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LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland predicted that lowering the age limits for young Mormon missionaries would trigger a "dramatic" uptick in their numbers.
Turns out, dramatic was an understatement. Try a 471 percent jump in applications so far.
Just two weeks since LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced that young men could go on full-time missions at age 18 (down from 19) and young women could go at 19 (down from 21), the Utah-based faith has seen applications skyrocket from an average of 700 a week to 4,000 a week.
"Slightly more than half of the applicants are women," LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said Monday in a news release.
That represents a massive shift. Typically, women make up fewer than a fifth of the LDS missionary force, which currently stands at more than 58,000 worldwide.
At a news conference after the historic change, Holland said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was gearing up immediately to accommodate a larger missionary force reducing by a third the time missionaries spend in training centers and hiring additional staff to manage the budding proselytizers' language skills.
"The Lord is hastening this work," Holland said, "and he needs more and more willing missionaries."
Six days later, LDS officials announced that the church was rethinking the expansion of its flagship Provo Missionary Training Center, including a nine-story building that neighbors had opposed.
Ultimately, Mormon leaders hope more missionaries will translate into more converts. Indeed, that may happen.
Matt Martinich, who tracks LDS growth, has analyzed the ratio of missionaries to converts. In the past 33 years, he found each missionary has baptized on average six converts, though that number has dipped to five during the past decade.
The church reported 281,312 converts last year. If it sustains the current ratio of one missionary for every five converts a year, Martinich said, there would be 300,000 such baptisms when the number of missionaries reaches 60,000; 350,000 if the number of missionaries reaches 70,000; and 400,000 if the proselytizing force reaches 80,000.
This missionary age adjustment could generate as many as 15,000 more young elders and 7,500 more sisters in the first year, Martinich said in a report at cumorah.com. "There were reports from members and missionaries in Eastern Europe that an international LDS Church leader reported that the number of missionaries serving would reach 90,000 as a result of lowering the minimum age for missionary service."
Trotter cautioned against projecting any increases.
"These are early numbers," he said, "and it is difficult to say exactly where we will be over the coming months."
Mormon missions by the numbers
281,312 • Number of LDS converts in 2011
58,000 » Number of full-time Mormon missionaries
24,000 » Number of missionaries at Provo Missionary Training Center in a year
2,700 » Average number of missionaries at Provo's MTC at any one time
347 » Number of LDS missions worldwide
80 » Percentage of missionaries trained at Provo's MTC, the faith's largest
15 » Number of MTCs worldwide