testimony.” "Those chats were so amazing," says L'Espérance.
"Before I even knew much about the church, I really felt its power immediately." The teenager’s unlikely route to baptism helps explain why the white-haired patriarchs of the Mormon church stunned their followers last summer by lifting a ban barring missionaries from social media.
Hoping to attract converts, the church invites people to come online and message anonymously with missionaries who can answer “whatever questions you may have about any Christian topic.” L’Espérance, like thousands of other Internet trolls, abused it spectacularly, logging on with a fake persona and bombarding the Mormons for hours with nonsense questions.
But then, L’Espérance’s hoaxing gave way to something that surprised even him: a genuine curiosity in a group he says he’d assumed was “just some sort of tribe” living in “really remote parts of the universe.” Less than a year after first fooling around with Mormon missionaries, L’Espérance was baptized.