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If a Mormon missionary knocks on your door and after he or she goes away you think to yourself, wow, that person was young. It may be because the person is. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has lowered the age when young men and women can go on their evangelizing missions. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, this small shift has sparked an overwhelming response.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Hannon Young was listening with only half an ear during the church's general conference earlier this month. Then President Thomas S. Monson declared that women no longer had to wait until they were 21 to go on their missions. They could begin at age 19.
HANNON YOUNG: You could hear an audible gasp throughout the whole conference center. It was just this wave of shock.
HAGERTY: A moment later, Young, a freshman at Brigham Young University who turns 19 in July, began to laugh, then cry.
YOUNG: Oh, I've wanted to go on a mission since I was 16. And the thought of waiting two more years was really difficult for me, so it was such exciting news.
HAGERTY: She called her mother in New Hampshire. Jane Young says with this change, the church is sending a signal.
JANE YOUNG: I do think what it allows is for women, Mormon women, to have it all.
HAGERTY: Here's why. At age 21, a woman is nearly finished with college and historically there's been pressure to marry rather than set out on an 18-month mission. That's what Jane Young did. But taking time off at 19 is more like a gap year and young women can then pick up with college, career and marriage. Young says this could spark a philosophical shift.
YOUNG: I think women will see themselves differently. I don't know, Hannon, do you think you'll see yourself differently?
YOUNG: Yeah, I think I do, because it's empowering to think that they want more women serving. It feels like a call to really join the ranks.
HAGERTY: The church also announced that young men may go on their missions when they're 18, a year earlier. Seventeen-year-old Brendon Holland, a high school senior in Springfield, Massachusetts, plans to sign up next year, even though there's a sacrifice. Holland was hoping to get a college rowing scholarship.
BRENDON HOLLAND: When I come back, my form would be off and I wouldn't be in as good shape and I probably wouldn't be able to be accepted into a Division I program.
HAGERTY: So Holland is trusting on God to provide.
HOLLAND: I know that if I go and do this thing, I will be blessed and that I'll be able to find a different way to pay for college.
HAGERTY: Don Hangen, a leader in a Mormon stake, or region, in New England, says it's not just teenagers who are thrilled, so is the Church, which has seen a surge in the most effective recruits.
DON HANGEN: Some of the very best missionaries are the women missionaries. And this just opens the flood gates for many more of these women to serve.
HAGERTY: Some 4,000 young women applied in the two weeks since the announcement. Overall, applications have quintupled and half of them are women. Until now, only about 20 percent of missionaries were female. Hangen sees another dynamic that could change as a result of the policy.
HANGEN: Culturally, there are many young women who are waiting for their missionary to come home. This is going to turn those tables a little bit and now there will be men that will be waiting for their sister missionary to come home.
HAGERTY: But now that missionaries will be basically the same age, will there be more so-called mission romances? Lauren Bowman, an 18-year-old at BYU, says absolutely not.
LAUREN BOWMAN: The purpose to go on a mission is to be on a mission. It's not to go out and find your eternal companion. It's to go and serve and to talk to people and stuff. And you need to make sure that you keep that goal in mind.
HAGERTY: The church hopes that Bowman and other new young missionaries will bring in thousands of new converts and accelerate the already speedy growth of the Mormon faith.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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