One of the things I remember most about high school is when one of my dear friends, who is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was close friends with many people who were, asked me about about the Church. I was working at a fireworks stand with her and her dad and they started asking me about the temple that was being built at the time and then asked me about missions. We had several friends about to leave, and she understood that they'd be gone for two years and that was about it. That, plus the fact that the last two of my close guy friends to go on missions left today, are the inspiration for this post. Those two friends are Matt and Scott--or I should say Elder Ivie and Elder Savage. This is a picture of them this past Sunday. Elder Ivie (my 2nd cousin, once removed) is going to Zurich, Switzerland, speaking German, and Elder Savage (of Muffin Club fame, if you have any idea what I'm talking about) is going to Columbus, Ohio, speaking English. I'm so proud of them--most of my LDS guy friends have been excited to serve missions, but I think these two might take the cake. :)
In the Church, young men ages 19-25 (I think it's 25, I'm really not sure what the maximum age is, to be honest) are strongly encouraged to give up 2 years of their life in serving the Lord and spreading His gospel. It is not forced, as we all have our agency, but it is seen as a responsibility and a duty. Many of the young men I know see a mission as what they've been looking forward to and preparing for their whole lives--they are excited to go out and serve their Heavenly Father and fellow men. Girls can serve missions as well, although they are not as strongly encouraged. If a girl is 21, unmarried, and has the desire to serve, she may. I personally would love to be a missionary one day.
Yes, 2 years seems like a long time. It is even more confusing to some people, not familiar with missions, when they realize that this is completely funded by the boys and their families. Most go at 19-20. These boys, right out of high school or their first year of college, give up 2 years of social life and education, thousands of dollars, girlfriends, some technology, etc. in service to the Lord. They can write letters, some can email families and listen to more kinds of music (the exact rules vary by where the missionary is serving), but generally, their entire life is dedicated to God and the spreading of his Good News. They don't check Facebook or use cell phones. They wear suits and ties (or skirts/dresses for the girls) and black name tags saying "Elder" or "Sister so-and-so." They represent the Church of Jesus Christ and the Savior himself.
Missionaries are sent all over the world. I currently have friends in different places in Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Mongolia, Romania, Switzerland, Cambodia, Brazil, Paraguay and all over the United States, including Washington, D.C., San Diego, Las Vegas, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri/Kansas, and even Salt Lake City. At the beginning of their mission, missionaries start by going to a Missionary Training Center (the MTC). Most go to the one here in Provo, Utah, but there are a few other MTCs located at other places in the world as well. How long they stay there depends on where they are going and what language they are speaking/need to learn. Then they are out in the mission field sharing the gospel. They are always in companionships of twos and have strict rules. But many come back saying that it has been the best time of their lives. They are willing to serve because they love Heavenly Father and His children.
This has kind of been disjointed. I haven't covered a lot, but once again, if you have any questions, just ask. Hopefully I did a good job kind of clearing up missions a bit. They're hard at times--for both those serving and those at home. Some of my best friends are gone, and there are times when I miss them terribly. But there is no where else I'd rather they be, because they're out doing what the Lord wants them to.