22 Sep 2023

This week, Joann Pittman wrote an article about the complexities of counting Christians in China. “If you’re looking for a tidy answer to the question of how many Christians there are in China… then you will be disappointed.”

God promised Abraham his descendants would be as “numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 15:5). Rich Mullins memorably sang about this: “Sometimes I think of Abraham, how one star he saw had been lit for me.” The lesson for Abraham seems obvious: stars and sand are uncountable. In Madeline L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door, the cherubim Progonioskes tells Meg about his former task: memorizing the names of the stars. “How many are there?” she asks, in wonder. “I have no idea,” he tells her, somewhat irritably. “Their number isn’t important—only that they are known by name.”

Today, counting stars is “more possible” than in Abraham’s time, but still problematic. No one has an exact count because we can’t see the whole universe. The best we can do is to estimate the number of stars in a typical galaxy, and then multiply that by the number of galaxies in the universe. Studies in the past decade have estimated about 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, and about 100 billion stars in a galaxy (some space missions have mapped 1 million stars already, and are on track to map a billion stars in the Milky Way alone). The result: perhaps 1x10^24 stars (1 septillion)—even this, some think is probably a gross underestimation. 1 septillion is 1 followed by 24 zeros. Counting large numbers—be they stars, grains of sand, or believers—is hard, often must be done on the basis of estimates, and often rounded to millions or billions.

A quick glance at the denominations table of any given country in the World Christian Encyclopedia shows rows of numbers where most are measured in round millions. I opened randomly to Liberia; only 8 denominations in the table give numbers to the last digit, while 39 are rounded: 50,000, 7,300, 13,000, 3,600, 2,000, 9,500, 35,000… religious demographers know that last-digit precision is a mirage. Numbers in many of these places are large, with lots of zeros.

God didn’t promise Abraham tidy answers. He rarely seems to give them. I run into the same problem when counting movements, and the number of believers in movements. People want to ask, how many believers are there, exactly? And, given an answer, how do you know that’s the right answer?

The simplest response is: it isn’t. Coming up with an exact, precise, accurate answer to this question is impossible. The number is always changing. Babies are being born. Believers in movements are dying (as I wrote this essay, I received word of the passing of one movement leader into his sure reward). New people are choosing to follow Jesus. Some are choosing to stop following him. Movements, like some churches and most denominations, have their numbers changing all the time. And even without this complication making it impossible, it’s very, very hard to count believers when security makes it dangerous and time constraints mean you have to choose between counting and discipling.

So, then, why count at all? David Barrett dived deep into this in World Christian Trends. People sometimes remember David’s sin in counting the people (the sin was aggrandizement, not counting) and forget the number of times God specifically called for a census. ‘Counting the worshippers’—even with rounded numbers—is a way of giving God glory, for monitoring the health and safety of the flock, and for finding the lost (the 99 and the 1). For these and similar purposes, knowing an exact number isn’t as important as knowing the general size and growth patterns.

For example, returning to Liberia, we look at the Evangelical Christian Union. This denomination, founded in 1951, had 590 members in 1970, 10,000 members in 2000, and 16,000 members in 2015. The numbers are obviously not precise ( to the last digit), but in them we both get a sense of the size of the ECU (larger than many, smaller than some, about middle of the road), and its growth rate (7.6%, 3x faster than the general population). If the true 2015 adherent total were, say, 15,000 or 20,000, neither of these two assessments would be significantly altered.

While these national and global totals mean something, they are really just side effects of the more important fact: global totals are made up of individual counts. I know there are at least 100 million believers in movements. My number is, I believe, accurate, but not precise—it is a very general number that shows the immense size of this thing God is doing. But it is made up of movements counting themselves, and this works its way down to individual leaders counting the individual disciples in their streams.

I have sat with movement leaders and asked them about the numbers of people within their streams. They immediately begin ticking off on their fingers the people that they coach, and the people that they coach—and nearly always, they do so with names, and inevitably with stories. This man, who was this, and is now that; this woman, who had this striking testimony, and now leads these groups, and within those groups is that young man, who…

The work of counting yields broadly important things, showing us the grand scale of what God is doing, the current gaps (where He is likely going next), and ideas about where workers should be sent. But the actual number of believers is less important than this reality: at the field level, in relationships of disciple-makers and would-be disciple-makers and disciples and new believers, each precious soul is known by name. And in Heaven, rank upon rank of angels, perhaps countable only by God, are rejoicing.

If you want to dive a little deeper into this topic, I wrote about Measuring with some deeper mathematical explorations back in 2021.