In a shift, Mormon Church is flexible on missionary commitment

The Arizona Republic/September 21, 2005
By John Faherty

Elders Scott Clarke and Ethan Farmer represent a significant change in how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs its mission program.

For the first time ever, the number of missionaries has declined. There were 61,638 missionaries serving worldwide in 2002. In 2004, there were fewer than 52,000.

This decline comes despite continuing growth of the church and is the result of a "raising of the bar" for missionaries.

The LDS Church has decided to move away from the days when young people went on a mission because they felt they were supposed to. Now the church wants people to serve because their faith is so strong they feel they must.

The mission remains the same. It is hard work, there are many sacrifices and missionaries end up talking to strangers about things those potential converts may not want to talk about.

But now, if a young man is not ready at age 19 to start his mission, he will be advised to wait.

Quentin L. Cook is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the LDS in Salt Lake City. In this high-ranking position, Cook helps direct missionary activities of the church throughout the world.

"There is a very strong idea they should have their own strong testimony of the church, and they should be more spiritually prepared. We are trying to raise the bar."

The goal is to have missionaries serving for the right reasons. If that means fewer missionaries, the church is fine with that.

As president of the Arizona Mesa Mission, Tracy Watson is in charge of the 160 men and women who have come to the Valley for the church. He supports making sure that people are coming because of their convictions, not because they feel obligated.

And if a person is not ready to serve?

"Keep working on it. Get ready. We can wait, but be prepared in every way."

The church now also excuses men and women who cannot fulfill a mission because of physical limitations.

Cook and Watson say the church is also working to remove the stigma young men and their families may bear if they do not go on a mission. But they know this will take time.

The two are certain peer pressure is not a good enough reason to serve the church.

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