SALT LAKE CITY -- Younger missionaries will not be less-prepared missionaries -- but a worldwide force of missionaries will be larger both in numbers and in preparation.
Those were among the messages at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints news conference explaining a new worldwide policy to allow young men to serve missions at age 18 and young women to serve at age 19.
Previously, young men have served at 19 and young women at 21, especially in the United States and some other countries.
The announcement was made Oct. 6 at the 182nd Semiannual General Conference of the church.
"They will be asked to enhance, improve and take more seriously their missionary preparation," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said of the newly called missionaries.
He said newly called missionaries now will likely be trained in the church's missionary training centers for only two-thirds of the time they currently serve.
And they'll be trained more extensively once they reach their respective missions through a new 12-week curriculum developed by the church.
"Frankly, we feel we have gotten reasonably good at training missionaries," Holland said.
Holland also said the preparation long before they are called to serve -- in their homes, wards and in preparation courses -- will have more emphasis.
"We will ask parents to take a strong hand in their preparation," Holland said. "God is hastening His work and He needs more and more willing missionaries to spread the light and truth and hope of salvation to an often darkened world."
Currently, the church has 347 missions and 58,000 missionaries. Holland noted that more missions will be added as more missionaries serve.
The change follows what is already in practice in 48 countries, although not in the United States.
"We've had much experience with 18-year-old missionaries," said Elder Russell M. Nelson, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
He also said mission presidents were grateful for the young missionaries they've had.
"They're sweeter, they're purer, they're smarter," Nelson said. "Our response from mission presidents has been, 'Give me more.'"
But Holland said the new ages aren't a requirement for missionaries to leave sooner.
"This is an option and a wonderful opportunity," he said. "It is not a mandate. In an ever-growing church that needs more missionaries, this is simply an option."
Holland cited scholastic pursuits, family circumstances, health issues and military and personal preparation as reasons for the change.
And he said the change especially opens up more opportunities for women missionaries. Women are not required to serve a mission as are male priesthood holders.
"Those who do serve are strikingly successful," Holland said. "I am absolutely delighted if this allows many, many more young women to serve."
Nelson said the announcement came after much study and consideration.
Nelson pointed to a mural depicting Jesus Christ teaching the people and noted that Christ commanded that his followers teach people throughout the world.
"We are accelerating our efforts to fulfill that mandate," he said.
Also announced was an increased church emphasis on older, couple missionaries.
Nelson said since Church President Thomas S. Monson announced a plea for more missionaries two years ago, there has been a 6 percent increase in young men missionaries, a 12 percent increase in young women missionaries and an 18 percent increase in older, couple missionaries.