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1 million missionaries for LDS Church — so far

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PROVO — Samuel Smith set out 177 years ago this week with a knapsack full of copies of the Book of Mormon, the first missionary of a church organized two months earlier with six members.

Now, 1 million men and women of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have served missions, and the church has 13 million members — milestones announced Monday by the great-great-grandson of Smith's brother Hyrum, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the church's Quorum of the Twelve.

Standing in front of a statue of Smith and his knapsack at the church's Provo Missionary Training Center, Elder Ballard said the number of missionaries is rebounding after a decline in recent years and that missionaries must be better than ever to preach and teach in "a world that is unraveling, falling apart."

The total number of missionaries peaked at 61,638 in 2002, falling to 51,067 in 2004, a drop of 17 percent.

Today there are 53,868 full-time missionaries speaking 164 languages in 145 nations without pay.

Elder Ballard said church leaders expected the decrease in the number of missionaries when they instructed local leaders to "raise the bar," or set higher standards for whether 19-year-old men were spiritually, physically and mentally prepared to serve two years, or whether 21-year-old women were ready to serve 18 months.

LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley also asked presidents of missions in Latin America to slow growth and improve convert retention.

A third factor in the drop was a demographic quirk: The number of 19-year-old men in the church in North America dropped a few years ago and will remain low for a few more years before rising again, Ballard said.

The numbers could have been worse if the church had continued to rely heavily on American young men. Late church President Spencer W. Kimball emphasized mission service by college-age members in other countries. Now, 60 percent of missionaries serving in Brazil are Brazilians.

The church now has 16 missionary training centers spread around the world.

"There's been an explosion of young men, young women serving in their own countries," Elder Ballard said. "They can teach the gospel in their own language and own culture, and it's made a tremendous difference."

All do so at a high cost. Missionaries are expected to pay an average of $400 a month for living expenses, and the time away both delays education or careers and shortens each missionary's lifetime earning capacity.

Elder Brandon Soelberg, 19, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, is in the middle of 10 weeks at the MTC learning Japanese as well as teaching strategies from the recently introduced "Preach My Gospel" missionary guide before the church pays to fly him to Nagoya, Japan. He postponed his education at Brigham Young University and future studies at dental school to be a missionary for two years.

"It's a sacrifice, absolutely, but school will be here when I get back," he said. "I wouldn't pass up this opportunity to serve God for anything."

Elder Soelberg worked summers to save money for his mission. He's splitting costs 50-50 with his parents.

Elder Soelberg's MTC companion — missionaries always work in twos — is Elder Samuel Pelaquim, 20, of Curitiba, Brazil. Elder Pelaquim is being helped by his mother, uncle, grandfather, brother and the rest of his congregation.

"It's so great to feel all those people are helping and supporting me," Elder Pelaquim said.

The pair can expect difficulty winning converts in Japan. Elder Ballard said the job isn't easy anywhere.

The number of annual converts dropped from a high of 321,385 in 1996 to 243,000 in 2005, a 24 percent decline.

"A lot of people in the world don't care about God any more," he said. "They don't care about where they came from, why they're here and where they're going, the purpose of life."

That's exactly what missionaries want to share.

"I've been so blessed in my life with the gospel of Jesus Christ," Elder Soelberg said. "I want everyone to experience the joy and happiness I have and the love God has for them, that I've felt."

The first missionary left a Book of Mormon in a New York tavern in the spring of 1830. The book soon reached the hands of Brigham Young, who eventually succeeded Samuel Smith's brother Joseph as the church's president and led the Mormon pioneers to Utah.

Elder Ballard said church leaders don't know the identity of the "one-millionth missionary." President Hinckley first announced the number Sunday during a meeting for 118 new mission presidents at the MTC.

"It is reliably estimated that a million missionaries have served since the organization of the church," he said, according to a church press release.

Elder Ballard said President Hinckley was "really quite surprised" that nearly 40 percent of the 1 million, or 387,750, have served during his 12-year administration.

It likely won't take nearly as long to match the feat. About 30,000 new missionaries join the effort each year, including retired couples who often serve for 12 months. At that rate, the church will reach another million in 2040.

"It was hard to get the first million," said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the church's Quorum of the Twelve. "The second million is easy. These young people in the church are growing up wanting to serve missions. It will grow, and it will grow fast."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com