SALT LAKE CITY – The days of young Mormons anxiously waiting for letters to arrive in the mailbox telling them where they will serve their missions are over, the latest tradition fading away under the march of technology.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Wednesday in a news release that it will send the letters known as "mission calls" online instead of by traditional mail. The change will save money spent on postage and allow missionaries to find out quicker, the church said.
The news triggered melancholy among Mormons who have fond memories of the dramatic opening of the envelopes and reading the letter as friends and family watched. Mormon homes commonly have pictures of the moment, and YouTube is full of videos.
Joyce Avaemai called it a sad change. She said she cherishes the letter she received in 2014 in her native country of Tahiti informing she would serve her mission in Montreal, Canada. She keeps the letter in her journal.
"Every word in the letter was for me. It was inspiring," said Avaemai, a 26-year-old social worker who lives in Montreal. "You receive emails every day. But the meaning of that paper was an amazing feeling."
Missions are considered rites of passage for many Mormons, broadening their perspective on the world, strengthening their faith and helping prepare some for future leadership roles within the church. Men serve two years, while women go for 18 months.
The church said Mormons will receive a text or email letting them the letter is available to read. They suggested the letter-opening tradition could continue if the prospective missionary gathers his or her family and reads it from a tablet, phone or computer.
The change will start in Utah and Idaho and be instituted around the world by end of the year for places with reliable internet access, the church said.
"Technology is there, and it's so easy to do," said Brent H. Nielson, the church's missionary department executive director in the news release. "We just put it online, and they can read it in a matter of minutes."
It marks the latest change to the missionary experience in recent years.
In 2012, the church lowered the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.
In 2014, the church began giving missionaries tablets and broadened proselytizing to social media. Last year, the faith doubled the number of missions where technology is allowed and swapped out tablets for smartphones.
Mormon scholar Matthew Bowman said the move to online letters is an illustration of a broader change afoot in the faith as it adapts to being a more global church and tries to make things more uniform for members everywhere.
The mission letter-opening tradition is reflective of the white, middle-class, Western American Mormonism that dominated the faith for most of the 20th Century, said Bowman, a Mormon scholar and associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Today, though, more than half of the faith's 16 million members live outside the United States.
"A kid in Nigeria and a kid in Nevada will have the same experience now," Bowman said. "It is a nod to the increasing globalization of the church and the increasing diversity of the church in such a way that is trying to downplay these older traditions when the church was a much more homogeneous than it is now."
Rob Heyward, a 48-year-old Mormon father of five, said he doesn't agree with an online notification system that feels more impersonal and corporate. He said the family gathered and live-streamed as his oldest son opened his letter a few years ago. Heyward keeps his mission letter from 20 years ago in a scrapbook.
"It captured a moment in time where I started a very important two years of my life," said Heyward, of Fort Meade, Maryland. "If I received a digital copy, it wouldn't feel the same."