Today in the first session of the 2012 Fall General Conference, LDS President Thomas S. Monson has announced a change in policy regarding the ages when young men and women are allowed to serve missions for the church. Previous to this announcement, young men had to be 19, and young women had to be 21 in order to serve. Now, young men can serve at 18 if they have finished high school, and young women can serve at 19 years old.
This change seems to be universally applauded by members of the church for a couple of reasons. More liberal members of the church see it as a move toward more equity between men and women serving missions. Before, there was a strong social implication (mostly unspoken, but sometimes regretfully spoken) that the business of women up until 21 is to find a man to marry, and if that didn’t happen, they should serve a mission at 21. So bringing them both down means that the church might be moving to eliminate this social perception, and if this is true I applaud it.
I do feel a bit of melancholy regarding this decision, however. When I served a mission, I was almost 21, and most of the men I came out with were 19. I just didn’t feel like those young men were mature enough to really represent the church. A lot of them were quite unsure of their testimonies and didn’t know much about the history of the church or the scriptures. To think that more missionaries will be going out at even earlier ages makes me wonder if those young men will truly be mature and ready enough to commit such a long period of their lives to the church.
The cynical side of me sees another possible reason for this policy change. The church is going through an activity crisis with young adults – there is a very low activity rate among young unmarried adults in the church. The church certainly realizes that young people who have gone on missions have higher activity rates and get married in the church more often, so part of me thinks that they have lowered the mission age so they can catch young people at earlier ages (before they are fully ready to make such a commitment) and raise the likelihood that they will be active at older ages. A mission is a significant investment of time and energy, and significantly lowers the chance that a person will later leave the church. It’s hard to leave an organization you’ve made such an investment in, even if you have doubts about the truthfulness of the organization!
However, I do feel a bit guilty about looking at it through such a cynical lens. It certainly opens up options for our youth, and if that’s all the change means, then wonderful!