Missionary Counts

June 3, 2020

In the spring and fall, I frequently teach Lesson 9 of Perspectives. Whenever I do, one feature of the session that is often done, either at the beginning or at the middle break, is the ‘Worldview Demonstration’. Using coins and matchsticks (or some variant thereof), this presentation attempts to show people ‘visually’ the world’s population, the breakdown of religions, and how many of the world’s missionaries and the world’s mission money goes to the ‘more reached’ vs the ‘less reached.’

Inevitably, I often get asked how old the statistics are, and whether they have been updated. And the answer is, ‘fairly old’ and ‘sort of.’ In this brief essay, I’m going to explore some of the missionary numbers, why they are difficult to collect and analyze, and what the ‘current’ numbers might be.

First, let’s deal with a few issues in missionary counting and definitions:

  1. Which traditions count? Depending on how you define them, there have been generally five Christian ‘traditions’ that missionaries can come out of: Anglican, Independent, Orthodox, Protestant or Roman Catholic. There have been, historically, two major sources of global missionary totals: Operation World and the World Christian Encyclopedia. The former has published primarily totals of P,I,A (Protestant, Independent, Anglican) missionaries, while the latter has published totals of all. For reasons I’ll discuss later, I generally use the broader WCE numbers.

  2. Length of service? This is also known as ‘short term’ vs. ‘long term’. We don’t count people who go on 2-week short-term trips in the totals, for example. But, should we count people who go for just 2 years? Generally speaking, most missionaries count when they are in the ‘intend to be on the field 4 years or longer’ category.

  3. Home vs Foreign Cross-Cultural. It is straight-forward to count an American or an Australian or an Austrian who serves in India. But, what about an Indian from, say, Uttar Pradesh who serves in Bihar? These two provinces are stupendously large, the languages can be vastly different, and the sociocultural distances can be immense. It can every bit as big a distance from UP to Bihar as from America to Bihar, in terms of the complexity of mission. But does this count as ‘foreign’ or ‘cross-cultural mission’? For the most part, it does not. One has to leave their passport country and go to a different country.

  4. Getting Reports. Just the actual process of gathering the data isn’t simple. There is no central repository of data to which all agencies report their information. No agency is required to report their total missionary numbers, let alone where they are deployed too. While some of the larger agencies are well known, at least in name, (e.g. OM, Wycliffe, YWAM, IMB, Cru—not to mention my own, Beyond), there are thousands of very small ‘mom-and-pop’ agencies—e.g. small non-profits with just a couple missionaries—whose work is never well known or counted.

  5. Security. Especially since the 2000 Operation World, security issues around the collection of missionary deployment data have amplified. Even before 2000, there were some agencies that would say, for example, ‘Eastern Europe’ or ‘Middle East’ or ‘Asia—general’ without giving further details. This has ramped up significantly since 9/11.

For all of these reasons, it takes a significant amount of time and personal relationships to attempt to gather any sort of credible estimate of missionary numbers per country. Maintaining them over time—that is, looking for trends and ebbs and flows in missionary information—is even more difficult. Fortunately, we have two good, recent sources, both from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. One is the 2010 Atlas of Global Christianity and the other is the latest World Christian Encyclopedia.

The total number of missionary workers globally is estimated by these sources at 425,000. (Remember, this includes all traditions.) But the real question we want to get to is, what percentage of these workers are laboring among the unreached? And that’s where it gets even stickier.

  1. If we are to use WCE numbers, we need to remember the WCE uses ‘unevangelized,’ not ‘unreached’ (see this article for clarification). The differences aren’t huge in the final analysis, but it’s worth noting the nuance.

  2. Any segment (country, province, language, people group, city, etc.) can be categorized as “World A” (unevangelized), World B (evangelized non-Christian) and World C (majority Christian). The rules are:

A: <50% evangelized, based on the WCE formula/data.
B: >=50% evangelized, <60% Christian.
C: >=60% Christian, of any tradition.

  1. Here’s the sticky bit. We have missionary data by country. Every country is either in World A, B or C. The United States is a World C country; China is a World B country; Afghanistan is as World A country. However, within those countries, missionaries work with a great many different people, and the country hides a lot of this nuance. For example, China has many World A peoples (like the Uighurs), World B peoples (like the Han Chinese), and World C people groups (like the Lisu). So several thousand missionaries work in China, which is considered a World B country, and those ‘several thousand’ thus fall into the ‘World B’ column. But some portion of those work amongst World A peoples, some amongst World B peoples, and some amongst World C peoples. The data that we have does not enable us to easily tell what those percentages are.

  2. That said, it appears the vast majority of missionaries in any given country are likely working in peoples that are similar to the country itself – e.g. most of the missionaries in the United States probably work in World C people groups; most of those in India probably work in World B people groups. Further, as we roll these numbers up to regions and the global total, small sticky bits tend to get ‘ironed out’ in the balances of the global totals.

The Numbers. The WCE is for sale, and I’m not going to give away data that is part of the book—not at the country level. In talking with the WCE folks, what I am permitted to do is to give global and regional totals. And here, at the end, is what you wanted all along:

Globally: 425,000 missionaries

Segment Countries Population Missionaries
A 39 2.2 billion (27%) 11,940 (3%)
B 50 3.5 billion (44%) 87,000 (20%)
C 145 2.4 billion (29%) 326,050 (77%)

Some 77% of the missionary work force is almost certainly not focused on the unreached. 23% of the workforce is in places where ‘unreached’ and ‘evangelized’ peoples are largely found, but the ‘core’ of the workforce focused on the really difficult, most unreached peoples is probably not more than 3% of all missionaries.

As to regional breakdowns of total missionaries:

I recognize some of these numbers are difficult. Go back and recap some of the issues involved in counting. I know someone will say, “We’ve got 2 missionaries amongst X unreached diaspora people in Europe—how come you say there are none?” The simplest explanation is there are no majority-unevangelized (World A) countries in Europe, so there can be no missionaries to World A countries in Europe. (I also recognize some will have a problem with that statement. But as they are defined, it is true.)

None of this changes the picture that, 2,000 years after Christ, somewhere around 3% or less of all missionary workers are deployed amongst those who have very little chance to hear (a factor in why they have little chance to hear), while three-quarters of missionaries work in places that are over-saturated Christian countries (albeit perhaps of a different tradition than the missionaries in question). While I do not doubt that places like Germany and England and France likely need evangelistic effort, this “out of balance” situation seems to me to continue to be one in need of reformation.