Much has been made of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowering the minimum departure age for missionaries to 18 and 19 for men and women, respectively. We’ve seen renewed enthusiasm for missions among the younger lot, and as a result, way, way more missionaries in the field.

The numbers don’t lie. At the close of 2012, there were 58,990 full-time missionaries in the Church. At the end of 2013? 83,035. That’s a 41% increase in missionaries in the field. While the announcement to drop the missionary age happened in October 2012, the policy did not take effect until January, 2013, so we can safely assume going forward that any other number are a result, at least in part, of younger missionaries entering the field in 2013.

Now let’s look at convert baptisms in 2013 compared to 2012. 282,945 vs 272,330. 4% growth. Not bad, and better than many other years, but not amazing, given the higher number of missionaries. Had that number grown in proportion to the number of missionaries added in 2013, we could have expected over 100,000 more convert baptisms. Basically we’re seeing a drop in the ratio of convert baptisms per missionary from 4.6 to 3.4. See the chart below

Missionary Work

Peggy Fletcher stack broke some of this down in a recent article, and I encourage you to give it a read. It goes over these numbers in greater detail and highlights a lot of the same things we’ve been discussing on the past few episodes of the This Week in Mormons podcast: effectiveness of missionaries called, over-saturation of the investigator “market,” failure to utilize a higher number of missionaries to open new areas, etc.

As a sidenote, Peggy cites information obtained from Matt Martinich, who runs LDS Church Growth, and David Stewart, founder of Cumorah.com.  Both sites are mind-blowingly useful for those of you who want to quantify as much church stuff as you possibly can. We highly recommend you check them out.

Some might ask whether this is worth the cost. Missions are expensive, and in more ways than you think. For example, in my local mission all of the missionaries now have their own iPad Mini. I’m going to assume the Church negotiated a bulk discount, but since this is Apple we’re talking about, let’s work with the $399 MSRP for a 16GB model. For an entire mission of 210 missionaries, that comes out to $83,790, and we’re not even factoring in the cost of replacement. Were we to take these iPads Church-wide to every missionary, that’s over a $33 million dollar investment (and that’s assuming you even get US prices on them. Electronics are typically more expensive outside of the US.) Do they need the iPads? Are they making them more effective missionaries? Is technology actually resulting in more converts?

And aside from the cost of technology, there are prices for housing, flights, cars (where applicable), gas, insurance, etc. It begs the question whether there will need to be an increase in the standardized monthly payment all missionaries make worldwide.

But all of this is beside the point. I am increasingly convinced that the “surge” is not to foster growth in the number of converts, and we don’t have much quantifiable data in terms of reactivation, which missionaries spend plenty of time doing.

Let’s look at this from the perspective of what a mission does for the missionary. For young men, the presumed year between high school and a mission (age 18) is a risky one. Kids get tempted. Life comes calling. Activity levels drop off. Lots of things happen. I’ll venture a guess that this affects the young men more than the young women, because we men are naturally lazy dufuses (dufi?). It’s a strange year.

So what does lowering the missionary age do? It gets those would-be lost 18-year-olds out in the mission field doing something other than playing Call of Duty, experimenting with marijuana, and firing up little factories. It increases the number of potentially lifelong active priesthood holders within the ranks of the Church. Under the previous 19-year age minimum, about one in every three young men in the Church served a mission. I’m interested to see if that stat improves over time with the age drop.

Do I think a lot of the younger crop of missionaries are noticeably less mature and less confident than their forebearers? Absolutely. And there’s something to be said about having a year of college and “adult” life under one’s belt before departing on a two-year mission. I think the MTC needs to incorporate a cotillion-esque program into MTC curricula, teaching these missionaries how to actually associate with adults.

But the Church needs future leaders. The surge is less about bringing more converts unto Christ than it is bringing more extant Young Men and Young Women unto Christ. That is the future of the Church. Sure, convert baptisms are important and the work must go forward, but the Lord needs His extant members to stick around even more than He needs to claim new souls.

Imagine a Church with worldwide activity rates held well above the current level – around 40%. We would have more stakes, more wards, and more temples. We would inevitably have even more missionaries, and more quality ones at that. We would also have more converts because we, as a people, would be more missionary-minded and more actively engaged in the work, allowing the full-time missionaries to be teachers, not finders.

So do not completely bemoan the fact that the rapid growth in the number of missionaries currently serving has not been met with a boom in convert baptisms. Instead, rejoice that out of a standard sample of Young Men, just a few more than before will actually get out on a mission and stay involved in the Church. Is that worth the price of iPads, housing, and younger, more bewildered (and potentially less effective) missionaries? Absolutely.