When will the world be over half evangelical?

The definition of ‘evangelical’ is hard to pin down, and even harder to measure. Generally, when people say ‘evangelical’ they mean ‘true believers.’ When the World Christian Database measures ‘evangelical,’ they are referring to members of historically Evangelical denominations, which can be something entirely different. While I think measuring ‘evangelical’ is a very challenging process—and not one I would undertake, myself—Operation World’s measure is probably the closest to the commonly understood meaning of the term.

In the 2010 edition of Operation World, evangelicals were estimated at 545.8 million, or 7.9% of the world, and growing at 2.6% per annum. These were broken out into 7 regions: North America, 94 million; Latin America, 135 million; Europe, 18 million; Africa, 182 million; Asia, 146 million; Pacific, 6 million; and Caribbean, 6 million.

For each of these regions, OW further gives annual growth rates as of 2010. The challenge with projecting growth rates into the future: they will certainly not remain the same, and trying to predict precisely what they will be is a bit of a fool’s errand. Many things will impact them, but the biggest: the larger the population, the more it will be similar to the population of the region as a whole, and the more it will take on the regional population characteristics. In the largest populations, births born to Christian homes grow the church far more than conversions do (globally, about 10 times as much). Conversions simply determine ‘by how much’ a subset ‘beats’ the overall population rate: but if the population growth rate fluctuates up and down, we can expect the church growth rate to do the same.

To try to estimate when evangelicals will be “half the planet” (or 50% of the population), I have broken them out by region, and then estimated evangelical populations for the years 2025, 2050, 2075 and 2100. The methodology for this is as follows. We start with the evangelical population and annual growth rate for each region as given by Operation World. We project 2025 from 2010 based on this. Then, we vary the evangelical annual growth rate for 2050, 2075 and 2100 based on the changes in the region’s population growth rate over that time.

As an example, Africa has an evangelical AGR of 3.6% and a population AGR of 2.5% in 2010. In 2025, the population AGR has dropped to 2.4%, so (using a ratio) we drop the evangelical AGR to 3.5%. This is obviously a fairly rough process, but it does reflect the enormous role that demographics plays in growth. The analysis of this result of the methodology is as follows.

Africa. From 182 million in 2010, evangelicals grow to 3 billion, or 69% of Africa by 2100. This is powered by sustained but declining population growth, falling to 1.95% per year by 2100. I suspect the model significantly overstates the growth, but I have not modified the methodology here. In spite of the specific numbers, I am very comfortable with a projection of Africa’s having crossed the 50% threshold somewhere between 2075 and 2100.

Asia. From 146 million in 2010, evangelicals grow to 1.2 billion, or 24% of Asia’s 4.3 billion by 2100. Evangelicals are, in this model, predicted to slip from 3% per annum growth today to 1.5% per annum in 2100, due to the projected fall in population growth. This, too, seems a fairly realistic projection. While there are significant gains in the number of evangelicals in China, growth in other places in Asia is presently fairly flat.

Europe. From 18 million today, this model projects growth to 26 million evangelicals by 2100. The annual growth rate will decline along with the falling population AGR, which is projected to hit its peak ‘low’ rate of -0.246% per annum around 2075. Since the evangelical AGR will not be as slow as the population’s, Europe will actually become more evangelical (by percentage of the population): rising from 2.5% in 2010 to 4% in 2100 in this model.

Latin America. From 91 million evangelicals today, evangelicals would rise to 477 million by 2100, or 70% of the population. As with Africa, the precise numbers are likely overstated, but it still seems likely Latin America would be ‘over the 50%’ threshold.

Caribbean. From 6 million in 2010, evangelicals would rise to 31 million, or 77% of the population. They would have crossed the 50% threshold in 2075. While the model probably overstates the number, it appears that crossing the 60% threshold is possible.

Pacific. From 6 million, evangelicals would rise to 21 million, or 29% of the population. While comparable in starting population size with the Caribbean, the much smaller growth illustrates the power of a much smaller annual growth rate.

I confess this methodology is very imprecise, and should certainly not be relied on for anything other than an attempt at estimating which regions will be ‘across the line.’ Any number of things–warfare, pandemic disease, revival, persecution, and so on–could significantly interrupt this. However, I think it’s a fairly realistic model because it depends in large part on demography, and demography is fairly consistent over the long run of decades and centuries.

The net result of this model is this projection: in 2100, the world would have 4.9 billion evangelicals out of an 11 billion population, or 44.2%. Because Africa and Latin America projections are probably too high, it seems almost certain 4.9 billion is likely too high as well; this means the world will likewise almost certainly not be over 50% evangelical by 2100. Further, as evangelical populations get larger, their population growth rates will almost certainly slow. This means crossing the ‘50% line’ is likely far further off than 2100.

half evangelical

If one wished to change the date, how might we set about it? The only way to do so would be to make a significant difference within a large population: increasing the Pacific’s % evangelical, while worthwhile, wouldn’t make much of a dent in the global average. The most high-impact population to influence the global total would be Africa and Asia’s. Africa is, by and large, becoming rapidly evangelical. Asia, on the other hand, is a strong mix of reached and unreached areas. More effort there could shift the ‘clock’ significantly: but this is easier typed on a page than done in the field.

You can download a PDF of my region-by-region estimates and projections here.

The strategic value of mapping people to places

The chief reason for the development of people group thinking in missions was the lack of precision in measuring the remaining task in terms of countries. There was a church for every country, but many individuals within specific peoples throughout North Africa and Asia lacked access to the Gospel because churches in their countries were either too small or cut off from peoples due to language, culture or political restrictions. An example: in China the Han Chinese might have a large church, but minorities like the Hui, Uighurs, or Zhuang did not.

Ralph-WinterSince Dr. Winter’s address at Lausanne 1974, people group thinking has rapidly expanded and permeated the global missions movement. It has caused a significant focusing of missionary effort, albeit with some controversy and debate. It has especially enabled the global church to see the complexity of the remaining task and the many ‘gaps’ in Gospel progress.

However, people group thinking, too, can suffer from a ‘blind spot’ similar to that of ‘country’ thinking: very large people groups can be underengaged. People groups like the Pashto, Thai and Turks are vast in numbers and spread out across large areas. They may be engaged by churches and cross-cultural workers in some places (for example, the Turks are lightly touched in Istanbul), but in others (for example, eastern Turkey) the same group can be unengaged and virtually unevangelized, living with no access to the Gospel at all.

Because of this, it is not enough to know a people group is engaged by at least one team. It is not even enough to know how many workers have engaged a people group because teams tend to clump geographically. We need to be monitoring both peoples and places.

In response to this, I have been laboring for over a year on a District Survey, which combines a more granular geographic and ethnographic focus. It lists all of the countries, provinces, districts, and ‘sub-districts’ (counties or whatever they are locally called), with descriptive factors (including peoples) for each. By going down to the sub-district level, I am evaluating population segments of about 100,000 people—a size my research suggests can be adequately engaged by a single team or church.

As I have worked on this project, I have found at this population size, places usually mesh in one of three ways with the Peoples lists:

1. The place correlates to a specific people group. Some places are completely, or nearly completely, dominated by one people group (e.g. Turks or Koreans). Of course, there may be tiny pockets of a few dozen or hundred diaspora (for example, Chinese in some places in Africa, or American businesspeople in Saudi Arabia).

2. The place correlates to two, or sometimes three, peoples. One ethnic group is the largest, but one or two other groups are ‘significant minorities.’ Southern China is one example of this; so are parts of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where large numebrs of expatriates live and work. It is most common in districts on the borders of two provinces—the two provinces may each have their dominant group (category 1 above), but at their edges there is some ‘blending.’

3. The place is a potpourri. This is particularly the case with urban areas. Sometimes the ethnic groups are all ‘mixed in together’; in others, within the urban boundaries, there are significant ‘clumpings’ of groups.

My own list contains confidential data and is thus not accessible on the Internet. But you don’t need my global list. To make a difference in one place, you don’t need to have the whole world in view: start with the country or province you are focused on. Create an Excel spreadsheet and list all the provinces in the country, and then for each province add the districts. You can usually find these with simple Google searches, or check out the tables at Statoids.com. It’s a public open-source list of the world’s countries and provinces (and in some places districts) which you can use. Add columns to your sheet—how many people are in the place? what are the major people groups there? are there churches? are there workers? can workers get there, and stay there long-term? If you want more data to flesh out your sheet, you can get my index file, 243+ global data sources, which will help you find more information.

In compiling this list, you will almost immediately gain a clearer of the situation ‘on the ground.’ To be reached by the classical definition, every population segment needs an indigenous (E-1) church capable of evangelizing the segment to its borders without cross-cultural (E-2 or E-3) assistance. To be ‘engaged’ at all requires a team of some sort, whether E-1, E-2 or E-3. While we might not know the exact numbers of teams or churches or believers in particular districts, I have found it is generally possible to ask ‘whether a church’ is present, or ‘whether an E-3 team is present’; this kind of yes/no question can be fairly easily answered.

Second, developing this list will help you see more clearly the kind of strategy required: some places cannot be accessed by E-3 teams (you probably won’t be placing a long-term missionary team in Mecca any time soon, for example). By seeing places that cannot be accessed by E-3 teams, we can ‘back up’ and see where we need E-1 churches that can send E-1 workers to those districts. (E-3 workers can’t easily access rural Afghanistan, but might be able to work in places where Afghanis are—and E-1 Afghanis could get into rural Afghanistan.)

Third, the list can help you raise apostolic vision in others. You could, for example, print out a map of the country, and ‘color’ it by hand with locations of workers and teams—this very simple process requires no advanced GIS software, and will enable you to show anyone where ‘gaps’ are.

Most importantly, this process will give you an understanding of the complexities of the task remaining, as well as specific places to pray for. The closer we get to ‘ground realities,’ even in list making, the better we can see the strengths and weaknesses of the existing mission effort and the opportunities and threats we face. All too often our view is too simplistic; by getting further into the details we may find options for reaching population segments that we wouldn’t have seen with a too-broad view.

Regression to the Mean

Imagine a church planter. If he presents the Gospel to 100 people, what are the odds that 60 of them will become disciples? It might seem a fairly impossible question to answer, so let’s consider a different question: Dr. Daniel Kahneman suggested to one class that they imagine taking a coin, holding it in the hand, and ‘flipping’ it (like you’d flip a coin) toward a target. Imagine doing this 100 times. What are the odds that 60 of the ‘flips’ will be within two inches of the target?

The two questions are similar in that part of the result is due to skill (communicating the Gospel, aiming the coin) and part to forces beyond your control (cultural issues, state of the person’s heart, the work of the Holy Spirit; or, atmospheric pressure, physics, gravity, and other factors). Some would call the factors skill vs. chance.

You might argue there’s no such thing as ‘chance’ in the presentation of the Gospel; all we’re doing is letting the word stand in for the aggregate of all the unseen, uncontrolled realities. When the Gospel is presented some accept and some walk away, and we don’t know why. Looking at any given Gospel-recipient, we might think the chance of his becoming a disciple would therefore be, from our perspective, 50/50. But remember the skill portion.

If you share the Gospel with him in a language he can’t understand, the probability of his accepting it is pretty near zero. If you have a skilled communicator who can present the Gospel in a way that avoids any basic misunderstandings, his chance of becoming a disciple might be greater than 50%. (Or it might still be significantly less, depending on cultural factors.)

It’s hard to know from a few ‘samples’ (a few instances of presenting the Gospel) because of the chance portion. This is where we come to the statistical idea of regression to the mean. Granted, I’m not a Ph.D. in statistics, but here’s the basics and how we can apply it.

Let’s go back to the example of flipping a coin at the target. Imagine making an initial run of 10 flips, and you get 2 within a few inches. Does this mean you’re terrible? Not necessarily. Make another run of 10. This time, let’s say you got 8. A quick learner? Not necessarily. Make another run of 10. This time, 5. Another time, 6. Another time, 4. Another, 5 again. What’s going on?

Part of the result is skill, and part is chance . Factors in your location—maybe air flow, maybe other people, maybe distractions, who knows—are affecting your shots. The more shots you make, however, the more these small chances are being ‘averaged’ out. The ‘mean’ or average of all these runs is indicative of the portion due to skill (which, from that limited data, looks about 4.8).

This is important in many life skills—church planting among them—because we often give something a few tries and decide we’re not very good at it and give up. The problem is, it’s very possible chance factors were against us on those tries.

To find out just how good (or bad) you are requires multiple tries. Those ‘samples’ will also give you data on weaknesses, which can lead to specific suggestions for self-improvement.

This is also an important principle when considering an evangelistic method. You might try something—for example, tract distribution—and hear reports of a dozen who became believers. You might be quite excited about this (and well you should; the angels rejoice over one sinner).

However, we might ask a couple of questions: twelve out of how many tracts distributed? how does that ratio compare to other evangelistic methods? Again, multiple samples are required, and to best test the method you’d need to have the same workers try both.

All of this may seem like a terrible exercise in smothering the joy of Gospel-sharing with quantification, numbers, measurement and spreadsheets—but evangelism isn’t just a joy, it’s a responsibility. By measuring multiple ‘sample sets’ of Gospel-sharing, we can get a better understanding of what is working in the place, and what isn’t.

How might we set about doing some of this?

1. Bigger sample sizes. The typical set really should have 30 to 50 samples in it to be a good sample. Consider adopting a way of sharing the Gospel (or perhaps just a ‘living out loud’ statement) with 5 to 10 people each day for a week. As you get a chance, record the response to each sharing: was it seeking (+2), friendly (+1), neutral/uninterested (0), disinterested (-1), hostile (-2)? Actually recording this (you don’t need their names and such; “guy at bus stop” might be enough) will help you be accountable (did I hit 5 today?) and see the real pattern (that one lady was hostile, but most people were either neutral or friendly).

2. Multiple samples. Do this over 3 to 4 weeks and you’ll have a fairly good view of the mean or average of the number of times a Gospel-offering finds an interested listener. You’ll also see the vagaries of ‘chance’ (I use the term loosely)—you might see many friendlies one day, and many unfriendly people another, but what’s the average situation?

3. Now, begin to change. Remember the skill vs. chance mix. Is there something about your skill set that you can improve, something about the method of presentation that you can change, which might result in an increase in positive responses? You might imagine this change or another, but the only real answer is to try something and measure it. Again, measure for a week or more. Get a good sample to control for chance .

Is this too much? In many places we’re looking at enormous populations who need to hear the Gospel. Can we afford to waste time on methods that are very ineffective? Can we afford to lose people who think they’re bad witnesses just because they had a bad first week? Can we afford to avoid evaluating our methods just because they’re exciting and we’re seeing a little fruit? Let’s measure—and let’s learn to measure well.

Status of Global Mission 2016

The new 2016 Status of Global Christianity is out from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. This one page overview is my go-to snapshot of global statistics.

You can download it here.

I’ll be talking about this and related issues in today’s blab (2pm CST) with Steve Schirmer and Mike Falkenstine.

Here, I want to again highlight a few critical columns from this report.

1. The Annual Trend column is the equivalent of a speedometer from 2000 to 2016. To figure out whether an individual trend is gaining ground or not, compare its annual trend number with the total population trend (1.19% yearly).

  • Religionists, 1.31%. The world is becoming more religious, not less.
  • Christians, 1.3% vs. Muslims, 1.8%. Both Christians and Muslims are gaining ground in the world, but Muslims are gaining ground faster. This is largely a function of faster net demographic growth rates in countries that have large Muslim populations; this in turn is caused partially by declines in mortality.
  • Hindus, 1.26%. The Hindu population is making gains worldwide, but not as fast as Christians or Muslims.
  • All of the remaining groups (except the very small Sikh population) are declining vs. global population.
  • Non-religionists, 0.3% – agnostics are growing at .36%, and atheists at 0.05%. Despite headline-grabbing trends in certain parts of the world (the West, mostly), the world as a whole is becoming progressively and massively less non-religious (and atheists in particular are in sharp decline).

2. Note the differences in the major Christian traditions: Catholics and Orthodox are declining vs. the global population; Protestants are rapidly increasing; Independents (and especially Asian independents) are increasing fastest of all.

3. Note especially the number of unaffiliated (nominal) Christians is also declining rapidly; I don’t know specifically, but I would theorize these are becoming the ‘Nones’ of the headlines. There is a ‘floor’ to this decline, since the numbers of affiliated believers are all increasing.

4. We can see the shifts in Christianity most sharply in the regional differences – very fast growth in Africa and Asia, declines in Europe and North America, and little growth/slow declines in North America and Oceania. This is just the proof of what most of us know already.

5. Interestingly, we also see a decline in the number of foreign missionaries (and the growth in national workers is not keeping pace with global population).

6. Line 50, the % of non-Christians who know a Christian, is the all-important Personal Contact factor. Only 18% of non-Christians know a believer (inverse: 82% of non-Christians do not).

7. Finally, take a close look at lines 67 and 68. Once again, wee see that the absolute number of unevangelized individuals continues to grow (by 1.05% per annum–slower than the population, but still increasing), while the percentage of the world that is unevangelized is declining.

By 2050 we will add another half a billion unevangelized people to our planet (nett of births minus deaths). We obviously need to do a far better job at mobilizing and sending to them.

The future of Afghanistan

The Central Asian country of Afghanistan is one of the most restricted and least-evangelized of the world. If the whole of the world is to be evangelized, this nation’s peoples, too, must hear the gospel. What is the likely religious future of Afghanistan? Could it be presented with the gospel of Jesus Christ by 2025 or beyond?

Afghanistan is a landlocked country situated in the middle of Central Asia. Its position, in the midst of ancient trade and invasion routes from Central Asia to India, has been the greatest influence on its history, since invaders often settled there. It has been been fought for by nearly every world empire throughout history, beginning with the Persians (6th century BC) and Alexander the Great (330BC). Buddhists dominated from the 1st to the 8th centuries, but lost hold as Islam invaded and became the driving force from the 600s to 1200s. In 1220 Genghis Khan swept the land. Toward the end of the 14th century, Tamerlane conquered it before moving on into India. The Mughal Empire (in Kabul) and the Safavid dynasty in Persia (occupying Herat) fought over Afghanistan throughout the whole of the 16th and 17th centuries, with most of their battles centered on Kandahar.

In the late 1700s, the Persian king Nadir Shah hired the Abdali tribe of Pashtuns in his wars against India. Upon Nadir’s assassination in 1747, Ahmad Shah proclaimed himself Shah and led the Afghans to extend their rule to Kashmir, Delhi, north to Amu Darya, and west into Persia.

In the 1800s, internal conflicts gradually reduced Afghanistan’s empire to its modern borders. At the same time, the British and the Russians both wanted Afghanistan in their sphere of influence. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought—the first in 1838; the second in 1878—which brought control of Afghanistan to the British, and Abd-ar-Rahman into power as Emir of Afghanistan. Habibullah (reigning 1901-1919) began to modernize the country; his son, Amanullah, began the Third Anglo-Afghan War which led to the end of British control and the independence of Afghanistan. Amanullah continued modernization: the women would give up the full-length veil and men could wear Western clothing in certain public areas. Traditionalists revolted against him and drove him from Afghanistan.

Power became concentrated in the hands of Muhammad Zahir Shah, and was retained by his family four decades. Muhammad Daud became prime minister in 1953, and began a development program with the assistance of economic and military aid from the USSR. He was ousted as the King attempted to end Soviet influence and improve relations with Pakistan; ten years later he was back, overthrowing the king and declaring Afghanistan to be a republic. After a period of intense political turmoil, Daud himself was overthrown by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. New president Taraki announced a broad program including land reform, women’s rights, and a campaign against illiteracy. Reforms were again opposed by traditionalists and ethnic leaders, and by 1979 the nation was in the midst of yet another internal war. In September, Taraki was deposed and killed. His successor Amin tried to suppress the rebellion, but the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 on behalf of the opposition, executed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as president.

The period of political chaos was bad, but the ensuing war was devastating. Half the population was displaced; 4.5 million refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran. Deaths were estimated at between 700,000 and 1.3 million. The economy was crippled and the infrastructure all but destroyed. The rebellion intensified as the mujahadeen (‘freedom fighters’) battled against the ‘atheists’, sustained by weapons and money from the USA, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. The Soviets had better equipment, but much of it could not be used effectively in Afghanistan’s harsh, mountainous landscape. Analysts have likened the Soviet invasion to the action of Americans in Vietnam: the Afghani rebels could simply fade back into the mountains and wait to strike again. Finally, in May 1988, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR and the USA agreed to the end of foreign intervention, and the Soviet troops were withdrawn.

The rebels, however, had nothing to do with the peace accords and kept up their battle against the Afghani government, scorning all attempts at peace talks. Soviet economic and military aid kept the government in power. When it was withdrawn in late 1991 the rebels finally made headway, and the government fell in 1992. A new government took control of Kabul, but efforts to keep Pashto leaders out of office caused new hostilities as the Pashto-dominated Taliban sought to re-establish their dominance in the capital. The Taliban began in the south in 1994 as guerrilla soldiers who called themselves religious students. They took Kabul in September 1996. They insisted on imposing the strictest interpretation of shari’a law, leading to the expulsion of women from most aspects of society. Harsh punishments were imposed for crimes. Most of the intellectuals of Afghanistan (who were also more liberal) fled.

Unsurprisingly, opposition to the Taliban’s extremist rule rose quickly. The two sides fought back and forth through 2001, but the Taliban maintained the upper hand. After the bin-Laden inspired attacks on the United States, American forces began attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. The Taliban government was quickly toppled and a new government installed under Karzai. However, never fully defeated, Taliban forces regrouped and have continued battling the government to this day.

While the Soviets controlled Afghanistan, there was some freedom for Christians to work and evangelize. After the Taliban takeover, these freedoms evaporated. Even after the US-led toppling of the Taliban government, it has been extremely dangerous for Christian work of any sort (including aid, development, and medical work). Many Christian workers have been expelled and some killed, and the church has been persecuted harshly.

Absent a divine move of God, the short-term future of Christianity in Afghanistan is bleak. Islam has been the driving force in Afghanistan, and it holds a tight grip on its citizens. The wars have destroyed much of the technological infrastructure used to beam the gospel into the nation. While obviously some have radios and Internet access, most of the population does not. Much of the country is inaccessible to foreign workers, in the grip of fundamentalists, fighters, and organized crime bosses (particularly in the area of drug trafficking). Those most open to the gospel (intellectuals and liberals) have fled the country’s new regime. Existing Gospel work in the nation is highly dangerous to the lives of the workers.

Based on this short profile, we can sketch three scenarios:

Scenario No. 1: Status Quo. Islam continues in its grip on the nation. Aid from Islamic countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enable some improvements in the country and the provision of Islamic education (mosques, teachers, copies of the Koran). Christians are for the most part kept out. Some work is possible, and some are martyred every year.

Scenario No. 2: Costly revival. Islam largely keeps control, but a movement begins (perhaps among some of the less fortunate ethnic groups). Although bitterly persecuted, the revival continues to grow until a church of several thousand is established in the rural areas of Afghanistan.

Scenario No. 3: Downfall of fundamentalist Islam. Some form of more moderate or liberalized government takes form, the Taliban are thoroughly ejected, foreign aid is accepted, and workers can move in.

Of the three scenarios, right now it appears the most likely is scenario 1. Networks that most desire to see Afghanistan impacted need to recruit personnel with a long-term view and the passion to persist through a long winter with the hope of a harvest in an eventual spring. The best options right now appear to be working amongst diaspora with the idea that some will be able to return to Afghanistan and bring the Gospel through their family networks.

The Most Probable 2016 of Syria: Stalemate of Death

There seems to be no end to the troubles Syria faces. To date, over a tenth of Syria’s population have been killed or wounded. The impact of the violence is horrific: most starkly seen in numbers, as the life expectancy has dropped from 70 in 2010 to 55 today.Drone footage captures the extent of Syria’s destruction. The violence will be felt generationally in the terrible heritage experienced by its children. Over half of the population has been displaced–6.3 million inside Syria’s borders, and over 4 million abroad. (Most of these are in nearby countries.)

What might 2016 hold for this beleaguered nation and its people?

Russia’s foreign minister suggested three scenarios.
1. a negotiated peace agreement.
2. military victory by the Syrian army.
3. a larger, regional war, with multiple foreign countries taking part.

Unfortunately, the peace talks were most recently postponed by the fighting around Aleppo, as the opposition said it would not participate until all bombing had ceased. In “14 Hard Truths on Syria,” Max Fisher provides a concise outline of the complexities involved. In this, he (also) notes the peace talk scenario is “basically doomed”–(a) there is no mutually acceptable position for the parties, (b) the Middle East powers are less interested in an end to the war or the defeat of ISIS than in positioning themselves against each other, and (c) aside from the limited involvement of the West right now, no Western power wants to commit in a huge way.

The only solution really acceptable to the opposition would be the removal of Assad. Doing so would be costly, and would not magically solve all issues overnight (see: Libya). So while Russia identifies three scenarios (peace, Syrian victory, larger war), there is a fourth reality:stalemate–a “mini-World War” in which local groups are backed by regional powers just enough to keep the fighting going but not enough to spark a bigger regional event or enough to finish it off. And this is where Syria is, at present. Studies Fisher cites suggest that civil wars typically last about a decade (longer when foreign powers intervene).

This, of course, is the worst of all scenarios: continuous fighting, devastation, destruction, and death.

From the available data, this terrible trendline seems to me the most likely. For a very long period of time, we will be facing the reality of devastation in Syria, refugees from the conflict knocking on the doors of Europe, America and the West, and the need for the church to articulate a response.

We can urge for the “Syrian problem” to be “kept over there” – or the church can find ways to locally or strategically, systematically engage in blessing the refugees. Our response may very well shape the opinion of Christians held by the next generation of Syrians.

Read also

  • How the current conflicts are shaping the future of Syria and Iraq.” Brian Michael Jenkins, RAND. “The fighting is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The contest has become less political and more existential for its participants. Yearnings for peace may be universal, but none of the belligerants can imagine surviving under rule by their foes… Foreign powers in the region and beyond have significant stakes… but absent large-scale direct military interventions, which can easily backfire, none of the foreign powers can guarantee… triumph or… ensure defeat.”
  • Seven scenarios for the future of Syria,” 2013. Assad victory (less likely in the near future, more likely in the long), Good rebel victory, Bad rebel victory, Stalemate (“at this point, a stalemate is very likely”), country breakup, regional conflict, chaos (xref: Somalia).
  • Syria’s future will be decided by ground troops. But whose?” Michael Clarke, The Guardian, 2015. But if no one is willing to commit ground troops, then…
  • Six predictions about what will happen in Syria.” James Gelvin, HistoryNewsNetwork.com. A dismal outlook, but one that agrees with nearly every other analysis.


The likely future of Somalia: stabilizing, but still dangerous

Somalia is stabilizing, but will be largely closed and dangerous during 2016.

1. Somalia has a history of war and anarchy. The current conflict, in various forms, has raged for over 25 years: the south-central region has suffered the most, while Somaliland and Puntland have been relatively stable.

2. Due in large part to the unceasing violence, Somalia’s people are in depressing situations. As of 2010, Somalia’s population stood at 9 million, less than half literate. Poverty and insecurity were indemic, and 10% of children died before the age of 5.

3. Most recently, Al-Shabaab, a violent Islamist group, emerged with the intention of controlling Somalia in 2005; in 2006 it labored to expel Ethiopian forces from the country, and aligned itself with Al-Qaeda. In 2007, ANISOM, an Africa Union peace-support operation, deployed to Mogadishu to protect the government, but Al-Shabaab grew in strength. By 2009-10, Al-Shabaab controlled  most of Mogadishu and the south-central region. Then, in 2011, a massive famine struck. 80,000 died. Al-Shabaab refused to allow Western aid agencies into its territory, and this action alienated many of its supporters. This was the turning point. By August, most of its fighters were forced out of Mogadishu.

4. In 2012, a Somali conference was held in London where the parties agreed to establish a federal system of five to six zones of influence, which would help address the tribal conflicts (so no single tribe made up the government). The first permanent central government since the start of the civil war was installed. But the nation had been devastated: it was in a “post-war” situation. The ability of the government to actually make progress has been limited.

5. Outside powers (including the US, with its secret drone bases in the country) have labored to tackle security threats. ANISOM has been active for a decade. While they have made strides, clan violence and isolated terrorist attacks continue today, and the existing forces have proven powerless to prevent these.

6. The meager amounts of growing stability have caused many diaspora to begin returning to Somalia. In 2013, the IMF recognized the government. Daily flights to Mogadishu resumed. Livestock exports started. Remittance inflows reached over US$1.2 billion yearly. Reaching diaspora now could be quite strategic, since as the security situation improves many may very well return and be welcomed to their homeland. Returning diaspora may, for the short-term future, be the most viable way for the Gospel to enter the country.

In 2016, the transitional government will likely make some progress. But the success of any plans for a free and fair election is highly improbable. The country will undoubtedly continue to see terrorist attacks on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis. It will be effectively closed to the Gospel and dangerous to Christian workers and believers. While not absolutely impossible to work within Somalia’s borders, reaching Somalis will continue to be most effectively and sustainably done outside the country.

Read more

____. New York Times: Chronology of Coverage. Link.
2010. “Somalia: a new approach.” CFR Center for Preventive Action.
2012. “A ray of hope: international plans to help Somalis create regional governments.” Economist.
2013. “Somalia’s hope for the future: the return of young diaspora Somalis.” Life-peace.org.
2013. “A bright future for Somalia is within touching distance.” Al Jazeeraop-ed.
2013. “The rise and fall of Somalia’s pirate king.” Foreign Policy.
2013. “Demography is destiny: why Al-Shabab’s Westgate massacre is just the tip of the iceberg for an Africa on the edge of dysfunction.” Foreign Policy.
2013. “Crazy Town: Somalia awash in mental illness, without a single trained psychiatrist.” Foreign Policy.
2013. “The safe haven next door: Somaliland.” Foreign Policy.
2014. “Inside the fight for Somalia’s future: clan violence.” Global Post.
2015. “US operates drones from secret bases in Somalia.” Foreign Policy.
2015. “Is there a new US airstrike policy in East Africa?” Foreign Policy.
2015. “UNHCR country operations – Somalia.” UNHCR.
2015. “Money keeps moving toward Somalia, sometimes in suitcases.” Foreign Policy.
2015. “Somalia is too dangerous for Kerry to even leave the airport.” Foreign Policy.
2015. “The Mogadishu that stole Christmas.” Foreign Policy.
2015. “Kenyan military ‘in business’ with Al Shabab.” Foreign Policy.
2015. “The failed state roadshow: an interview with Somalia’s president.” Foreign Policy.
2015. “Somalia’s incredible shrinking election.” Foreign Policy.
2016. “Somalia stumbling along ‘bumpy and difficult’ path to peace and prosperity.” Guardian.
2016. “Witness Somalia’s resilience after decades of war.” Time.
2016. “Somalia Humanitarian Needs Overview 2016.” Reliefweb.
2016. “In Somalia, stability is a distant promise.” Stratfor.

Black Swans: why movements must prepare for them

The term “Black Swan” was originated at least in part by Nassim Taleb, and is elaborated in his books
Fooled by Randomness,
The Black Swan, and

What is a “Black Swan”? imagine you were a European living in the 1600s. Every swan you’ve ever seen has been white. Then, a ship returns from Australia, carrying something new–a black swan. This is a symbol for something so far outside your experience that you didn’t imagine it at all.

Taleb’s argument: history is shaped far more by unpredictable “Black Swan” events than by the drip-drip-drip of everyday life. It’s useless to watch trends or try to make forecasts because the really impactful things cannot be forecasted.

There is some evidence for this. But another, more moderate, view (in Superforecasting) is: more swans are “gray” than “black.”

  • While they are suprising to many, they are anticipated by some (so not unimaginable)
  • They are highly improbable, and so rare that their probability is hard to estimate
  • They have significant consequences which, once the original swan is seen, can be forecasted (once a terrorist action is seen, the possibility of war can be forecast)
  • They belong to a category of events, and the category’s probability can be estimated even if the specific event cannot (earthquakes, or disease)

Examples of “Gray Swan” events include 9/11 (plots to use planes as weapons against buildings had been stopped prior to 9/11,
and scenarios for the use of planes were already being discussed in security circles) and the 2004 Earthquake/Tsunami
in Southeast Asia (9.4 quakes are very rare, but the area was a known earthquake zone).

Examples of “slow dripping innovations” that likewise change the world are the gradual opening of
previously closed countries (China), the invention of the iPhone, and the development and spread of the Internet.

Strategies for daily church growth (demographics + conversion) are
important for the day-in, day-out drip-drip-drip expansion of the church in the context of life. Yet, while we cannot necessarily prepare
for specific Black Swans, movements should be prepared for Black Swans in general. Disruption can be a key forward-driver of movements.

In “Antifragile,” Taleb identifies three kinds of organizations:

  • Those that are fragile, and easily shattered by Black Swan events
  • Those that are resilient, and can better survive a Black Swan event in their current form
  • Those that are “antifragile,” by which he means they actually thrive on Black Swan events–such wildcards can be a source of growth.

One of the most notable features of a movement is its great resiliency. A network of house churches can easily shift locations, is not dependent on outside funds, is raising up local leaders (so less damaged by the arrest, assassination, defection or failure of any one leader), etc.

But, movements can go further to be antifragile–because in times of great crisis, a movement’s depth of leadership and committed believers can enable it to respond holistically (to be a blessing) and this ministry can be a witness that draws people to Christ. Movements can actually grow more in times of crisis.

How might we be prepared? One way might be to consider Matthew 24 as a “category list” of Black Swan events,
and think through how the leaders in your movement might be prepared for each item in the list. You can look at existing
places where those events happened, and see how they impacted the church. What might your network of churches do if you
were faced with such a Black Swan – and how likely is the “category”? (For example, in some places, earthquakes are more
likely, while in others they are less likely.)

There are several people and organizations than can help you think through and prepare for potential Black Swans. If you’re searching for a connection to help with a particular category of Swans, email me.

How likely is the North Korean government to fall

Download the full 6-page PDF: Future of North Korean Government

Many are waiting for the “fall” of the DPRK government and reunification of the two Koreas to open the area to the Gospel. How likely is this event to happen in the short-term future?

“Sudden change is always possible and it is impossible to predict exactly when the North Korean state could collapse. Within the next five-to-ten years, a cascading series of events could conceivably end with regime collapse in the north, leading to the unification of the two Koreas,” writes Sue Mi Terry in CFR.

Unfortunately, Terry and others who obviously passionately desire to see the government of the DPRK fall usually only envision a wildcard event. As she notes, wildcards are impossible to predict, so such forecasts are couched in “could conceivably.”

How realistic is such a wildcard, given the efforts of the government to prevent it—and are there other alternatives which might open North Korea to the Gospel?

With the assistance of Concilium’s International Affairs Group, I have compiled an estimate of the future of the North Korean government and the likely scenarios.

The brief conclusion: for at least the immediate short-term future (2016, and through 2020), the current status quo is the most likely scenario. Strategies which depend on regime change for the broad multiplication of the Gospel may need to be rethought. A very long view with regard to North Korea seems in order.

Key judgments/Scenarios, with probabilities:

  • Kim Jong-un opens the country to better his people: Very Unlikely
  • Seeking to replace Kim Jong-un, one of the Powerful initiate a coup: Very Unlikely
  • Seeking openness and/or afraid of external actors, the growing Consumer Class and the Military together initiate a coup: Very Unlikely
  • Seeking power from the government, the Military initiates a coup: Very Unlikely
  • Tired of poverty, hunger and oppression, the populace revolts: Remote
  • Afraid of nukes or military action, China/Russia/USA invade, overturn: Very Unlikely (except in the case of severe, imminent, massive military provocation)
  • DPRK decides to pursue reunification by invading the South: Unlikely

How likely is a disastrous earthquake in 2016?

Toward the end of 2015, some in our Beyond family experienced earthquakes where they worked. It’s a striking reminder: while we think of the chief danger to missionaries as being persecutors, really natural disasters, health, and corruption are far bigger issues. (Consider the air pollution in Beijing and pray for the workers who labor there, under severe adverse health risks.) We have personal experience with this. We arrived in Southeast Asia in early December 2005 – and just a few weeks later, we were digging friends out after the 9.3-magnitude earthquake and the Tsunami.

Given this, it’s a good idea for missionaries to ask: is it possible a really bad earthquake will strike where you live?

There are hundreds of thousands of earthquakes every year. The vast majority are barely noticed. Minor quakes are occurring all the time: while I was writing this article, ten earthquakes were measured, most measuring about 2.4 on the Richter scale.

There is a relationship between the strength of the earthquake (magnitude, on the Richter scale) and the frequency it occurs: earthquakes of magnitude 5, for example, are about ten times less common than those of magnitude 4.

Still, while magnitude-5 and stronger quakes are less frequent, they are still fairly common: in 2015, there were 1,554 of them. Of these, 145 were 6.0 or stronger, and 20 were over 7.0. (Just one was an 8.3, thankfully off the coast of Chile.) This is fairly close to the average over history: the USGS estimates there are typically 18 major quakes (7.0-7.9) and one major quake (8.0+) every year.

So the likelihood of a strong earthquake hitting somewhere in the world is seemingly almost certain–but the likelihood of a strong earthquake hitting one particular spot is far less. It’s more certain in some places, and less in others, because of the way the fault lines work. It’s easiest to see this on a map, and this one, from the Economist, shows all the earthquakes from 1995 to 2015 that were magnitude 7.0 or greater.

The greatest probability of any given earthquake (regardless of the size) is along the Pacific Seismic Belt, and along plate boundaries (mountain chains, such as the Himalayas). If you live “in the red dots,” you’re almost certainly going to see earthquake action. You must be aware and have a plan in place. If you’re in much of Europe, Africa or the middle-to-east portion of the Americas, less concern is warranted.

Many earthquakes do not hit in populated areas (many, for example, are deep underground, or far off the coast). If a magnitude 6 earthquake (of which there are a hundred or more per year) strikes a populated area, it is almost certain to do some damage, and there will likely be a dozen or so deaths from falling buildings.

A magnitude 7 earthquake can be considerably more destructive. The April 25th earthquake in Nepal, which measured 7.8, resulted in over 8,900 dead. (On the other hand there were several other magnitude-7 quakes in 2015, and most resulted in no deaths at all.)

Magnitude 8 and 9 earthquakes will be disastrous if they strike a populated zone, no matter how much preparation is made. They can result in tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of deaths, and billions of dollars in property damage. A magnitude-8 quake will cause years of disruption and recovery.

For all that we know about earthquakes, no one can predict when or where an earthquake will strike next. We can really only note the probabilities. Seismologists look in history to see the frequency of earthquakes in a given area, and the time between each one; they measure tectonic activity; they make an estimate of when “another” is more likely. More than 100,000 people died in Turkey due to earthquakes in the 1900s; this report suggests Istanbul is due for a magnitude-7 earthquake within the next 30 years (62% probability). This report suggests Tehran is “overdue” for an earthquake; one strikes about every 150 years, and a magnitude-7 earthquake could very well see millions killed.

If you are in an earthquake-prone area, the possibility of multiple quakes of magnitude 5.0 or greater within the year are very high–almost certain. The possibility of a powerfully destructive magnitude 8 or 9 quake is far lower–if there is only one per year, it’s less likely it will be in your precise location. A magnitude 7 earthquake is a better than even chance, and while not as destructive as the strongest quakes, it be devastating on its own, with significant property damage, lives lost, people injured, and logistics and politics disrupted.

Any agency deploying personnel to a place where a magnitude-5 or -6 earthquake happened in the past year ought to invest in contingency planning and disaster preparations.

Further, every agency ought to be prepared for the possibility of a magnitude-8 earthquake striking. One form of preparation is for the possibility of personnel in the midst of severe disruption, or worse injured or killed. Yet the odds of this happening to any single individual is fairly low, so I don’t personally worry about it all that much. Another form of preparation is for how an agency will participate in help and reconstruction after such a disaster. Let me say this as carefully as I can: while I don’t ascribe to the idea that disasters are always sent by God as some form of punishment, I do believe God will use us in the open doors after disasters to bring blessing to places that were previously closed to the Gospel–and we should be ready to do that. If a large scale earthquake happens every year, it’s a recurring “door opening” that we should be prepared to step through.

Justin’s forecast, for people within earthquake zones (on map):
multiple magnitude-5 quakes?: YES, >95%
… (low damage, no or <10 deaths)
more than one magnitude-6 quake?: YES, >75%
… (low damage, <20 deaths, some injured)
at least one magnitude-7 quake: YES, >60%, NO 40%
… (significant damage, 100-1,000 deaths, injuries)
… REACHED: Mag-7 Quakes in N America and Southwest Indonesia (Sumatra)
at least one magnitude-8 quake: NO, >75%
… (for any single individual. But for world as a whole, YES, 75%)
… catastrophic: thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands injuried
at least one magnitude-9 quake: NO, >90%
… (for any single individual. But for world as a whole, NO, 55%)
… catastrophic: hundreds of thousands dead/injured, billions of dollars in damage

As with all forecasts, note the significant possibility of the inverse happening (I’m 45% certain of a mag-9 quake); if it should, the most likely “outlier” will be very destructive.

Update 1/25:
Mag-5 Quakes in N America, Central Asia, E Asia, SE Asia, N Africa, Pacific
Mag-6 Quakes in N America, N Africa, Pacific, L America, E Asia, SE Asia, S Asia
Mag-7 Quake in N America, in SW Indonesia