SALT LAKE CITY — Though the record number of LDS missionaries serving around the world will peak in the fall and then recede somewhat, convert baptisms are increasing and more missionaries soon will be using digital devices to help with their work.
A pilot program has shown that use of iPad Minis by missionaries improved their work and study, and the devices will be used in all missions in North America, Japan and western Europe beginning this fall, the executive director of the LDS Missionary Department said Wednesday in a wide-ranging, videotaped interview released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder David F. Evans, also a member of the faith's First Quorum of the Seventy, said the devices will be used by about 32,000 Mormon missionaries in 162 of the church's 405 missions.
The church will ask missionaries in those areas to pay for their iPads, which will be their property during and after their missions, at a cost of $400 apiece.
Evans said the church, as of Wednesday, had 85,593 missionaries serving, up from the previously publicized record of 85,039 in April.
He said the missionary department anticipates the number to rise to 88,000 this fall before starting to decrease.
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson precipitated the dramatic two-year surge in missionary numbers when in October 2012 he lowered the age requirement from 19 to 18 years old for male missionaries and from 21 to 19 for women.
Elder Evans, who called the surge "one of the greatest faith-inspiring things I've ever seen," said the church expects the number of missionaries will eventually settle somewhere in the high 70,000s, well above the 58,000 serving at the time of President Monson's announcement.
"We don't believe we're ever going back to the 50,000s," Elder Evans said.
About 64 percent of the church's full-time missionaries are young adult men, 28 percent are women and 8 percent are senior missionaries.
"We believe the young people of this church will continue to say yes to missionary service, and they'll continue to choose to become young disciples of Christ," Elder Evans said. "For them it's an absolute free-will offering to the Lord and to their fellow man."
He also spoke about convert baptisms and missionary safety.
"Every month, if you compare month over month, the baptisms are up," Elder Evans said. "Right now for this year, there's about an overall 15 percent increase in the number of convert baptisms this year compared to a comparable period last year."
Elder Evans said missionaries now are being asked to have a "safety moment" at the beginning of each day, an effort to increase their sensitivity to safety issues after several injuries and deaths among missionaries made news, particularly last year.
Those incidents remain few compared to the general U.S. population of 18- to 21-year-olds.
"It is by far the safest place for any young single adult to be that I'm aware of," Elder Evans said. "I've read statistics that suggest being on a mission may be as many as 20 times safer than being generally out in the population."
A pilot program put iPad Minis in the hands of about 6,500 missionaries in 30 missions in the United States and Japan, as well as with sister missionaries in most LDS visitors centers. Elder Evans described four lessons learned by church leaders.
First, missionaries were very comfortable and capable using the devices. Second, the devices increased the reading and studying done by the missionaries. Third, they were effective planning tools. Fourth, they helped missionaries communicate better with local church leaders, mission leaders and investigators.
Adding digital devices to more missions will begin in the fall and continue into next year, Elder Evans said.
He also said church leaders hope that digital devices can help missionaries begin their training in new languages, gospel study and other areas even before they reach missionary training centers at the beginning of their service.
The church will ask missionaries from areas Elder Evans said are "self-supporting in terms of missionary service" to pay for their own iPad Minis, similar to the way the church has asked missionaries to pay for bicycles to use in the mission field.
Those from areas that aren't self-supporting will work with their local church leaders and mission presidents on funding.
The video interview is the second video about missionary work released by the church this week. On Monday, a video from church historians told the story of the faith's first sister missionaries.
Both videos can be seen at mormonnewsroom.org.