Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY – During the last two weeks, nearly five times the typical number of young Latter-day Saints have begun the application process to serve as full-time missionaries.
The leap was precipitated by an announcement earlier this month that reduced the minimum age for missionary service.
In a statement issued late Monday afternoon, church spokesman Michael Purdy said that while about 700 new applications are typically started each week, during the last two weeks "that number has increased to approximately 4,000 per week."
Further, Purdy noted that "slightly more than half of the applicants are women." Prior to the announcement, women made up 14 percent of full-time LDS missionaries.
The age change was announced during the opening session of the 182nd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 6, with LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson indicating the age for young men who are high school graduates to serve is reduced to 18 and the age for young women to serve is now 19. The previous ages for full-time missionary service for young LDS men and women was previously 19 and 21, respectively.
At the time Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve, chairman of the church's Missionary Committee, said the age change is an "option" that "will allow more young men and young women to enjoy the blessings of missionary service."
So an increase in the number of young people applying to serve as full-time missionaries was anticipated — especially among young women, many of whom have opted for marriage, school and work commitments instead of waiting until they turn 21 to serve a mission. But Purdy didn't indicate if a 471-percent increase was anticipated.
"These are early numbers and it is difficult to say exactly where we will be over the coming months," Purdy said. "But we are grateful for the willingness of our members to make the sacrifice to serve people around the world."
Men serve two-year missions and women serve for 18 months. All forego education, employment, relationships and other pursuits. Many pay their own way; the rest are helped by other church members.
The sudden influx of willing – and younger – missionaries may tax the church's 15 Missionary Training Centers, which did not know the announcement was coming.
"We recognize that church members are interested to know additional details on the logistics of this change as discussed after the announcement," Purdy said. But he offered no details, saying "we look forward to providing more details as the program moves forward.”
That desire to know more – and frustration at not knowing more – was also anticipated.
"We anticipate some ashen faces out there," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a press conference just hours after the announcement was made. Elder Holland indicated that President Monson felt strongly the policy change should be held close to the vest until the announcement was made at conference.
"Most of the general authorities of the church didn't know about it," Elder Holland said. "Mission presidents didn't know. MTC officials didn't know. University leaders didn't know. So we welcome you all to a worldwide church of people who did not know that this was coming."
The numbers announced Monday by Purdy validate anecdotal reports of huge numbers of prospective missionaries lining up for screening interviews with their local ecclesiastical leaders. While the details of how the new age options will change the training of new missionaries and the administration of the church's far-reaching missionary program, the one thing that seems certain that it will change.
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