At 23-and 21-years-old Colby Denton and Davis Jones introduce themselves as Elder Denton and Elder Jones. That’s traditional for young men serving as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both are relentlessly cheerful. Both say they wouldn’t trade their two years in the Boise, Idaho Mission for anything.
But that wasn’t how Jones saw his assignment at first. For young men who grow up Mormon, a mission is many things: a rite of passage, a sacred duty. But it’s also seen as the adventure of their life. That’s how it was for Jones growing up in a small town in central Utah.
“Growing up in the Mormon community, you always want that sweet experience where you’re going to a third world country, you’re eating all sorts of nasty stuff, you have a machete in the jungle somewhere,” Jones says. "Ever since I was a kid I wanted all that stuff.”
At 19 he sent in his application to be a missionary. Eventually, a big envelope arrived from church headquarters in Salt Lake City. This is known as the “mission call.” He gathered his friends and large family in the living room as he tore open the envelope.
“I have the call in my hand and I open it up. And my eyes go directly to Idaho Boise mission” he says. “And I dropped my call on the ground and said Boise, Idaho and I stood up and walked out of the room. So, not the best initial reaction for someone that’s pumped to go on a mission.”
Now, a lot more young Mormons will spend their missions in southwest Idaho, about three times as many.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints divides the world up geographically. Everything has well-defined boundaries from local congregations to its missionary program. Until last month, the Boise Mission stretched from La Grande Oregon in the West to Rupert in the East and from McCall in the North to Jackpot Nevada in the South.
Starting July 1 the church split the Boise mission into three. The new Nampa and Twin Falls Missions cover the West and East ends of the old mission. And the new Boise Mission is now just Boise, Meridian, Eagle and Star. That leads Colby Denton to predict that people in the Boise area will soon be seeing a lot more missionaries on bikes.
Jones and Denton have spent the past few months in a special assignment called Assistants to the President. In addition to typical Mormon missionary duties, they assist the head of the mission with administration. They helped oversee the change from one mission to three. Denton says the 200-some missionaries in the old mission were divided between the three new ones. Now each has about 70.
“Towards December they’ll have 200 missionaries in the Boise mission.” Denton says.
Jones finishes his sentence.
“Between 200 and 250. Twin Falls and Nampa will be right around the same numbers,” Jones says.
This is part of a church-wide trend. Last year, the church lowered its age limits for men and women going on missions. Since then it’s seen a nearly 30 percent increase in missionaries. But the buildup in southwest Idaho is much bigger than that overall increase.
The church is not ramping up its missionary force evenly worldwide says Matt Martinich who analyzes membership and missionary numbers for the Cumorah Foundation, an independent but Mormon-friendly non-profit. Africa, South America, Mexico are all getting a lot of the new missionaries. That's not surprising since the church has seen rapid growth in those places for years. But Martinich says another area that’s seeing a significant missionary buildup might surprise people.
“We’re seeing a much greater allocation of resources to areas like the western United States.”
According to Martinich’s calculations the West is seeing the largest missionary build-up in the world. A church spokesperson disputes that, saying the increase in the western United States is “significant” but not the largest.
The West, of course, is Mormon central. Martinich says there are good logistical reasons for the focus on the West. The influx has been so fast it’s created challenges like housing, transportation and leadership. Logistically these may be easier to solve close to home.
But Martinich also says it fits with the church’s long-time strategy to make member involvement central to missionary work. Colby Denton knew about that long before his mission. He didn’t grow up LDS. He joined the church in college with support from a network of Mormon friends. His parents aren’t Mormon. His mom did not want him to go on a mission.
“'You can get murdered, you can get thrown in jail and you’re thousands of miles away where your parents can’t do anything about it,' Denton recalls his mom saying. "So she was just dreading this mission. And one of my best friends had served in the Boise, Idaho mission years ago. And so I prayed and prayed for months before my mission call came that I’d serve in the Idaho Boise mission. I just knew that she would be okay with it if I was going to go somewhere safe. And it’s Idaho, you know, what could go wrong in Idaho.”
Nothing did go wrong. Since we met him two months ago Denton has finished his two year stint and gone home to Arizona. Jones still has two months before he goes back to Utah.
Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio