Online LDS missionaries seek converts in the virtual world
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Elder Tyson Boardman sits before the computer screen at the LDS Missionary Training Center, discussing Mormonism with Jason and Travis in two Internet conversations at the same time.

Why do people say Mormons aren't Christian? What does it mean to be baptized for the dead? How do Mormons view Jesus? Why do you have a prophet?

Answering these and many other LDS-related queries is Boardman's full-time assignment as a two-year missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he loves it.

"I've had questions from Canada, England and every part of the U.S.," Boardman says. "It's been an amazing experience. Every day it's something new."

The 20-year-old from Oak City, Utah, has been at this computer terminal in the area known as the Missionary Training Center's Referral Center for nearly a year, chatting with interested strangers from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.

Boardman is part of a pilot program that calls on Mormon missionaries to attract new converts to the faith via the virtual world, rather than the traditional, face-to-face approach.

The portal into this world is www.mormon.org, a Web site the church established in 2001 primarily aimed at curious outsiders -- a complement to www.lds.org, which is mostly for members and the news media.

People find their way to mormon.org from various Internet sites, from literature the church puts out or from one of its many television ads. On its home page, people can explore sections marked "Basic Beliefs," "Worship With Us," "Our Stories" and "Ask Your Questions -- chat now."

The online missionaries draw on LDS scripture, speeches by church authorities and other official publications to provide answers to the questions posed. If a person is interested, the missionary can lead him or her through a whole series of doctrinal discussions, follow up at a future time and even set a baptism date.

To date, between 20 and 25 baptisms have come directly from the online contact.

Church officials added the chatting feature in 2006, and now every missionary who is trained at the MTC takes a turn in the Referral Center for a total of 12 hours online during the three-to-nine-week stay. By the beginning of last year, missionaries were engaged in about 100 chats a day, with conversations lasting from five to 50 minutes. Now the number is closer to 500 a day at one of the 38 stations in the center. So far, the service is only available in English, but the MTC is gearing up to launch a Spanish chat.

The plan is to meet the demand, says Daniel Ware, manager of the Referral Center.

"The point is to get to know them, find out what questions are relevant to them personally and then teach them. Many people would love to investigate the church but are not ready to have missionaries come to their house."

This way they can preserve their anonymity, adds Richard Heaton, who oversees operations at the MTC, which houses and trains 1,500 Mormon missionaries every year.

It's also an excellent chance for missionaries to practice their proselytizing skills, Heaton says. "It brings a reality to the training. It's a wonderful practice for the field."

There is, he says, a certain kind of experience that can't happen online.

"In every case, local missionaries have to get involved," Heaton says. "But they do love to let us know."

Boardman was the first of a handful of missionaries specifically called to the Referral Center who would not have been able to serve a mission otherwise for health reasons. He enjoys the range of questions he has faced. One woman came to mormon.org after the professor in her "cult" class at a Christian college offered a fairly harsh critique of Mormonism and she wondered whether it was true.

He helped clarify LDS beliefs, Boardman says. "Most anti-Mormons who come to the site are pretty sincere. We let them know that arguing is not the purpose of the site and then we try to ignore them."

Emily Hardy from Farmington and Kristen Kiriyama from American Fork were in training for their missions in Romania. They were taking their turn at an online station.

"Some people are lonely, but most are just looking," Hardy says. "We work with them from wherever they are."

Elder Rafe Gandola of San Diego returned to the MTC to serve some of his time in the online world after fracturing his leg in Finland.

"One day I'm out in snow talking to people, seeking converts. Two days later, I'm chatting online with people seeking us," Gandola says. "That's been a real treat."

pstack@sltrib.com