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SALT LAKE CITY -- Worldwide membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has hit 15 million, representing a three-fold increase over the last three decades, Mormon leaders said Saturday.

LDS President Thomas S. Monson announced the milestone during the opening session of a two-day church conference. The biannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brings 100,000 members to Salt Lake City.

Monson said the church was founded with 30 members in 1830, and that it took more than a century to hit 1 million. Church membership has tripled since 1982 when there were 5 million members, said Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS church who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.

More than half of all Latter-day Saints live outside of the U.S., church figures show.

``The church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year,'' Monson told about 20,000 members seated in a three-story auditorium in Salt Lake City. ``It is spreading across the Earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth.''

Monson also said Saturday that there are now 80,000 missionaries around the world- up from 58,500 a year ago. The historic growth was triggered by the church's decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries, which Monson announced during this same conference a year ago.

By allowing men to go at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21, a wave of new, younger missionaries have joined older ones that were already planning to go.

The reaction from young Mormon women has been especially enthusiastic. The number of female missionaries has more than doubled in the last year to 19,000 currently, church figures show.

During his brief speech Saturday, Monson reiterated his call for church members to donate to church's missionary fund. Costs are usually covered by the missionary's family, friends or congregation, but the fund is there to help those who want to serve but don't have the money.

A mission costs about $400 a month for the food, lodging and transportation, which comes out to $9,600 over the course of a two-year mission for men, or $7,200 for an 18-month mission for a young woman.

``Now is the time for members and missionaries to come together, to work together, to labor in the Lord's vineyard to bring souls unto him,'' Monson said Saturday.

The biannual general conference brings members together to hear inspirational words from church leaders and to hear church announcements. In addition to the people in Salt Lake City, the conference is also watched by millions more around the world on TV, radio and the Internet. The conference is widely followed and analyzed on social media, with many using the Twitter hash tag, ``(hash)LDSconf.''

Many of the speeches come from the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which is the second-highest governing body of the church. Modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles, the twelve men serve under the church president and his two counselors.

Robert D. Hales, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told church members Saturday that the ``world is moving away from the Lord faster than ever'' and instructed members to take the words of church leaders to heart.

Another member of the quorum, David A. Bednar, implored Mormons who don't tithe 10 percent of their income to the church to seek forgiveness. ``Please do not procrastinate the day of your repentance,'' he said.

The church's international reach was on display with a speech by Edward Dube, a native of Zimbabwe who is now a church leader in Africa and Southeast Asia. He told a story of working in fields as a child with his mother and looking back with pride at all the hoeing they had already done. He told the audience what his mother said then, in what became a life lesson: ``Edward, never look back, look ahead at what we still have to do.''

The ongoing debate about the limited role of women within the Mormon faith will become an issue Saturday afternoon when a feminist Mormon women's group called Ordain Women plans to ask to be let in an all-male priesthood meeting. Though it's being broadcast live to all for the first time, the group still plans to wait in line to shine light on what they perceive as gender inequality in the faith.

Women can hold many leadership positions in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but they can't be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes, which include a dozen congregations.

Carole M. Stephens, first counselor in the General Relief Society presidency, said during a morning speech that both men and women are given ``priesthood power'' when they go to Mormon temples, but that the two genders have different gifts and strengths. Citing a bible verse, Stephens said the Lord's plan emphasizes that men and women fulfill their responsibilities so that all may benefit.

During the final speech of the morning session, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, one of Monson's two counselors, told the congregation that wrestling with doubt and serious or sensitive questions about the faith is normal. But he said, ``please first doubt your doubts, before you doubt your faith.'' Speaking to those who have left the church, he invited them back in, saying there is always room for them.

___

Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs

Associated Press,

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