Why rapid growth declines as movements increase in size

When they are small, movements tend to experience very rapid growth— they might double in size multiple times in a given year. Over time, as movements get larger, this growth tends to plateau. Why? Is it because, as time passes, evangelists get less enthusiastic? The case studies of movements I have collected don’t suggest this is the case. There’s a simpler and, I think, inevitable cause that actually hallmarks a success, not a failure.

Movements begin due to abundant Gospel-spreading activity.

Especially among the unreached, this activity is usually conducted by people with missionary or evangelistic giftings. Much of this activity could be termed “abundant sowing” (to use a Biblical term) or “super-spreading” (to use an epidemiological term that many have become familiar with). One example of this kind of event was the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached and saw 3,000 come to faith on that day. Other examples include Paul’s activities in various cities and places, where he evangelized large portions of the population in a relatively short period of time.

“Abundant sowing” is marked by large numbers of people being added through “conversion” growth. This growth can be explosively fast and can lead to rapid doublings and expansions of size. It can be exhilarating, especially if it happens in places where there has been no fruit for some time.

Movements continue to expand through the combination of two different kinds of growth: “abundant sowing” and “personal witness.”

The first Gospel-spreaders often (1) abundantly share the gospel, (2) make disciples, and (3) from this early harvest raise up additional new “super-spreaders”–people who are gifted apostles and evangelists, who almost immediately begin sharing widely and making disciples themselves. This cyclical process can lead to sustained multiplication that can bring a movement very rapidly to four generations and one thousand believers or more. (This process is outlined in the Heart and Four Fields).

As the movement grows, however, some portion of the growth will begin to come from “demographic” growth. Here I am referring to the everyday witness of the typical believer, especially to their discipling of family members. If you think about it, most believers don’t come to faith as a result of a missionary or passionate evangelist–they come to faith because of their parents, friends, or co-workers.

While all believers are commanded to be ready to share their faith, not all are gifted evangelists (just as not all are gifted pastors, or teachers, or prophets, or apostles). Further, passionate evangelists–“super-spreaders”–seem to be even rarer. DMM trainer David Watson once told me, “The person who shares the Gospel with 1,000 other people is pretty rare. Most people don’t do anything at all. The few who do typically just disciple their families.” Other DMM practitioners agree: of those trained in DMM principles, somewhere between 2 and 10% (more typically on the 2% side) actually do anything with the training.

So while it’s true that passionate evangelists find and activate other passionate evangelists, it seems there are only so many to find. Eventually, there are just far more parents and friends than there are super-spreading evangelists. Therefore:

  • In the early days, most growth in movements comes from 10s of evangelists who win 1,000s each, and also find other evangelists who do the same.
  • In later days, most growth in movements comes from 1,000s of households who win 10s each, and find other households who do the same.

Still, this is not the cause of the plateau. In fact, discipling activities from “typical” believers can lead to significant fruit and rapidly growing expansion (see this analysis).

The real decline in growth happens when a movement saturates a place or people group.

Any growth faster than a population’s overall growth will eventually run up against a hard barrier—the total size of the population they are working among. As more people in a place decide to follow Jesus, others—the remainder—will have made their decision not to follow. Places may not be majority-Christian, but they can still be majority-decided. Once this point is reached, the rate of growth will drop rapidly: the “ripe fruit” has already been harvested, and at best you are waiting for more fruit to ripen.

Reaching the plateau of saturation is not a failure—it is the inevitable result of successful, rapid multiplication.

Ephesus was an example of saturation: “This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10). The Scripture doesn’t say they all believed, but it does say they’d all heard.

This plateau brings with it a new challenge. Once the area has been saturated with the gospel and future growth depends mostly on personal discipleship, we must ask: Are we done? Is this the end of the movement? If not, what’s next?

To reach this point, disciples have gotten good at making disciples, churches have gotten good at making churches, and leaders have gotten good at making leaders. To transition past this point, movements must now get good at making movements. They have learned how to “pass on what they know” (2 Timothy 2:2). They must now appoint people to be sent out for the sake of the Gospel (Acts 13:2). New growth must be sought by intentionally crossing borders. This will require movements to build the capacity to send its apostolic types to new, unsaturated places.

This is the same challenge everyone faces: will we choose to contribute to the completion of the Great Commission, or will we be content in our own little niche of the world? Everyone begins by focusing on their own “Judea and Samaria,” but eventually, if we are to obey Jesus completely, we must go to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is not just the domain of Western mission agencies—it is the natural next step to which movements, too, must aspire.

Growth leads to persecution

  1. Movements are growth machines. They are “rapidly multiplying disciple-making movements” because (1) they make disciples ‘rapidly’, and (2) they multiply by enabling disciples to make more disciples.
  2. The most common driver of growth is the small house group of disciples who regularly gather to (1) worship, (2) pray together, (3) read Bible stories and discuss what they mean and how to obey them, and (4) commit to share stories & the call to follow Jesus with others.
  3. The Western church often urges disciples to read the Bible, pray (‘have a quiet time’) and be a witness/share their faith. But, most such churches usually do not expect that believers will. Many small groups’ are centered around discussing the Sunday sermon (cynically, ‘the trained guy is sharing, and you talk about what he shares’; optimistically, ‘attending to the teaching of the apostles’). Evangelistic efforts become organized programs where people are urged to invite their neighbors to a church program where the Gospel will be professionally shared. (Cynically, ‘you can’t do this/we can’; optimistically, ‘here’s the low bar of effort’).
  4. While movements do not require disciples to be exhaustively or professionally trained in order to either read and apply Bible stories or to share the Gospel, they do expect and encourage their members to do so. Group functions and simple inductive Bible study questions (“What does this tell us about God? about people? what can we obey? who can we share it with?”) help bring the story to the bottom line of practical insights. Disciples can begin sharing with others immediately upon hearing the first story—even before becoming a believer (for a Biblical example, consider John 4).
  5. This expectation of group application & individual sharing is intensely practical, transformative, and outward focus. It drives the outward growth of a movement. If a movement wants to measure how well it is doing, one of the obvious ways is by measuring the speed of this growth. Movements don’t have big evangelistic programs, campaigns, or budgets; they grow or fail to grow on the basis of what disciples are passionate about doing. If movements aren’t seeing increases in total believers, baptisms and small groups, it means disciples aren’t making disciples.
  6. As a side note: growth obviously isn’t the only measure of ‘success.’ It should be balanced with health. A concern occasionally voiced about movements is the possibility of the exponential growth of heresy. The frequent comparison is to cancer: runaway growth of sick cells. Three factors address this: (1) in our current situation, most of the church is marked by an absence of any growth at all; (2) we all have a little bit of heresy in us, from someone else’s perspective; (3) the greatest amounts of heresy come from single high-personality leaders building audiences focused on esoteric aspects of doctrine. Such audiences are focused on the leader, not the outsiders, and thrill to knowledge that benefits me rather than obedience that blesses others. Movements focused on practical group-led Bible discussion (‘how will I obey this Scripture this week’ and ‘who can I share this with’) tend to find that narcissistic self-centered audience-builders are less inclined to show up.
  7. Movements are generally measured as ‘growing rapidly’ if they add another ‘generation’ (the disciples a disciple makes) every 12 to 18 months (perhaps 2 years). Many movements grow faster than that. Some movements tell me “if a church hasn’t planted another church in 4 years, it won’t.” If one disciple is discipling 2 to 4 others, we can see how a movement can rapidly multiply: 1 disciple, reaches 4, who each reach 4, becoming 16, who each reach 4, becoming 64, and so on.
  8. This kind of growth looks ‘small’ at first, but depending on how fast generations are added—and initial generations are often added very fast, indeed, far faster than 18 months—this represents massive growth that will rapidly outstrip the growth of the religious groups around them.
  9. When that happens, a movement will become very different from surrounding churches. Most churches in the world get most of their growth from demographics (births minus deaths in Christian homes), and small amounts from conversion (converts minus defectors). These churches ‘take’ new converts from the surrounding communities but also ‘give’ defectors back. Movements, on the other hand, have most of their early growth in the form of converts without defectors. They will begin to ‘eat away’ at the religious blocks around them. Depending on what those religious blocks are, different movements can encounter different challenges.
  • Some movements will ‘take’ from surrounding churches. The stereotype of this is “sheep-stealing”; a somewhat more academic term might be “church swapping.” This effect is known all over the world. We might decry it, but it’s inevitable. Some of these believers will have been nominal believers in their original churches; others might be highly passionate leaders who want to be part of an apostolically-focused initiative. Their loss from the original churches to the movement may or may not be felt. Further, movements that grow this rapidly will quickly expand ‘out’ of the normal ‘church’ culture; an intentional outward focus on non-believers will only enhance this.
  • Some movements will begin to ‘take’ from surrounding secularized post-Christian populations. This rarely seems to be noticed or receive pushback unless the movement gets large enough to have a transformative influence on a place that damages political or economic powers.
  • Some movements will begin to ‘take’ from the other religious groupings. It is here, depending on the situation, that significant push back may be felt. Small numbers of converts will most likely feel the effect of family pressure, and in the worst cases some small town or village ‘mob’ effects. Larger numbers of converts will receive organized pressure from surrounding religious powers and in some cases, governments.

The success of movements will lead them into inevitable conflict with others. This kind of conflict cannot be resolved as a “we leave each other alone” sort of approach. Movements want to see everyone given the chance to follow Jesus; ideally, want to see everyone following Jesus. They need to prepare for the very real certainty that if they succeed, they will face pushback and potential persecution.

Changes in speed of religious growth

Globally, the 2018 Status of Global Christianity reports Christianity is growing at 1.3%, outstripping the global population growth rate of 1.2%. Christianity is the third fastest growing religion in terms of annual growth rate: Islam at 1.94% and Hinduism at 1.33% are both faster in terms of annual growth rate. However, the times are changing, largely driven by changing demographics (nearly all religions gain ten times or more new members through births than through conversion, and Christianity is no exception to this). Here are the changing annual growth rates for the periods of 2000-2018 and 2018-2025:

Segment 2000 2018 %AGR 2025 %AGR
Pop 2000-18 6,126,622,0007,597,176,0001.20% 8,141,661,0000.99%
Christian 1,986,537,00 2,506,835,00 1.30% 2,728,435,000 1.22%
Islam 1,288,083,00 1,820,926,00 1.94% 2,049,031,000 1.70%
Hindus 822,690,000 1,043,980,00 1.33% 1,109,602,000 0.87%
Buddhists 450,148,000 532,805,000 0.94% 566,329,000 0.88%
Chinese folk 427,836,000 431,145,000 0.04% 418,869,000 -0.41%
Ethnorelig 223,544,000 267,027,000 0.99% 267,396,000 0.02%
Agnostics 655,867,000 701,060,000 0.37% 707,416,000 0.13%
Atheists 135,975,000 137,393,000 0.06% 132,234,000 -0.55%

This is further clarified by looking at the raw number of people added per year for each of the major religions:

Annual growth 2000-2018 2018-2025
Pop 2000-18 +81.6m +77.7m
Christians +28.9m +31.6m
Muslims +29.6m +32.5m
Hindus +12.3m +9.4m
Buddhists +4.6m +4.8m
Chinese folk +0.2m -1.7m
Ethnoreligionists +2.4m <0.1m
Agnostics +2.5m +1.0m
Atheists +0.1m -0.7m

Right now, Hinduism is second fastest in terms of annual growth rate (AGR), but third in terms of the number of people added per year. The AGR growth rate is a bit of an anomaly. By 2025, Islam and Christianity will be first and second both in terms of % AGR and raw population gains.

Now and through 2050, in any given year, Christianity and Islam are responsible for more than half of the religious growth in the world; with Hinduism, nearly all of it. The world is getting progressively more religious, and mostly either Christian or Muslim (the vast majority of Hindus are in South Asia alone). Agnostics and atheists may be increasing in some parts of the world, but globally they are losing “market share.”

The top position, both in terms of numbers added and annual growth rate, belongs to Islam–but by the thinnest of margins. Those margins are likely to be maintained through 2050, however.

How Movements Count

Over 1,020 church planting movements (rapidly multiplying groups that have surpassed four generations of church planting in multiple streams) have been documented. Together, they comprise over 73 million believers in over 4.3 million churches.

When people hear this fact, they often ask: how are they counted? One implication of this question is, are they counted in a way that others can accept as credible? As a basis for an answer, let’s begin with a broader question: how do Christian denominations, in general, count their members? How, for example, do denominations in America count?

I. How United States denominations count

Denominations, or groups of churches, in the USA use various means to gather these statistics. These methods vary significantly with the size of each denomination.

Most denominations count one or both of two different types of numbers. Attendees is usually a broader and more complex number encompassing seekers, children, and new believers who have not yet met the requirements for membership. This is usually counted as the number of people regularly in a worship service. Members is usually a smaller number of people who have reached some formal stage (such as baptism).

For example, the Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America counts attendees as the average number of people (including children) who attend liturgy (the main weekly worship service) on a non-festival Sunday – that is, people who come to the main service on a day other than Christmas or Easter. The Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Conference measures attendees as “average Sunday morning attendance,” and members as “those whose name are on the attendance roll.” Not every denomination counts both attendees and members.

Denominational statistics are usually gathered by means of some form of survey instrument – paper or electronic – which each church self-completes and returns to the denominational headquarters. Here are four examples ranging over various sizes and denominational flavors in the USA.

The Assemblies of God (3.2 million members) asks USA churches to report the total each church considers members, regardless of age, as of December 31. As their researchers told me, “This definition provides a lot of leeway for the local church.” Adherentsincludes all who “consider the church their home church, whether or not they are enrolled as members.” Surveys are collected via both hardcopy and online options. Responses are checked if there appear to be significant discrepancies, usually by a phone call or by checking with district staff who have a closer working relationship with pastors.

Church of the Nazarene (0.8 million members) reports are self-filed by churches. No one attempts to audit; researchers make sure the numbers add up, starting with the membership number of each church from the previous year and adding the gains and subtracting the losses to make up the new total. If numbers don’t add up, an email is sent or a phone call is made to clarify.

The Southern Baptist Convention (14 million members) uses the Annual Church Profile form to collect statistical data on all member churches. The form is returned via paper or online options. As with all denominations, not all churches fill it out every year. Returned data are compared against previous years to check for outliers; unclear data are usually referred back to state conventions for clarification.

The United Methodist Church (6 million members) groups churches into districts and annual conferences. Each church self-reports, typically using an online form. They submit their data to their district, who aggregates it for the conference, where it is aggregated for the national headquarters. A statistical team reviews the data, and if any major variances are identified, they ask the annual conference to clarify. This usually involves a phone call to the district or individual church.

In nearly every US denomination, either the church is small enough to have a specific list of all members (a “membership roll”), or it is large enough that churches report using the “honor system” – “we trust you to turn in accurate (if not necessarily precise) statistics using a fairly broad definition.” Unclear data are clarified via phone or email. “We are not the IRS [Internal Revenue Service],” one denominational researcher told me. “We don’t randomly select churches for an audit and send teams out to verify numbers. Besides, checking Sunday attendance isn’t really enough [to determine total members]: you’d have to call every member to verify.”

This highlights a complexity of denominational statistics. Attendance is a fairly easy number to estimate, even if it is not necessarily precise: just get a rough count of the number of people in a Sunday morning service. Membership, on the other hand, implies a commitment, and can introduce nuance. When does membership begin, and when does it end? If someone stops attending a church, and switches to a different church, they don’t always announce this fact. How many absences should be allowed before they are “struck from the rolls”? Are people ever struck from the rolls? How long does it take after a death? What if people go to one church on Sunday morning and another church on Saturday night? (This happens when children, for example, attend another church’s youth group.) These kinds of situations make statistical boxes difficult.

Moreover, membership usually introduces significant debates over who should be counted. One example of this is found in the article “Meaningless Membership” . The author compares attendance to membership and asks, “Convention-wide [in the Southern Baptist Convention], there are 16 million members. But only 6 million people show up on a typical Sunday. Where are the other 10 million Southern Baptists? Some are providentially hindered, but surely not 10 million.”

II. How Movements count

Movements, like US denominations, wish to count their members. There are several reasons for counting, but four seem to be common to most movements. First, movements emphasize growth, and they want to see if they are growing. Second, by counting members in various streams, problems (which can be identified in part by a correlation in lack of multi-generational growth) can be identified and addressed. Third, movements generally don’t count to measure themselves in terms of their own growth, but rather to measure themselves against the surrounding non-Christian populations. The question they are trying to answer is, are we making progress in reaching the lost? Fourth, some movements use this counting for reports to their partners in areas such as prayer, projects, and funding.

Three forms of “counting” are generally found.

A. Small movements

Method 1 – We know everyone in the movement, whether we document them on a membership roll or not.

Some movements or pre-movements are small enough (under 1,000 members, for example) that all the groups, leaders, and even members can be known. Perhaps the stories of the individual leaders can be recounted. (For example, “This man came to faith because that grandmother prayed for his healing and he was healed. Then he shared with his brother, and their whole family came to faith.”) In their small numbers, they can easily be counted on a spreadsheet or a series of diagrams on papers. This is similar in practice to the “membership rolls” of smaller US denominations.

B. Moderately large movements

Method 2 – Each of the various streams within a movement know their members very well, and their numbers are aggregated to count the whole.

Some movements or pre-movements are too large to easily have everyone listed on a spreadsheet. (This “too large” threshold is often reached when a movement grows to the size of thousands of members, and definitely reached at the 10,000 member level.) Particular streams or portions of the movement, however, can be small enough individually to be similar to small movements above. They can aggregate their own numbers, and then each stream’s total can be counted together to come up with totals for the movement as a whole.

This process is similar to large US denominations that divide their churches into districts. Some streams might need to break their counts down further as they in turn get too large to count individually. However, when movements have thousands or tens of thousands of adherents, their individual streams are mostly “small-ish” and can be easily counted.

As movements become larger, they can encounter issues of security and technical logistics that make data collection risky or difficult. In a restricted-access area, a large data set of several thousand people can be very risky indeed. In places with very little technology or even very little literacy, the idea of gathering even sheets of paper might be challenging.

Because of these factors, a movement might decide to estimate their numbers based on data points like “the average number of people discipled by a leader” or “the average number of people in a group.” These sorts of estimates are just as accurate as any American denominational count (such as, “We have 10 churches, and each church has about 200 people”), although they might be less precise (see discussion of accuracy and precision below).

For example, I helped one movement estimate its total membership at between 8 and 12 million people. The estimate was made on the basis of the number of leaders, the number each discipled on average, a survey of the number of “generations” of leaders in each stream, and the geographic spread of the movement, with an estimate of its saturation of individual districts. The estimate, with a range of millions, was a truthful and accurate statement, but obviously very imprecise.

C. Very large movements

Method 3 – We are large enough to have the resources to invest in complex and regular counts.

Some movements are very large: organized in the millions, they are the equivalent of any national denomination in the United States or elsewhere (Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc.). Because of their size, they have the resources to make a heavy investment in counting and do a regular census of their members (which is something very few American denominations actually do).

To accomplish this, a research team physically visits most leaders and completes a survey to gather both quantitative and qualitative data. This can result in numbers that are both accurate and very precise and that are frequently updated. Such numbers are also, for obvious reasons, highly sensitive. Very large censuses are also complex processes that are difficult for smaller groups to implement.

III. Reliability

We know movements count their people in ways similar to how counts are made in other parts of the world. This similarity is natural: when adding up the number of people in a set and recording them, similar problems are encountered around the world and solved in similar ways. Are the counts reliable and credible? To answer that, we need to consider the various reasons why someone might look at a number and respond, “That’s just got to be wrong.”

A. Mistakes of definition

Misunderstandings can happen when someone gives a number without explaining what that number is. Is it attendees or adherents?

This can be especially true of movements that have both “churches” and “seeker groups.” Such movements often bring pre-believers who are spiritually hungry together in groups to explore Scripture stories. Eventually these “seeker groups” (often named different things in different movements) will either disintegrate due to lack of interest, or their members will become believers and form into a church.

“Seeker groups” are therefore closer to “attendees” in a Western church. Movements don’t typically report those numbers. They are in constant flux.

Movements, when reporting, usually provide “churches” and “adherents” – but the exact definition of “adherent” will vary from place to place. Generally, the majority of adherents are baptized believers. In some movements, however, believers might take a long time to be baptized, for a variety of reasons. Some movements report children, and some don’t (as with some American denominations). Some count “adult” at a much lower age than the typical American denomination would.

As with all research, when examining or comparing numbers, it’s important to know the definitions.

B. Accuracy, precision, and rounding

In the World Christian Encyclopedia, some denominations report their membership to the last digit; others round the number (usually to the nearest thousand). The difference between exact and rounded numbers is not accuracy, but rather precision. To say a denomination has 952 or 950 or 1,000 adherents is to make a true, accurate statement within the same order of magnitude, with varying levels of precision.

To use a different example: if my daughter asks me what time it is, and I reply “It’s a quarter to ten” when the time is 9:43, I am not lying – I am being imprecise but “close enough.”

Variances in precision appear in all sorts of counts. The difference between 21 million and 20 million is less important than the difference between 20 million and 200,000. Similarly, if a given number is thought to be in the tens of millions, but precision is difficult, it might be enough to know whether it is on the low end (10 to 20 million) or on the high end (70 to 80 million).

Regardless of how denominations report their information, we need to keep in mind our own biases: a very precise number can give a false impression of precision. For many denominations – especially movements – the number of members is constantly changing. New people are joining, others are defecting; some are being born, some are dying. We need therefore to hold any single number loosely and preferably report in a rounded form (as I do, when I say there are over 73 million members of movements around the world).

C. Exaggeration

Occasionally, some have told me they believe the numbers in a movement are exaggerated. The primary motivation for movements to exaggerate their numbers would be financial: high numbers could be used in fundraising appeals. We have not seen any evidence for this in the movements we have documented. In fact, we have often seen movements intentionally undercount. Sometimes this means setting aside from the count portions of the movement which they feel aren’t adequately researched, or for which the numbers aren’t really certain. In some movements, counts are reduced by a percentage out of concern for error rates in the count method.

Further, our research has shown most movements fund the vast majority of their ministries internally. The percentage of outside money is minimal, especially when considered proportionally to the size of the larger movements. In other words, if their goal were to raise money by exaggerating their numbers, they would be doing a poor job.

For most movements, exaggeration isn’t an issue due to their small size. The vast majority of individual movements are around the 1,000-member level, and the members can be known, as we have highlighted above.

Finally, we have documented movements in 5-year increments as they grew from 1990 to 2020. Movements have followed a variety of patterns of growth, plateauing, and ending over those periods of time. Movements do not follow any lockstep patterns of growth that would indicate engineered numbers.

D. Deception

A final claim occasionally leveled at movements is that they are outright deceptions. Either the accuser, or someone the accuser knows, “has been in the area” and “there is nothing happening there.”

When I have dug into such accusations, I have never found deception to be the case. In a few instances when deception has been found in part of a movement, the movement leaders have publicly admitted it and corrected their reports. In our experience, movement leaders are highly motivated to find any deception.

Frequently, outside accusations of deception seem not to be based on any evidence other than that the accuser or their colleagues have been in the area without seeing similar results or seeing evidence of the movement. They typically ignore that these movements are usually in extremely high-risk areas. If they are to survive, they have to become very well-versed in hiding their existence from governments and religious leaders. Many movements have had leaders “stolen” by mainstream public churches, often through offering salaries. Some have had their groups labeled as “heretical” and reported to the government by other believers. Westerners have gotten “in the know” and then without discretion have shared what they know, sometimes with very detrimental consequences. And most of all, many of these movements are so contextual that outsiders often don’t recognize them as Christian. Communities of people who dress in local fashions, gather and eat in local ways, and use local music do not look like what outsiders think of as “church.” For all these reasons, movements are often invisible to outsiders.

The 1,000+ movements we have documented have each had multiple contacts with selected groups of trusted friends. This web of trust includes people from many different nations, mission organizations, denominations, and backgrounds. Our team has usually discovered them by being within reach of such a trusted relationship (otherwise we, too, would likely not know about them). In most of the larger movements, we have personally met with leaders at various levels, who are working in very difficult situations, with significant security risks and very little money involved. We have shared meals with earnest church planters who have shown us the scars from persecution. They have told us many stories, including their mistakes, failures, and details too bizarre to make up. The similar patterns and details across unconnected movements add to the ring of authenticity.

Conclusion

Over 1,000 movements have been identified in the world. Each of these falls into general size categories of “small” (around 1,000 members), “medium” (some thousands to tens of thousands), or “large” (over 100,000 to some millions).

All movements, in some way or another, with some regularity, attempt a count of their membership, for a variety of reasons. They use methods similar to Western denominations, with similar levels of accuracy. Precision falls off with increases in size, which is to be expected.

Movements are loath to share this kind of information with outsiders, because it can be misused and represents a significant security risk. Movements are often “hidden” from outsiders, and the security risks often make third-party vetting of the information challenging, if not impossible. Yet at the same time, note that outsiders do not usually see the need to vet or audit the information of Western denominations.

In general, the same methods applied to Western denominations are applied to movements and should be accorded similar assessments of their accuracy.

Original article mine. First published in Accel, Vol 1 Issue 2, Nov 2019, pp. 16-20 www.accelmag.org.

Chau–failure, martyr or what?

The news of John Chau’s death while attempting to bring the Gospel to a very remote, hostile, restricted-access region hit the mainstream news some days ago. Since then, there’s been quite a lot of chatter about it, with lots of people trying to make sense of it. I am trying to hold myself back. My natural inclination is to write and tweet and talk, but I am reminding myself of this: we don’t know the whole story. And we may never know it.

We, as people, *want *to “judge”: either in the best or worst sense of the word. Our brains want to categorize, we want to put things in boxes, because that’s how we make sense of it, how we understand it.

We could classify Chau as a martyr – a person who died, almost gloriously, for the sake of the cause. Similarities to Elliot are obvious.

We could classify Chau as a failure – a person who rushed headstrong into the situation without adequate training or preparation or effective strategy.

It would be easy to do either. But we don’t know, and we don’t have enough data to know.

Let’s take a different example. What if someone trained and planned to be a Bible translator in, say, Africa. They prepared for years. They were expecting to spend decades on the field, working on learning language, translating Scriptures, etc. They arrive on the field, excited–and were killed two days later in a freak accident.

Knowing these additional details – the length of preparation, the length of time they planned to stay there, the scope of the work they envisioned, the nature of their death – how does this change our opinion of what happened? Were they martyrs? Were they failures? Or is this just a tragedy – a life cut short?

What if they were killed in a robbery gone wrong? Are they martyrs? What if you knew that in the midst of the robbery they were witnessing as best they could to the robbers? Would they then be martyrs, because they died in a situation of witness?

What if they were assassinated by radicals bent on killing Christian translators in the area? What if they knew the danger and yet went there any way, and were killed? Were they foolish?

There are many details we don’t know, and likely never will this side of heaven. This much we can know:

  • I think, hard as it is, that many times we have to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not assume personal failure. Many of the articles about the incident tend to color Chau’s effort as a personal failure. Yes, Chau’s first efforts to communicate weren’t successful: one could say they “failed.” I have failed many, many times. Chau just had the unfortunate situation of not being able to learn further (in this world, anyway) from the failures, while I’ve learned a lot. If Chau had had more time, what might he have done? He might have gone on to build relationships, share the Gospel, make disciples, and end up with an “Eetaow” story rather than an “Elliot” story. The failure of individual efforts is not the same as the failure of the overall project, and certainly not the same as a personal failure of character. I have failed, I am not a failure.
  • We may need to forcibly remind ourselves that here was a man who earnestly believed in God’s calling and to the best of his ability followed it, regardless of the cost. That willingness to obey is something that should be applauded.
  • I think we need to be careful about establishing overall mission policy and strategy around a single event that is clearly an outlier. Several have used Chau’s “example” (with what little is known) to articulate what they believe to be “good” or “bad” mission strategy. But few people go to these very very hard places, and it looks to me like most “good” mission strategies wouldn’t send to them either. This is not the norm of mission experience, and I don’t think we should judge policies or strategies based on “way-outside-the-normative-curve” events.

(For more, I recommend Ed Stetzer’s excellent article posted yesterday after I drafted this. Link.)

Counting movements 4: Goal posts

In the last two posts, we talked about counting small movements and small portions of movements, as well as counting larger representative chunks of movements. One way of attempting to verify these counts is to use a different lens, where we look at the geographic and ethnographic contexts of the movement. The way I usually do this is to think in terms of a playing field and goal posts. Here’s a hypothetical scenario: someone tells me there is a movement happening in the United States. My next question is going to be: wherein the United States? It’s a big country, but there are 50 states. My source now tells me that the movement is mostly in Texas and a little bit in Oklahoma.

I now have “two goal posts”: I know the movement must be bigger than 1 person, and must be smaller than the combined populations of Texas (28.3 million) and Oklahoma (3.9 million). The next step is to start moving these goal posts closer to each other.

Are they in particular counties? Perhaps they are in the Dallas Metroplex (7 million) and blending over into southern Oklahoma (Bryant county (46,000). The maximum size of the movement is, therefore, likely not more than 7 million.

I can then begin asking questions about where in the Metroplex the movement is, and move the goal posts yet further. Some places have geographic organizations: provinces, districts, sub-districts, villages. Each of these have different order of magnitudes in terms of population. We can begin asking local experts questions like: “So, how widely distributed are churches in these movements? One per district? One per sub-district? One in every village?” These kinds of questions can get us to rough percentages of the populations.

While these rough percentages and populations won’t be very precise censuses, they should be within the same order of magnitude as what’s being reported elsewhere.

We can further use this to begin comparing the generally known % Christian of each of these places with what we are learning about the movements. I am presently using four categories (Stage 1, <2%; Stage 2, 2% to <8%; Stage 3, 8% to <32%; Stage 4, >32%). Places in each of these four categories are generally similar to each other the world over. Movements can be “less visible” in some places, but if a movement were to “tip” a place from one stage to another, it would be slightly more visible because that place would start to take on the characteristics of the next stage (e.g. if it was at Stage 2 and tipped to Stage 3, we would start to see some of the frictions of that tipping, even if the movement weren’t as visible because it was still a very small movement).

Asking these kinds of geographic questions can help us understand the movement better. Some movements “sound” big to us, and we think, “why can’t I see that?” But, if such a movement is geographically dispersed over a large area, or over numerous people groups, it will in fact be far less visible because it’s only a small percentage of certain areas. Parts of the Bhojpuri movement in India – one of the largest in the world – are well over 10 million in size – but they are often less visible because they are dispersed, and 10 million within Northern India is still a very small percentage. (Plus, of course, much of this movement is underground.)

Counting movements 3: pots, bushes, sycamores

Our yard is home to several different kinds of growing things, ranging from weeds to trees. For the purpose of this post, let me use three things by way of analogy: potted plants, bushes, and the big Sycamore tree in the front yard.

First are the numerous potted plants that my daughter is pouring time and attention to. She has a large cherry tomato plant, two pepper plants, and two small trees – a blood orange tree, and a lemon tree. All are in pots. (Actually, the tomato plant is dead; last night she replaced it with flowers.) The pepper plants, oddly enough, bore very little fruit during the summer, but as temperatures cooled off in the fall, they started producing–we’ve gotten a number of peppers off both of them. The lemon and the blood orange tree are both in their “childhood.”

Plants in pots are very controlled. They either (a) bear fruit for a season, and then die, or (b) are nurtured along until they are hardy enough to transplant into the ground. If and when bad conditions come (storms, freezing temperatures), we can move them off the deck and into the garage (or even into the house). We can preserve them through things that would normally kill them–but the very thing that helps them live also means they can’t spread wild over the yard.

Some churches can treat their small groups like “potted plants”; some movements are treated likewise by the organizations and leaders that wnt to see them grow. They are kept in very controlled environments. If they bear fruit, it’s for a season, and perhaps the fruit is used to start new plants elsewhere (or to add to the “mother church”). Some groups are just for preserving fruit (“community groups” in a lot of Western churches). We watch over them, fret over them, observe each little individual branch, watch for worms and blight, prune them, pluck the fruit and the bad leaves, and so on. They get a lot of our attention, monitoring, and measuring–but the level of care required of every group means they can’t “run wild in the yard.”

Our backyard is also home to some runaway hedges. In the front, we’ve been pretty good about them. Once or twice a year we go through them with a power hedge trimmer and cut all the extra branches off. We don’t let them run amok: we carve them down to nice, solid, dense little rectangles. We gather up all the branches and toss them away. But the hedges in the back–well, there’s a small group of them that I didn’t bother to trim one year, and they grew and grew. The next year, they were “too big for me to trim back”–so they grew and grew some more. Now they have become small trees. If I tried to trim them down, I’d probably kill them. So I just leave them. They shade the house, so they’re fine where they are.

Some collections of small groups in some movements are like these hedges. Left alone, they’re not going to “run rampant” all over the yard like dandelions. They’re going to grow to a typical and certain size, and they’re probably not going to get much bigger than that. Some movements have called these “palm trees.” They count leaders, assuming each network started by a leader will be like these hedges–they will grow to a certain size (whether it be 100, 1,000, or 10,000 believers) over a certain time period. Knowing what leaders “do,” they concentrate more on raising up leaders than on the specific numbers. Numbers change constantly, anyway, until these “palm trees” or “hedges” reach a certain threshold and level off. This leads to round numbers that are in the right order of magnitude and a leader-focused strategy.

Finally, our front yard is home to a towering Sycamore tree. This thing is huge, taller than our house. If you’re going to trim it, ideally you bring in a locally-owned tree-trimming company–guys that are braver than me, who will scale the tree with power tools and trim the right branches. If the tree ever toppled, it would destroy the house. (Thankfully I think the odds of that are pretty slim.) It’s a beautiful sight to behold: an awesome reminder of what things can grow into, given enough time.

These trees remind me of what church planting movements, too, can grow into–given enough time. Most movements in the world today are just a few years old. Some are not much more than tomato bushes or potted trees. Others are like the hedges: they’re a bit taller than the house, but nowhere near a massive sycamore. A few are enormous, in the millions of members, with decades of experience.

Sycamores, it’s true, don’t “fill up the yard” like grass. But they do dominate a space, and for the purposes of our analogy sycamores do one thing that potted plants and hedges don’t: they put out seeds, that float on the wind. Admittedly, my family and I are not especially enamored with the seeds from our front yard: these little bits of puff-and-fluff get into everything. But it is amazing to consider: thousands of sycamore trees are found within each these little puff that each sycamore puts out. Sycamores are sycamore-starters. And that’s what the biggest, most established movements are.

Once these movements get to a certain size, it becomes almost impossible to measure the exact scope of the movement. How would you count the leaves on a sycamore tree? You could, but it might be more productive to count the number of sycamore trees in a forest or the average number of seeds a sycamore puts out. That would give you a stronger sense of what’s coming.

Counting movements 2, grandparents to grandchildren

When movements are very small – that is, they are five generations or smaller in size – they can be fairly easy to count. You can even track the generations on a big piece of paper or a computer spreadsheet.

A simplistic diagram might look like:

Now, in reality, if I saw a movement that diagrammed out like this, I’d be suspicious – it’s “too perfect.” Movements are messy, and are very rarely (and only randomly) exactly like this. However, it illustrates the point: a set of churches can be diagrammed on a page. Globally, the average is about 15 to 18 people per group; so we could round to 20 and say this diagram represents between 250 and 300 people.

We can know a lot about this group: the names of the leaders of the groups, the locations of the groups, when they meet, and so on. It’s not likely we’d know all the people in the group–once you get past 150, it’s not easy to hold that kind of information in one’s head–but it is possible to track this on a regular basis.

This kind of graph can also be the ‘nucleus’ of a larger movement: that is, movements are made up of smaller “4 generation” collections. We can track these “families” within larger extended families; any single individual within the “family” can easily describe his family using five relationships:

These are “spiritual” relationships (which is why I only identify one parent and grandparent–although obviously your “spiritual parents” might be a couple etc). The point here is that you can articulate who mentors you, and who mentors them – and you can articulate who you mentor and who they mentor. Doing so places you in a “five” generation stream, and brings all of the generations into view. (Some of these relationships will obviously parallel “demographic” or “birth” relationships; some will be purely spiritual.)

This is one easy way to begin “counting” within a movement. It also brings in an element of “self-assessment”: Anyone who looks “up” and “down” in a demographic family would be able to know where the spiritually mature and spiritually immature are. The same can be said in a spiritual family. And, it begins to introduce the idea of leaving a legacy and generations that are outside your view: great-grandparents won’t always know all of the great-grandchildren; we have to leave the future to God.

For most movements, this form of “counting” would be enough – many movements are within the scope of this size. In the next post, I’ll look at how we can begin to count tomato plants, bushes and Redwood forests.

Counting movements 1: believers & churches in denominations

One of the questions we have to address in documenting (and even assessing, auditing, evaluating, etc.) movements is how to count the number of people in them.

Movements are another form of a group of churches–a network or denomination. Movements have some unique characteristics, chiefly around rapid growth. Most would probably never want to be called a denomination, but the term is not entirely without validity.

The word denomination originated somewhere around the 14th century and comes from the two roots de(“completely”) and nominare(“to name”). A denomination from the mid 15th century was “a class name” or “collective designation of things”; which rapidly became (a) a religious sect (“Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, etc”) and (b) a monetary classification ($20 dollar bills or $100 bills, etc).

Christian denominations are made up of churches, which are in turn made up of people. How do we count the number of churches and people? It’s not as simple as going from church to church and counting up the number of people “in the church.”

To begin with, which people within the church count?

  1. Some churches count Sunday morning attendance (“We have about 1,000 people in Sunday morning worship”). The flaw with this method: there can be non-believers in the service, so you’re not getting an exact number of Christians.
  2. Some churches count baptized church members. The challenge with this, in a denomination as a whole, is that some people are baptized and then, for one reason or another, leave the denomination.

a) they may no longer go to church. It might be a case of backsliding, or it might be a case of advancing age, or it might be a case of a health crisis or some other stage in their life.

b) they might transfer to a different church, or transfer to a different city, state or country, but not be struck from the membership rolls.

  1. Some churches only count adults, while others count both adults and children. This can lead to a significant difference when comparing two denominations.

Further, the numbers of members are constantly in flux. New people are being born. New converts are being baptized. Children are becoming adults. Some people die. You can have a more or less “exact” number as of some specific day in some specific year, and 24 hours later that number could very well have changed.

Some denominations have a specific methodology for taking a count, and they ask their churches to turn in that number as of a specific date of the year. Other denominations have a much more haphazard approach. But the discussion above illustrates why we should never consider “number” so obtained to be very exact, and why we should always be aware of the methodology of counting when comparing one denomination to another. I’m not saying the “numbers” are invalid: we just need to know how they are obtained and what they mean. Some denominations will have to have their numbers adjusted to make for an “apples to apples” comparison (e.g. churches that count only adults will have to be adjusted to compare to churches that count both adults and children).

Obviously, there are theological implications of these points. As an illustration of such discussions, check this article (I just Googled quickly for it; I’m sure other denominations have other examples).

The task is yet more complex. Denominations have to count the number of churches, and these, too, change over time. Churches are planted, and churches die. In some cases churches can leave one denomination and join another; in other cases, churches can be disfellowshipped from one part of a denomination, yet remain part of a larger denominational network (e.g. a Southern Baptist church could be disfellowshipped from a State convention, yet retain its name, and remain part of the National denomination). So simply asking ‘how many churches are in the denomination’ is not always a straight-forward thing.

In movements, this whole process is far more difficult than in many Western denominations, because:

  1. Movements are aggressively growing through outreach. What is the line where a person moves from being a seeker to being a believer? Especially in contexts where baptism might be postponed for a while? In some countries, some groups have a theology that insists only a certain type of minister can baptize people, and this mean that hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of believers are still waiting for baptism. In some movements, there are long periods of time where people are discipled, and their commitment seen before baptism is “offered”; are these people believers even though they have not yet been baptized? Movements have to deal internally with these theological issues.
  2. In many places, there are significant family issues that affect counting. In most Western environments, if the “father” becomes a believer, that doesn’t mean the wife or the children are automatically counted. In other environments, if a Christian woman with children (e.g. perhaps a widow) marries a Muslim man, her children (and often her) are automatically counted as now “Muslim.” If the head of house becomes a Christian, what happens to families? These are thorny issues that impact counts.
  3. Many movements feature “seeker groups” that eventually become “house churches.” What is the line where a “group” becomes a “church”? When do they get counted? Different movements will deal with this in different ways.
  4. Given the enormous numbers of groups/churches being planted through viral reproduction, how do they get counted? When a movement consists of just 4 generations, it’s usually easy to know how many groups there are. When a movement reaches 6th generation or higher, it becomes exponentially more difficult.
  5. Further difficulties arise as churches split (divide-to-multiply), migrate (as people migrate to different areas for work), die (stop meeting for any of a variety of reasons), etc. Tracking all of these popping and moving bubbles of activity is obviously very challenging.
  6. Another issue is security – simply collecting data on lists can be very problematic in some areas.

Even though movements face big challenges in counting these numbers, we shouldn’t think that they are somehow more challenging or less accurate than Western churches. For the reasons noted above, it’s well known that many Western denominations have difficult counts as well. For an interesting but more academic look at some of the methodological difficulties the Southern Baptists face (and I chose this just because it showed up first on a Google search), see this research paper.

Counting is a difficult process, but if the basic challenges are understood, they can be methodologically dealt with. Having surveyed some of the issues in this background post, I’ll be writing about some approaches to counting churches in movements over the next few blog posts.

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.