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First came the surge. Next comes the settling.

The Mormon missionary force began to balloon almost from the moment the LDS Church lowered the service age, jumping from 58,500 then to nearly 86,000 today.

That number is expected to plateau at about 88,000 this fall, David F. Evans, head of the Missionary Department, said this week in a video interview on the Utah-based faith's newsroom website.

That two-year surge then will start to slip — as expected.

Evans estimates the missionary tally to settle in at 77,000 to 79,000, down from its peak but still up 20,000 or so from October 2012, when LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson made the historic announcement lowering the minimum service age to 18 for young men (down from 19) and to 19 for young women (down from 21).

"We don't believe we're ever going back to numbers in the 50,000s of missionaries," Evans said. "What we see is this generation simply has a desire to serve."

The latest numbers also reflect a dramatic shift in the gender breakdown among the 400-plus Mormon missions worldwide. Today, 29 percent of LDS missionaries are "sisters," or young women. The young men, called "elders," account for 63 percent, and seniors (usually retirees) make up the remaining 8 percent.

As a result, female proselytizers have become much more involved in decision-making in their missions.

Sister missionaries are now part of every "mission leadership council," Evans said, in which they provide input regarding the direction their missions will take and challenges their missions may face.

Evans also noted that convert baptisms are up of late.

"There's about an overall 15 percent increase in the number of convert baptisms this year compared to a comparable period last year," he said. "And we are gratified by that."

A recent Salt Lake Tribune analysis showed that although missionary numbers have skyrocketed by more than 40 percent since the age change, convert baptisms last year grew by less than 4 percent.

Evans emphasized that church leaders didn't have a goal to boost conversions through higher missionary ranks.

"The greater purpose," he said, "is to offer the opportunity of missionary service to those who would like to perform this service, meaning the young people of this church."

They increasingly are performing that service online.

Currently, 30 missions (about 6,500 missionaries) in the U.S. and Japan — as well as all-sister missions at LDS visitor centers — are using iPad minis to study and teach the Mormon gospel.

Top church officials now plan to vastly expand the program. By early 2015, they expect more than 162 missions with about 32,000 missionaries to be using mobile devices.

"We know in many parts of the world, the traditional forms of proselyting work very, very well," Evans said. "In some other places where technology and urban life has developed in such a way that missionaries have a harder time contacting people, we hope that these tools become even more valuable in those places."

"We believe that the young people of this church will continue to say yes to missionary service," Evans said. "And they'll continue to choose to become young disciples of Christ and continue to realize that missionary service and this intense opportunity to be of service to their fellow man and to preach the gospel is something that they want to have in their lives."