SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The common image of Mormon missionaries has long been two young men wearing white shirts and ties walking through neighborhoods, knocking door-to-door.
But in a few years, that image may be replaced by one of young Mormons sitting with an iPad, typing messages on Facebook.
Recognizing the world has changed, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders announced Sunday night that missionaries will do less door-to-door proselytizing, and instead, use the Internet to recruit new church members.
The strategy shift reflects the growing importance of social media and people's preference to connect over sites such as Facebook rather than opening their homes to strangers, church leaders said.
"The way in which we fulfill our responsibilities to share the gospel must adapt to a changing world," said Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a presentation to mission presidents in Provo, Utah, that was broadcast worldwide.
The move is the latest example of the LDS church's gradual embrace of the digital age, and a recognition that door-to-door proselytizing is not the most effective way to expand church membership, church scholars said.
Many of the details about how the social media work will be carried out by missionaries and monitored by mission presidents have yet to be ironed out, church officials said.
But it's clear that the new rules mark a significant change in the way the church governs Internet access for missionaries.
Previously, Internet use for missionaries was limited to once a week and only for communicating with friends and family back home or accessing official church sites. Those rules were designed to reduce distractions and temptations for missionaries expected to devote all their attention to serving the Lord, while leaving behind personal affairs.
The announcement comes as the church sends more missionaries around the globe than at any time in history. There has been an unprecedented surge of missionaries since the church's announced in October that it was lowering the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.
There are 70,000 young men and women on mission now, and church officials say there will be 85,000 by the end of the year. The previous record total of missionaries at one time was 61,600 in 2002, church figures show.
The new focus on social media will likely come as welcome news to young, tech-savvy missionaries, said Matthew Bowman, assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and author of the book, "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith."
"This generation knows social networking, they know how this works," Bowman said. "It's much more appealing work than going door-to-door knocking and hoping somebody doesn't slam the door in your face."