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Arts & Culture

Why The Mormon Church Is Sending So Many Missionaries To Idaho

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio

The typical image of Mormon missionaries going door-to-door with pamphlets is antiquated. Colby Denton says in Boise they only do it if they have a few minutes to kill between appointments. Denton is serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Boise mission.

Last month, LDS leaders created two new missions in southwest Idaho, and by the end of the year missionary numbers in this part of the state will likely triple. That’s a bigger increase than the church is seeing overall.

Last year, it lowered the minimum age for men and women to serve. Since then it’s had a nearly 30 percent increase in missionaries with more than 75,000 now serving missions worldwide. The church is sending a substantial number of those new missionaries to the western United States, where it has more members than anywhere else.   

Matt Martinich with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation, says there are a lot of logistical reasons for that. It’s just easier to accommodate the influx where the church has the most resources. But he also says it fits a long-used strategy.

“One of the things that seems counterintuitive about how the church assigns its missionary force is the church tends to allocate most of its resources to areas that have the most members,” Martinich says.

Which brings us back to going door-to-door. It turns out that’s not a very effective way to find new members. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: Ordinary church members find people in their daily lives who are interested in learning about the church. They arrange for those people to meet missionaries. The members are encouraged to have their friends meet the missionaries in the members’ home and then help their friends throughout the conversion process. In some parts of the world this ideal scenario is rare simply because there aren’t many church members. But in places like Idaho it works.

For Colby Denton this is God’s work. But he admits it can seem a bit like selling Scentsy or Pampered Chef to friends. Denton has those sales skills. He first learned how to sell working for a pest control company during college.

“I absolutely use that every single day as a missionary, talking with people, trying to connect with people trying to figure out what people’s objections are, how to overcome them, how to move past their barriers,” he says.  

Denton converted to the church while in college back home in Arizona with help from his Mormon friends. Today he and his “mission companion” Davis Jones are playing the role of recruiters for a man they’re meeting for the first time.

“His friend who is a returned missionary and a member of the church, she called us and said that he’s been asking a lot of questions and he’s interested in taking the discussions,” Jones says. “So we texted him and asked him to learn.”

That's right, missionaries are also using modern technology, like texting, to connect with potential recruits. They've also recently gotten permission to use Facebook as a way of connecting with people interested in learning about the church.

The two missionaries park their truck with Utah license plates outside a church meeting house in Boise. It’s empty on a weekday afternoon, making for a quiet spot to teach. They pray before going in to meet Samantha and Matt.

Samantha returned from a mission to New Jersey six months ago. She’s only been dating Matt a couple of weeks, but they’re already talking about marriage. Samantha says she wants to marry someone who is interested in his own spirituality. That person does not necessarily have to be a Mormon she says, but that would be ideal.  

It would be hard for the missionaries to find a more ideal person to teach than Matt. He was introduced to them by a Mormon friend who is ready to help him along the way. He’s eager to learn. He believes in God and the Bible but doesn’t belong to any church. Though, the fact that he’s an enthusiastic Free Mason is a bit of a wild-card that could help or hinder. Matt says he’s been curious about Mormonism for a long time.

“As far as considering joining I’d have to find out more about it,” Matt says. “We have basically the same belief systems as far as I know.”

Matt says he knows becoming Mormon would go a long way toward helping Samantha’s family accept him.

The four sit on metal folding chairs in a Sunday school classroom. They pray, then begin what’s known as the "first discussion". For the next hour they cover a lot of ground. By the end, they’re talking about LDS church founder Joseph Smith and the church’s work of scripture the Book of Mormon. Denton poses the question the discussion has been building toward.

“Matt, if these things are true what does it mean to you?” Denton asks.

“With Joseph Smith seeing the vision of the Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, that would mean he’s a true prophet of God,” Matt responds.

Denton asks Matt to read the Book of Mormon and ask God if it’s true. Matt says he will.

“When you get this answer from Heavenly Father,” Denton asks, “will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized by someone holding the priesthood authority of God?”

Matt says yes. But he isn’t a convert yet. He still has five more of these discussions. He has to attend church, and has to believe he’s got that answer from God.

But getting back in their truck, Denton and Jones are excited. Denton says Matt is a good example of why the Mormon Church is sending so many missionaries to places like Idaho.

“It’s because there’s people like that, that if the members knew the missionaries better they’d have them teach their friends,” Denton says. “Samantha only has us teaching Matt because she knows us. He enquired and she was like ‘dang I’m going to get him with the missionaries.’ So we just need more missionaries in all the wards we got so members can know them and have that same experience we just had.”  

The church is getting close to Denton’s wish of a pair of missionaries for every local congregation or “ward” in the mission. The church could have up to 250 missionaries in Boise by the end of the year, up from about 70 now. That could almost cover the 130-something wards in Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Star, the areas in the mission's boundaries.

As for Matt, his conversion has been delayed. Since that first discussion, which was nearly two months ago, he took a job in Massachusetts. The Boise missionaries are connecting him with church members there.   

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio