Trends in Mormon Missionary Work: Filling The Great Commission
In October 2012 Thomas S. Monson, prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the Mormon Church), announced the lowering of the qualifying age for Mormon missionary service. Previously, young men could qualify to serve for two years if worthy at the age of 19, and young women could serve for eighteen months if worthy at the age of 21. The new qualifying ages would be 18 for young men and 19 for young women. At the time, there were about 58,000 Mormon missionaries serving all over the world. After the announcement, applications to serve Mormon missions increased by nearly 500%, with young women submitting nearly half the applications. Previously, young women's applications totaled about 15%.
Young men in over 40 countries had already been allowed to serve at 18. In some countries students are not allowed to take a leave of absence from their studies and then expect to return and find a place reserved for them in school. The previous age qualifications also had other problems. There was an "empty space" between high school graduation for young men and the qualifying age of 19. Now the energy generated by high school graduation can launch a young man right into mission preparations. Some young women were married (and so unable to serve) or on the verge of graduating from college at age 21, a difficult time to depart. At nineteen, most are able to take time off to serve. It also means that male and female missionaries will be around the same age.
The decision directly opposes trends in the United States wherein youth are maturing later and later. It means that young people will need to prepare early and be mature enough to serve. Most people envision Mormon missionaries going door to door looking for converts, but their responsibilities required maturity, knowledge, and wisdom. Missionaries run congregations where mature leadership is lacking, maintain records for whole missions, perform humanitarian aid and community service, and counsel seekers with sage advice through the promptings of the Holy Ghost. They perform holy ordinances and run meetings.
- “I've never seen anything affect a generation of young people like what President Monson announced the Saturday morning of general conference,” says Elder David F. Evans, executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department and member of the Seventy. “What we're seeing is just an absolute overwhelming response from this generation to the invitation of the Lord and His prophet to rise up and go and serve your fellow man and preach the gospel.” 
The Church operates 347 missions around the world, each with an average of 170 missionaries. To accommodate this new influx of missionaries, capacity for many missions will rise to 250 missionaries. When missions exceed that number, new missions will likely be created as needed. These missions will divide up larger missions in areas where Mormon missionary work is already being done. No countries where Mormon missionaries have not been allowed will be opening up to receive these extra missionaries.
- Mission presidents are preparing for increased numbers by training their missionaries who are already serving so they can train incoming missionaries. Mission presidents are also looking at how they can best deploy missionaries within each mission’s boundaries. While the responsibility placed on mission presidents will increase, Elder Evans notes that it won’t be overwhelming.
- Adjustments will also be made at each of the Church’s 15 missionary training centers (MTCs). Training time for same-language and foreign-language missionaries will be reduced by 30 percent — those not learning a language will be at the MTC for two weeks instead of three, and those learning a language will have two weeks cut from their MTC stay.
- Two recent developments make reduced MTC time possible. First, the Church initiated a 12-week in-field missionary training program a year ago — before anyone knew of the coming age announcement — in which much of the training that occurs at the MTC is retaught and reinforced in the mission field. Second, the Church initiated a study several months prior to the missionary age announcement that shows that it is possible to improve a missionary’s ability to learn a second language by sending him into the field earlier. These two changes would have occurred with or without the missionary age announcement.
- To increase MTC capacity, each training center is maximizing empty space, including putting more bunk beds in each room. For example, the Church’s flagship MTC in Provo, Utah, will increase capacity from 3,000 to 4,800 in the short term. Long-term plans are also being considered. Although in mid-October Church leaders decided to not move forward with the construction of a nine-story building originally proposed for the Provo MTC, plans are still in the works to increase the center’s long-term capacity.
- The impact of the missionary age announcement also has a significant impact on enrollment numbers at universities in Utah and elsewhere.
- Elder Evans notes that the Church is deeply grateful to university administrators who have taken steps to accommodate young men and women who choose to serve. For example, at the end of November the University of Utah announced a new enrollment deferment policy that allows students to defer the start of their schooling for up to seven semesters. And in October Utah State University appointed a task force that is currently considering strategies the university can implement to best adapt to those who choose to serve a mission.
- It’s no secret that many more young women have volunteered for missionary service since 6 October. Church leaders are grateful for their willingness to serve. In a press conference following the announcement, Church apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said he is “absolutely delighted if this change in policy allows many, many more young women to serve,” noting that “those [women] who do serve are stunningly successful.”