In recent years, smartphones, tablets and social media have allowed missionaries and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reach “unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:64). Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ spans “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people” (Alma 37:4). This episode of the Church News podcast features Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy. Beginning in 2014, Elder Nielson was assigned to assist with the Church’s missionary efforts, serving as the executive director of the Missionary Department from 2015 to 2020.
Elder Nielson recalls the miracles he has observed as the Church began to transition from traditional missionary efforts to using technology to reach millions more people. Also featured in this podcast is Scott Taylor of the Church News staff, the former president of the Arizona Phoenix Mission, who implemented some of these early changes in that mission.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: As the director of the Missionary Department, when the virus hit, I was thinking, “Whoa, how are we going to do this?” But this generation was prepared for such a time as this. They are already experts on these devices. And we had done the homework in the past to figure out how we can share the gospel using these devices, and we had had the prophetic and apostolic direction from the [Quorum of the] Twelve [Apostles] and the First Presidency, and we were ready. I mean, it's amazing. I often say that prophets and apostles can see around corners, and if you check the statistics of the Church, you will see that in the year 2020, our missionaries, with almost the entire world locked down, they baptized 125,000 people, and it was a miracle to watch.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I'm Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In recent years, smartphones, tablets and social media have allowed missionaries and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reach, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 58:64, “the uttermost parts of the earth.” Even in the midst of a global pandemic, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ spans every nation, kindred, tongue and people. This episode of the Church News podcast features Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy. Beginning in 2014, Elder Nielson was assigned to assist with the Church’s missionary efforts, serving as the executive director of the Missionary Department from 2015 to 2020. He joins us to recall some of the miracles he observed as the Church transitioned from traditional missionary efforts to using technology to reach millions more people. We also are joined on this episode of the Church News podcast by Scott Taylor of the Church News staff. Scott is the former president of the Arizona Phoenix Mission. Welcome, gentlemen, to the Church News podcast.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Thank you, Sarah. It's good to be here.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Elder Nielson, I want you just to start today, and discuss your history and experience with the Missionary Department so that we can sort of get to know you.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Thank you. Well, as a General Authority Seventy, I had served with my wife in New Zealand and in the Philippines; and in 2014, we received the assignment to come and serve in the Missionary Department. And at that time, I served as an assistant for one year to Elder David [F.] Evans, who was the executive director at the time. And when I arrived, the chairman of the Missionary Executive Council was President Nelson, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson, and Elder David [A.] Bednar was the other member of the [Quorum of the] Twelve [Apostles], who were the two that supervised the work of the missionaries of the Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And at this time, Scott, you were also serving as a mission president.
Scott Taylor: Right, a mission president in the Arizona Phoenix Mission from 2011 to 2014, and I had some experience with the initial expansion of technology and online proselyting.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Elder Nielson, recently, you had an opportunity to speak with President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, and your wife, in a special broadcast to members in California. And as part of your address, you actually spoke about some things that you had witnessed in the Church’s Missionary Department while you were serving there from 2014 to 2020, and what that had taught you about President Nelson and his prophetic vision. Can you talk about that address, why you chose to focus on missionary work at that time?
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Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, my wife and I were delighted that we had this opportunity to speak with President and Sister Nelson, to the Saints of California, and I felt like that they needed to see and understand, from maybe a long-term perspective, that sometimes, what a prophet says, you’re not exactly sure what it means and you have to wait for it. And I talked to them about how you’ll often see something posted on social media, and it’s a video or something and then it says underneath, “Wait for it.” And I learned, watching President Nelson way back in 2014 introducing smartphones, introducing social media — I had to wait for it, to see in 2020, when the pandemic hit, how critical that that was six years before, and sometimes you have to wait for it, and pretty soon you understand exactly what the Prophet was saying, exactly why he said what he did, and now we had to wait for it. We had to wait to see that, and so my purpose was just to share with them my own personal experience in waiting for it and seeing why the Lord was revealing that at the time.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And this started with iPads, correct?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes. Initially, we thought that an iPad would be the way that we would do this, and then as smartphones became more and more accessible, smartphones could do much more than they could originally; and so we, after a few years, switched to smartphones from iPads. Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And how was this received by mission presidents, by parents, by missionaries?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, interestingly, it was with a bit of reluctance. I think some parents felt like, when their son or daughter went on a mission, this was a chance to get away from using devices and away from using social media, and it was a chance for them to not be involved in that. And some mission presidents were very happy with the way the missionary work was going in their missions, and to begin to do a pilot or to begin to figure out how we're going to do this was kind of an interruption to their work, and so it took a while for people to grab on to what it is that was being proposed.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And, Scott, now, you piloted some of these programs.
Scott Taylor: Yeah. In 2013, we were involved in iPads and iPhones. I remember going to a North America Southwest Area mission leadership conference with then-Elder Nelson, and he spoke about the use of technology and these devices. He acknowledged some of the concerns and worries that, Elder Nielson, you just mentioned, that parents, even mission leaders had, and said, “No, this is an opportunity, if they will use them properly, along with the safeguards that we will provide them, to be inoculated from the evils of pornography.” Here's Elder Nelson, his medical background, talking about inoculating missionaries.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, Elder Nielson, you had the opportunity to serve under President Nelson when he led the Missionary Executive Council. Talk to us about what you learned from him and his leadership.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, as we all know, he's an absolutely incredible individual, and he has amazing vision, and he's very calm about what it is he's presenting, and he has thought things out very deeply. As Scott just mentioned — I just jotted down what he said, and as a former physician, we're all used to the word quarantine now, but this is way back in 2015. He said, “In this evermore technological world, the way to prepare these missionaries for their future is not to quarantine them, but prepare them for technology.” And I thought it was so interesting that way back then he's talking about inoculation and quarantining, and he had thought through this. He knew that this was going to be a challenge for some, that missionaries would have access to devices, but he knew that it would be, if we taught them how to do it appropriately, it would be a blessing to the missionaries, and it would be a blessing to the work.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And he went on, in October 2015 general conference, used the phrase, “building a sin-resistant generation.”
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yeah, there's that same idea that we would somehow inoculate them, that they would be able to resist sin, if we taught them appropriate ways to use technology.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And did you find that that happened to our missionaries?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes, absolutely, for sure. There is training that a missionary needs to go through before we ever hand them their smartphone, and there’s a booklet that is called “Safeguards for Using Technology.” They have to do the course, there are some videos they need to watch before they get their phone, and once they get them, then they know how to use them appropriately. And I think it’s been a blessing to this generation to have done that as a missionary, to have learned how to do it, and after their missions, they feel way more secure on these devices than they did before.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and it's not just the device that's important. It's that we can use the device to reach people who actually are on the device, who live in the device, who search on the device. How did having missionaries have devices actually impact missionary work?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, it was a long process, because just handing a missionary a new phone didn't do anything. To them, it was just a device, and so in the background, with the direction of President Nelson and Elder Bednar, we were working diligently to figure out, “How can we allow people to see that gospel of Jesus Christ online, and then pull our missionaries to them, rather than us trying to push things on people?” And so our goal was to make it a pull instead of a push. And over time, we figured out that we could do that, that by sharing things online, and now you'll see — every day, you see missionaries sharing things online all the time, they become experts at this now. But before, we were trying to figure out, “How can they do that?” And by sharing things online, people see the message of the gospel, and then they actually say: “Will you come and see me? Will you come and visit me?” And so we're talking to someone who wants us, not someone whose door we're knocking on and they're not sure who we are, why we're knocking on their door. And it changes missionary work, it changes what we do.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And compare and contrast that to some of the traditional methods of missionary work.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, for years and years, we've done missionary work by sending our missionaries out. They're either on the street or they're knocking on doors, or they're on the bus; they're always looking, and missionaries have become very good at this. They find someone who would be interested in the gospel, and they have been terrific at this. They found people all across the world, and these 18-, 19-, 20-year-old missionaries have built the Church in an incredible way. The challenge with that is it limits the number of people we can find, but it also, sometimes people feel that we're pushing things on them instead of them being interested in it themselves. And so by using social media, we find those people who actually are asking us to come and teach them, “Will you come and teach me?” And it makes all the difference when someone is asking for us.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And this also happened at a time when Elder David A. Bednar, who was also on the Missionary Executive Council, speaks at BYU Education Week and asked all of us to “#ShareGoodness.”
Elder Brent H. Nielson: I love the fact that this was all happening around the year 2014, because I just happened to be there at the time when these two wonderful Apostles were teaching us that there was a new way we could do missionary work. Elder Bednar’s talk was called “To Sweep the Earth as With a Flood,” and he gave it at BYU Education Week, and he said that the Lord is hastening His work, and it's no coincidence that these powerful communication, innovations and inventions are occurring in the dispensation of the fullness of times. And then he invited members of the Church to begin learning how they could share the gospel using these devices and social media.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Scott, how did you see that impact missionary work right on the frontlines?
Scott Taylor: When our missionaries first got the iPads and the iPhones to pilot them, they had a tendency to think of online proselyting in a different way, and it wasn't effective. They thought that they now had access to the world, and they could throw anything up there, and that people would come rushing to them. And we — the analogy we used was: You need to think of it differently. It's not a shotgun approach, you need to be focused on the individual, like a laser focus on a sharp-shooting rifle. You do it individual by individual and not by the masses. And then the other thing that we were able to do with our missionaries was say: “Use it in your assigned areas of proselyting, but reach out to family and friends and acquaintances back home. And as you're out on social media, Facebook, and Instagram and others, if you receive contact, then work with the people for a while, share some messages and be ready to pass them off to missionaries where these individuals live.” And so there were several months in Phoenix where I mapped out — I had missionaries report to me who they were teaching, where they were located, and I had a map with the dots, not just Arizona and their hometowns or home states, but all over the country and all over the world, including a dot in the middle of the Indian Ocean, because we had a missionary teaching a seaman on a U.S. Navy ship.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Elder Nielson, you spoke about this in that recent address with President and Sister Nelson.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Can you tell us today the rest of the story?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes. I was so amazed that in the year 2020 — so as we've been talking about, we started in 2013 with a pilot, and then 2014, we introduced it to 20 missions in the Church, and then the following year, in 2015, it was to 80 missions, and then we did 160 missions, and we're just trying to figure out how to do this, how to do it in a good way, how to do it the way the Lord would have us do it. And for quite a few years, we had about 160 missions, and there's 400 missions in the Church. In January of 2020, so if everyone can lock in their mind what was happening in January of 2020, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] approved smartphones in every mission in the Church. And now, move to March 11 of 2020, when all of a sudden, all the countries in the world started closing their borders because of COVID-19. And there were in some countries mandates that missionaries couldn't go out of their apartments; and in other places, they were strongly encouraged not to go out of their apartments. And so most of the world was locked down in March of 2020, and we were ready.
I mean, it’s amazing. I often say that prophets and apostles can see around corners, and here we were with a pandemic, and our missionaries have to stay in their apartments, and if we hadn’t done what President Nelson and Elder Bednar and others to follow — President [Dallin H.] Oaks then took President Nelson’s place, and then Elder [Dieter F.] Uchtdorf, all of them making wonderful contributions — if we hadn’t been directed by them, we would have been in big trouble if our missionaries couldn’t leave their apartments, because there would be nothing for them to do. But it was just the opposite: All of a sudden, now they had plenty to do, and if you check the statistics of the Church, you will see that in the year 2020, our missionaries, with almost the entire world locked down, they baptized 125,000 people. And to me, that’s astounding. As the director of the Missionary Department, when the virus hit, I was worried it could be zero. I mean, I honestly was thinking, “Whoa, how are we going to do this with everyone having to work from their apartments?” But this generation was prepared for such a time as this. They’re already experts on these devices, and we had done the homework in the past to figure out how this works, how can we share the gospel using these devices, and we had had the prophetic and apostolic direction from the Twelve and the First Presidency, and we were ready, and it was a miracle to watch.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, and I’d love for you to talk just a little more about that. Those of us who were observing, you know, we had Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf on the podcast shortly after that. He spoke about 32,000 missionaries, in just a couple of weeks, crisscrossing the globe, because as borders closed they had to be returned to their home countries. Then you have missionaries who are going to reassignments who may not have been in that mission before, who are starting somewhat over; and yet, when I hear you talk about it, it feels like a time that, amid all this chaos, there was order and there was direction and there was peace and there was moving forward.
Church News podcast Episode 28: Elder Uchtdorf discusses how to incorporate pandemic lessons, move ‘back to the future’ of missionary work
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes. Well, interestingly — and again, under the direction of the First Presidency and the Twelve, and with Elder Uchdorf directing the work, what happened during those few months — so from March until May, we moved about 30,000 missionaries, but what we were doing is we were moving them to their home countries, because parents were concerned. At that time, we didn’t know if the virus was going to be lethal to an 18-year-old. We didn’t know much about it, and so we needed to get them home so that they were close to their family, we needed to get them to where they were close to the medical things that were available to them, and so we moved about 30,000 missionaries to their home countries, but they continued to be missionaries. And in the United States, we had a break for a couple of months, and then we sent them back out. And so, amid all of that travel, amid all of those things happening, these missionaries were now serving in their home countries, and they were using a mobile device, a smartphone, to do that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And it's interesting to me that another change to missionary work occurred before the pandemic, and that was missionaries being able to call home and connect with their family. Can you talk about that decision, how that came about and how it was just an additional blessing during the pandemic?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes. Well, again, I just have to give amazing credit to the wonderful First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, because they’re so aware of what’s happening in the world. And what had happened for years and years, it costs a lot of money to call home. When I was a missionary as a young man in Finland, I mean, we had to save up for a month for my call home at Christmas, because it was so expensive, and it got to the point in the world — and this is hard to imagine when you’re as old as I am, and you saw how expensive a long distance call was — but it got to the point where you could call for free anywhere in the world. So if I’m on the island of Kiribati out in the middle of the Pacific, I can FaceTime with my mom; and if I’m in Africa, you can talk to your parents; and it doesn’t cost anything, which was the amazing part. And so when the First Presidency and the Twelve became aware of that, the decision was easy for them. They said, “Of course they can talk to their parents.” And it was a wonderful thing to watch as they approved that. And we’ve had to experiment with that and figure out how it’s gonna work, and do it in the best way. But that was another amazing thing, because when the virus hit, these young men and young women could call their parents, and without any concern at all, and explain to them how they were doing, and it was a wonderful blessing.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I had a missionary, she was out serving in Honduras when that change occurred, and it was so fun to go from waiting and waiting and hoping you get an email or a letter, to actually logging on and having a conversation or chatting with your missionary.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: It's done a number of wonderful things, that younger brothers and sisters of missionaries now see they're able to talk to their brother and sister on a mission, and it's encouraged them to go, but it's also connected us with those people that our missionary is teaching. So, they'll talk to us about who they're teaching this weekend. They're about to go teach them that night, and we begin praying for them, and we learn about them, and sometimes we'll even participate. My wife and I just participated in a baptism with our grandson. He had baptized someone on his mission, and we were able to get online and watch the baptism, because we're communicating and hearing about this. We know what he's doing.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That has been exactly my family's experience. We pray for the people my daughters are teaching, and we have Zoomed into some of these really beautiful baptisms and been able to rejoice with them and celebrate with them.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, Scott: when you were a mission president, technology was just new. Did you foresee a time when missionaries would all hold their own, not just iPad, but smartphone, and use it the way they do?
Scott Taylor: Yeah, we started with a district using both the iPhone and the iPad, the iPhone being a hotspot, and then the determination was, “Let's just give them the iPad.” So for the longest time, we were packing around the tablets and moved from Apple tablets to Samsung and other tablets, and then finally the smartphones. I caught a vision back in 2008: I was in Hong Kong before the Beijing Olympics, and the missionaries there had little flip cellphones that they were given, and a lot of their work was with the domestic workers in homes throughout Hong Kong, and they were texting scriptures, they were texting reminders, encouragements, and following up on appointments that way, and so you knew that was a possibility.
And so to see what has transpired and transformed into smartphones now — the smartphones, especially during the pandemic, became a lifeline. They became a work line for one, two very critical years that, like you said, Elder Nielson, you’d be throwing up your arms, saying, “What do we do now?” And it was not just to keep them busy, but in some cases, you use smartphones to contact missionaries and say: “Hey, we’ve got a charter jet coming, leaving in three or four hours. You need to be packed in the airport.” Or another instance, I remember reporting on where missionaries were spread across one of the islands in the South Pacific and didn’t have access to general conference, and so somebody got one of their phones and set it by a TV monitor or radio or something, to pick up the audio of general conference, and sent it out to the smartphones of these other missionaries scattered across the island to listen to general conference. That’s a true conference call, in my mind.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yeah, that's perfect.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I love, Elder Nielson, when you say that our Church is led by prophets, seers and revelators who can see around corners. Another example of that is something that had great impact for our family. My daughter put in her mission papers in April of 2020, she was called to serve in Brazil, and then received a reassignment to go to Ohio, and one of the things that became a great source of comfort to her was a talk that Elder David A. Bednar gave in 2017 — so three years earlier — titled “Called to the Work.” Can you give us some background of what the talk entails?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: It was a wonderful talk by Elder Bednar, and I think a lot of people in the Church wonder, “Why is that even an issue?” Because what he talked about was that our missionaries receive a call to be a missionary, but then they're assigned to a specific mission, but that assignment can change, and that happens fairly regularly, but not to everybody. And so, when Elder Bednar gave that talk, I think a lot of people wondered, “Well, why would we take the time to talk about that?” But interestingly, when the virus hit, and most missionaries in the Church were being reassigned, they were being sent to their home countries, or they were, like your daughter — she was called to Brazil, but she went to Ohio for a while. Elder Bednar’s talk was being reproduced over and over again, it was being sent to everybody. And then we would just say, “Read this talk, and you'll understand, because you're called to be a missionary, but your assignment can change.” And it was so interesting to see how that talk became a critical part of the work for that moment, and given in 2017, three years before the virus happens, and they can see around corners.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I remember hearing that talk, just like you said, thinking, “Well, Elder Bednar cares about the one, and the very few people that are ever impacted by a missionary reassignment will find comfort in this talk.” But who could have ever imagined that missionaries by the thousands might be reassigned?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So tell me what you've learned about how the Lord feels about his missionaries?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Hmm. I don't know if I can tell you without tearing up. He actually loves them beyond belief. That a young man or a young woman at age 18 or 19 or 20 would volunteer to leave their home for two years or 18 months and go out and serve the Lord is an incredible thing for our day. In the year 2022, that's very unusual, and the Lord cares for his missionaries in ways that we can't even imagine, and the opportunity I had to serve in the Missionary Department for six years, I saw it all the time. It's amazing to see the great blessings that come to missionaries, and all you have to do is talk to a parent of a returned missionary, and they'll tell you, “I could not have sent my child anywhere else where they would have come back like they did from their mission, changed and in a wonderful way, and they became an adult, they learned the gospel, they care about people.” It's amazing to see, and the Lord does that. He changes them.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So is there an anecdote or a story that sort of would represent everything that you've learned about missionary work, something that could illustrate the power of the Church's missionary force?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, I just want to share what I consider to be a very fun experience for me. I served my mission in Finland as a young man, and then I had an assignment to go back to Finland to do a mission tour and a stake conference, which was such a great blessing to go back and see the Finnish Saints again and be there. I went to the stake president's home, and I met his family and —great family — and I, a few months later, I got an email from the stake president saying, “My daughter's been assigned to serve in the Temple Square mission.” So she was assigned to come from Finland and work right here on Temple Square, which was exciting. And part of the assignment that they have when they're not on in the visitors’ center, is that they're down taking calls from people who are reaching out to us on social media, and because she was a Finn, anytime anybody from Finland reached out, she would, of course, respond. So she's there, and they have a young man in Finland who has seen one of our social media posts, he's reaching out, and they put her in touch with him. She begins to communicate with him in Finnish. He's in her dad's stake. They send the missionaries over and he's baptized, and he's baptized in her father's stake and her father becomes his stake president. And to me, that just encapsulates exactly — Here she is in Salt Lake City, she's not in Finland, she's teaching over social media, a person in her father's stake and he's baptized. And it was just, for me, a wonderful example of all of this coming together, using social media, finding people, them pulling us. I served in Finland, and it's hard to get a Finn to listen, but this one was actually saying, “Will you teach me?” And it just kind of all came together for me in that one experience.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it does show how divinely orchestrated the Church is.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes, it does.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, you talk about you being a returned missionary. So many missionaries have this opportunity where they lead and they teach and their lives are changed, and they learn to love cultures and people, and then they come home. The Church has a new tool for them in My Plan. What do you hope every missionary does when they get home from their mission?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, the most important thing for them to do is to continue to serve, because that's what brought them the happiness and joy that they experienced on their mission, was serving other people. And sometimes, when they get home, the immediate tendency is to just become, “It's all about me again.” And we want them to focus on education, we want them to focus on getting a good job, finding someone to marry — I mean, there's a lot of things that they can be focused on, but if they lose that great desire to serve other people, then they lose something really important that they learned on their missions, and those people who hold on to that and continue to do that, they continue to excel in their membership in the Church.
Scott Taylor: We've talked about missionaries and technology, and digital devices and online proselyting. It'll be interesting, because the missionaries can listen to this podcast through the Church News app that they have, that they are able to download onto their smartphones. But what would you say to the average Latter-day Saint, the members of the Church, about how they can be involved in facilitating and helping the preaching of the gospel online?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Thank you. That was the other big part of what we were trying to accomplish; and frankly, under Elder Uchtdorf’s direction, we’ve learned some concepts, and you’ll see these taught regularly: That it’s — we call it “love, share, and invite” — that we love our neighbors, and then we share things on our devices, and then we invite them. And what we learned is that — and we were watching FamilySearch in the Missionary Department, and we could see that the people in FamilySearch had created such a wonderful thing that you could be waiting in the dentist’s office to see the dentist, and you could find a name to take to the temple, on your device. And we asked ourselves, “Can you be sitting in the dentist’s office and do missionary work?” And the answer is yes. So there has been, over the last year, a great increase in the number of members who are referring people to the missionaries, because they’ve learned how to share the gospel on these devices also, and the Church continues to share things that they can share with their friends, and so this has become a really big thing. Scott, I’m glad you asked about that, because the members have become involved in sharing the gospel in wonderful ways, using their devices, They can wait for the dentist and be a missionary, and that’s been a big achievement for all of us in the Church, that they can do that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Before we started this podcast, you shared some statistics with us, and said before the Church started using technology to share the message, that it was a very small number, and now once people can use smartphones, there is a potential of 7.2 billion people who might be reached.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yeah, that's how many smartphones there are out there. It's 7.2 billion that have a smartphone, and we would love to reach all of them.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That does certainly improve the odds.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes.
Sarah Jane Weaver: What do you want members to know about missionaries serving right now? I know, as a mother, that we tend to worry about our young men and young women when they go out. Should we be worried?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: We always worry about our kids and grandkids, but frankly, it's the safest place for them to be. The Church has actually done studies of that and figured out you just take the number of 18- and 19-year-olds and you see what happens to them on any given day, and missionaries are safer in the field. And certainly things happen to them — I often said when I was the director of the Missionary Department, we had a city of 67,000 young men and young women all across the earth, and in a city of 67,000, something happens every day. Some people fall off their bikes, some people get in a car accident, so something happens every day. But our missionaries are in a very wonderful place, and I have a grandson on a mission now, and I have another one who just got his call. We always worry about them, but they're in a good place. The Lord watches over them and He helps them. We still have missionaries, unfortunately, who get injured and who get in accidents, and have health issues, but for the most part, they're in good shape.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, as I mentioned, I have a daughter, she's just completing her mission. While she was serving in Cincinnati, Ohio, she had some responsibility for social media, and I often thought, “Wow, the Church has put a lot of trust in their missionaries, to allow them to create messages, to create videos, to have the freedom and the flexibility to do that.” Did you ever worry about that?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, it's very interesting to see where we've come from, because when we first started this — and we had 20 missions that had these — there was a rule that you could not create any content. I mean, the missionaries were told, “You cannot do that.” So we've gone from there, to them doing it in their missions all the time. But over time, we've created some good guidelines, and the mission presidents watch it carefully. But yes, there's a lot of trust involved in that, and occasionally you'll see one online and you just say, “Oh, I wonder what they were thinking when they created that one.” But for the most part, they're pretty good. The missionaries do a good job. They understand their purpose, and we always come back to that. We say, “Is this video that you're about ready to post, does it fulfill your purpose as a missionary, to invite others to come unto Christ?” And that's kind of always the test, and if it can meet that test, then the video makes sense, right?
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, my daughter comes home from her mission tomorrow. Now, we're not at all excited about that.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Congratulations. That's wonderful.
Sarah Jane Weaver: What have you learned from missionaries? Are there things that this resilient, sort of tenacious generation of young people who are so tech-savvy have taught you?
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, here's the interesting thing, is most of them won't be interested in this podcast, because we all sit here and talk about how, “Oh, smartphones, we figured out how to use smartphones,” and they just look at me like I'm an old person, like, “Yeah, we always use smartphones.” They act like this is a common everyday thing. But those of us who have lived in the past know that this has been a big change for missionary work. So they're very good at technology. They just instantly can do the things that we asked them to do. They're prepared for it, and they're very savvy when it comes to those types of things, and so these missionaries are used to the world they live in. They're familiar with it, and I think they're the perfect generation for what the world is dealing with right now.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And we’re coming up on almost two decades of having “Preach My Gospel” in the Church and having that influence in our missionary work. Now, that’s the whole life of our current missionary force, but talk about what a blessing that has been to the efforts.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Well, here’s the interesting part — and you will hear every mission president and every general authority who ever talks about this — that no matter the method we use to do missionary work: Whether it’s a smartphone, whether it’s finding someone on a bus or finding someone on the street, our purpose never changes. Our purpose is on the first page on the first paragraph of “Preach My Gospel,” that we invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end. That’s their purpose, and it hasn’t changed since “Preach My Gospel” came out, and it doesn’t change because they have a smartphone. Our purpose is the same. The way we teach is the same. The way we testify is the same. What we teach is the same. So all that’s changed is the method and the manner in which we might do it, and “Preach My Gospel” is the foundation of what our missionaries use as they share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I was so glad that Scott asked about member involvement, because also recently, in the past few years, we have had a shift where bishops have been asked to focus on the youth, and that leaves Relief Society presidents and elders quorum presidencies to focus on the work of salvation, which includes a counselor in both those presidencies, serving on a missionary council in their ward and focusing on missionary efforts.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yeah. And we have seen a great increase in the number of members who are participating just in the past year, which is very gratifying to us to see. Member referrals have gone up significantly because our members now are involved in sharing the gospel with their friends and neighbors. It's what we hope for, it's what we always wanted to see is that our missionaries are teaching the friends of our members. That's when it works the best.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And, you know, you talked about numbers that occurred during the pandemic, but I'm assuming that we have seen the results of missionary work just multiply and ripple and increase as we go forward.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes, I think we're seeing that — and I have to say that I'm not in the Missionary Department anymore, I serve in the Presidency of the Seventy and I'm not there on a daily basis, like I was before — but I can see the results of what they're doing, and it gets better and better every year, and more exciting, more interesting, newer ways, better ways. I feel like I was in the Stone Age back in 2020 when I left, when I see what they're doing today. So the work just continues to go forward, and it's amazing to see.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. And the greatest blessing for my family has been the change that has occurred in my daughters as they have served missions.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: Yes. I think, when our children returned from their missions, my wife and I were so amazed at the growth that had taken place in them and their missions — they all served in different places. But the result was the same in each one of them: That they knew who their Heavenly Father was. They understood the Savior's Atonement. They loved the people that they served, and they understood that it's not about them, it's about other people. And to come home with that attitude of selfless service is incredible, and that's what happens when you send a child on a mission.
Sarah Jane Weaver: We have a tradition at the Church News podcast, and we always give our guests the last word, and we ask them all the same question, and I'm hoping both of you can answer that. And we'll start with you, Scott, but what do you know now about missionary work after being a mission president? And then, Elder Nielson, I hope that you'll be willing to share what you have learned as you have led and directed and worked with prophets and apostles and thought so much and prayed for the Church's missionary force. And so, let's let's start with Scott.
Scott Taylor: From my experience as a mission president, I have developed great love, admiration and appreciation for some 650 individuals. That has grown to include family members, their spouses, their children, interest in who they are and what they’re becoming, and to cheer them on. My wife and I say, “We’re cheerleaders for you for life, in your journey of becoming.” And to watch them to take their learnings, their experiences and build upon that throughout their life, and as Elder Nielson was talking about, the doctrine of Christ and “Preach My Gospel,” to watch them continue to apply it. Sometimes when they have strayed off the covenant path, sometimes when they’ve experienced difficult challenges in their life, to use faith and repentance and covenants and ordinances and the spirit or the Holy Ghost, the confirmations of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end and progressing through life, and it’s been fascinating to watch that journey continue.
Elder Brent H. Nielson: I often reflect on an experience I had a few years ago where the Church History Department allowed me to hold in my hands the journals of Wilford Woodruff, and Wilford Woodruff was very fascinating because he wrote in his journal every day, and he recorded something in his journal that we all are quite familiar with, but is really quite an astounding statement by the Prophet Joseph Smith. It happened in Kirtland, Ohio, with just a small group of Saints. The Church isn’t much bigger than a normal stake at the time, and in Kirtland, Ohio, Wilford Woodruff writes it down, it’s in his journals that I’ve seen. He said that Joseph Smith got up and said, “You have no more knowledge of the destiny of this kingdom than a babe on its mother’s lap. You don’t understand it. This kingdom will fill North and South America, it will fill the world.” That’s a pretty amazing statement to make when you just have a little small group of Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, but that prophetic vision that the Prophet Joseph Smith had, has literally taken the gospel all across the world. It has been a privilege of mine to be able to travel to many places and see that that prophecy has been fulfilled and is being fulfilled. But here’s the amazing part of it: it’s been done by 18- and 19- and 20-year-old kids.
That's incredible. Just think about that. The growth that's happened over the last 100 years has been by young men and young women who have gone out and shared the gospel of Jesus Christ to the point that we now have 16 million members all across the earth, and it is truly a miracle. We continue to be led by prophets and apostles, like Joseph Smith, who can see that vision and who know that the gospel will continue to move forward, and they do everything in their power to keep that going. My little, small experience watching smartphones and social media is just a little, small part of that. But they have a vision of how we will take the gospel to the world, and it will continue to happen. We've just scratched the surface, and it's amazing to watch. I'm grateful for the Prophet Joseph Smith and his vision of that. I'm grateful for prophets and apostles today who continue that same vision, but I'm especially grateful for young men and young women who have the courage to say: “Here am I, send me. I'm willing to go,” because they're building the Church across the earth.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I'm your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.