Categories of Progress

I’ve recently finished reading Hans Rosling’s (posthumously published book) Factfulness. This book is a valuable examination of good analytical mental habits, especially for lay people, and I highly recommend it for your Kindle app.

What was particularly interesting to me was how they broke the world down into four categories based on consumable income. They call this “Dollar Street,” and showed how all over the world, people in roughly the same category of spending would do things in roughly the same way.

I thought we could similarly analyze places and peoples by percent Christian (in the broadest sense). While it can be challenging to know the precise % Christian of a place or a people group, we could reasonably accurately identify a general level.

Dollar Street’s categories are based on doublings. They go roughly like this:

Stage 1
0-2%
Stage 2
2-8%
Stage 3
8-32%
Stage 4
32% and above



The total count of countries or provinces by level was fairly unsurprising:

Of greater interest to me was the populations at each of the levels. (In the province graph below, I’ve included a “Level 0”: these are provinces for which I have absolutely no indicator of any Christian believers at all.)

The Dollar Street-style implications of this analysis can be taken further in the future; in this post, I just want to highlight something that comes out of greater granularity of data: the “hidden” nature of less-reached places.A country like India can have enough Christians in some spots to push it “a little higher” on the “level” scale (and in many other lists, too)–and yet these Christians are “localized” in a few places. So while some countries can show up on some lists as being “more reached,” the reality is inside the countries there are pockets of more and less reached places.

The reality is, something like a quarter of the world’s population lives in locations that are less than 2% Christian–places that are heavily unevangelized, where many can live never meeting a believer. And, another quarter of the world lives in places that are between 2% and 8% Christian–perhaps not “unreached” by some definitions, but areas where a lot of work is left to be done.

This kind of reality holds just as true for people groups and provinces as it does for countries. Inside any large population there will be more-reached and less-reached subsets. Look at Turkey: the west is more engaged than the east. Look inside Istanbul, and you’ll find the same thing.

Before anyone asks: no, my list is not publicly available; it’s internal to Beyond and some of our partners. But really, the point of this post is: this kind of analysis is not rocket science. You could do it yourself for any place where you work. Just grab a list of the provinces or districts for the country you’re working in, and for each place, ask yourself which level each of the component segments is obviously at. For most places, with a little bit of Googling, you’ll find Census data or other survey data that will help you figure it out.

I leave the exercise to you because I think it’s a needed one: it teaches us to look inside the segments, find the nuance and look for the gaps, the people who have less access. That’s a skill that all of us in mission strategy need to develop.

Women in Missions

I ran across this quote today:

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.

Virginia Wolf

Whether this is quote is correctly attributed or not (or even whether it is true), it did set me to reflecting on how at least in modern history – and probably in a great deal of history – much of Christian mission’s activities were accomplished by women, even if their history has not been written.

Today, if we exclude the percentage of missionaries who are couples (equal share, 50/50, male/female), and look at the singles, single women in mission (and in the church generally) are known to largely (and in some agencies, vastly) outnumber single men.

This means that the majority of Protestant missionaries are women.

Further, if we contemplate Roman Catholic missionaries, we often think of well known missionary orders like Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, etc. – and so we think of the stereotypical monk under vows of celibacy. But the reality is, nuns outnumber monks by about 7-to-1: in 2017, worldwide, there were 753,400 women and 191,800 men in ‘the consecrated life.’

I think any mission needs to contemplate what it means to mostly consist of women. Do we write their histories and their stories? Do we consider their needs and their safety? Do we give them authority and let them lead?

Urbanization probably higher than 55%

The United Nations estimates that the world’s population is over 55% urbanized (Link). When you dive deep into the statistics, you find they are messy: countries self report on urbanization, and different countries have different methods for calculating it.

Researchers using high-resolution satellite imagery estimate and a standard algorithm challenge this and instead estimate the world is over 84% urban already.

Out of curiosity, I checked my own district survey, which has the world’s population broken out by provinces and districts. For each province I have the population and area in square kilometers. According to Google, 1 square kilometer = 0.3 square miles, or ~240 acres.

All of the provinces together equate to about 6.9 billion people. (This is not the 2018 population, I know, but the important thing is the relative ratios.)

Provinces with population densities (population / total area) of more than 100 people per square kilometers (or 100 per 250 acres, or 1 per ~2 acres) have a total population of 4.8 billion, or 72% of the world’s population.

Provinces with population densities of more than 1,000 per square kilometer have a total population of 866 million. There are 330 such provinces. These are mostly cities. The most densely populated province in my database, right now, is Macau, with a density of over 57,000 per square kilometer.

Focusing on high-density populations can be a strategic way of penetrating a population, because people will naturally move to more-densely populated places (urbanized areas) for work, etc. And these figures seem to confirm that the world is generally even more urbanized, already, than the “floor” figure of 55%.

How fast movements need to grow

I have been frequently asked, “what size counts as a movement” and “how fast does a movement grow”? The common definition I use for a movement is: “consistently reaching four generations of church planting in short periods of time.” Obviously, this leaves a little ambiguity: movements are not machines, made up of precisely engineered pieces of metal, but rather structures like forests, made up of organically growing groups of people.

This week, however, I heard a suggestion of size from a global movement coach that seemed to fit. He noted that it takes some time to get to four generations: often years. Once four generations is reached, “most movements” typically add another generation each year.

At first, this might sound as though it would take a long time to double: four generations, adding one generation per year, would take four years to double. However, we are not interested in the number of generations, but rather in the number of believers, groups, and churches. Disciples who make disciples leads to exponential growth; groups that multiply groups enhance this further. If each generation is larger than the last (and they will be, if church planting is done in multiple streams) equates to multiplying growth that takes up a larger percentage of a given population.

Let’s use some numbers to illustrate this. Assume a movement that is a precisely engineered machine (just for the sake of the illustration). Each group averages 14 people, and each group plants three new groups in a period of one year.

Growth is very slow at first: months can go by with no groups and perhaps no believers. The leap between year 3 and year 4 will be easily remarked upon; the leap between year 4 and 5 even more so. Between year 7 and year 8, the movement would become very difficult to track.

How fast things can change (and how difficult it can be to track) is readily obvious from just trying to chart such growth:

… only two strands instead of 3 off the original host, and only goes down 5 generations…

This is not just an abstract exercise. The original spreadsheet above has the appearance of an arm-chair theoretical exercise, but we now have dozens of case studies of movements, many of which are either somewhat faster or slightly slower than this growth curve.

Let’s do something different. What if the movement is a little messier? Let’s say that only 60% of the churches make another church. Those numbers would be:

This is a much slower growth pattern, obviously, but it would still significantly impact any single district of ~100,000 population, and be closing in on 1% of a million-population province. In some unreached areas, that would be a game changer.

The point: a movement doesn’t have to add another four generations in a single span of time (e.g. a year to two years); it needs only to add one. That is a huge triumph: adding another generation (e.g. each church in the furthest out generation plants 2 to 3 new house groups) each year would lead to massive doubling, and in one generation of people (~20 years) could change the course of a nation.

Christian distribution: Global South vs Global North

Over the weekend, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity shared this graph:

A few interesting things about this charge:

  • It’s 0 to 100%, so it shows the share of all Christians in each of the regions.
  • Note how the “heyday” of Christianity as a Western/”Global North” religion peaked in 1500; by 1970 the shift to the Global South had been almost complete, and by 2050 it will be nearly complete.
  • While this chart shows %s, it’s being driven by population. The population center for the world is in the Global South, and this won’t change any time in the balance of this century at least. Christianity already claims a substantial portion of the population of the North; additional significant gains (of the kind that could alter this chart) just aren’t possible. The population of the South is several times larger than the North, and Christianity has only made a small dent there: there is a much “bigger ocean” of potential Christians. The North can’t get ahead.
  • That said, what this chart doesn’t show is the cultural influence of Northern Christianity. So far, what cross-cultural influence there is of one form of Christianity on another seems to me to be largely Northern/Western Christianity influencing the rest of the world. We have yet to see significant broad cultural influence from non-Western forms of Christianity in the West. That said, there are already some indicators of this influence: there are outlier points where Africans or Asians have significant evangelistic impact in Europe or America, for example.
  • While the South isn’t yet having an impact on the North, it seems to me from this chart that eventually, the balance of probability is that it will. It will be interesting to see what form this takes. For example, China’s government has a push to “Sinify” Chinese Christianity. If it sees a form develop that the government is happy with, what might it do to push that form of Christianity into the world? (Admittedly, that’s a long stretch, but it demonstrates some extreme possibilities over a century’s time.)

Several people have asked about comments

Several people have asked about comments. The theme I use on this blog, typically, is P2, and its commenting system is really not the easiest to integrate with Twitter, Facebook, etc.

I’m working on getting this ironed out this morning. I may end up having to permanently switch themes (I’ve explored other themes, but often come back to P2) in order to have a better commenting system.

Thanks for bearing with me.

Evangelization throughout the centuries

% of the world that was evangelized, AD 100 to AD 2000. Unfortunately due to massive population increase, 1900 and 2000 are both “off the scale”; AD 2000 saw the world with over 6 billion people, 73% evangelized.

“% Evangelized” includes both Christians and evangelized non-Christians, and is based on data from the World Christian Encyclopedia / World Christian Trends.

The Time it Takes

“You’re not called and commissioned to attend a service once a week. You’re called to make disciples.” ~@ToddAdkins

Yesterday on social media I ran across a podcast that decried what I think is a “straw man” argument: that missionaries were being pulled from “more reached” areas and sent to “less reached” areas – before the more-reached areas were adequately reached/evangelized/finished/trained. Worse, in the “less reached” areas, these missionaries/agencies were practicing a kind of “lift-your-hand” evangelism, seeking rapid converts and then leaving them without adequate training or preparation.

While I appreciate the passion of the speaker, whose primary concern was that people have adequate training and that theological error be corrected, in my experience this “problem” is just not the case. I don’t pretend to speak for every agency out there, but I know numerous agencies and hundreds of leaders representing thousands of workers seeking to start movements amongst the unreached. None of those would go for a “lift your hand” kind of “come to Jesus” moment. They are all intent on the intense ongoing discipleship of workers.

The primary nuance of “movement” thinking is that believers aren’t asked to wait to share their faith or make other disciples until they are somehow “fully trained.” Instead, they are simply asked to share what they know with others in their circle: to be a witness now. “Disciple-making,” in this context, can be as simple as sharing the Bible story I read this morning with someone else over lunch time, and the two of us thinking through how we’re going to obey the story today, tomorrow, and this week, and who we are further going to share it with. It is the living, breathing, “walking together” of people in the faith, “one-anothering,” holding ourselves accountable to each other, praying for each other, etc. It is 2 Timothy 2:2 in action: what we receive, we pass on to others.

Missionaries can’t teach everyone, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach anyone. (Or evangelize, or disciple, or…). The missionary task among the unreached is about setting in motion the processes that lead to all hearing, sharing, discipling, training, pastoring, teaching, etc.

That task takes a long time. Recently, for one of Beyond’s discipleship nuggets, I shared what I called the “13 stages of a missionary career.” I’m including the Powerpoint below, because I think it’s helpful to highlight just how long, involved, and committed the process of reaching an unreached people group actually is.

Journey Stages: 13 phases (PDF)

Throwing back starfish

Stop me if you’ve heard this story:

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

This story – or rather, this particular version of the story – is fairly well known. I think we like it – especially in this version – because it contrasts “cynical old” with “innocent young” and claims that every little thing we do (no matter how seemingly hopeless) matters. But there are actually two debates in the story:

  • whether acting actually matters
  • whether what we are doing is enough.

The second insidiously slips in.

The most obvious question of the story is whether it’s worth it to act at all. The cynical old man thinks not: if you can’t save them all, why bother to save one? The innocence of the child says the value of the one is enough to act. But the question we must then ask is: is it enough to save one by one? Shouldn’t we get better at saving starfish?

Is it better to spend one’s time doing “the simple, innocent things of life” – the “most that we can” – (e.g. throwing starfish back out to sea), or is it better to grow our skills, increase our network of laborers, and get better at saving starfish? Is it better to be the innocent, simple child (“become as a child”?) or to “professionalize”?

This is not a “should we act or not” question, but rather a “good to great” question.

Another version of the story adds this to the end:

The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.

This adaptation speaks to the idea of inspiration leading to exponential growth. But again, note how in the story it is the “innocence” and “simplicity” of the child which inspires the old man, and in some nameless way leads to a sudden party on the beach.

I appreciate innocence and simplicity. However, big, complicated problems don’t really work this way. You can’t share the Gospel with millions, or clothe the hungry, feed the poor, care for the orphans, eradicate diseases, etc., “one by one.” Scalable strategies that reach millions require strategies that are–yes!–simple in execution yet infinitely scalable. The reality is, you can teach someone to share the Gospel or hold a Discovery Bible Study or make disciples in fairly simple ways. But getting tens of thousands of people do it is far more complex than the simple individual action itself. The higher you scale, the more complex the interplay of “simple actions.”

Throwing Starfish one by one is all well and perhaps good, and makes a difference for the one – but we must admit that in the context of all the starfish, “it’s not great.”

This is the insidious bit. “It’s not great, but it makes a difference to one,” says the innocent child.

We equate I can’t reach all the starfish in the world (physical impossibility) with I can’t reach all the starfish on this beach (logistical challenge).

We equate what is a difficult task with the larger impossibility, and we fall back to one-by-one: “what I perceive that I can do makes a difference.”

There is a middle ground between “one by one” and “you can’t save them all.” Unfortunately we can use this story as an excuse to avoid getting better and doing bigger things.

But this story gets stranger yet. The version we know is a stripped down and simplified retelling of a larger essay by Loren Eiseley, in a book published in 1979. I don’t have the original book, but I’ve found a large part of the story online. It’s an odd, tortured, near hopeless meditation on issues of death and the part we play. At the end of it, the poet becomes a “star thrower” himself–but more out of a desire for his own salvation rather than out of love for starfish:

I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death, the burning sun, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save, a thrower who loved not man, but life.

In this story, throwing the starfish is a metaphor similar to “raging against the night.”

I wish we would stop using (or at least hesitate to use) stories like these, which have their roots in hopelessness. The best moral of the story seems to be, “What I’m doing makes a difference to at least one person, and that’s enough.” The worst lesson of the story is, “Your efforts will make no visible difference against the onrushing darkness, but are an action of some kind of mystical faith, without much certainty, thrown in a protest against death.”

Jesus calls us to follow him in obedience, and promises the whole world can hear the Good News if we do so. He tells us to “lift up our eyes to the harvest” and to “pray for more workers.” We don’t have to be alone on the beach, moving from starfish to starfish, from man to man and woman to woman and child to child in some hopeless beating of our heads against the wind. We have a promise of eternal life and Jesus’ call to make disciples of others – to make fishers of mankind, who will make fishers of mankind, who will make fishers of mankind – an exponentially exploding Kingdom-party spreading throughout the world. There is no shame or loss of innocence in thinking bigger than a single starfish saved.

Are Muslim birth rates faster than Christian birth rates

Globally, Pew Research notes that “babies born to Muslims will begin to outnumber Christian births by 2035”:

This top headline gets a lot of press. What is less looked at are the drivers of rising Muslim birth rates.

In an average year, Christians and Muslims both have about the same number of babies worldwide: ~210 to 220 million. Christians are often the majority in “older” population regions, however, and their average age is older: there are a lot more deaths among Christians than Muslims. In an average year, Christians have about ~100 million deaths, vs Islam’s ~60 million. This means the net demographic increase for Muslims is much higher. Any upward tick in the Muslim birth rate will, therefore, have sizable effects.

Both religions are being impacted by regional trends:

  • In Europe, where the number of Muslims is low and the number of Christians is high, Christianity follows the European demographic trend of falling populations, while Muslims are benefiting from immigration and high birth rates among first-generation Muslims. Later generations of Muslims in multi-generational families see falling birth rates. Muslims do not have a high enough birth+immigration+conversion rate to “take over” the continent, despite scary videos to the contrary.
  • In Asia-Pacific, both Islam and Christianity are seeing falling demographic growth rates as the population as a whole sees declining AGR. This area was a high-growth region for Islam up until now, but the changing pattern will reduce this.
  • North America and Latin America both see stagnant demographic growth rates among both Christian and Muslim populations.
  • Middle East/North Africa, too, sees falling demographic growth rates: most populations in the MENA region are seeing crashing growth rates and emigration out, and conversion in the region has largely suffered due to wars and rising persecution (although there are numerous outlier situations of conversion movements etc).
  • The big story is Subsaharan Africa: where rapidly rising population growth is impacting both Islam and Christianity. As it happens, for a variety of factors, demographic growth in Subsaharan Africa is leveling off for Christians, while continuing to increase for Muslims.

Unfortunately the two reports on which the data is based, “The future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050” and “The Changing Global Religious Landscape” are somewhat limited reports. While they explore demographic patterns in detail, they (1) in my estimation seriously underestimate % Christian in some places (such as China, estimated at 5% Christian), and (2) seriously underestimate the role of “religious switching” (conversion). The reports state they modeled “religious switching” in only 70 countries; they do not “model” (count) religious switching in either India or China. This is a significant flaw: the population of Christians in both places has grown primarily through switching over the past several decades. Further, the report goes on to estimate the growth with and without switching, and concludes switching makes no appreciable difference (but I doubt this outcome because of the flawed methodology of only modeling switching in 70 countries). (I also find it humorous that Pew’s “Future of World Religions” report, on p. 187, says “Since religious change previously has never been projected on this scale…”–completely ignoring the work of the World Christian Encyclopedia/World Christian Database, which projected religious populations for every country and every religion to 2050 nearly two decades ago).

So, while this “headline” on Muslim vs Christian births gets a lot of press, I’m not giving it a lot of credibility. The numbers between birth rates are so close and the factors driving them–and their calculation–are so variable and uncertain, that I think the headline has just as good a chance of being untrue as true.