Once upon a time (and place), 19-year-old men were considered adults. They were often married, supported themselves and families, most were finished with their education. They dressed appropriately to be taken seriously, whether it was in work clothes, Sunday clothes, or dressed up to do business in town. They were, for all intents and purposes, old. Mature. Adult.

Like this:

Now consider the 19-year-olds of 2009. They are said to stay up late and sleep all day, many are students, many live at home with Mom and Dad, the extent of their employment is as likely to be a part time job as to have none. They wear t-shirts and shorts whenever possible (why? are pants so oppressive? I live in a college town and as soon as it hit 30 degrees outside, the boys are in shorts). They play a lot of video games. It is rare that they are married or supporting a family. We hope it is rare for them to have kids. For all intents and purposes, they are adolescents, and will be for another 5 years or so.

Behold:

Now consider our missionaries. Where 19-year-old men were once considered sensible adults, today they largely are not. Where missionaries of the past might have been able to converse with people they met as being basically in the same stage of life (adult), now they are kids trying to convert families. On the recent thread about choosing missionaries to serve in your ward, the sisters overwhelmingly won, and the reason given was often “maturity.”

Along with raising the bar for our missionaries, I wonder if we might benefit from raising the age? Of course, it would require a change in our collective thinking. We, in the US, are quite used to missions serving as a break in college, or even a pre-college experience. Could we think of it as a post-college experience? It would require a little re-arranging of our lives, but then, many Asian, African, and European missionaries already deal with this as their university opportunities might be less flexible than ours.

I imagine the big objection would be the cry from many that missions are so very good for 19-year-olds. It FORCES them to grow up. They come home more focussed and more mature. It is hard to say how much the experience affects them and how much it might have been the time. But are missions really for missionaries to grow up? How about missions re-calibrated to actually be seen as a service?

I think there could be some real benefits to missionary work if the Elders were older. First, I think it might serve to raise the bar a little higher: putting a hold on your life at (for example) 23, might be seen as a bit more of a sacrifice, so only those a little more serious would serve. It is possible that some young men, between the age of 19 and a new older age, might get involved in some shenanigans that would effectively bar them from serving. I won’t say this is a good thing; I wonder if these are the same individuals that might have gotten into trouble on a mission, though. Second, I think the service will mean more to those who serve later. They will better understand what they are doing, the sacrifice they are making. They will be less likely to take it for granted. Thirdly, we will have better missionary work. Older, more experienced missionaries will be able to connect with more people and more people will be more likely to think of them as something other than boys. Lastly: fewer regrets. I think all returned missionaries, some more than others, look back at their missions with some regrets: that opportunity we did not take to contact, the stupid stupid thing we said to a fragile investigator, or the chances we missed to really connect with the amazing members in our wards by instead telling them how it is done back home. I hope that more mature missionaries would make fewer mistakes or at least learn from them the first time we make them. Then when we reflect on our mission, it can be more sweet than bitter.

What do you think? Should we send the Elders when they are a bit more elder?