SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The historic increase in Mormon missionaries last year didn't lead to an immediate spike in converts, but church officials say it's too early to draw conclusions.
After lowering the minimum age for missionaries, the number of proselytizing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints increased by 41 percent in 2013, show figures released earlier this month from the Salt Lake City-based faith. The number of converts, however, only increased by 4 percent last year.
That means the average number of people converted per missionary, per year, dropped to 3.5 last year — down from an average of 5 the previous decade, said Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS church who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.
"It shows a pretty stark decline," said Martinich, while adding that it will take at least one more year of data to accurately assess the impacts.
The story was first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Church leaders said it's problematic to draw conclusions about the impact of the increase in missionaries based on comparing conversion numbers from 2013 to the year before. Much of last year was spent ramping up to be ready for the increase, they said. It was a major undertaking to get thousands of young men and women trained for their missions, get staff for 58 new missions created and to set existing missions for more missionaries, said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
"Implementing something as large as this and seeing results takes time— perhaps years," Hawkins said.
The onslaught of new missionaries was triggered by the church announcing in the fall of 2012 that men could start missions at 18 instead of 19, and women at 19 instead of 21. Men serve two years, and women 18 months.
The 85,000 proselytizing members serving now around the world are far more than at any time in church history. There are currently 15 million members of the faith.
The low conversion rate may be attributed to many missionaries being sent to areas where people are less receptive to conversion, and to some starting midway through the year, Martinich said. In many parts of North America, for instance, missionaries were already struggling to stay busy even before the slew of new ones came to their area, he said.
The work of missionaries is only one factor in a complicated equation of trying to grow church membership that is influenced by regions of the world, help from the local congregations and the number of existing members already in the community, Hawkins said.
He said it's also very important to remember that the number of people converted to Mormonism during a member's mission is only one way that the church evaluates effectiveness, Hawkins said.
"Consider the lives of young men and young women who are more dedicated and have their faith deepened and strengthened, families who are blessed for sacrificing and sending out a son or daughter, the reactivation of members who have not been participating in the church, the service missionaries provide in the communities where they live and work, and the spirit, leadership, and enthusiasm a missionary companionship brings to a congregation," Hawkins said.
The decline in conversion rates are worth noting, Martinich said, but he said the unprecedented buildup of missionaries still figures to have a positive long-term impact on church membership.
Not only will missionaries help re-energize or keep less-active church members from leaving, they also get locked in for an active life in the faith, he said.
"It prepares them for lifelong activity in the church much more than if they don't serve a mission," Martinich said.