Lowering the Age and Raising the Bar

I wanted to share a few thoughts about the lowering of the age requirements for LDS missionaries, which was announced on Saturday morning by Pres. Thomas S. Monson. Young men can serve at 18 if they are done with high school (or its equivalent) and young women can serve at 19 if they are done with high school (or its equivalent).

First about numbers: Church leaders are expecting a significant increase in the number of missionaries serving. I think it will have a greater effect initially on the number of women serving than the number of men, although it will affect both. We currently have 58,000 missionaries serving. Back in the 90s it was usually at 60,000 but was down to around 52,000 in recent years with a higher trend recently. The trend will continue upward after this announcement.

Second, this point should not be ignored: “Elder Holland also explained that missionaries will be asked to enhance their pre-mission preparation prior to entering the Missionary Training Center (MTC) and that time spent in the MTC will be reduced by approximately one-third for all missionaries. That change will help accommodate an overall increase in missionaries.” Missionaries called to missions in their own language typically only spend 20 days in the MTC so this will be reduced to around 14 days. The best education about the process of being a missionary occurs in the field. On the job training is more effective than any in the classroom training that occurs in the MTC. What the MTC does is get missionaries used to the missionary schedule (typically 6:30 AM – 10:30 PM). Missionaries who are learning a new language spend around 9 weeks in the MTC(s) with the extra time spent learning the language (or at least thinking you are learning the language). Again, most of the language learning occurs in the field. With a reduction of about 33%, the stay is reduced from 9 weeks to 6 weeks. As Elder Holland stated, this reduction in MTC time is to accommodate more missionaries (it can be assumed that the Church is expecting up to a 33% increase in missionaries, although this increase likely will occur over the course of a decade – I’m predicting {and I could be wrong – hopefully I am} an increase of about 15,000 within 10 years).

Third point. Where are the missionaries prepared now if not as much in the MTC? Where they always were supposed to be prepared – in the home and at church: “Elder Holland said parents need to help their children prepare for missionary service.” Back in 2003 Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley raised the bar for missionaries by raising the standard for the preparation of missionaries. The Lord wanted better-prepared servants who were ready to hit the ground running. Part of this change required revamping the missionary discussions (near the end of my mission new discussions were starting to be piloted in the adjacent mission to mine in Washington). These updated discussions emphasized the role of prophets more but more significantly and substantially relied on missionaries receiving revelation concerning the needs of those whom they were teaching. This greater emphasis of reliance on the Spirit meant that missionaries needed to be better prepared.

All of this implies that preparation need to occur in the homes. Parents have a greater responsibility to make sure that their children areprepared. With the recent age change and subsequent shortening of stays in MTCs, this puts even greater responsibility on parents to prepare their children. Young men and women should be intimately familiar with Preach My Gospel (notice: PDF link of the book) before they get to the MTC. Making it a regular part of gospel study is encouraged. Going on a mission is like jumping into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim. Missionaries have to rely on the Spirit to buoy them up because they are in over their heads (I can’t take credit for this analogy, it comes to me second hand from one of my ward mission leaders who met regularly with some of the Apostles to discuss church technology plans – he learned it from them). Learning to recognize the Spirit and act on those promptings best happens in the home. This means that parents have to be more conscientious about teaching their children and helping their children learn to recognize the Spirit. Youth need to know the doctrine, recognize the Spirit, and live the gospel. This has always been the case but it is imperative now that the youth are prepared before they are set apart as missionaries. Having served with the youth for the past 6 years, I can say that many are that prepared.

Overall, this was an exciting announcement from the prophet. I don’t know if I would have gone at 18 if I had the choice. I thoroughly enjoyed the year I had at Brigham Young University before my mission. I learned much that year, a lot that helped me prepare further to serve as a missionary. I could have gone at 18 but I value the experiences and friends I had at BYU as a freshman. On the other hand, if I went at 18, I might have modified my career trajectory earlier (I essentially figured out what I wanted to do when I was a missionary; my freshman year was spent in classes that were for a major that I no longer wanted to do. I don’t want to say that the whole year was a waste, it was valuable in many ways and it was a year I hold dear to my heart, but most of my classes were major-specific and thus not helpful when I changed my major to psychology). If I had gone on a mission right after high school maybe I would have figured out my new major before I spent a year on classes that in the end did not matter (although they were still great learning experiences). This is a lot of ifs and hypotheticals and is in the end a moot discussion because going earlier was not an option.

My point in belaboring this point is that the decision is not an easy one. The Church is not expecting every young man to go at 18. They do not even expect every young man to go at 19. The hope is that every able young man will be able to serve a mission but there are extenuating circumstances that contraindicate missions for some individuals. What is important is to make the decision of when to go with the inspiration of God and with input from parents and church leaders. What the Lord wants are missionaries who are willing and worthy to serve and who are prepared to act as instruments in His hands as full-time missionaries and throughout their lives.

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