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.
Interestingly, the LDS missionary program was already going through a period of growth and change. According to Elder Holland, the church's current missionary force is "a little more than 58,000" – a number that has been growing during recent years.
"Two years ago President Monson made an appeal for more missionaries," Elder Holland said. "Since that time we have seen a rather spectacular increase across the board. We're up 6 percent for our young elders, 12 percent for sisters and 18 percent for couples."
But, he added, "we don't have any guess" on how many additional missionaries will be entering the mission field as a result of the age changes.
"We just know we're going to have to handle more," Elder Holland said. And handling more "will require some changes to how we administer the missionary program."
Specifically, he said that "time spent in training at the MTC will be reduced by one-third," and that all of the church's 15 missionary training centers will hire new instructors and staff. While he didn't anticipate the construction of new missionary training centers, he said "we will continue to pursue the construction of additional facilities" at the existing MTC's – with the exception of the nine-story building that was planned for the Provo, Utah, MTC, the plans for which were recently scrapped.
Elder Holland also noted "a recently implemented 12-week training course for new missionaries as they arrive in the mission field," as well as language immersion for those called to non-English-speaking missions, both of which are "already benefiting missionaries."
"We've gotten to be reasonably good at training missionaries," he said, understating a widely recognized fact.
The church is also already "reasonably good" at working with 18-year-old missionaries.
"We've had much experience with 18-year-old missionaries," Elder Nelson said, indicating that in 48 nations the church has already been allowing young men to serve at age 18 because of educational and/or military requirements.
"Our experience with these 18-year-old missionaries has been positive," President Monson said in making the announcement. "Their mission presidents report that they are obedient, faithful, mature, and serve just as competently as do the older missionaries who serve in the same missions. Their faithfulness, obedience and maturity have caused us to desire the same option of earlier missionary calls for all young men, regardless of the country from which they come."
But the biggest change in missionary preparation is going to have to come from the prospective missionaries themselves, Elder Holland said.
"Prospective missionaries will be asked to enhance and improve and take more seriously their pre-mission preparation," he said, including "total personal worthiness" and gospel study – specifically of the scriptures and the church's missionary manual, "Preach My Gospel" – in explaining the kind of pre-mission preparation that would be needed.
"Improved preparation of the missionary before entering the MTC will allow us to accommodate a larger number of missionaries going into the future," Elder Holland said.
Speaking directly to prospective missionaries who were watching the press conference via Internet broadcast, Elder Holland said, "This announcement isn't about you. It's about the sweet and pure message you are called to bear."
"You must prepare with personal worthiness and gospel knowledge," he continued. "We want you teaching effectively from the first day onward."
To the parents of prospective missionaries he added: "We ask parents to take a strong hand in this preparation. Don't expect that it is the responsibility of the church and the MTC and the seminary program to prepare your children for missionary service. You are a critical part of this process."
Once the church has some idea of how much the ranks of full-time missionaries are going to be expanded by the new age requirements, it is open to the possibility of creating new missions in which they can serve.
"We're waiting to see how many new missionaries will be coming, and where they will be needed first," Elder Holland said. Meanwhile, "our existing 347 missions will have more missionaries added. We can absorb quite a bit of initial growth."
But he noted, "We are having requests from around the globe for new missions. We've got lots of places that are still waiting for new missions." More missionaries, he said, will help "get the gospel to more places than we've ever gone before."
For those who are not able to serve full-time missions because of health or other circumstances that make it "unwise or impossible to go," Elder Holland said "the Lord and the church honors the intent of the heart."
"These are also on the team even as we honorably excuse these from traditional full-time missionary service."
To the rest, he said, "God is hastening his work and he needs more – and more willing and worthy – missionaries to spread the light and the truth and the hope and the salvation of gospel truth to a darkened world."