A couple of posts on the social network Orkut claim that the age to serve an LDS mission in the Brazil Area has been lowered to 18—and claim that politics in the U.S. has led to the change.
While these posts aren’t as reliable as a statement from the Church, the posts were made in two different Orkut communities (see here and here — posts are in Portuguese) and were made by two different groups of people in response to rumors in Brazil about the change. In both cases, the commentors that gave the most complete and credible explanations cited authoritative sources (Stake Presidents, Mission Presidents) as their sources.
Apparently the change applies just to the Brazil Area, and only applies to males. The prospective missionaries must have completed their secondary education and have fulfilled the Brazilian military requirements before serving. The posts say that the policy change is motivated by current difficulties U.S. citizens experience in getting visas to Brazil. And much of that difficulty comes down to diplomatic and U.S. politics.
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has made visiting the U.S. increasingly difficult. Fees have increased substantially in order to pay for a visa stamp (now a sticker) that is more difficult to forge and many visitors must be fingerprinted in their home country before they can come.
While security is a large part of the issue, immigration fears also play a huge part. The law now requires that visitors have sufficient ties to their home land to compel their return after a short visit to the U.S.—and in the case of Brazil the income and property needed to successfully obtain a visa is very substantial (as this example shows).
Brazil, in particular, has had it difficult. Getting a visa to visit the U.S. from Brazil (South America’s wealthiest country) is more difficult than for those in most other Latin American countries. The country protested the fingerprinting requirement, and, in response to the increased fees, has retaliated by raising fees for U.S. citizens trying to visit Brazil. Apparently, according to the posts from Orkut, Brazil has also retaliated against some of those trying to visit Brazil, including LDS missionaries.
With 26 missions, Brazil has more LDS missions than any other country outside of the U.S. Even though Brazilian wards and branches provide a large proportion of the missionaries serving in those missions (something like 2/3rds, if what I hear is correct), they still need missionaries from outside Brazil to keep those missions fully staffed. One of the posts I saw on Orkut reports that the Curitiba Brazil Mission alone is 44 missionaries short of what they need (the number of full-time missionaries worldwide divided by the number of missions is about 150 missionaries per mission).
Lowering the age at which missionaries serve is likely a short-term solution, although it theoretically could raise the number of missionaries serving in Brazil by as much as 50%. Returning the age to 19 would then reduce the number of missionaries serving by the same amount. Of course, the difficulty in getting LDS missionaries from the U.S. into Brazil is also probably a short-term problem.
What happens next? If the Brazilian authorities change their current policies and permit more LDS missionaries into Brazil, will the age for serving a mission return to 19 there? Or will the Church’s experience with this change make it a permanent change? Perhaps other countries might benefit from this change also, even if it isn’t difficult to get U.S. missionaries there.
If nothing else (and assuming that these reports are as accurate as I believe they are), this shows that the age of 19 is not set in stone, and that it can, like other standard missionary rules, be changed to fit local conditions.
I’d be interested in your thoughts about what this means and what changes could be made elsewhere that would benefit missionary service. Of course, any information that could verify these claims would also be appreciated. And, I’m especially interested in other mission rules or practices that differ locally from the general rule. [For example, on my mission the curfew was an hour later than specified in the mission handbook because of the local culture in Portugal.]