The Global Church Growth Outlook

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The task of finishing the Great Commission has long been a passion of mine. I have been a missionary researcher for more than two decades, now. In the course of that time, I have primarily focused on three tasks. First, I have been involved in documenting the task—particularly focusing on the remaining or unfinished parts. If we are to ‘finish’ the task, we need to know what is left to do. Second, after collecting large quantities of documentation, I have been involved in categorizing and analyzing the data, in the process understanding reasons why the task is unfinished in some places, and why it is making gains in others. Third, and finally, I have been involved in advocating that the Church needs to allocate adequate resources to overcoming the barriers and bringing the Good News to everyone.
Over the years those of us who are passionate about missions have come to use a variety of phrases to refer to the ‘remaining’ or ‘unfinished’ task—those people who have not yet heard: phrases like unevangelized and unreached and least-reached. Each of these have a variety of meanings and definitions which affect how we collect and analyze data. I won’t go into the details here. For the most part, while I generally prefer ‘unevangelized,’ in this document I will use ‘unreached’ as the more commonly known definition.
Unfortunately, the original definition of unreached did not have any statistical measure. The reasons are part of history, but the result is a variety of methods used to determine whether a specific group is unreached or not. The most common one: is the group less than 5% Christian (of any tradition) and/or less than 2% Evangelical? This is the measure that I will use here.
Part of the challenge of the remaining task is getting enough detail. Things can look very bright (or very gloomy) when looking at 200+ countries or 250+ major languages. But when you descend into the complexity of individual peoples, provinces and cities, matters become murky. A people group of 10 million might be ‘engaged’ by a church planting team: at the people group level, this is good news. But the reality is, this ‘engagement’ means the team is located in a major city, and while the people within that city might hear the Gospel, it’s very possible the people outside that city might not. Reaching Istanbul, for example, does not mean that Ankara or points east will hear.
It is this reality that has led me to focus on larger and more complex sets of data. While others have focused on peoples, I have tended to focus more on places. Some have thought this a ‘regression’ to the old days when we built our strategies around nation-states—days that Dr. Winter and others moved us past. But the truth is, I think ‘places’ is a necessarily level of detail within the idea of peoples. Some peoples are small enough to be confined to one place. Others are spread out over multiple places: the Bengali, for example, are spread throughout Bangladesh and into eastern India. Adequate engagement means dealing with every people group in every place they live.
I began compling the ‘District Survey,’ which breaks the world’s populations down into countries, then into provinces, and then into districts and subdistricts, aiming for populations of about 100,000. In doing so, I began uncovering a number of fascinating discoveries.
Out of over 4,000 provinces, just 825 provinces are estimated to be less than 5% Christian. 2.7 billion people, or nearly a third of the world’s total population, live in them.
About 1.9 billion people (1.87 billion of them non-Christians) live in 40 of these 825 provinces, each having more than 10 million in population. This is just shy of 40% of all non-Christians (who would confess to being something other than Christian-—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc).
Armed with this data, we can see two ways to make the world vastly “more Christian”: we can tackle the 750 ‘small population’ provinces, or we can tackle the 40 ‘large population’ provinces. It seems to me that while it would require more resources, it might be less complicated to take on the 40. An additional benefit of this strategy is that these 40 provinces are very influential. They include major world cities and hubs of commerce: making a difference here would have a significant spillover effect.
Because these 40 are such an incredible concentration of non-Christian peoples, and making a difference here would have such an impact, I decided to spend much of 2015 largely focused on them. One of the first questions I began thinking about was: how do we know where to go? Which of these 40 might be ‘easier’ and which might be ‘harder’?
I began experimenting with an ‘Outlook’ variable to predict this. I identified several factors related in part to the % Evangelized scale (World Christian Encyclopedia): annual growth rates, violence, HDI, literacy, religious power, liberty, globalization, church presence, recent growth, church publicity, expatriate believers, mission efforts and indigenous denominations. The Outlook variable, which is a simple sum of these factors, providing a score from approximately -30 to +30.
A score around ‘zero’ indicates negatives (violence, religious strongholds, persecution, etc.) balance positives (church presence, expatriates, cross-cultural efforts, etc.): the prospects for church growth are probably around 50/50 and will involve some pain. Positive scores exceeding 10-15 theorize a much sunnier scenario.
In this file, I present the ‘Outlook’ for the church in each province, based on this work, including a descriptive essay, data tables, and photos. Each week we update the Outlook to include another province; by the end of the year I should have covered all 40. Then we will consider which of the smaller provinces to focus on next.
This work is in its infancy. I have great confidence in the factors, but welcome comments and suggetions. Email justin@beyond.org.