The Global Church Growth Outlook, visualized

This morning I released the next edition of the Global Church Growth Outlook. You can subscribe ($4/month) and get the latest edition here:

At the same time, GMI released its latest Missiographic, this one based on my work on the Top 40 Least Reached Places. Check it out here. It looks great, to my mind. When I was looking at it, the graphic immediately called to mind a verse that has always been important to Heidi and I (in fact, it’s the verse that usually starts ‘showing up’ whenever God has something new for us to do):

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)

I pray for new streams of water in the spiritual wastelands of these places. The Top 40 Least Reached places are listed here, in PDF form, free download.

The Global Church Growth Outlook

Subscribe to the Global Church Growth Outlook here.

The task of finishing the Great Commission has long been a passion of mine. I have been a missionary researcher for more than two decades, now. In the course of that time, I have primarily focused on three tasks. First, I have been involved in documenting the task—particularly focusing on the remaining or unfinished parts. If we are to ‘finish’ the task, we need to know what is left to do. Second, after collecting large quantities of documentation, I have been involved in categorizing and analyzing the data, in the process understanding reasons why the task is unfinished in some places, and why it is making gains in others. Third, and finally, I have been involved in advocating that the Church needs to allocate adequate resources to overcoming the barriers and bringing the Good News to everyone.

Over the years those of us who are passionate about missions have come to use a variety of phrases to refer to the ‘remaining’ or ‘unfinished’ task—those people who have not yet heard: phrases like unevangelized and unreached and least-reached. Each of these have a variety of meanings and definitions which affect how we collect and analyze data. I won’t go into the details here. For the most part, while I generally prefer ‘unevangelized,’ in this document I will use ‘unreached’ as the more commonly known definition.

Unfortunately, the original definition of unreached did not have any statistical measure. The reasons are part of history, but the result is a variety of methods used to determine whether a specific group is unreached or not. The most common one: is the group less than 5% Christian (of any tradition) and/or less than 2% Evangelical? This is the measure that I will use here.

Part of the challenge of the remaining task is getting enough detail. Things can look very bright (or very gloomy) when looking at 200+ countries or 250+ major languages. But when you descend into the complexity of individual peoples, provinces and cities, matters become murky. A people group of 10 million might be ‘engaged’ by a church planting team: at the people group level, this is good news. But the reality is, this ‘engagement’ means the team is located in a major city, and while the people within that city might hear the Gospel, it’s very possible the people outside that city might not. Reaching Istanbul, for example, does not mean that Ankara or points east will hear.

It is this reality that has led me to focus on larger and more complex sets of data. While others have focused on peoples, I have tended to focus more on places. Some have thought this a ‘regression’ to the old days when we built our strategies around nation-states—days that Dr. Winter and others moved us past. But the truth is, I think ‘places’ is a necessarily level of detail within the idea of peoples. Some peoples are small enough to be confined to one place. Others are spread out over multiple places: the Bengali, for example, are spread throughout Bangladesh and into eastern India. Adequate engagement means dealing with every people group in every place they live.

I began compling the ‘District Survey,’ which breaks the world’s populations down into countries, then into provinces, and then into districts and subdistricts, aiming for populations of about 100,000. In doing so, I began uncovering a number of fascinating discoveries.

Out of over 4,000 provinces, just 825 provinces are estimated to be less than 5% Christian. 2.7 billion people, or nearly a third of the world’s total population, live in them.

About 1.9 billion people (1.87 billion of them non-Christians) live in 40 of these 825 provinces, each having more than 10 million in population. This is just shy of 40% of all non-Christians (who would confess to being something other than Christian-—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc).

Armed with this data, we can see two ways to make the world vastly “more Christian”: we can tackle the 750 ‘small population’ provinces, or we can tackle the 40 ‘large population’ provinces. It seems to me that while it would require more resources, it might be less complicated to take on the 40. An additional benefit of this strategy is that these 40 provinces are very influential. They include major world cities and hubs of commerce: making a difference here would have a significant spillover effect.

Because these 40 are such an incredible concentration of non-Christian peoples, and making a difference here would have such an impact, I decided to spend much of 2015 largely focused on them. One of the first questions I began thinking about was: how do we know where to go? Which of these 40 might be ‘easier’ and which might be ‘harder’?

I began experimenting with an ‘Outlook’ variable to predict this. I identified several factors related in part to the % Evangelized scale (World Christian Encyclopedia): annual growth rates, violence, HDI, literacy, religious power, liberty, globalization, church presence, recent growth, church publicity, expatriate believers, mission efforts and indigenous denominations. The Outlook variable, which is a simple sum of these factors, providing a score from approximately -30 to +30.

A score around ‘zero’ indicates negatives (violence, religious strongholds, persecution, etc.) balance positives (church presence, expatriates, cross-cultural efforts, etc.): the prospects for church growth are probably around 50/50 and will involve some pain. Positive scores exceeding 10-15 theorize a much sunnier scenario.

In this file, I present the ‘Outlook’ for the church in each province, based on this work, including a descriptive essay, data tables, and photos. Each week we update the Outlook to include another province; by the end of the year I should have covered all 40. Then we will consider which of the smaller provinces to focus on next.

This work is in its infancy. I have great confidence in the factors, but welcome comments and suggetions. Email

Is everyone called to plant churches?

What do you mean by “plant churches”?

Does “plant churches” mean incorporate as a 501(c)(3), buy/rent/build a building, organize services, manage advertising, recruit volunteer workers, establish policies and procedures, administer the offerings, get a good worship team, vet a good youth leader, worry about HR, etc.?

Does “plant churches” mean make disciples who gather together in a community of relationships, in fellowship with each other, in worship of God, and blessing their community – perhaps house to house, perhaps not?

Definitions are important.

The greatest thing about succeeding

is that it tells you generally how not to fail.

If all you do is fail, you will either (1) learn how to fail or (2) run out of experiments.

Success can be replicated. So our goal, in experimenting, is not to “fail fast and fail often,” but to “finish with failure” and get to the success idea–and then replicate it, scale it up, as fast as we can.

The biggest problem with our failures

Is that they often aren’t intentional.

When you run an experiment and you don’t get the result you want, you might call that a failure. But it’s an instructive failure. You set up a test, you had specific measures, and you received a result–and not only that, but you have some indication (hopefully) from the conditions of the test and the individual data points about why the result was received.

With that data, you can set up yet another experiment–and, key point: this experiment will be different from the last.

Edison didn’t randomly try lots of different materials and methods for making a lightbulb. He went through 1,000+ variations until he found the one that worked. There was a huge solution set, but he tested it methodically, eliminating the ‘failures’ one by one.

Unfortunately a lot of our ‘failures’ were not the result of experiments.

Some ‘failures’ simply mean things didn’t go our way. We lost the contract, we lost the girl (or boy), we lost the game. We look back in hindsight and think we know ‘why’ we failed, but in reality we often don’t. The conditions were uncontrolled, the measurements are unclear, the data is sparse and uncertain. The best we can say is that it didn’t go the way we wanted it to. (In fact, we might look back 20 years later and say “we didn’t fail, we just didn’t know how good it would be”–but this is often just reverse justification.)

Some ‘failures’ simply mean something that was broken in the past, and poorly healed/fixed – be it a tool or a toy or a character trait – has broken yet again.

Some ‘failures’ simply mean we reached for something that we knew was slightly beyond our present abilities and failed to get to it. This is where the old adage ‘try, try again’ comes into play.

One-off failures (accidents, etc) can simply be written off to things beyond our control. Repeated failures, however, suggest that a pattern that is controllable. That’s when we need to stop accepting failure and start learning from it–to replace the worst way to fail (repeatedly) with the best way to fail: to plan for it, to plan the conditions, run the experiment, accept the result, and learn from it–and never repeat it.

Two Tools I’ve found helpful
The Lean Brand and especially The Lean Brand Stack
The Lean Startup

The importance of a vision and mission

Many organizations have vision and mission statements. These aren’t just “corporatese.” It’s important to have them, even down to the team and individual level. A simple way of looking at it is helpful.

vision statement defines and describes a problem you want to do something about. Most vision statements are written as the ‘after’ of a “Before & After” problem (some call it a “dream statement”):

  • Oxfam: a just world without poverty
  • Habitat for Humanity: a world where everyone has a decent place to live
  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society: A World Free of MS

mission statement is what the group will specifically do to solve the problem:

  • Oxfam: To create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice.
  • Habitat for Humanity International: Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.
  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society: We mobilize people and resources to drive research for a cure and to address the challenges of everyone affected by MS.

The mission statement isn’t just corporate-speak. A well done statement creates a ‘boundary’ around the potential solution set the structure will explore. The National MS Society doesn’t exist to do research itself–it only mobilizes the resources to empower the research.

We can boil this down to two things everyone needs:
What problem/dream are you confronting?
How are you confronting it?

The reality is, you can’t do everything. To achieve anything requires specificity. So if you want to make a difference in your world, start by defining what difference you will make, and some sense of how you will make it. This is true whether you define “world” as the global world, the Christian world, or the world of your personal relationships.

An ekklesia for every person

What can be done to get to a church for every people will not necessarily get us to the Gospel for every person.

The most obvious challenge to ‘the Gospel for every person’ is the roughly 93 million new children born to non-Christian homes per year (most to Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist homes).

What we do to achieve “the Gospel for every person” today in x place, will not necessarily achieve “the Gospel for every person” five years from now. Campaigns will have to be rerun, attrited missionaries will have to be replaced…

To get to “the Gospel for every person” today and tomorrow, we must have a church for every person.

And not just a building, but an ekklesia – the church as community – connected by friendship into the lives of every person.

Such a community endures, grows, expands. It is not just a one-time campaign, but rather an organic, living entity that can befriend and live life with those alive now as well as future generations.

This would address the very large challenge: 86% of non-believers (particularly Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists) worldwide do not personally know a believer.

Stop aiming for a church for every people.
Start aiming for an ekklesia for every person.

“The Word put on flesh… and moved into the neighborhood…”

The Global Church Growth Outlook lists and describes in depth places where the Word has yet to put on flesh and move in. Updated monthly. Subscribe now.

When we have to tear apart the boxes we are standing on

When we have a lot of responsibilities – or, at the very least, a lot of activities – we have a tendency to use different methods for reducing the number of decisions we have to make.

Sometimes we will eat roughly the same things for breakfast, or we will have a way of quickly choosing the clothes we will wear. We create ‘routines’ that take on the force of habit. These things are ‘pre-approved actions’ which will (generally) always work, so they free up mental space for other things.

We built soapboxes to stand on, so to speak, so we could do other things. These habits enable more activity.

But many of these ‘pre-approved routines’ over time take on the force of law, and it becomes very difficult for us to break them. Three worship songs before church. The offering after the worship songs. A sermon just so long and no longer. People who go to seminary before they ever start teaching in a church, so that we know they will teach the right things. They are safe laws: ‘No one ever got fired for buying IBM.’

The problem is… eventually these decisions are no longer workable or valid. The time they were good for is past. But then, our brains are occupied with so many other things, that it is excessively hard for us to get down off the box we are standing on, and examine the box itself.

Breaking out of that box requires something more than the idea that it would be good to examine the boxes. It requires a greater desire and passion for something which demands the boxes be reexamined.

Less about what we do less of, more about what we do differently

Some evangelistic methods leave you feeling like Christianity is all about dealing with the past.

We need forgiveness because we have sinned. And, we need Christ in our heart so we won’t keep on sinning.

This is very true. But Christianity – following Christ – doesn’t stop there.

If we make it mostly about dealing with our sins, we run into the problem of people who have lived (at least in their view) “basically good lives.”

Our response to that is, of course, “all have sinned” – so even the “tiniest sin” can separate us from God.

And that leads us into lots of arguments that are basically works-based thinking.

Perhaps we ought not focus quite so much on what we are being saved out of, and think more about what we are being saved in to.

Perhaps it’s less about the past we leave behind and more about the future we walk toward.

Perhaps it’s less about having sins forgiven and more about becoming a citizen of the Kingdom and a subject of the King.

Perhaps it’s less about what we stop doing, and more about what we start doing.

The world should change because of us – not in that it does less, but that it does differently.

I am thinking of these Hero Rats this morning, and thinking – this is the sort of thing that should flow out of the Kingdom, seeking to set things right.

The Rule of 72

The Rule of 72 is a quick if coarse way of measuring the time it takes a population to double.

First, you’ll need to figure out the growth rate of your population. This is pretty simple: if you’re calculating for a year, then it’s the newer population divided by the older population (e.g. pop2010/pop2009). If you’re calculating for a longer period of time (say a decade), then it’s: (new/old)^(1/time_period). So, for example, for a decade, it would be (new/old)^(1/10). (The ^ symbol is “to the power of”; any decent spreadsheet will do it.)

The Rule of 72 is: divide 72 by the population growth rate to get the number of years to double. If the growth rate is 4%, 72/4=18, so 18 years for the group to double in size.

If the doubling rate of the group is significantly faster than the doubling rate of the population, you’ll have a chance to double or quadruple in size in the same time the population does so once. For example, if the time-to-double is one-quarter that of the national population, it’s possible 4 “doubling generations” could be done in the same time the national population adds one. If the national population growth is 2%, you’d need growth of about 8 to 10% on a regular basis to reach those kinds of levels (72/2 = 36 years to double, 72/8 = 9 years to double.)

That sounds difficult, but 10% growth just means each small group of 10 adds one new member per year. That’s really not that remarkable a growth rate. Let’s say you start with a church of 100. At an 8% growth rate, by the end of a decade you would have a church of 200 (72/8=9 years). Keep that sustained, and by the end of 16 years you would have a church of 400 (in generation 2, the 200 doubled to 400). Do another decade and you will reach 800. Another decade to 1,600. So, at an 8% growth rate, in 40 years you have 1,600 people.

Now, let’s reverse-engineer. Let’s say you have 100,000 people, and you want to have them all be in a church in 40 years. What kind of growth rate would you need? It’s a fairly simple equation to run in a spreadsheet: you’d need a sustained 20% growth rate with very few dips over a 40 year period. How can you do that? Have everyone in a church in a small group, and each small group of 10 adds 2 new members every year, without fail. In 40 years, the church will have grown to 100,000 people.

Sounds easy, but in practice it’s not. The larger the organism gets, the harder it is for it to grow. This is why it’s very important, early on, to train, coach, and encourage all of your people to be making disciples and multiplying.