Rochester, USA - For a dozen Mormon missionaries in upstate New York, the iconic tasks of "tracting" and knocking on doors are things of the past.
Instead, they're spreading the good word in high-tech fashion, posting on sites such as Blogger, WordPress and Facebook.
The images of missionaries traveling two-by-two, knocking on doors and offering tracts — or religious literature — have long been a global representation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But the church's missionary department is experimenting with its missionaries, using social networking to make contacts and create conversations with individuals who might be interested in the LDS faith.
Or, in social-networking terms, to get connected.
"We felt that this is where the world is, this is the new 'town square,' " said Ron Wilson, the department's manager of Internet and marketing. "The only way to find out is to test it."
The preliminary test program — which is currently called "Missionaries on the Internet" — was started in late May in the LDS Church's New York Rochester Mission.
Its guiding principle is simple: The missionaries selected to participate can go online if they don't have any effort more productive, such as teaching, following up on previous contacts, checking out referrals or meeting or working with members.
And this e-contacting is expected to be more productive than tracting, so the missionaries are allowed to go to the keyboard before going door-to-door.
Participating missionaries use Internet-linked computers at a local meetinghouse or a visitor center adjacent to one of the several LDS historical sites in the Rochester Mission.
A companionship of two missionaries sits side-by-side at the computer, one safeguard being that they work in tandem in composing posts and reviewing responses.
Another security is what Wilson calls "community policing." All participating missionaries are Facebook "friends" with each other and the mission president, meaning all their Facebook activity is easily accessible by the others.
The online activity is a deviation from church policy for its missionaries, which restricts computer use to exchanging e-mails with home and accessing church Web resources mormon.org and lds.org.
The other exception is the "chat" missionaries — based at the Provo Missionary Training Center — who answer questions and queries at the LDS Church's mormon.org website.
Members can use the missionaries' blogs and Facebook pages to either forward to friends and acquaintances or merely direct them to those sites.
While the emphasis is for missionaries to develop local contacts for teaching opportunities, Internet conversations can go beyond the mission area. Missionaries themselves can't cross mission boundaries, but their Internet efforts may extend much farther, with contacts then referred to other missions across the country or throughout the world.
The blog and social-network efforts not only create conversations, but can be a mentoring aid.
Wilson cites a recent example where contact with a couple was first made with missionaries online and a relationship established, with the teaching then done in person by other LDS missionaries.
During their discussions, the teaching missionaries talked about the ordinances of baptism and confirmation. The woman being taught had a question about the sequence and location of the ordinances, but she was too embarrassed to ask the visiting missionaries.
Instead, she waited until after they had left, got online and asked her questions of the online missionaries she had originally been in contact with; they answered the question to her satisfaction.
Wilson calls the Missionaries on the Internet program "a raw test" that could grow to other missions and other nations. But the missionary department will need to study it for much longer than its current existence of single-digit weeks.
"Can this expand? We hope so," Wilson said. "But will it expand? We don't know."