SALT LAKE CITY -- The LDS Church's worldwide membership has hit 15 million, representing a three-fold increase over the last three decades, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson said Saturday.
Monson announced the milestone during the opening session of a two-day LDS Church conference. The biannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brings 100,000 members to Salt Lake City.
Monson says the church was founded with 30 members in 1830, taking more than a century to hit 1 million. Church membership has tripled since 1982, when there were 5 million members, said Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS Church who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.
More than half of church members live outside of the United States, church figures show.
"The church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year," Monson told about 20,000 members seated in a three-story auditorium in Salt Lake City. "It is spreading across the Earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth."
Monson also said Saturday that there are now 80,000 missionaries around the world -- up from 58,500 a year ago. The historic growth was triggered by the church's decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries, which Monson announced during this same conference a year ago.
By allowing men to go at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21, a wave of new, younger missionaries have joined older ones that were already planning to go.
The reaction from young Mormon women has been especially enthusiastic. The number of female missionaries has more than doubled in the last year to 19,000 currently, church figures show.
During his brief speech Saturday, Monson reiterated his call for church members to donate to church's missionary fund. Costs are usually covered by the missionary's family, friends or congregation, but the fund is there to help those who want to serve but don't have the money.
A mission costs about $400 a month for food, lodging and transportation, which comes out to $9,600 over the course of a two-year mission for men, or $7,200 for an 18-month mission for a young woman.
"Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord's vineyard to bring souls unto him," Monson said Saturday.
The biannual general conference brings members together to hear inspirational words from church leaders and to hear church announcements. In addition to the people in Salt Lake City, the conference is also watched by millions more around the world on TV, radio and the Internet. The conference is widely followed and analyzed on social media, with many using the Twitter hash tag, "#LDSconf."
Robert D. Hales, one of the church's highest leaders and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told church members Saturday that the "world is moving away from the Lord faster than ever" and instructed members to take the words of church leaders to heart.
Though it has not yet been addressed during the morning speeches, an ongoing debate about the limited role of women within the Mormon faith will have a place this weekend at the conference with a feminist Mormon women's group called Ordain Women planning to ask to be let in an all-male priesthood meeting this evening.
The group wants to shed light on what they perceive as gender inequality. Women can hold many leadership positions in LDS Church , but they can't be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes, which include a dozen congregations.