SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - The Mormon Church's decision to lower its age requirements for missionaries, who travel the world in pairs trying to convert people to their religion, has prompted a sharp spike in the number of young people clamoring to serve the faith.
Mormonism has been gaining broad public attention recently from its association with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, who served as a missionary in France and has talked about his work as a pastor in the Mormon Church.
The change in policy lowered the age of service by one year for men, to 18, and by two years for women, to 19 from 21, in a move church observers say could ultimately lead to an increase in the Utah-based church's worldwide ranks.
Statistics released by the Church show the average number of missionary applications rose five-fold since the October 6 announcement by church leaders - from around 700 each week to more than 4,000.
"I think there is a really massive opportunity here for the Church to initiate a new era in outreach expansion around the world," said Matt Martinich, who has studied the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2002 and is a Mormon.
Martinich said it was possible that many people who had already planned to serve under the prior age requirements were now applying earlier, meaning the numbers could level off.
More than half of the new applications are from young women, Church spokesman Scott Trotter said in a statement.
The Mormon Church currently has about 14.4 million members and 58,000 full-time missionaries around the world, Church figures show. Most of the missionaries are men aged 19 to 25 who tend to be easily recognized by their white shirts, black identification badges and bicycles. The rest are women and older married couples.
Although application numbers are expected to level off in the future, Martinich projects the church's missionary force could add 15,000 young men and 7,500 young women or more in the first year of the lower age requirements.
By 2020, the overall number of missionaries could reach 90,000, said Martinich, a contributor to the Cumorah Project, a private Mormon research initiative.
That could impact overall church membership significantly. Church data over the past decade shows that each missionary, on average, is responsible for baptizing five converts annually. If missionary ranks grow to 90,000, that could bring 400,000 members into the Church in a single year, Martinich projects.
By contrast, the Church reported baptizing just over 281,0000 converts last year.
Missionary service has been a part of Mormon tradition since the faith's founding in 1830. Men serve for two years and women for 18 months.
Service is not compulsory, but Mormon culture views it as an important part of personal and spiritual development, and there can be tremendous family and societal pressure to serve, said Philip Barlow, a religious studies professor at Utah State University and a practicing Mormon.
"The culture teaches you, encourages you to learn to say yes to the opportunity for service. That sounds simple but it's a very pronounced and impressive cultural trait," he said.
Church leaders said the change in the age policy, which was already in place in some foreign countries, was made in response to the growing needs of the Church worldwide.
Some observers say they wonder if the faith was also acting in part to keep young people from drifting away from church life at a time when they have many other choices, including college, military service, marriage or work.
"I suspect it's much harder to detach from your religious upbringing or acknowledge that you may have questions (of faith) if you have served a mission," said Mary Ellen Robertson, director of the Sunstone Symposium, an annual forum on Mormon culture, theology and history.
The decision was a mixed one for Mormon feminists, leaving in place a lack of age parity between women and men even as it narrowed the age gap between missionaries of opposite genders.
Mormon culture encourages young marriages and has sometimes viewed missionary service for women as a "Plan B," for those still unmarried at age 21, said Robertson, a Mormon.
"I think for women who are presented with one sort of 'Holy Grail' option, which is to get married and start a family, this really changes things," she said. "They can do something meaningful with their life and still marry young and have kids if they want."
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Claudia Parsons