by Robert T. Coote
Not only are our statistics confusing, they can be used to arouse false hopes.
It’s time to clean up oar arithmetic. "figures don’t lie," the statistics currently used to describe the status and of world evangelization often mislead and confuse.
My concern is threefold: (1) the skewing of the knowledge base of the Christian community that supports overseas missions; (2) the creation of unwarranted expectations within the missionary community itself; and (3) the risk that, for everyone, shifting figures will become a substitute for solid theology.
First, the obvious disclaimer: this is no appeal to abandon statistics in our assessment of the status of world evangelization. Jesus was not slow to affirm the common sense of hard-nosed calculation in any major endeavor: "What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?" (Luke 14:31). Similarly, we ought not to be blamed for sharing Luke’s enthusiasm when he reports that Peter’s Pentecost sermon resulted in the conversion of 3,000 in one day. Figures like that are the statistical reflection of the significant working of God’s Spirit. Figures are good, useful, and not infrequently critical in advancing kingdom concerns. But today the evangelical community that supports the cause of cross-cultural mission is often ill-served by the tenor and the specifics of mission statistics.
NORTH AMERICAN MISSIONARY SENDING
To begin with, the data we are fed too often intensify our natural provincialism instead of broadening our perspective. A major evangelical organization proclaims that North American evangelicals constitute "the world’s most missionary minded church." Then, when we check the 14th edition of the MARC/World Vision Mission Handbook, which came out in early 1990, and read that the U.S. Protestant overseas missionary force is 71,000 strong, this seems to support the foregoing claim.
Given this claim, and knowing that the U.S. has a larger proportion of evangelicals relative to general population than any other major nation of the world, we might reasonably expect this to be reflected in the number of missionaries per million people sent overseas from Western countries. To check this we consulted David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE), which provides based on research in the mid-1970s. (See chart page 120.)
A more complete list would reveal that the U.S. is actually number 16 among Western nations in missionary sending. There is no reason to believe that the situation, relatively speaking, has changed significantly in the last 15 years. When one investigates more closely (as we will do shortly), even the claim that the U.S. now supports 71,000 missionaries does not change the picture. Far from being world leaders, evangelicals take a back seat to Roman Catholics, who field 90 percent of the 150,000 missionaries represented by the 15 nations ahead of the U.S. The U.S. would be sending almost twice as many missionaries overseas if it matched Lutheran Norway, and 14 times as many if it were to equal the depth of mission commitment of Catholic Ireland.
One can focus more closely on the U.S. evangelical population and discover that even then the degree of missionary sending is not exceptional. Taking an estimate of about 30 percent of the general population as being identified with the evangelical community, that is, about 75 million, and comparing that to approximately 37,500 career missionaries serving under evangelical mission agencies (14th edition of the Mission Handbook), the U.S. fields about 500 missionaries per million evangelicals. That still leaves U.S. evangelicals significantly behind the Netherlands, Belgium, and Ireland.
RELATIVE GROWTH OF OTHER RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES
Another sometimes confusing area has to do with how the growth of the major non-Christian religious populations is reported. Ralph Winter, in the March, 1988, issue of Mission Frontiers, dealt with a garbled report that described the world Muslim population as growing five times as fast as the Christian population. Winter’s purpose was to show the gross distortion of the report and to point out that in many areas evangelicals are outstripping all other religious blocs. He showed that the data actually indicated the following: Muslims increasing at the rate of two and a half percent a year; Christians at two percent.
By comparison to the original distorted report, two and a half percent doesn’t seem very great. However, the seemingly small difference between two percent and two and a half percent in growth rates has the potential to make a substantial impact over a long period of time. To arrive at these rates, Winter compared data for the period 1980-1988. If we take a longer period, 1970-1991, the gap increases somewhat: 2.7 percent for Muslims as compared to 1.9 percent for Christians (derived from the gross population estimates in David Barrett’s "Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1991," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January, 1991). These rates result in the Muslim world increasing in population about 75 percent since 1970, while the Christian population has increased 45 percent. Since the beginning of this century, when there were about three Christians to every Muslim in the world, the followers of Islam have closed the gap to the point where there are now only two Christians to every Muslim.
It is true that Christian growth in certain areas of the world has been phenomenal in recent decades. But such reports are necessarily selective. We need to remember that such movements may lack qualitative depth; and they may prove to be rather transitory. We run the danger of creating an exaggerated sense of "victory at hand," by down-playing the growth of other groups and singling out high-growth Christian populations.
CHURCH GROWTH REPORTS
Another problem area has to do with reports of tremendous church growth in Third World areas. But the most frequently cited example is greatly misleading. It first appeared as a headline in Christianity Today in 1983: "In Africa, 16,400 People Became Christians Today" (Oct. 7, p. 74). This figure, which is derived from the WCE, was also reported in a Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization news release.U.S. evangelical periodicals and mission agencies continue to highlight it to this day.
The public naturally reads this statistic as meaning that in Africa on a daily average 16,400 people are converted and are added to the church. The fact is, however, that 12,560 of the cited are babies born into Christian homes – a demographic increase, not a conversion increase. This has the effect of merely maintaining the status quo; demographic increase does not represent "progress" in the way conversion growth does. Furthermore, the North American evangelical public should be aware that the vast majority of these 12,560 babies are born into Roman Catholic families and other non-evangelical groups. Finally, we need to realize that of the 3,840 additions by conversion, only about one person in five is identified with the evangelical community. In other words, out of the 16,400 "new Christians" daily counted in Africa, only one in 21, or 780, are converts to the evangelical community.
In the last year or so a similar figure is being asserted for the increase of in China: 20,000 a day. No doubt it assumes the still controversial of 50 million believers in China. Suffice it to say that much of the growth may prove to be demographic, and the conversion component most likely will require substantial qualification. Just read the monthly prayer notes published by such agencies as Overseas Missionary Fellowship ("Pray for China Fellowship"). The picture one gets is disturbingly mixed, a little of the much touted growth of the church in China is apparently untaught, eccentric, and/or heretical. Arthur Glasser compares it to the doubtful character of some indigenous but marginally Christian groups in Africa (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January, 1989, p. 7). Of course, statistical reporting often requires qualification because it may indicate very little about the qualitative dimension of the phenomena under study.
MEASURING THE MISSIONARY FORCE
The various ways of reporting data about the size of the missionary community needs to be weighed carefully. The demands of effective cross-cultural mission are such that long-term commitment of personnel is essential if lasting results are to be achieved, and therefore it may be best to measure the strength of the overseas missionary effort by the number of career missionaries, omitting short-term personnel. In the mid-1970s the MARC Mission Handbook reported the number of North American Protestant overseas career missionaries as approximately 32,000. A decade later, in the 13th edition of the Handbook, we were told that "the number of North American Protestants going overseas as missionaries has increased by 82 percent" (p. 29). The total was reported to be 67,000. However, this figure included short-term missionaries. Without them, the increase was not 82 percent but 22 percent (39,000 up from 32,000).
The 14th edition of the Handbook (released in 1990) bears out this word of caution. The latest totals for Protestant overseas career missionaries from North America are 40,221 for the U.S. and 3,427 for Canada. Yet the number frequently seen in the evangelical press is 71,000 U.S. and 4,000 Canada (again, including short-termers).
Furthermore, as MARC researchers themselves are increasingly aware, the category known as "career missionary" has become rather "soft." It is no longer as substantial an indicator of commitment to overseas mission because it reflects a very large number of people who, while more committed than short-termers, do not necessarily intend to work overseas more than a few years. The result is that they will never gain the level of competency of a full-fledged career missionary. Therefore in years to come the ranks of senior mission staff with the expertise to face the challenges of the major non-Christian religions and the hardened, secular post-Christian West will be critically thin.
RATIO OF "GREAT COMMISSION CHRISTIANS" TO NON-CHRISTIANS
A major rallying point since the July, 1989, Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, "Lausanne II in Manila," is the supposedly vastly more favorable ratio of "Great Commission Christians" (GCC) to non-Christians. It is claimed that the ratio today is 1:7- that is, one GCC for every seven non-Christians in the world, in contrast to 1:27 in 1900. Total GCC in round numbers, is given as 500 million.
But to my knowledge, the statisticians of world evangelization have not revealed how they define and count GCC. The term had not yet been coined when Barrett’s WCE was published in-1982. WCE speaks of "Practicing" Christians, "Committed" Christians, and "Born-again" Christians, and gives the following figures as of 1980:1,018 million, 780 million, and 420 million, respectively (WCE, p. 49, table). Judging by numbers alone, it appears that the category "Born-again" Christians in WCE is the same as Barrett’s more recently named category, "Great Commission Christians." Barrett starts with poll-generated statistics that indicate 49 percent of the U.S. Catholic-Protestant combined population of "Practicing Christians" identify themselves as "born-again." Then he goes on to state that "On a world scale, it is probable that some 40 percent of all adult practicing Christians would claim this experience of the new birth" (WCE, p. 53). To be exact, his figure of 420 million in 1980 amounts to 41 percent of the 1,018 million "Practicing Christians."
From 420 million in 1980, a straightforward demographic increase of about 2 percent per year would produce a new total of 500 million as of 1990. The basic reference for the new figure is Our Globe and How to Reach It, coauthored by Barrett and Todd M. Johnson. (See, for instance, p. 32. Our Globe is Vol. 8 in The AD 2000 Series, Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, published by New Hope, Birmingham, Ala., 1990). Our Globe carries Barrett’s most detailed GCC definition: "Believers in Jesus Christ who are aware of the implications of Christ’s Great Commission, who have accepted its personal challenge in their lives and ministries, and who are seeking to influence the Body of Christ to implement it" (p. 123)-but he doesn’t tell us how he counts them! In any case, 500 million amounts to 41 percent of the figure for "Practicing Christians" in 1990 (1,210 million), which equates precisely with the "Born-again" as a percentage of "Practicing Christians" in 1980.
On the face of it, we can ask why 500 million persons professing to be "born again," should necessarily be considered "Great Commission Christians." Maybe a fair portion of them ought rather to be classified as "cultural" Christians, creatures of habit who know the vocabulary when the pollster conies to the door and who feel comfortable attending church more or less regularly. If someone asked us to believe that possibly half of the 500 million really take the Great Commission seriously, we could more easily follow the argument.
But, setting aside the issue of quality, let’s accept the speculation that the "Born-again" of the WCE equals GCC of Our Globe, and that 100 percent of them take the Great Commission seriously. Then the question becomes, How is it that today the ranks of GCC equal 41 percent of total "Practicing Christians" as compared to the relatively smaller portion of GCC claimed for the turn of the century? Barrett has not committed himself in print regarding GCC numbers in 1900, so far as I can determine. And the Gallup Poll wasn’t around in 1900 to ask a scientific sampling of U.S. citizens whether they had the experience of being "born again." Nevertheless, Ralph Winter gives a figure of 40 million GCC in 1900 (Mission Frontiers, March, 1989, p. 11). He implies that this was done in consultation with Barrett. The following table bears close analysis:
GCC IN RELATION TO OTHER CATEGORIES
To summarize, the claim is that, as a percentage of total practicing Christians, the ranks of the GCC have increased five-fold (from 8 1/2 percent to 41 percent). Or, that for every GCC in 1900 there were 27 non-Christians, but today there are only seven. This most startling trend has been announced in Winter’s Mission Frontiers (March, 1989), World Evangelization (July, 1989), and the outstanding new global mission atlas Target Earth, published by Youth With a Mission’s University of the Nations and Global Mapping International. I have also seen the claim repeated in fund-raising materials by major evangelical mission agencies.
But we must raise questions. How is it that so large a percentage of the world Christian population became committed to the Great Commission during the course of the 20th century? Could it be traced to the evangelicals (295 million strong in 1990)? Barrett’s data regarding the growth of the evangelical community relative to "Practicing Christians" is noteworthy: from 15 percent in 1900 to 24 percent in 1990. But that doesn’t produce a five-fold increase; and, as a reminder of the issue of quality, note Patrick Johnstone’s perception: "There is much superficiality in (U.S.) evangelical circles" (Operation World, 1980 edition, p. 55). In relation to world population, evangelicals were 4.5 percent in 1900 and 5.6 percent today. In relation to the non-Christian population, evangelicals were equivalent to 6.8 percent in 1900, and 8.3 percent in 1990. Obviously, evangelical growth be credited with the proclaimed improved GCC ratio.
We can try another tack and speculate that the increase in GCC may be traced primarily to the pentecostal/charismatic movement, non-existent in 1900 but numbering 373 million in 1990. (See Barrett’s "The Twentieth Century Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal …," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 1988; also Table 19 in Our Globe.) To this number we may add, say, 50 percent of the evangelical community, or about 150 million. The combined total tops 500 million. But this calculation cannot stand: it ignores overlap between evangelicals and pentecostals/charismatics, and it assumes that 100 percent of the pentecostals and charismatics are committed to the Great Commission. Even if one assumed no overlap and supposed that as many as half of both categories qualify as GCC, the total of 500 million is not reached. Barrett does state that the ranks of GCC are currently increasing at an annual rate of 6.9 percent (traceable to the pentecostal/ charismatic renewal as distinct from the non-Pentecostal evangelical community). But, as just indicated, the charismatic renewal movement of the late 20th century, considered alone or in combination with other evangelicals, cannot account for a five-fold increase in the GCC ratio to non-Christians.
QUANTIFYING UNREACHED PEOPLE GROUPS
Another fuzzy category that plays a central role in motivating the current of evangelicals for world mission is unreached people groups, or "hidden peoples." In the early 1980s, as a follow-up to the 1974 Lausanne Congress, we heard that the number for this key category was about 17,000. Lausanne II (1989) speakers indicated that progress in world evangelization had reduced the figure to 12,000. Winter, however, in the March, 1989, issue of Mission Frontiers, had already con-the reduction from 17,000 to 12,000 not to progress in evangelization but to consultation with other researchers: "The estimate of 12,000 remaining Unreached People Groups has been agreed upon to create a simpler, clearer picture" (p. 11).
The seeds of even greater confusion this topic were planted several years earlier in WCE, where Barrett claimed (p. 19) that the figure for "un-evangelized" people groups was only about 2,000. As a sub-group among these he asserted that "the only people groups who can correctly be called un-reached are the one thousand or so whose populations are each less than 20 percent evangelized" (italics added). Barrett went further to make the point that only about 636 such groups, having "no numerically significant evangelizing church," could be described as "hidden" (WCE, p. 19, italics added). His 1991 data shows a drop from 636 to 425 "Unreached peoples (with no churches)." (See "Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1991," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January, 1991).
How can this confusion be cleared up? First, we need to understand that Winter’s original figure of 16,750 (17,000 in round numbers) was based on an estimated global total of 24,000 people groups. Barrett’s WCE, on the other hand, used a different definition and arrived at a total not of 24,000 people groups but about 9,000 "ethno-linguistic" groups-later revised to 11,500. This universe of 11,500 groups is Barrett’s primary reference, as when he declares that the number of groups "with no churches" is now down to only 425.
The confusion increases, however, when Barrett speaks of "17,000 un-reached people groups (minipeoples) in 1974, decreasing to 12,000 by 1990" (Our Globe, p. 26), thus appearing to echo Winter’s figures. In this context Barrett has in view a more highly segmented category that he calls "minipeoples," and that Winter calls "unimax peoples"; this category produces a universe totaling 60,000. In the course of history, many of these people groups have intermingled and merged, so that today there are approximately 24,000 remaining as more or less distinct groups. Thus, we are back to Winter’s original universe of 24,000 people groups!
But this is still not the end of the confusion. Barrett also highlights "major population segments" that constitute the priority for world mission, and gives their number as 3,030: 2,000 unevangelized ethnolinguistic peoples, plus 1,000 unevangelized metropolises, plus 30 closed countries (Our Globe, p. 26). Thus, the hapless reader confronts what appears to be the same category but with wildly different numerical values:
"Unreached people groups"* 12,000 "Unevangelized population segments" 3,030 "Unevangelized peoples" 2,000 "Unreached peoples" 1,000 "Unreached peoples, with no churches" 450
*Sometimes Barrett uses "unreached" and "unevangelized" interchangeably; at other times the two terms signal different concepts, as in WCE.
Add to this array still more categories: "megapeoples" (440), "cultures" (8,000), "minicultures" (24,000), "microcultures"/"micropeoples"/"clans" (250,000), "sociopeoples" (2 million)- and you can see why many readers may be tempted to toss the literature into the basket.
HOW SHOULD "EVANGELIZATION" BE DEFINED?
Finally, there is the issue of how to define "evangelization." Barrett, in WCE, took a rather generous approach which views as "evangelized" any population that has been exposed to a certain minimum level of Christian influences. He begins with the percentage of Christians in a population (say, 20 percent), and then adds or deducts "points" for answers to 205 other factors, e.g., whether or not Scripture portions are available in the local language. Any "score" reaching 60 points constitutes, for Barrett, a conclusion that the population is evangelized. On the basis of the WCE evangelization index, the unevangelized portion of the world dropped from about 48 percent in 1900 to 23.6 percent in 1990, and is projected to fall below 17 percent by AD 2000.
This scheme is highly controversial, and many thoughtful people are simply not persuaded that the results are credible. For instance, here is a short list of nations (Christian population in parentheses) that are identified in WCE as "evangelized" (60 points or more) and which, by Barrett’s reckoning no longer merit major missionizing effort as compared to other less evangelized nations: Bangladesh (0.4 percent), Japan (1.4 percent), Israel (1.7 percent), India (3.3 percent), Malaysia (4.7 percent), Vietnam (6 percent), and Syria (7.1 percent). Our Globe, the new bellwether for gauging the progress of world evangelization, carries forward the WCE approach and identifies these and many other needy countries as part of "World B," from which missionary effort should be shifted so as to concentrate on the unevangelized of "World A."
(Interestingly, Bangladesh is the exception, for Our Globe places it in "World A." Evidently Barrett has adjusted his evangelization index to become a little less generous. In fact, a number of nations, as listed in Our Globe, are credited with a lesser extent of evangelization in 1990 than is claimed in WCE for the previous decade.)
WORLD EVANGELIZATION, STATISTICS AND AD2000
The appearance on the near horizon of the millennial year 2000 tends to encourage statistical analysis and projections. Frequently the topics and statistics discussed above are used to support the goal of completing world evangelization by the end of the century. The evangelical community often hears that by failing in our task we delay Christ’s Second Coming, whereas if we are faithful to the point of finishing the task we will clear the way for his return.
But can we really expect to understand the details and nature of the Second Advent any more than God’s people understood the details and nature of the First Advent? Do we really know what constitutes completion of world evangelization? Does 60 points on the WCE index suffice? Does a church for every people? Can areas once evangelized bat now drifting in nominalism be written off?
Suppose AD 2000 arrives and the world isn’t evangelized by anybody’s definition? (Even Barrett’s research, using a controversially optimistic definition, points to a substantial segment of unevangelized people by the end of the century.) What impact will "failure," by statistical standards, have on missionary personnel? What impact will loss of credibility, resulting from dubious "closure" campaigns, have on Christians and non-Christians alike? Do we not risk a drastic drop in evangelical commitment to mission, and increased skepticism on the part of a disbelieving world, due to failed expectations?
Of course, ever since the first Christians met to worship the risen Lord, we have been getting closer to the end: "For salvation is nearer to us now than we first believed" (Rom. 13:11). But that has to do with living by faith in the ultimate judgment and redemption of the earth and the promised kingdom reign of Jesus Christ. Only indirectly, and very ambiguously, can it be measured by sight, that is, by the number of wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, anti-Christs and celestial wonders – and Great Commission Christians versus non-Christians.
Rather than pinning too much on the significance of the year 2000, let us simply affirm Christ’s unchanging commission and our call to participate in the announcement of his coming kingdom. Good, sound research certainly is important to our understanding of the task. The facts should be clarified and properly published. But statistics and trends are no substitute for solid theological foundations and for the hope that is born of faith. The only way to be "right" about the Second Coming and the Great Commission is to adopt Jesus’ own stance: The kingdom is at hand, though appearing delayed; therefore be ready "because you do not know the day or the hour" (Matt. 25:13). And, "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge … It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns" (Matt. 25:45,46). For motivation, that beats the numbers game.
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