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Historic number of Mormon missionaries means strengthening of support systems

SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon church is preparing to blanket the globe with more missionaries than ever as a surge of young men and women pack their white shirts, ties and knee-length skirts.

The impact of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries is coming into focus eight months after church officials announced at a semiannual conference that men could begin serving at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21.

Now, younger church members are joining older ones who were already planning on going on missions that are considered rites of passage and prepare many for future leadership roles within the church. More than 29,000 church members are expected to report in coming months, bringing the worldwide total of missionaries proselytizing and performing community service to an all-time high of 85,000 by this fall, new church estimates show.

That's 38 percent more than at any other time in history.

At least one church analyst predicts the total could swell to more than 100,000 next year before it levels out somewhat in the next several years. That would be nearly double the number of missionaries the church had during most of the 2000s.

Church scholars say the unprecedented number of missionaries gives Mormons an opportunity to bring in a higher number of converts, and perhaps more importantly, do a better job of keeping current members active. Men serve two-year missions, and women 18 months.

Having more missionaries will strengthen the support circle around recently baptized Mormons, and the missionary's home congregations will benefit too, by young men and women returning as more devout after their missions.

Keeping newly converted members in the faith has been a concern for church leaders since the 1990s, said Matthew Bowman, assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and author of a book about Mormons. An increasing amount of work done by missionaries has been devoted to retention, and that's likely to be a focal point with more missionaries, he said.

"One way we could read this shift in age change is another attempt to solve this problem, both among converts and members of the church," Bowman said. "Members who serve as missionaries are far more likely to remain active."

Many missionaries will be sent to areas already with heavy concentrations of church members, putting their focus on helping recently-baptized Mormons get settled into the church, said Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS church who analyzes membership and missionary numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation. He said missionaries convert on average about five people per mission, and some are rushed into being baptized and are inactive within months.

"They don't develop the habitual church attendance," Martinich said of new members. "They don't develop those strong church connections that can get them through tough times."

The influx of missionaries has created excitement among church members, especially after missionary numbers dipped in the mid-2000s, Martinich said. Scott Gordon, president of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, or FAIR, a volunteer Mormon anti-defamation group, agreed.

"The only ones who haven't been excited are those who have to coordinate the missionary's dinner calendar," Gordon said.

Gordon jokes, but the influx of missionaries has presented a plethora of logistical hurdles for the church.

A church-owned school in Mexico City was closed and turned into a missionary training center. In Provo, missionaries are sleeping in apartment complexes because the Missionary Training Center is at capacity. The church has already created 58 new missions, including several in Brazil and Mexico. Martinich believes there may be another batch announced next year.

To help cover costs of the surge, church leaders have begun asking members to donate regularly and generously to the church's missionary fund. The costs are usually covered by the missionary's family, friends or congregation, but the fund is there to help those who want to serve but don't have the money.

A mission costs about $400 a month for the food, lodging and transportation, which comes out to $9,600 over the course of a two-year mission for men, or $7,200 for an 18-month mission for a young woman.

Though Mormons already tithe 10 percent of their income to the church, Gordon and Martinich haven't heard any complaints about the new requests. Church officials have not disclosed how much more it's costing to set up and support the expanded missions. They have said the church views it as an investment.

The total number of missionaries is expected to level out when this double-wave returns in the next two years, but the total should still remain much higher than in the past. That's because many more women will likely go on missions now that they can go before they settle into college or get married and begin families. Gordon believes more men will go, too, by being able to go straight from high school and not having to interrupt their college careers.

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