When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are often called Mormons, announced a lowering of missionary eligibility ages for both men and women, many lives were instantly changed. Colleges, which had not known of the change before it was announced, also had to change many of their plans.
Previously Mormon men began their service at age 19. For most, this meant a year of college would be completed before they left. Women, who are welcome to serve missions but are not under the same sense of responsibility to do so, left at age 21, usually after graduating from college. Now, men may leave at 18 if they have completed high school and women may leave at 19. Young adults are not required to leave at the younger age, but may choose to do so if they desire.
Immediately following the announcement, young Mormon adults began sending text messages to schedule meetings with their clergy to begin the paperwork. In the first few weeks, applications increased dramatically. While a typical week netted about 700 applications, the Church began receiving about 4,000 per week, with just over half being women.
Many college-age Mormon women had mapped out their lives—graduate from college and either marry or serve a mission. (Young missionaries must be single.) With this announcement, many altered those plans, choosing to serve missions as soon as they are eligible and delaying marriage or college. Because Mormons often marry young, being very family-oriented, many women married before reaching the age of 21. With the lowered age, more women will have the opportunity to serve before they marry and it is likely there will be a permanent increase in the number of Mormon women on missions.
Although missionary work is a priesthood responsibility, women have been long permitted to serve and are known to do very well, often gaining admission to homes not open to men. However, Mormonism provides many different ways to serve the Savior. Some women served part-time missions from home. Others take on a variety of church callings (volunteer positions) and develop their spiritual and even their secular skills while doing so. Mormonism teaches that every member is a missionary and has a responsibility to share his or her faith without waiting for a formal calling and the missionary training book, Preach My Gospel, is often used in Mormon homes and classrooms to provide everyone with the gospel knowledge and skill. They do not hold “witnessing” classes aimed at teaching them how to pursue people of a specific faith, but rather teach them their own faith. They learn to share their personal beliefs, not to attack the beliefs of others, and they use this throughout their ordinary lives.
Colleges that have large Mormon populations realized the announcement would impact them as well. Initially, a great many more young people will leave in a short span of time. This may lower enrollment, but it might also allow more students to attend these colleges, since there will be additional openings. In a few years, when this initial crop of missionaries return, there will be many students needing space in the schools all at once. However, in a few years, things will level out, although it is likely the average age at these schools will increase. One school noted that the discipline and maturity most Mormon youth develop on their missions will likely cause them to be better students.
Mormon leaders explained that the purpose of lowering the missionary age was to meet the constantly expanding need for additional missionaries. As more places in the world open up to missionary work and more people become interested, there is an increasing need for more young people who are better prepared to serve. A new youth education program focuses on helping teenagers learn the gospel and gain personal testimonies of their faith before they become missionary age. Families are also being encouraged to spend more time preparing their children to be successful missionaries.
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.