Last week, Missiographics published a new infographic on the question of, “The most strategic way to further the church planting movement.” (As a side note, the term “church planting movement” here is not directly related to DMMs or CPMs.) The infographic was based on some research done by Chris Maynard (PDF for the Global Church Planting Network).
Over the Thanksgiving holiday there was some Twitter-based conversations and chatter about this particular infographic and what it would mean. In this post, I want to break down some of the stats presented and discuss their implications.
1. Regarding the kind of churches:
First, the basic assumption: this is an evangelical model. We need to keep this in mind. When we talk about the ratio of churches to people, we’re talking about evangelical churches – so a high concentration of non-evangelical churches won’t count in this model. There’s nothing wrong in that–you can define a model however you like–but it helps us to understand why the model turns out certain ways in certain places.
2. Regarding the number of churches needed:
Next, I want to quickly deal with the few challenges I find in the graphic and the PDF around the number of churches required. While the PDF cited does not indicate how, precisely, Maynard decided this number (and in fact gives a range for each country), the graphic indicates a formula of “1 evangelical church for every 1,500 people in urban populations, and 1 for every 500 in rural populations.” So we have a formula: number of churches required = ratio based on population.
It does make sense more churches would be needed in rural settings than in urban settings, because rural settings are more dispersed. However, in urban settings, what this formula says is–”one church per 1,500 people.”
What does this mean? We have another clue in the statement, “between 5 and 20 million new evangelical churches are needed in order to reach the world.
This brings us to a key problem that we always face when interpreting goals, plans, and analyses. When we say “reach the world,” what do we mean? It’s very important to make sure we understand what the author of any particular study or plan means when they say this, as it may not be the same as what I, the reader, means–and a lot of disagreement hangs on this misunderstanding.
The long standing missionary definition of “unreached” (the inverse of “reached”) is:
An unreached or least-reached people is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group.
But not everyone uses this definition. For example, one denomination has a goal of “reaching” a particular people group. But when I asked what their definition of “reaching” was, their response was
“reaching refers to _x_ who make a profession of faith in Christ and claim to be a Christian.”
These two “endpoints” are very different! One is about planting a church within an area which can, over time, adequately evangelize the group – by which I mean, they can present an opportunity to become a disciple of Christ to everyone in the area, both now and in the future. It doesn’t mean that everyone will accept the opportunity! By this definition, everyone who comes to a Billy Graham Crusade, for example, would be considered “reached,” even if they didn’t “walk the aisle.” People who see the Jesus Film are “reached” even if they don’t accept Christ. And so on.
On the other hand, if our definition of reached is “become a Christian,” the whole world will likely never be “reached”–because not everyone will accept Christ. So understanding which definition is being used, and thus which endpoint is being aimed for, is important.
Once we understand what we mean by “reached,” then we can answer the question, “how many people can a church, on average, ‘reach’?”
The infographic suggests 1 church is needed for every 1,500 people. What will be done with these 1,500? Are they being ‘reached’? Converted? Discipled? Trained? Mobilized? Sent out? Are we saying that a church cannot do this (whatever ‘this’ is, this ‘reaching’) with more than 1,500? (per year? per decade? per lifetime?)
Infographics are very concise things, and the document this infographic is based on is also very concise, so we can’t really immediately answer these questions, or others: What sort of church is the typical church in each of these settings? Are large churches (i.e. megachurches) more common? Or smaller, house churches? A church of 20 people might only be relationally connected to a few hundred (especially in more restricted access settings). A larger church (of, say, 200 to 400 people, as is more common in Western regions) would likely be relationally connected to far more than 1,500 people.
The typical size of the church is hinted at in “data suggests that we need between 25 to 100 believers to plant a new church in the right place.” Again, I question: Is this a global average? What data? In more restricted places, far fewer than 25 are involved in any single church – more cannot safely meet together. Are “Discovery Bible Studies” also “churches” in this model?
So, bottom line: to figure out the number of (evangelical or otherwise) churches needed, we must understand (a) the task needed, (b) the size of the church and (c) the number of people this church ‘reach’ or engage with. Then, in order to meet the need, we either need to (a) increase the number of churches (or (b) increase the number of people that any single church engages with (“meeting the need”). By comparison, in the business world, if you want to meet a market need, you either need more stores (each one handling a set number of shoppers) or you need to increase the size of the store (more shoppers per store).
On a small side note, a “reality check”: “one church per 1,500 people” is a nice back-of-the-envelope measure, but we all know that on the ground, it won’t be 1 per 1,500. In every place, there will be a “long tail” of churches – a few that have a lot, some that have most, and most that have a few. This phenomena naturally occurs whenever people are involved in social activities, and is well documented in books like “The Long Tail.” I just mention this as an aside so no one will discount the infographic’s value just because the ground reality diverges a bit. When we say “1:1,500″ we’re talking about averages, not hard-and-fast rules.
All of these are rather small bones to pick. I may question the numbers of churches required based on the assumptions, and seek a little more clarity in definition. But this is not the real value of the graphic or the survey. Let me turn to those now.
3. The value of this infographic & the survey behind it
Chris (and the folks at Missiographics) have done us a really great service in two ways: first, they show us the scale of the task required (especially on a country by country basis); and second, they show us the kinds of help that are required.
Scale’s always a good thing. When we say “between 5 and 20 million churches are required,” it’s not just eye-opening–it’s eye-popping. It’s a “lift up your eyes to the harvest” moment. Whether we think “more” or “less” churches are required is a smaller detail than the macro view which tells us a lot of work remains to be done.
But even more important is the kind of work that needs to be done. This is perhaps the greatest part of this whole thing. Maynard identifies 5 key forms of partnership, along with a formula for determining which is needed: pioneering, partnering, supporting, encouraging, and challenging. The kind of work needed in Afghanistan (pioneering) is decidedly different from the kind required in China (supporting), or the kind needed in the United States (challenging).
That is an absolutely essential concept to understand. (Looking at the map on the infographic also brings me back to the old “World A/B/C” trichotomy used in the World Christian Encyclopedia: the “core of the core” needs pioneering & partnering work, while World B places like India, China and Indonesia need supporting work.)
(Another aside: the difference between Africa, which needs “encouraging” vs Europe, which needs “supporting” like China, really shows the Evangelical bias here, but also shows how strongly evangelical Christianity has rooted itself in Africa and Latin America.)
Maynard’s scale would be very useful if applied out to the province and district level: such a thing would give us a very high resolution view of the task remaining (and show differences within places like China). He may not have access to that kind of data but (ahem!) fortunately I know where the data might be readily to hand. I hope to apply these five categories rather rapidly to my own data set.
It would be very useful if individual agencies could figure out where in these 5 niches they tend to “play” (as well as funders, foundations, churches, etc). Understanding what kind of work one does would help you to identify where in the world you could best do it.