The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will rapidly increase the number of missionaries it sends throughout the world, church leaders have announced.
Speaking Saturday at the church's semi-annual General Conference in Salt Lake City, President Thomas Monson, the church's top leader, said the church is lowering its age requirements for both male and female missionaries. Men will now be able to embark on missions one year earlier at age 18, while women can now go on missions two years earlier at age 19.
According to a statement on the church's website, the new rules "will significantly increase the number of missionaries" for the church, which has 14.4 million global members and places an emphasis on encouraging its members to do missions, a majority of which are focused on proselytizing.
The move indicates the church is investing more in growing its membership while also aiming to get its younger members -- many of whom drift away from the faith in college -- deeply involved in promoting the faith right after they graduate from high school.
"The Lord is hastening His work," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the church's high-level Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who explained that the church needs extra missionaries to spread the faith around the globe. There are currently about 58,000 Mormon missionaries throughout the world spread among 347 mission areas, down from a high of 61,000 in 2002. The church has seven million members in the U.S. and has experienced quick growth in Africa, which is home to half of the 20 countries with the fastest-growing Mormon populations, as well as in the Caribbean.
"I am not suggesting that all young men will — or should — serve at this earlier age," Monson, who is considered a living prophet, said at the conference, which was live streamed to Mormon homes around the world. "Rather, based on individual circumstances, as well as upon a determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available." Monson added that missionaries will have to have graduated from high school or have an equivalent degree.
Saturday's surprise announcement was met with emotional reaction among many Mormons, for whom the changes will profoundly affect social and spiritual dynamics. Mormon men typically either attend one year of college after graduation before taking a temporary leave of absence for mission trips or have a gap year between high school graduation and becoming missionaries. Now, many men are likely to become missionaries directly after high school graduation.
By moving the minimum missionary ages closer together for men and women, the church may also bring the pool of young Mormon men and women on college campuses and in churches closer together in age and help limit the growth of unmarried members. Some Mormons have also said the move reflects a growing awareness of an ongoing conversation in the church about the role of women and feminist movements.
Missionary service, while voluntary, is common among the majority of Mormon men and a smaller slice of Mormon women. It's considered a rite of passage and it plays a formative role in young Mormons' spiritual growth. Missionaries, whose assignments vary from being trained in foreign languages and being sent across the globe to closer assignments in their home countries, are instructed to focus almost entirely on church activity during their tours. Communication with family and friends who are not missionaries is limited, and missionaries are paired up and share housing with "companions" who are supposed to be by their sides at almost all times.
Perhaps the most famous former Mormon missionary is Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who served in France from July 1966 to February 1969. Of the mission, Romney later recalled, "your faith in Jesus Christ either evaporates or it becomes much deeper. ... For me, it became much deeper."
The announcement was made in the LDS General Conference Center, which holds 21,000 people. The General Conference happens twice a year and last took place in April.
On Saturday, Monson also announced that the church will build two new temples in Tucson, Ariz. and Arequipa, Peru. In Arizona, home to 400,000 Mormons, there are two operating temples and three already under construction. In Peru, the temple will be the third to be completed. The nation has 500,000 Mormons.
There are currently 139 Mormon temples and 37 under construction in the world. Only Mormons can enter temples, which are reserved for special, sacred ceremonies. The churches where Mormons meet for services on Sundays, meanwhile, are open to the public.
In a separate session, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, another Mormon leader, spoke out against what the church sees as some of society's top social ills: divorce, abortion, cohabitation and parenting by same-sex couples. Oaks, who is a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told parents to reply with "loving understanding, not bullying or ostracism" to children who are attracted to same-sex partners.
The General Conference continues on Sunday.
Click through to see a day in the life of two Mormon missionaries in New York City
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