On the same weekend that it was announced that the number of Mormons worldwide has passed the 15 million mark, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints passed another milestone.
Church President Thomas S. Monson announced at the faith’s 183rd semi-annual conference in Salt Lake City this past weekend that 80,000 missionaries are now serving worldwide – a staggering rise of 22,000 in the past year, half of them young women.
Perhaps no aspect of the church has been more visible or enduring than that of the ubiquitous, mostly male Mormon missionary, instantly recognizable on the streets of any city in the world with white shirt, tie, scriptures in tow and usually a smile to boot. And perhaps nothing in recent church history promises to have such a weighty long-term effect on the church that sends them into the world than this unprecedented surge in its missionary force.
It was just one year ago when President Monson announced a lowering of the qualifying minimum age for missionaries worldwide that became the trigger for thousands of young people to recalibrate their lives. For men, the age dropped from 19 to 18. For women, it would now be 19, not 21.
In the 21,000-seat Conference Center flanking Temple Square in Salt Lake City, the audience reacted visibly to the announcement. Young men approaching the end of high school who had planned on a year of college or a temporary job before missionary service suddenly had the option to go early. Many young women of the same age who had vaguely kept open the option of missionary service “maybe-if-nothing-else-is-happening-in-my life” began reaching for their cell phones to text their local bishop for appointments. Many wept for the sudden possibilities; others beamed. Over the next few days, thousands of them went to those appointments to begin the application process.
One year later, the numbers are telling. Female missionaries serving: up by 140 percent. Male missionaries: up by 21 percent. Even senior, retired couples are volunteering in greater numbers – eight percent higher than a year ago.
Although the church confidently expected an increase, no one could be certain of the numbers or the impact the change would have. Twenty-two thousand more missionaries mean colleges having to deal with unexpected drops in enrolment, at least for now. Missionary training centers around the world have reworked their schedules and missionary training time has been reduced by between one fourth and one third to accommodate greater numbers. A new training center has been opened in Mexico City where many missionaries called from the United States now learn their Spanish before traveling on to their assigned field of work. All other training centers are now working at capacity. And in the 400-plus church missions around the world, new leadership councils have been formed with male and female missionaries, reflecting the changed composition of the missionary force.
To those unfamiliar with the faith – and especially those who embrace no faith at all – all this may seem rather strange. Why would 18 and 19-year-olds be willing to put their lives on hold for up to two years, at a time when their peers are working through college or starting careers?
The answer is also the answer to what makes Mormons tick. If not from the cradle then certainly from kindergarten Mormons are taught that the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ provide a framework for living, and that we ought to live the best lives we can based on that model. In particular, we give ourselves to God by serving others, and so service becomes an integral part of that pursuit for every faithful Latter-day Saint.
Service to others is so much more meaningful when it’s inconvenient. Anyone can write a check. It takes a lot more to surrender ourselves to the will of God, put our own lives and personal interests aside, and be willing to endure the rigors of a pretty Spartan life for two years. When a young missionary sends in his or her application, it is a step into the unknown. They have no idea where in the world they will be sent. They have no clue as to the language they will be learning and speaking for the next couple of years, or with which missionary companion they will share a humble apartment. But they do understand something of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to change lives for the better, and so they offer their service unconditionally.
Within our global human family missionaries witness every conceivable kind of trial and circumstance. From opulence and selfishness to chronic, spirit-numbing poverty. From the effects of drugs and alcohol to the invidious addictions of pornography and gambling. From broken homes and battered wives to neglected children and debilitating illness. Missionaries encounter it all. But along with the bad, missionaries also see the redemptive power of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it transforms lives.
Through witnessing people change, missionaries draw motivation to serve even more faithfully, and in the process their own lives transform. Those who experience this marrow-deep transformation return home stronger, more mature, more ready to bring their learned experience to their own families, congregations, communities, and even to the broader world.