SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church is moving forward with its plan to arm missionaries with iPad minis and broaden their proselytizing to social media.
A test program that began last fall with 6,500 missionaries serving in the United States and Japan went well, prompting the initiative's expansion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a news release this week.
Church leaders expect to have the specially configured mobile devices in the hands of more than 32,000 missionaries by early 2015.
Using the iPad minis has proved an effective tool for missionaries to communicate with church leaders and keep in touch with people who have expressed interest in joining the Mormon church, said David F. Evans, director of the church's missionary department, in a video posted on Mormonnewsroom.org.
"We know in many parts of the world, the traditional forms of proselyting work very, very well," Evans said. "In some other places where technology and urban life has developed in such a way that missionaries have a harder time contacting people, we hope that these tools become even more valuable in those places."
Scholars say this is the latest example of the LDS church's gradual embrace of the digital age and its recognition that door-to-door proselytizing is not the most effective way to expand church membership.
The program will expand to all missions in United States, Canada, Japan and western Europe.
The iPad minis are outfitted with several apps that help men and women in their missionary work, including a gospel app that includes scriptures, manuals, magazines and other teaching materials. Missionaries are encouraged to use Facebook to find new members.
"You think about what you've seen missionaries try to carry in their backpacks over the years, and all of that fits into a very nice, small, compact device that they can take with them and utilize in their teaching and their proselytizing," Evans said.
In April 2013, the church also loosened its rules on Internet use for missionaries, allowing them to send emails to friends, priesthood leaders and new converts. Previously, missionaries could only email immediate family members.
Some have worried that giving youngsters more access to the Internet could lead to distractions and wasted time. Speaking to that, Evans said the "only really effective filter for lifelong technology use is the individual heart and mind of the individual young person."
Missionaries who come from developed countries will cover the $400 cost of the iPad mini, which will remain theirs after the mission, Evans said. The church will work to help missionaries from other countries who can't afford the cost, Evans said.
Missionaries already pay about $400 a month to serve a mission, which lasts two years for men and 18 months for women. Some buy their own bicycles, too.
The church has more missionaries around the globe than at any time in history, spurred by an unprecedented influx after the church in October 2012 lowered the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men. There are now 86,000 missionaries, up from 58,000 in October 2012.
That total is expected to peak at 88,000 later this year before settling in at around 77,000 next year, Evans said.