Mormon officials expected missionary applications to increase when they lowered the age for the voluntary service, but they might have been surprised at just how interested teenagers are in serving missions as soon as possible. While an average week brings in 700 new applications, the two weeks following the announcement produced about 4,000 applications per week. A little more than half of those were from women. In the past, only about one-fifth of missionaries were women, but it is clear the percentage is about to become much larger, despite the fact that missionary work is permitted but not expected of women.
Previously men could serve at age nineteen and women at twenty-one. The new guidelines allow men to serve at age eighteen once they’ve graduated from high school or the equivalent and women to serve at age nineteen. In a press conference, it was explained that experience has taught them it is wise to have at least some age separation between the men and the women. During missions, young adults agree not to date, watch television, or participate in other secular activities. They are to use that time as a unique opportunity to become grounded in their faith and to focus on the needs of others instead of their own interests and needs. They do extensive service as well as teaching the gospel.
For most young people, missionary service is a life-changing experience. Many strengthen their testimonies during this time, realizing that in order to effectively share their faith with others, they need to be certain of their own testimony. They have an unusual amount of time to focus in on scriptures and religion and to develop habits of daily prayer, scripture study, and service to others. By explaining their faith to others and answering any questions they are asked, they gain a clearer understanding of the doctrine because they think it through more completely in order to know how to explain it to others. Their teaching and leadership skills increase over the course of their mission. They become more aware of the blessings that accompany living the way Jesus Christ asks us to live.
The cultural experience is also beneficial to the young adults. They always leave home and for many, this is the first time they have lived anywhere but the place in which they grew up. They are exposed to new ideas and lifestyles. Those who travel to areas with great poverty see first-hand the impact of poverty and many go on to work for or start non-profits benefitting the people they served on their missions. Many learn new languages that allow them increased career and service opportunities.
For Mormon young people, missions are the ultimate coming-of-age experience and many are excited to get a head start on the learning and growing that comes with giving several years to the Savior.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.