I am occasionally very disappointed in reports.
When I was younger, we were so used to hearing “overblown reports” we had a phrase for it – “evangelistically speaking.” – from evangelists who inflated the numbers of respondents.
This still happens today. It happens among the unreached. I am aware of one case where a movement estimated at 500,000 was later assessed at less than 100,000.
Worse, there are arguments over reports. How big is the movement? Is it really that big? Is it 100,000 or 200,000? Is it 1 million or 3 million or 6 million?
When movements are very small relative to the population, it can be hard to find accurate data: “I don’t see all these reported churches.” Jealousies can figure in. We Christians are still broken people.
When numbers get argued with or refuted, it is discouraging. Where did who go wrong? Was it wilful? Was it accidental? Was it just too much excitement, too much “rounding up,” too much chasing after dollars?
There are many different possibilities, and I’m not going to belabor specific case examples. Instead, let me argue that we’re so eager for progress in the Great Commission, it’s almost inevitable we latch on too excitedly to numbers with little meaning in the wider context.
Imagine a church of 10 reports that after a year it is 20. This represents 100% growth – a doubling! Celebrate! The end is in sight!
But if the wider population context is a city of 100,000, then while we celebrate 10 more souls in the Kingdom, it’s really pretty meaningless in terms of the whole.
Imagine a movement in the midst of 10 million people reported to be 300,000. (This is a completely hypothetical example–don’t go looking for a movement that matches.) A later assessment says, “No, it’s really 100,000.”
Is it a big deal? On the one hand, yes: a difference of 2/3rds indicates some systemic reporting or assessment issues (or maybe other issues) need to be addressed.
But in the context of the wider population, 300,000 per 10,000,000 is 30 per 1,000 and 100,000 per 10 million is 10 per 1,000. The order of magnitude – the number of digits involved – has not changed. The difference in percentage is the difference between 3% and 1%, which is enough to tip some of the “reached” scales, but hardly enough to make a difference in the situation of Christianity in the population (it’s still 99% or 97% non-Christian).
When we get overly excited about changes at this level, it seems to me we’re not focused enough on the big picture – the “all” that have yet to be reached.
In order to avoid that, I think we need less sensitive scales.Rather than tracking the number of believers (which is always difficult anyway), I suggest we ought to consider a more stable, less changing scale–one where “when a difference is made” it is really a significant difference.
Rather than tracking the number of believers (which is always difficult anyway), I suggest we ought to consider a more stable, less changing scale–one where “when a difference is made” it is a different that is significant to the non-believers.a significant difference.
The Joshua Project 5-stage scale is one example of a “less sensitive scale.” The one I’m toying with right now is population per church, rounded to the nearest order of magnitude: 1 million per, 100,000 per, 10,000 per, 1,000 per, 100 per. (This is the inverse of churches per million).
Why use this? Wouldn’t churches per million or % Christian be easier?
Yes, perhaps: but it struck me today that measuring population per church keeps our focus on the right thing – the remaining task – and the number of digits within the figure can serve as a sort of “countdown” clock.
100,000,000 per church = 9
10,000,000 per church = 8
1,000,000 per church = 7
100,000 per church = 6
10,000 per church = 5
1,000 per church = 4
100 per church = 3
10 per church = 2
 
Computing the precise number of churches within a given population can be difficult, but the beauty of this system is the count doesn’t have to be precise. In a population of 100 million, 10 churches would get you to level 8; 100 churches would get you to level 7; 1,000 churches would get you to level 6; 10,000 churches would get you to level 5; 100,000 churches would get you to level 4. It would be fairly easy to know which of those “finish lines” you are across without knowing the specific number of churches. One could ask the simple question: “in this movement, are we talking about tens, hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of churches”? Very few movements have thousands of churches!
Finally, the questions:

  • “what will it take” to get from 100 churches to 200 churches
  • “what will it take” to get from 100 churches to 1,000 churches

are very different.