Mormon missionaries are universally recognizable worldwide. They’re the guys in the starched white shirts, dark ties, and name tags often seen riding bikes through neighborhoods from DC to Monrovia, knocking on doors and trying to convert people just sitting down to dinner. The uniform is so iconic it was easily mocked in the Broadway show Book of Mormon. But the church recently announced a shocking new development: Some of its missionaries are ditching the suits, and with them, the door-knocking, in recognition that having total strangers bug people at home unannounced is perhaps not the best way to win new followers.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the missionaries are going to try some other tactics—like email spam. The church announced over the summer that it would allow missionaries to better utilize social media and the internet to find potential converts. In June, one of the Latter Day Saints’ top leaders, 90-year-old church apostle L. Tom Perry, said, “The world has changed. The nature of missionary work must change if the Lord will accomplish his work.”
More interesting, even before that announcement, Mormon missions in California’s Bay Area had already given up “tracting,” or knocking on doors and trying to convert people, in favor of sending young people out to try to do more practical good in the world. They have been requiring missionaries, who generally serve a two-year stint, to perform “two hours of nonproselytizing community service every day, five days a week—up from the normal four or so hours a week,” reports the Tribune, noting that the missionaries have, as a result, partnered with community organizations to help poor kids, clean up trash from homeless camps, read to immigrants, clear invasive plants, and volunteer to keep score at local baseball games. There are some limits to their service: no power tools, no ladders with more than four steps, and they have to keep the name tags. But according to the Tribune, the missionaries have suddenly become very popular among organizations desperately in need of volunteers between 3 and 5 p.m. The effort has been so successful that it’s expanding to other states.
The change is fairly striking for a church with a long history of being a somewhat closed society best known for its onetime practice of polygamy. In 2008, Gary Lawrence, a Mormon pollster, published a book full of data showing the extent to which Americans disliked and feared Mormons, whose favorability ratings were on par with Muslims, who ranked dead last on the list of American religions. But it’s been clear that the LDS church has been making a concerted effort to improve its public image, particularly in the run-up to the 2012 election when Mitt Romney was the GOP presidential nominee. The church has been trying, fitfully, to be more tolerant of lesbians and gays, particularly the Mormon ones. And the move to allow missionaries to ditch dark ties in favor of trash-picker reflector vests and jeans seems an inspired move that could win favor with evangelical and other Christian groups that have long made traditional community service work central to their faith but who also don’t consider Mormons to be true Christians.
As with the church’s evolution on gays, the movement of Mormon missionaries to embed with the poor unwashed masses may have some unexpected consequences. Mormons are among the nation’s most reliable Republicans. Sending young, impressionable youth out into the trenches to work side by side with the 47 percent might not shake their faith in the church, but it might leave them questioning their party.