by Marten Visser
As a missiologist in the Europeancontinental tradition, qualitative research has always come more naturally to me than quantitative. This bias was reinforced through my anthropological studies that emphasized participant observation over statistics.
As a missiologist in the Europeancontinental tradition, qualitative research has always come more naturally to me than quantitative. This bias was reinforced through my anthropological studies that emphasized participant observation over statistics.
Moreover, it suited my theological convictions. As a Calvinist, I have always considered bad theology and numerical objectives for church growth slightly distasteful. Finally, in six years as a mission leader I slowly learned that even numerical goals for organizational growth could have adverse side effects: the quality of the organization, and even more important, the focus on a wellgrounded faith in Christ might suffer. So the heart cry of Jim Plueddemann’s “Measurable objectives, No; Faith goals, Yes” (April 1995) accurately reflects my own opinion.
Two years ago, I stepped down from my executive position and became a church planter. Grand visions and plans that sound impressive but have little to do with grassroots reality are even less appealing to me now.
On the one hand I hold that statistics should not be used to set goals, especially not if we make God’s tasks (converting people) our own goal. On the other hand, statistics can legitimately be used in missiology. They can be used to present to the Church the need of those without Christ. This approach has been used ever since William Carey’s Enquiry, Hudson Taylor’s The Needs of China and Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World. They used numbers to describe the actual situation. That is a powerful tool which can be used to challenge Christians. It can also be used as a factor (though not the only one) in determining where missions should put their priorities.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear some people say, “Do we really assess our mission priorities numerically?” The simple answer is: “Yes, we should—at least partly.” Sending pioneer missionaries in itself already implies quantitative considerations. We send pioneer missionaries because in certain countries and among certain peoples there are very few, if any, Christians. That is one quantitative point to start with. The question is not whether we numerically assess some of our priorities, but whether we are willing to use the most exact numbers we can get. I think we should.
Since the times of William Carey and Hudson Taylor a lot has changed. It is not helpful anymore to take the number of people without Christ in a country (or among a people) to describe the need for missionaries, for almost every country has a national church. The strength of the national church is not sufficient either, for it does not include the efforts of foreign missionaries in the country.
The need for pioneer missionaries—evangelists and church planters—is challenging to present in a straightforward way. How do you compare Thailand’s need, where there are few evangelical Christians but many missionaries, with Burma’s need, where there are few missionaries but far more evangelicals?
We need a way to take both factors into account: the strength of the existing church and the number of missionaries already present. This article is an attempt to bring these two together and give one number for the need of pioneer missionaries. In that way a comparison can be made between countries, peoples, regions or cities.
CALCULATING THE NEED FOR MISSIONARIES
As stated above, two main factors are important in deciding where pioneer missionaries are needed: the strength of the existing church and the number of missionaries already present.
The first factor, the strength of the existing church, we represent with the letter “x.” A good way to measure that is to calculate the number of nonevangelicals per evangelical. This can be done with the formula x = (PE) /E, where E is the number of evangelicals and P the total population.
The second factor is the number of missionaries. For this discussion, I base my numbers on Operation World. This is often represented by “y”—the population for each missionary. Because we are interested here in where pioneer missionaries are needed, it is better to say “y nonevangelicals for each missionary” which can be represented as y = (PE) / M, where M is the number of missionaries.
The important next step is this: How can we relate these two factors (x and y) so that we end up with one figure for the need of missionaries?
To do this, I make one important assumption. The greater the ratio of nonevangelicals to evangelicals, the more missionaries a country needs. A country where there are one hundred nonevangelicals for every evangelical Christian needs ten times as many missionaries as a country where there are ten nonevangelicals per evangelical, and one hundred times as many as a country where there is just one nonevangelical for every evangelical Christian.1
If this assumption is right, both of the above factors (x and y) are equally important. We can easily find a measure for the relative need for pioneer missionaries by multiplying x and y: N=x*y, where N represents the need for pioneer missionaries.
What does figure N tell me? In itself N means nothing. It can only be compared with figures of other countries. If N for Thailand is ten times higher than N for Mexico (which it is), it means Thailand needs pioneer missionaries ten times more urgently than Mexico. If N for Thailand is seven times lower than N for Pakistan (which it is), it means Pakistan needs pioneer missionaries seven times more urgently than Thailand. Because N itself has no bearing on reality, it can be changed with a constant factor. I divided N by one million, to get a new N that is easier to read. That leads to the formula: N = (PE) 2 /ME106.
To illustrate this, Table One lists N for several countries of the world.2 Note that N varies between approximately 0.01 and 100. That range is shocking when you realize it implies Poland needs pioneer missionaries 10,000 times as urgently as Papua New Guinea. A rough division could be made in four categories:
Category One—N is ten or more: urgent need for pioneer missionaries. This is true for eighteen countries and for the twentyeight Muslim Creative Access Countries (CANs).
Category Two—N between one and ten: need for pioneer missionaries. This is true for fortyfour countries.
Category Three—N between 0.1 and 1: sufficient missionaries. This is true for seventythree countries.
Category Four—N less than 0.1: sufficient missionaries, possibly even over represented? This is true for fiftyone countries.
At the moment, just thirteen percent of all missionaries work in category one countries. Another thirty percent work in category two countries, where more pioneer missionaries are needed. Fortyone percent work in countries with sufficient missionaries, while sixteen percent work in countries which are probably over represented in our missionary attention. To reduce N in all the world’s countries to one (admittedly an arbitrary number), 367,000 extra missionaries would be needed.
WHEN TO USE THE NFORMULA
Table One (pdf) lists N for several of the world’s countries, but this is not the Nformula’s only possible use. It can also be used to measure the need for missionaries in:

• People groups
• Regions
• Provinces
• Cities
• Social groups
When this is done, the best practice is not to compare N for a certain people group with the country list provided here. It is better to compare N between different people groups, a comparison that is most reliable when the figures for each variable (population, evangelicals and missionaries) come from the same or a comparable source.
Used this way, the Nformula may be used as a rallying cry to mobilize missionaries for the neediest countries and peoples in the world. Mission leaders and missionaries can also use it in local situations. Should we start to work in town A or B? Is our emphasis on the South as opposed to the North of the country justified or not? Is it true this part of the city needs more outreach? Is there a social group that has lacked missionary attention till now? For all these questions, the Nformula can play an important role in determining the best answer.
If I had this tool when I was a mission leader, I would have found it easier to decide which people groups to prioritize. And now, as a church planter, the Nformula is already helping me to focus my work and is shaping my vision for the future.
LIMITATIONS OF THE NFORMULA
I believe the Nformula is a great tool for mission leaders to focus the work of their missions where the gospel is most needed. I believe it is a great tool for prospective pioneer missionaries to know where their ministry will matter most. I believe it is a great tool for missiologists who can use it to inform mission leaders, missionaries and future missionaries. Yet the Nformula is not gospel truth. Let me outline some of its limitations.
Evangelical Is Not the Same As Believer. Evangelical missiologists love to count evangelicals. And that’s probably the best we can do: counting membership of churches that adhere to the gospel’s core as we understand it. Yet we should never be tempted to consider this to be a rollcount of the roll of the Lamb. Many evangelicals are not true believers; many true believers are not evangelicals. Counting evangelicals tends to make us triumphalistic. When we use the Nformula, in which the world’s need is a function of (among other things) the lack of evangelicals, without taking into account other Christians, we need to make an extra effort to be as humble as our Master was.
Not All Missionaries Are Pioneer Missionaries. In the Nformula, one determinant of the need for pioneer missionaries is the number of missionaries already present. But not all, and not even most, missionaries are pioneer missionaries. It would be better only to take pioneer missionaries into account and not the others. But since these figures are not (yet) available, the total of all missionaries seems to be the best figure to take.
I expect that the range of outcome for the Nformula would become slightly narrower if statistics for pioneer missionaries were available. Missionaries in countries with a high need for evangelism and church planting are more likely to consider pioneer missionary statistics than those missionaries in countries with a larger existing church.
When using the Nformula for a situation where not only the total number of missionaries is known, but also the smaller subset of pioneer missionaries, I suggest taking the second number. Of course, that detracts from the possibility to compare with the Needlist in this article.
Not All Evangelists and Church Planters Are Taken into Consideration. Not only expatriate missionaries are evangelizing and planting churches. National Christians (whether we call them domestic missionaries or evangelists) are doing the same, yet they are not taken into account in the Nformula because their numbers are extremely hard to find. In my opinion, numbers that are comparable between countries cannot be given with any level of certainty. Having said that, the best statistical source I know of is Operation World.
One reason why it is not disastrous to leave national Christians out of the equation: the strength of the national church is already part of the Nformula, because the number of evangelicals (E) is an important part of it. Secondly, N in this article is given for countries as a whole.
Whether there are domestic crosscultural missionaries is not so relevant, because all peoples are lumped together in the national statistics. But in situations where there is a reliable figure for domestic missionaries, (e.g. how many domestic missionaries from other people groups, or from other regions, or from outside the city), it is better to include them in the figure for missionaries. Of course, only use this figure if it can be compared with others that include domestic missionaries. Remember, N itself has no meaning—it only gets its meaning by comparing it to the N of other countries/peoples/regions/cities.
In Special Cases, the Result May Be Misleading. While N gives a great overall comparison of the need for pioneer missionaries, the formula is better suited for some situations than for others. Where there is a large evangelical community with virtually no contact with the rest of society, the actual need for pioneer missionaries may be greater than N suggests. For example, in the block of Muslim CANs, a sizeable evangelical community exists. But the big majority of these are Copts in Egypt, and the overwhelming majority of the rest are expatriate workers. Both of these groups have very little impact on the Muslim world. If these groups are not taken into account, the N of the Muslim CANs, already high, would increase fivefold.
On the other hand, we could argue that ten people groups with a population of 100,000 each will require more missionaries than one people group with a population of one million. This is part of the explanation for the overrepresentation of missionaries found in Papua New Guinea and many countries in Africa.
Both of these examples show that peoplegroup thinking is important for the Nformula as well. In this article, N is given for countries, but it would be worthwhile to calculate it for people groups.
Another way that N may be misleading is a consequence of the formula’s mathematics. For example, the N for all CANs together is about four. If we split them in Muslim and nonMuslim CANs, N for both of these groups is much higher. How can the need for pioneer missionaries become higher just by splitting the population? It works this way: the higher E times M is, the lower N. Now let’s assume ten evangelicals and ten missionaries in a population of two hundred: EM equals one hundred. But now we discover that this population is actually two peoples with a population of one hundred each. One group has one evangelical and nine missionaries, the other has nine evangelicals and one missionary. For both populations EM is nine, or eleven times lower, while the square of P is just four times lower. That results in N being much higher for the separate people groups than for the two combined. This shows that N is a more reliable figure when the population is more homogeneous. Again, this is a call to determine N not only for countries, but also for people groups.
CONSIDER MISSIONARY EFFECTIVENESS
It is helpful to know the relative need for missionaries, but that’s not all there is in deciding where missionaries should go. The decision involves where missionaries will be effective as well. Therefore, the Nformula is not a foolproof indicator about where to send or go.
The problem here is that the effectiveness of missionaries is impossible to determine. Eventually, the question of a pioneer missionary’s effectiveness is: how many people will belong to the Lord on the last day because of his or her ministry?
I do not know how many people made a profession of faith through my ministry. I certainly do not know how many of these were genuine. I do not know how important my role was, or the role of other Christians. I do not know how many people will become Christians through someone else’s ministry, partly because of my preparation work. I do not know how many people came to the Lord and yet will come to the Lord through my spiritual children, grandchildren and their descendants. I do not know how many would have put their trust in the Lord Jesus through other people if I had not been there. I do not know any of these things, and it is theoretically impossible to know all of them. All these uncertainties bring me to my last point.
FORUMLAN CAN NEVER TAKE THE PLACE OF GOD’S GUIDANCE
Facing all of the unknowns in missionary effectiveness, I am tremendously relieved that it is the Lord of the harvest who sends out his laborers. He will accomplish his purpose with this world, with all peoples and all missionaries. He will lead and guide us. He may call us to serve him in this or that country, and we will have to heed his call, whether that country’s N is high or low.
Effectiveness of the missionary may not even be the highest point on God’s agenda. He may send a missionary to a people “so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). He may be more concerned about his work in the missionary than his work through the missionary. And when we read the Bible, we are reminded that God’s idea of effectiveness does not easily square with our instincts about the subject. Kosuke Koyama noted that God’s Son came to this earth, and probably walked six kilometers an hour (1999).
When the Bible talks about growth, the dying of the seed precedes multiplication. In missions, using more organic pictures and less mechanical ones would help us be more biblical and less managerial. It would help keep us humble and realize that it is God who gives the growth.
God’s guidance is not purely an individual, mystical experience. He can use the Nformula in guiding mission leaders and candidates—as I am sure he will. But the formula is not entirely based on rational grounds either—that would be impossible, given the almost infinite variables we face. It’s meant to be that way. That will help us remain dependent on God through fellowship with him, his church and the Scriptures.
References
Johnstone, Patrick. 2001. Operation World. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK : Paternoster Lifestyle.
Koyama, Kosuke. 1999. Water Buffalo Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Plueddemann, Jim. 1995. “Measurable Objectives, No; Faith Goals, Yes.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 31:2:184187.
Endnotes
1. For countries with a low percentage of evangelicals, this comes close to saying: a country with 0.1 percent evangelical believers needs ten times as many missionaries as a country with one percent evangelicals, and one hundred times as many as a country with ten percent evangelicals. I do not use this even simpler formula, because obviously the country with 0.1 percent evangelicals does not need one thousand times as many missionaries as a country with one hundred percent evangelicals—that last country does not need pioneer missionaries at all!
2. A full table of all countries in the world is available from the author at martenvisser@zending.org.
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Marten Visser has been a church planter with the OMF and the Reformed Mission League in Bangkok, Thailand, since 2000. Before that he was director of Gave, a mission among refugees in the Netherlands. He has an M.A. in anthropology, an M.Div., and a Th.M. in missiology from Utrecht University.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 220227. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.
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