Money for Missions to the Unreached

08 Dec 2023

Statistics related to Christian finance and the amount spent on mission to the unreached are significantly out of date. The last fairly precise figures were in World Christian Trends, published around 2000.

Those figures aren’t likely to be significantly updated any time soon, either. The current security environment makes gathering any information very difficult. It’s hard to know how many missionaries currently serve among the unreached, and hard to know their total budget. (Plus, of course, there are an order of magnitude more “near-cross-cultural workers” at work among the unreached, and it’s hard to estimate that budget, too.)

The Atlas of Global Christianity estimated that, of all monies received for Christian work, about 12% was spent on home mission and about 5% on foreign mission. In raw numbers, global foreign missions income grew from US$200 million in 1900 to US$23 billion in 2008. In 1900, this financed 62,000 Protestant missionaries; in 2008, some 458,000 foreign missionaries (of all traditions) not including short-termers. The current 2023 estimate for the amount spent on foreign missions (from the Status of Global Mission) is US$55 billion.

Of this amount, certainly a minority goes to the unreached. Exactly how much a “minority” is, isn’t clear at this point. Work in unreached places certainly receives less funding than work in more reached areas. Part of this is at least because the story of unreached places is told less due to security concerns. In addition, much of fundraising is relational, and since there are more Western workers (with social connections to giving) in more reached places, that means more money is likely to gravitate toward those places. Additionally, the simple fact is that work in unreached places often costs less, and so less money needs to be raised.

In one sense, having less money flowing to work among the unreached might not be such a bad thing. In the same article in the Atlas, Jonathan Bonk wrote, “While the West still holds the purse strings, increasingly the principal agents of mission and evangelism are non-Western churches and missionaries. How can the sacrosanct three-self principle of Roland Allen - self-support, self-governance and self-propagation as the quintessential signs of a healthy church - be sustained if irrepressibly evangelistic non-Western churches are dependent on Western funds? On the one hand, those who have should share generously with those in need. On the other hand, any church convinced of its entitlement to and reliance upon Western finance will not be likely to thrive. This Gordion knot continues to frustrate the best efforts of those who have attempted to untangle it.”

Rapidly growing churches and movements in unreached places that have found ways to thrive without being dependent on Western donations - and there are many of these - have avoided this Gordion knot altogether.

So the percentage spent on mission to the unreached is almost certainly less than half of the total spent on foreign mission (which is itself 5% of total Christian ministry funds)—very probably less than a third of it. I would go so far as to guess, I think very reasonably, that it’s less than a quarter. If correct, then 25% of 5% would mean about 1.25% of total giving to Christian ministry is spent on mission to the unreached.

While that seems like a small number, it is an order of magnitude more than the old estimate of 0.1 percent. (When you’re doing that exercise in Perspectives, the unreached can keep the penny instead of cutting it in half, as some are wont to do). However, while it is true that there has been a substantial shift of Christian work toward the unreached world (thus leading to more spending), there are caveats. First, if you don’t count India or China as part of the unreached world (and there are strong arguments both ways), then the amount spent for “work among the unreached” is probably less. And second, while work among the unreached has increased, work among Christians (45,000 denominations) has increased as much or even more (noted Todd Johnson, with the Center for the Study of Global Christianity). So the very low percentage to the unreached is likely to be similar, although the raw number has increased.

It’s probably safe to say that 1% or less is given to mission to the unreached. Those who’d like to make a difference might look at their own giving, and consider how they might give their own personal 1%, 2%, 10% or more to this ministry. It might not jar the global numbers very much, but it could make a very strategic difference in specific works.