The missionary program has traditionally been borne by young males and some females. Most young men leave at age nineteen; young women, about 18 percent of all missionaries, go later at age twenty-one. Until recently, a faithful Latter-day Saint woman from a strong Church family would never choose a mission before she had exhausted all romantic possibilities. But the Feminist Revolution imbued young women with a new sense of entitlement. Now young women plan for missions and are effective missionaries, creating a new ideal female model. They are actively in charge of their lives, interested in scriptural study and in lives of service. Retirees also serve missions. They supervise missions or temples, work with public relations or genealogy libraries, teach classes, and serve in dozens of other positions. The Church calls them instead of hiring them. This work, like the service of young missionaries, is voluntary. There are now more positions for older missionaries than can be filled. In 2001, Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve, in an effort to sign up more senior missionaries, spoke to their concerns, addressing the "four F's:" "fear, family concerns, finances, and finding the right mission opportunity." He reassured potential missionaries that they already had valuable experience, that their missions would be just a few brief moments away from their own aging parents and new grandchildren. He promised that abundant blessings would follow financial sacrifice, and that the right mission opportunity would be found.
When President Hinckley addressed the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles in 2002, he spoke on volunteer service, which he called the "genius of the Church." He spoke particularly of the 5,300 retired men and women then serving as LDS missionaries around the world. According to Hinckley, full-time, voluntary missionary service invigorated them. "They go where they are called. They serve where they are needed. Friendships are being established, skills are being shared, opportunities are being opened." There are educators, doctors, business executives as well as ordinary good people. He said proudly that he knew of no other organization that so harnessed the abilities, the capacities, and the willingness of the retired men and women in an organized program of service around the world.
Take Nigel and Avalon Wappett as examples. The Wappetts had planned to go on a mission after his retirement, but a call from the Church's president in 2001 sent them sooner. They left home in Alaska to supervise the Phoenix Arizona Mission, as mission names are punctuated, one of 338 missions scattered through 171 countries, where they directed some 200 missionaries. Nigel, a busy obstetrician, put his practice on a three-year hold. Wappet said of himself, "We're ordinary people. Our lives have been motivated by our faith. . . . That's been the central aspect of our lives and I hope our children's." A call from the prophet meant that he automatically said "yes" and worked out the details later.
President Hinckley has said that missionary activity is "inherent in our basic philosophy. The Gospel has been restored by divine revelation and we must carry it to men . . . . We disseminate the Gospel to the world to further establish the principles set down by the Lord Jesus Christ . . . . We work under a program where we expect every member to be qualified to teach the doctrine." Although the LDS Church in modern times has become much more concerned with its image and public relations, it has not wavered from this original commitment to growth through proselyting. New generations of Mormons are inculcated into this system of religious service. Each group of returned missionaries revitalizes the pool of leaders.
Missionaries are prepared from childhood. They are enlisted by bishops who judge them qualified for the rigors of mission life. They received letters from the Church president with dates to report to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, many to learn another language. This is a turning point for Mormon youth. The two years will try their souls. They will eschew worldly attractions, or should, cut off from movies and magazines, cars, and girls. They will live in cheap digs, like the indigenous peoples they visit. They can't dance, romance, or listen to popular music.
They will be rejected, dismissed, and insulted. They will work for ten to fourteen hours a day, trying to share their convictions. They will learn of new cultures and come to love real people. They may offend and disgust the people they try to teach. They may make lifetime friends. They may convert themselves to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even if they don't convert anyone else. Many will come home as adults. The telling moment of receiving this call, which may change a missionary's life forever, is anxiously awaited and greeted with a variety of emotions. Missionaries can be sent anywhere, their stated preferences ignored. Not everyone is immediately thrilled with his call. One missionary, after two years of study at Harvard College, was called to the New England States where the headquarters was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard's home. Another, who dreamed of studying art in Vienna in his brief free time, was disappointed to go to New Jersey. Both regretted the lost opportunity to learn a language. A missionary called to Oakland, California to learn Tongan wondered about the benefits of his new language. Still most are quickly, if not always happily, reconciled to their mission locations.
In the last century, before going out, missionary farm boys were taught basic table manners and given a few shots to protect them from illness. In 1961, when visa problems delayed departure, the Church instituted language training, and two years later, the Language Training Mission was organized so missionaries could have several weeks of language study. Spanish was the first foreign language instituted, soon joined by German, French, and Italian. The Scandinavian languages and Dutch were taught at Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. The Asian and Pacific languages were taught at the Church College of Hawaii, now BYUHawaii. By 1968, missionaries studied sixteen different languages at these colleges. The new languages are shaky, and missionaries have been known to confuse similar words, leading them to say in Finland, "We are American missionaries and we go around killing people," or in Japan, "Do you know the meaning of carrots?" In Hmong, some elders have said, "When we are resurrected, we will receive a body with new chicken skin." These malapropisms have become part of the folklore.