Considering slowing population growth

The BBC has a story up today about how China’s population will peak in 2029 at 1.44 billion. This is part of a wider trend that will impact strategies for mission.

Between 1900 and 2000 the world saw enormous population growth. This demographic growth has been one of the key challenges to world evangelization, and it has mainly happened in less reached and least reached areas.

Now, however, population growth has slowed enormously. Between 1900 and 2000 the population doubled twice–once per 50 years–but it is unlikely that it will double again in such a short period of time in the near future. The global population is now nearly 8 billion and will likely top 9 billion by 2050.

This is driven by the fact that many countries that grew in the 1900s have leveled off and reversed. China is the biggest but not the only example. Turkey and Iran are both seeing population stagnation and decline. Most of East Asia is in decline. Bangladesh was growing at 3% per annum in the 1970s and 1980s but has cut its growth to 1% per today.

What this means for mission deserves consideration. There are still huge populations with little access to the Gospel. India continues to grow and will shortly be the largest population and is already the largest pool of unreached people. Nevertheless the times are once again changing.

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Invite the church

I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to invite people to church.

But what would it take to say we are not going to invite people to church–we are going to invite the church to people?

To be the expression of the church to the people who are not part of the ekklesia?

To make disciples of people in our neighborhoods and then gather together as the church for times of worship, feasting, fasting and celebration?

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Too high a cost to reach the unreached

If our strategy for reaching the peoples of the world moves too fast, goes for shallow-instead-of-depth, and cannot scale to reach the individual people within those people groups, the cost of the strategy is too high.

I believe “reaching the peoples” should be shorthand for “inculturating the Gospel into a people group so that it can grow, spread, and reach all the people within the group.”

The way I’ve sometimes heard it described, the “end line” of “reaching the peoples” is the the “inculturation” (e.g. “moving into the neighborhood”, to use the John 1 Message version). I believe “missiological breakthrough” is a critical step, but not the last one. The end line isn’t reached until all the individuals have the chance to be made disciples, and the responsive ones are being discipled. This is the command outlined in Matthew 28.

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The Big 5

Usually, at the end of each year, I take the last two weeks of the year as a combination of holiday and sabbatical/reflective time. I’m back in the office now. Usually I start the year with a review of the latest Status of Global Mission, but this year, I want to boil it down to what I am loosely calling “The Big 5.”

I don’t want to minimize the state of any particular population that lacks a Christian community. The unevangelized souls in Astara, Azerbaijan are just as lost as those anywhere else. Neither do I want to minimize the calling of people: you should obey God rather than men, and definitely rather than me.

At the same time, I feel it incumbent to point out the largest pool of non-Christians in the world: the (roughly) 625 million non-Christians found in the following five states:

  1. Uttar Pradesh, India
  2. Maharashtra, India
  3. Punjab, Pakistan
  4. Bihar, India
  5. Guangdong, China

Not only are these provinces “low-% Christian” areas, they are also heavily “unevangelized”: which simply means that they are devoid of the resources needed for people to have a chance of hearing the Gospel in their lifetime.

I know there are significant efforts in some of these provinces: one, in particular, has significant Christward movements already. But these still represent a very small percentage of the overall population.

625 million is more than 10% of the world’s non-Christians, and somewhere around a quarter of the world’s “unevangelized.” This makes these five provinces worthy of significant strategic focus. Change any one of these provinces, and world Christianity and world mission will be forever altered. But the cost of doing so will likely be very high.

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Great video on reached, unreached, frontier peoples stats

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Balance

  1. There are many fruitful Christians; they need continued shepherding.
  2. There are many people who call themselves Christians, but have no fruit or obedience; they need discipling.
  3. There are many people who once thought themselves Christians, but have since abandoned their faith; they need re-evangelizing and discipling.
  4. There are many people who are near Christians, know Christians, see Christians, but reject Christianity; they need faithful witness and an evangelization that bears fruit.
  5. There are many people who know no Christians at all, and have no encounter with the Gospel; they need an inculturation of the Gospel and their first exposure.

The problem I face: there is a lot of work around #1, and a moderate amount of work around #2, #3, #4. 

There is very little work around #5, among the unreached. 

My heart’s cry is not to stop ministry among areas 1 to 4, but to have at least an ‘appropriate’ if not ‘equal’ effort around #5.

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Dangerous

Ok: I don’t know of anything.

Ok: I have been doing a lot of research and I haven’t found anything. I don’t think there is anything, but I’m still looking.

Better: I don’t know if anything. Do you? Do you know who might?

Dangerous: there’s nothing going on there.

The flat assumption locks you into a statement and can cut you off from people who know but aren’t yet willing to speak up.

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Peoples definitely needing Bible translations

One question recently floating by me was the number of people groups in need of Bible translations, and especially the number of frontier people groups.

This data is available on Joshua Project. For various reasons, the list isn’t absolutely perfect: the question of ‘how do we determine if a people group needs a translation’ is one full of complexity and nuance that translators and translation orgs are still grappling with. Nevertheless, for a global picture, a ‘good enough’ answer can be obtained, and graphed.

I used JP’s “Definite Need” filter, and then aggregated by my Stage of % Christian levels based on their % Adherent. Here are the results:

Stages: 0, <0.1% Christian; 1, 0.1% to 2%; 2, 2%to 8%; 3, 8% to 32%; 4, 32% to 90%; 5, 90% and higher. Stage 0 = Frontier; Stage 0+1+ “part of 2” = Unreached.

That ‘definite translation need’ at Stage 5 (>90% Christian) surprised me. But some hint as to the reason can be seen in the two graphs: there is a high count of groups, but a low population figure; this means that we’re dealing with a lot of tiny groups. And if you look at the JP Filter, that’s what you’ll see.

If you have an interest in this subject, I suggest going and playing around with the filters and examining this aspect of the remaining task.

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It won’t be heaven if…

What right do we get to dictate what heaven is like?

Even for our own convenience?

God uses trials, challenges, and long-term efforts to sharpen us now, like runners learning to run longer and longer marathons.

Why not in heaven? Why not on the future Earth?

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Release the tongues

At the recent Ethne 2019 conference, one of the things I enjoyed–I always enjoy–is worship and prayer in multiple languages.

For some of the worship songs, we seek various verses in different languages. For some, we take one verse, and each one sings it in their own heart language (all together). For some prayer times, we tell people to just pray in their heart language.

The struggle to understand another language – to sing words I don’t really understand – helps me grapple with the idea that the world is bigger than me.

When we all sing the same song in multiple languages, or pray in multiple languages, the “cacaphony” of noise is incredible. I can’t understand a thing of what is being said, beyond my own prayer.

But God can.

This is what struck me: this praise and worship isn’t about me. It’s about God. It doesn’t matter if I understand everything: this is a living example of how God is greater than me, and understands everything being said, sung, and cried no matter what language it’s in.

And, of course, this kind of worship represents Revelation 7:9, with every tribe, language and tongue before the throne.

This is the second thing that struck me, as it has before: why do we “think” we will all speak one language in heaven?

I often have this idea that I will miraculously be able to talk to everyone in heaven–from my mother to my mentors to people like C.S. Lewis to Bible saints like Peter, Paul, Mark…

What if you have to learn ancient languages to converse with ancient saints?

Why do you think you will understand Paul or even Martin Luther when you arrive?

In fact, one key way that “some will be last and some will be first”: people who only know one language from “western” cultures may be “last in heaven,” while people who had to learn multiple languages just to survive in poverty conditions now might be able to talk to more people right off the bat.

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