Are the numbers of Muslims coming to Christ too small?

In my recent podcast for MissioNexus, the following question was posed:

Since the Arab spring, we have heard many reports of Muslims coming to Christ in droves. Are these numbers too small to make a dent in the overall growth of Islam?

Unfortunately, the answer to the question is: Yes.

This question is in the same vein as “Why do you say the Great Commission isn’t finished when I’ve heard that…”

We hear “great stories” or Muslims coming to Christ in “unprecedented numbers,” and even things like “More Muslims have come to Christ in the last 15 years than in the previous 15 centuries combined.” And let me note, quickly, that these facts are true. The Middle East is incredibly open right now (I’m not sure I’d say “unprecedented” but you’d have to go back centuries to find it more open than it is today). There are many thousands and perhaps tens of thousands coming to Christ. There are wonderful reports of dreams, visions, miracles, and power encounters.

But we are then tempted to hasty generalizations and brain biases: we fail to realize (1) these stories are outliers and (2) they represent very small numbers.

We must hold these wonderful stories in tension with the global picture: there are over 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, and the numbers happening today, while wonderful, are still a very small percentage of the 1.7 billion.

Further, globally there are a nett of 30 to 32 million new Muslims each year (largely through births). Religious demographers project Islam will rise to 2.8 billion adherents by 2050 (then 28% of the world).

So unless we see 32 million new Muslim-background believers in a given year, I’m afraid that needle really isn’t being moved. And 32 million is a big number. It’s a sizable portion of any single country, even though it’s only 1% of Islam. It will not be reached without substantial effort and substantial cost.

Let us continue to pray and work and seek to do more than we are now doing.

The potential impact of the temporary refugee ban in the USA

This last weekend saw a major kerfuffle in the USA: the administration instituted a 90-day ban on people from seven majority-Muslim nations entering the United States, which was greeted with dismay, anger and protests. I am not going to get political in this post; rather, I am here going to survey and consider the potential impact of the ban on ministry work.

  1. We need to keep in mind the ban is (at least currently) temporary. Further, it appears to be largely a political gesture to shore up the administration’s political base within the Republican Party. The ban was a core campaign promise that apparently the administration felt had to be moved on, and moved fast. A 90 day ban with a token review of procedures may very well suffice for the political side, and may be dropped afterward.
  2. Whether one agrees with the ban or not, it was unfortunately rolled out in a fairly slip-shod fashion, and impacted refugees, tourists, and legal permanent residents alike. The implementation was done poorly at the local level, with uncertainties about how to implement that led to bungling verging on refusals to honor court decrees. This will all (probably) be straightened out shortly, but it has riled emotions, led to protests, and likely polarized many in America over the issue of refugees even further.
  3. The entrance of foreigners into America isn’t the only thing affected. There are proposals to cut funding for refugee resettlement efforts. This will affect many working with refugees here in the USA, and could be a less-noticed limiter on the number of refugees who enter.
  4. In the long run, it’s possible the ban will chill and discourage the entrance of diaspora to the United States, impacting the potential of diaspora ministries here.
  5. It could also chill relationships with nations abroad. There are reports Iraq has already, in retaliation, blocked Americans from entering (including contractors and journalists). If this is confirmed, I know of people who were planning to volunteer with relief efforts in Iraq this summer who will not be able to go. Other nations may take this opportunity to block or deny visas as well.
  6. Ministries in some other nations may find their passports more welcome, and may find a renewed surge of refugees and diaspora. Canada is an example.

Why is the remaining task not getting finished, when…

One of the questions I am frequently asked is, “Why are the numbers of unevangelized not going down (or % unevangelized) when I know that … [x] … is happening?” “X” could be a lot of different things, including these examples I’ve heard recently:

  • Broadening Internet access
  • Globalization, trade connections
  • TV / Satellite / Internet broadcasting / Youtube
  • Cell phones
  • Diaspora
  • Church planting movements
  • Dreams and visions

While it is true all of these are happening in various parts of the world, it doesn’t mean the Gospel is being brought to all of the unevangelized. The Gospel in unique new ways for some doesn’t automatically translate to the Gospel for all. Or, as William Gibson put it: “The future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

To begin with, although the Gospel is available for more people than ever before in many languages, it isn’t in a lot of local languages that cover a lot of people. Let’s take just a few examples from the Joshua Project’s dataset:

  • Out of 7,090 Languages, 548 (<10%) have a complete Bible, 1,313 have at least the NT, and 970 have only portions. That leaves 2,752 with no translated text and a definite need.
  • Out of 7,090 languages, just 1,378 have a JESUS Film available (because it requires Luke to be translated).
  • Out of 7,090 languages, 4,035 have some portion of audio Scripture recorded, and 910 have YouVersion languages (which could be used to correlate to availability of the Bible on the Internet).

Second, Gospel availability in a language doesn’t automatically equate to 100% distribution. Bibles are translated but not necessarily printed in sufficient numbers. The JESUS Film may be available and seen by many, but is it seen (or can it be seen) by all? The gospel is broadcast by satellite and the Internet, and seen by many (this is a driving force in church growth in Iran, for example), but not by all. Many have Internet access on their phones, but this access is often limited and walled off by government firewalls. But even more: are they searching for Gospel resources? Do they encounter them? How will they even know to search for the Gospel if they’ve never heard it? To get a mental picture of the variance between availability and distribution, picture some illustrative scenes:

  • The dangerous provinces of northern Pakistan and south/west rural Afghanistan
  • The densely populated yet disconnected and rural provinces of Bangladesh.
  • North Korea, with its political, economic and electronic ‘firewall’
  • The logistically distant western provinces of China, remote from people and blocked by the ‘Great Firewall’
  • The Sahel desert regions of Africa.
  • The isolated and war-torn nations of the Horn of Africa: eastern Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea.
  • The closed nations of Central Asia.
  • Populous yet remote regions of eastern Indonesia.
  • The closed off east of Turkey and the closed off regions of Iran outside of Tehran
  • Even in much of urban China, densely populated, there are many who have no encounters with Christians or Christianity.
  • Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the north of India, where there are significant Gospel resources yet they are such a small percentage of the 300+ million people in the region.

Third, in some places and languages there are more tools and connectivity, but disciples are made and churches planted person-to-person and group to group. CSGC studies indicate 86% of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not personally know a believer. Even in high-density Christian nations, migrants and immigrants are not being welcomed and reached by the existing church (with some wonderful exceptions that are nonetheless a small minority).

Fourth, about the miraculous: we’ve all heard reports of dreams and visions, and those reports have been verified. They are certainly happening. But dreams aren’t happening to every unevangelized individual – the number of dreams is fairly small compared to the overall population – and further, every dream/vision testimony I’ve encountered always sends the individual to (mostly) a person who carries the gospel or (some) to a Bible. What happens when neither a person or a Bible is available?

Fifth, church planting movements: they exist, of course, and we are thankful for them. We are excited about the new ones that have started, and are working to start more. (That’s all we at Beyond do.) But we need to be realistic. By my tabulation, there are at most 120 to 140 movements. Most of them are small – thousands and tens of thousands each, with very few (probably less than 10, maybe less than 5, depending on how one counts the movements) having over a million members. The largest movement I know of is in northern India, where despite having millions in the movement it makes up less than 3% of the region. We believe movements are the key–only movements can get ahead of population growth–but they have not solved the problem yet. We need more workers to go and start them.

So let’s celebrate: we are making some headway. The % of the world that is unevangelized dropped by half between 1900 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2025, the Christian “world” will grow by about 29 million people per year. And the evangelized non-Christian world – those who have heard the Gospel but not yet chosen to follow Christ – will grow by about 32 million per year. So in a sense we are “finishing the task” at a rate of at least 61 million people yearly. This is cause for rejoicing.

But at the same time, let’s be concerned: due mostly to population growth, the unevangelized world is growing by a net (births – deaths – newly evangelized) of 19 million per year. While the % of the world that is unevangelized dropped by half, the *number* of unevangelized rose from 800 million to over 2 billion.

The cause is simple: we are doing a lot but we are not doing enough. Very few gospel workers and even less money is going to reach these hardest to reach people. It would be nice if internet, satellite, phones, dreams and indigenous church planting movements reached the world without our having to worry about it… but nothing can replace God’s command to GO and make disciples of every ethne – GO in person and not by try to do it by remote control.

The reality is these people are unreached because we as the global church do not care enough nor are willing to sacrifice enough to reach them.

The tyranny of the “new”, availability heuristic biases, and the importance of advocates and mobilizers

One of the problems we face in activism, advocacy, and research is the “tyranny of the urgent and the new” in publishing.

There are a lot of “ongoing” conflicts, for example: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. But many of these “fall off the radar” because they aren’t “new” – they are “same-old/same-old.” They don’t make the headlines. So people just becoming involved in mission work aren’t aware of some of these complexities, and we can be taken by surprise.

Worse, because we don’t “see” headlines from time to time, we can make the erroneous assumption that the “war” there is over, and that therefore Gospel progress is making advances. This is the “availability heuristic bias“: because we have no information that we can immediately recall, we think there is no information to be recalled.

This is one of the reasons why advocates for specific unreached places and peoples are needed – to monitor the current situation, and to remind us of the current situation. Being an advocate for a specific place – monitoring status, curating resources, raising awareness, recruiting workers – is am important link in the chain.

If everyone is going “from everywhere to everywhere” we need people to be the “from” and “to” links!

Deciding where to go: Explore/Exploit, the Multi-Armed Bandit Problem

In mission work, we face a particular kind of problem all the time: given limited resources (money, personnel, time) and a plethora of places we could go, how do we choose? For example, where are we most likely to find People of Peace, and where are we more likely to encounter hostility? do you focus on building a local discipling infrastructure, or focus on making apostolic teams that will be sent out?

We are not the only ones who face this problem. You’ll see it if you ever play the videogame Civilization: where you have to make a choice between whether your cities build local infrastructure to exploit the territory they have, or build scouts to explore the surrounding territory for new territory on which to build cities to exploit. The challenge belongs to a mathematical problem class, the “explore/exploit tradeoff,” and since there are many who face this issue – web page testing, drug trials, presidential campaigns, and the like – there’s a lot of money spent in figuring out algorithms and best practices. We can learn from some of these.

The classic math scenario in Explore/Exploit is the “Multi-Armed Bandit Problem.” I won’t go into exactly why it’s named that – you can read more in-depth – but essentially the problem is this:

Imagine walking into a casino and deciding to play the slot machines.

There’s a row of machines, each of which has a different probability of paying a reward when you pull the lever. Some machines pay more – some much more – than the other machines, but you’re not sure which machine has the highest return.

If you knew the best machine in advance, you’d just pull that lever all day long, but you don’t have a clue, and no one is going to tell you. The only way to find out is to start pulling levers, pay close attention, keep track of what works and what doesn’t, and do the math.

There’s a tradeoff to be made, however: when you choose to pull a lever you haven’t pulled before, you get new information about that option, and that information is valuable in finding the best overall machine. But pulling the less-tested lever has an opportunity cost: you’re not pulling the lever you currently think will give you the best return. There’s a risk that the lever you pull will return less than what you would’ve brought in pulling the current optimal lever, and that’s a very real cost.

You can see how this applies both in mission and in life. Which skill set is going to pay off the most? Which job is going to have the most opportunities? Which relationship will lead to marriage and happiness?

I’ve been reading more about this particular class of problems in a book, “Algorithms to live by.” The book goes into the math in-depth (both the explore/exploit trade off and the math behind the idea of minimizing regret), but the blog post cited above will get you started. (Also, Wikipedia has a pretty detailed entry on a variety of Multi-armed Bandit scenarios.) The math boils down to this:

  • Given two choices (A & B),
  • and given that you know a bit about choice A (e.g. it has a 60/40 “win” rate after a few tries) and little about B (e.g. it has a 50/50 win rate with 2 tries)
  • you should probably give choice B a go. Explore it more. It could very well have a higher win rate than choice A.
  • Typically, about 4 to 6 “tries” seems to be enough to get a comparable pattern between two choices, and then you settle into “exploiting” (which is just a math term for mining-the-riches-of) the more effective choice.

The Explore/Exploit problem is really about “when to settle.” It’s related to the “optimal stopping” problem. Unfortunately, we often settle a bit too early. The balance between explore/exploit needs to change over time: in the early stages of entry into a particular time, job, place, group of relationships, one needs to explore more. But, once the options are fully known, it’s time to “settle in” to one particular option.

(As a final note, “exploit” sounds bad. In the context of math, it just means “use the information” that you gathered during the exploration phase. “Finding a person to have a family with” would be the explore phase; “happy family meals” would be the exploit phase. One shouldn’t attribute a negative connotation to this particular usage of “exploit.”)

Christianity AGR, vs. Evangelicals, vs. Islam: are evangelicals growing faster/fastest?

On Jan. 19 I did a podcast on the Remaining Task for MissioNexus. One of the questions posed then was the following, which I answered online but I am also answering here for the benefit of all:

In recent years, I’ve heard that the evangelical church is growing more rapidly than Islam. Your statements seem to discredit that idea. Please elaborate.

The raw numbers are as follows:

  • Christianity, measured as “all traditions,” numbers 2.4 billion and is presently growing at 1.31% p.a. (see Status of Global Christianity 2017)
  • Islam numbers 1.7 billion adherents and is presently growing at 1.93% p.a. (fastest).
  • Evangelicals as numbered by the World Christian Database (an ecclesiological definition) number 341 million, growing at 2.12%.
  • Evangelicals as measured by Operation World (a more beliefs-oriented definition) number 545.5 million, growing at 2.6%.

In the context of the talk I note that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, but I am generally comparing it to the “top line numbers” – e.g. vs. Christianity as a whole, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, etc.

Evangelicals are definitely growing faster than Islam.  There are two reasons why this is so.

First, evangelicals are a smaller group, and smaller groups have faster growth rates. For example, let’s say you have a family of 2 (a husband and wife). They have twins. In one day, the family has grown 100% – it has doubled – simply by adding 2 more people. If that same family then, a few years later, had another set of twins, they would only have grown 50% – because 2 vs. 4 (the family size of husband, wife, and 1 set of twins) is just 50%. (If a family of 2 had quadruplets, they would have grown by 200%!).

Second, evangelicals are growing faster than many strands of Christianity because they not only share the same birth rates (as a rule) but also often have higher conversion rates. Global religious dynamics in any given place are births + immigrants + converts – deaths – emigrants – defectors. Islam doesn’t have as high a conversion rate as evangelical Christianity does.

You will find this in other subsets of Christianity, too. The Protestant tradition is growing at 1.64%, the Catholic tradition at 1.08%. The Independent tradition as a whole is growing at 2.21% – faster than Islam – and Asian Independents in particular are growing at 2.94%!.

But speed rates don’t tell you everything. Just because Asian Independents have this remarkable speed doesn’t mean they’re going to overtake Islam or the rest of the world. Asian Independents number 154 million; growing at 2.94% p.a. means this year they will add 4.5 million new members. Islam, by contrast, has 1.7 billion, and at 1.93% per year will add 32.8 million. It is a third as fast (rate-wise) but will add nearly 10x as many people.

So this is the caveat: we must watch the fantastic headlines. Yes, “Islam is growing faster than Christianity,” but that doesn’t mean it will overtake Christianity in size. The turtle might be going twice as fast as the rabbit, but if the turtle is 4x further away from the goal, it won’t reach it in time. And yes, “Evangelicals are growing faster than Islam,” but they won’t overtake Islam in the future (for exactly the same reason).

We need more work, in more places, at faster rates. Which is why I ascribe to mobilization and movements.

Pain

I don’t believe God is personally responsible for every pain (physical, emotional, etc.) we endure.
Sometimes God does in inflict pain in order to discipline us–just as parents discipline children.
Sometimes, like a coach, God requires we do things that are demanding–and maybe painful–while we get in shape. I hated pull-ups, sit-ups, and long runs in Phys Ed in school.
Sometimes, like a doctor, he demands change to fix us: it could be a change of habit, the breaking of a relationship, etc.
Sometimes, like a coach, commander or boss, he sends us into some things that may be dangerous.
Sometimes, people do bad things to us. God isn’t inflicting anything on us; it’s their choices, and even their sins. God doesn’t just liberate me from the penalty of sin when he saved me; he liberated all those around me from the effects of sin being worked out in my life.
Sometimes, I am convinced, things “just happen.” Earth shifts. Tornadoes and hurricanes spiral throughout the world. Lightning strikes. Tree limbs break. Fires start. All of these can be related to systems which, indeed, God set in motion – hurricanes serve a purpose, for example – but that doesn’t mean that this singular event was directly undertaken by God. (I confess my head swirls on this one.) Ultimately I believe, along with C. S. Lewis, that God gave us a dangerous world to live in, because it is in a context of danger that virtues become real and proven.
Sometimes, too, things just break down. Bodies age. These bodies don’t last forever.
And, of course, sometimes, we have to endure the Pains being inflected on someone else – a family member, a spouse, a child, a sibling, a fellow worker, a dear friend, a political leader – while God is working on them.
The great thing, to me, is not trying to figure out whether God caused something, and for what reason, and what it says about him. The great thing is to know that (a) God is in this with me, and (b) God can and will use everything for our ultimate good.
Maybe, as we are following Christ, we should try to emulate the God-with-us, incarnational characteristic more.

We are not all Apostles

I was in a conversation last night that made me reflect again on this idea: we can all be involved in missions, and we can all make disciples, but we do not all have the apostolic gift. We are not all missionaries.

The “apostolic” gift I am here equating with the task of going some place new, where the Gospel is not, crossing a linguistic or cultural boundary, and starting a work that ensures everyone in that place has a chance to hear the Gospel. We see a fuzzy picture of the apostolic function in Paul happening in Acts 19; and we are reminded of the apostolic function when Paul says (Romans 15:20) that it’s his ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ is not known.

While I believe it’s possible to teach anyone to make disciples–indeed, that we are each commanded to make disciples–I’m not sure it’s possible to teach anyone to do this apostolic task. But I believe that apostles can come from anywhere and everywhere. And I believe that apostles aren’t just “born”; they are in some part gifted and in some part mentored, coached and developed.

I don’t think there’s any shame in “not having” the apostolic gift. I freely confess I don’t especially see that gifting in me. I’m a good teacher, and I serve others, and I’m good at what I do in research and communication, but I just don’t see the apostolic gift. But I am involved in missions and in movements.

I don’t think we do any one any favors when we say anyone can be a missionary and everyone should be a missionary, because I think that phrase is a little too fuzzy and people have too many ideas of what it means.

I prefer to say that anyone can make disciples and everyone should – at the very least, of their family – and that everyone can be involved in movements and some of us are gifted to catalyze and start them.

(And, last note: I don’t think “apostle” is some kind of position of authority. I’ve seen several word studies that would conclude it is just the opposite. And of course, we are all called to serve one another, to wash each other’s feet, not to lord it over each other.)

Choosing God’s presence 

I’m at a small conference of workers. The theological reflection the other day was Exodus 33.

In this chapter, God begins by telling Moses:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oathto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”

As a result of this, the people and Moses are both distressed. Moses goes in to the Tent of Meeting and the following exchange is recorded:

 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked,because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

The question we meditated on from this chapter was quite striking.

If God gave us the choice between every thing we want–even good things like revivals, closure, movements–and His presence… will we choose His presence?

It’s obviously a bit of a reflex question. In the long run we cannot have the things of God apart form God himself. Still, it’s a thoughtful reminder: everything begins in the pursuit of God’s presence.

I don’t want to get legalistic about how that is done. I think we each of us have a unique way for getting into the presence of God. So I’m not going to be prescriptive about how to do it, other than to say we should be mindful to do it.

The workers are in the harvest?

In a new comment on a post from about this time last year (“What we need: more workers“), friend Gary Jennings writes:

Thanks for the solid article. Just a reminder to all believers that the workers are in the harvest. Multiplication will occur when we equip every believer, especially new believers, to be disciple making multipliers and intercessors. We have the tools. It’s going to take intentional leadership.

This is technically very true, and I reiterate this very point a lot.

However, it struck me that we ought to give a caveat. We (I) am sometimes tempted to think of this idea of the-workers-are-in-the-harvest as a “silver bullet” solution for the remaining task: that the first movements started will generate all (or at least most) of the workers needed.

The reality I’ve found is a little more cynical. Most of the time, movements seem to generate enough workers for their own harvest, and a little more besides for nearby harvests – there is a “local flooding” effect.

But the waiting harvest is so big and so vast – thousands of millions, ‘at least’ over 20,000 movements needed, maybe double or triple that with attrition, fizzles, and movements that never get very big – that we need vastly more workers than are generated.

Additionally, the “kind” of workers necessary to cross-culturally start a movement – to operate at the E-3 level, as it were – are categorically different from the kind needed to work in a same-culture or near-culture movement (E-1 to E-2 level), and seem to be several orders of magnitude rarer.

I think this means we have to continue to be intentional about finding and raising up cross-cultural apostolic E-3 workers and sending them out.

Still, I do believe in the end we will find many of these within places, peoples and movements outside the West. So in a sense much of the workers are in the harvest – but they will not easily emerge.