Strategies in the midst of Quasi-Christian, Post-Christian, or Non-Christian

One of the big issues in prioritization, on a global scale, always boils down to how people in various streams of Christian theology “handle” people in “other” streams. To put it more baldly, if Protestant evangelicals are estimating which parts of the world are “reached” or “unreached,” “engaged” or “unengaged,” “priority” or “not priority” – how do they handle Catholics? (and vice-versa).

This happens no matter the scale that we are looking at. My own Stage scale (elaborated on a bit in the previous posts) assumes “Christians of all traditions” – but some may say “Europe really isn’t Stage 3 or 4 or 5” because “Catholics and Orthodox don’t count.”

I would suggest a different view, however, in which the Stage approach very much does matter: places that are at Stage 5 (e.g. “greater than 90% Christian of any tradition”) require a vastly different approach than places that are at Stage 0 (e.g., “less than 0.1% Christian of any tradition”).

In other words, reaching definitely non-Christians (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, Atheists, Agnostics, etc)–and especially large masses of non-Christians–requires a different strategic approach than reaching “nominal” Christians or people who perceive themselves to be Christian but in fact may not be so in practice.

I would really be happy if equal resources were targeting each of the stages. The problem right now isn’t really so much one of prioritizing Stages over each other, but that the lower Stages (e.g., 0, 1, <2% Christian) get so little in the way of resources, while the upper Stages (which are easier to reach and tend to be in languages that have a lot of Christian resources) tend to get far more.

(See also “Good, Bad, Non, Anti Christians and missions“)

For the Kingdom to spread

Here are (some? All? of) the basic things that have to happen for the Kingdom to spread. These functions are intentionally written “agnostic” of church or mission structures, and cultural structures. They are also intentionally written as close to the bone as possible, devoid of any flesh, skin or muscle let alone makeup, jewelry or brand-branded clothing.

  1. People must come to know Jesus. They can’t follow someone they’ve never heard of.
  2. People must come to confess him as Lord and choose to follow Him.
  3. People must follow Jesus with other followers: disciples gathering become disciples gathered, in charity toward each other.
  4. People must, individually and together, be a blessing to the communities of people around them who are not yet followers.
  5. People must, individually and together, through both deed and word, be a witness to the communities around them and draw others to follow Jesus; this may require making a long-term investment (“sending,” in all its various forms) across community boundary lines.
  6. People must be willing to endure suffering and persecution for the sake of following Jesus.
  7. People must pass on to other followers what they themselves have learned.

Some will note that I have said nothing in this about disciple-making movements, or churches, or agencies, or translations, etc. All of these are just tools and strategies we use to accomplish these functions. Some are adopted because of speed and sustainability; others are adopted because of the necessity of translating the Gospel across linguistic and cultural boundaries so that step (1) above can be accomplished.

A simple calculation

Google the population of your city.

Count how many non-Christians came to faith as a result of your ministry/church/whatever’s efforts in the last year.

Divide the population by the the number of new believers.

That’s how many years it would take to reach your city.

(And… that doesn’t account for population growth through nett births-deaths, or through net migration.)

Now: how many other churches are there in your city, and how many are they likely to have grown by in the past year?

Sum, do the calculation over again.

Now: is what we’re doing enough?

“What’s it going to take?”

Affinity Block populations by stages

Note the enormous population size of Stage 0 and 1 in Southern Asia, and the high (>90%) populations in Stage 0-1 in some areas.

Data based on Joshua Project. Stage 0: <0.1% Christian. Stage 1: 0.1% to <2% Christian. Stage 2: 2% to <8% Christian. Stage 3: 8% to <32% Christian. Stage 4: >32% Christian, <90% Christian. Stage 5: 90% Christian and up.

Stage 0 = 0.1% Christian and under?

In response to yesterday’s post, Becky Lewis wrote in with her plea to consider making Stage 0 to be less than 0.1% Christian, in line with the Frontier Peoples methodology that has been recently circulating. This is fairly simple from a spreadsheet calculation perspective, but it does yield somewhat different results. Here they are:

The only change here is in the mix of Stage 0 and 1: Stage ‘0’ becomes closer to what other methodologies have tended to consider ‘least-reached’ or ‘unevangelized.’ I’ll leave it to others to comment any further on the usefulness of this change.

I will also be applying this to my Places database, but I’m not quite ready with #s from that yet.

Another view of people groups

Looking at the Joshua Project’s catalog of people groups, here’s two different views.

The first is by JP’s own internal levels. These are based on % Evangelical (Ev) and % Christian of all kinds (C).

  • Level 1 (Unreached, Ev<=2%, C<=5%): 7,075 groups = 3.1 billion (41% of world)
  • Level 2 (Minimally reached, Ev<=2%, C>5%,<=50%): 1,213 groups = 294 million (3.8% of world)
  • Level 3 (Superficially reached, Ev<=2%, C>=50%): 1,774 groups = 534 million (7.0% of world)
  • Level 4 (Partially reached, Ev 2% to 10%): 3,726 groups = 1.9 billion (25% of world)
  • Level 5 (Significantly reached, Ev >10%): 3,224 groups = 1.7 billion (22% of world)

Careful note: these are the populations of the groups at the stage. Within each of these levels are varying numbers of believers. For example, I estimate based on JP data that Level 1 (Unreached) contains some 16 million Christians and 5 million evangelicals. But, as we might expect, the vast majority of believers and evangelicals are found at Levels 4 and 5.

Now, by contrast, I’m experimenting with a different approach these days, based in part on some of Hans Rosling’s (posthumously published) work in Factfulness. Using 5 stages based on % Christian of all kinds:

  • Stage 0 (0.0% Christian, none known): 4,107 groups = 755 million (9% of world)
  • Stage 1 (<2% Christian): 2,295 groups = 2.1 billion people (28% of world)
  • Stage 2 (2% to <8% Christian): 1,194 groups = 374 million (4.9% of world)
  • Stage 3 (8% to <32% Christian): 1,742 groups = 1.7 billion (22.5% of world)
  • Stage 4 (32% to <90% Christian): 4,917 groups = 1.6 billion (21.6% of world)
  • Stage 5 (90% and up): 2,757 groups = 963 million (12.6% of world)

I use this latter appraoch because it’s somewhat simpler and relies on a doubling of the percentages, which lends itself well to tracking exponential growth.

It is interesting to me that in either approach, there is a ‘dip’ between the ‘very unreached’ (Level 1 for JP, and Stage 0/1 for my system) and the ‘more reached’ (level 4/5 for JP, and Stage 3 and up for me).

In the JP system, Level 2 (Ev<2%, C>5%) is the smallest, with a population of 294 million. In mine, Stage 2 (2% to 8% C) is the smallest by far, with a population of 374 million.

What to make of this? One theory of mine: once a people group has the gospel, it tends to progress rapidly to higher levels of % Christian. Another theory: we put a lot of work into groups that have the gospel, to ‘bring them up’ to higher levels of % Christian, while Stage 0/1 languish.

Counting Movements 4: goal posts

In the last two posts, we talked about counting small movements and small portions of movements, as well as counting larger representative chunks of movements. One way of attempting to verify these counts is to use a different lens, where we look at the geographic and ethnographic contexts of the movement. The way I usually do this is to think in terms of a playing field and goal posts.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario: someone tells me there is a movement happening in the United States. My next question is going to be: where in the United States? It’s a big country, but there are 50 states. My source now tells me that the movement is mostly in Texas and a little bit in Oklahoma.

I now have “two goal posts”: I know the movement must be bigger than 1 person, and must be smaller than the combined populations of Texas (28.3 million) and Oklahoma (3.9 million). The next step is to start moving these goal posts closer to each other.

Are they in particular counties? Perhaps they are in the Dallas Metroplex (7 million) and blending over into southern Oklahoma (Bryant county (46,000). The maximum size of the movement is, therefore, likely not more than 7 million.

I can then begin asking questions about where in the Metroplex the movement is, and move the goal posts yet further. Some places have geographic organizations: provinces, districts, sub-districts, villages. Each of these have different order of magnitudes in terms of population. We can begin asking local experts questions like: “So, how widely distributed are churches in these movements? One per district? One per sub-district? One in every village?” These kinds of questions can get us to rough percentages of the populations.

While these rough percentages and populations won’t be very precise censuses, they should be within the same order of magnitude as what’s being reported elsewhere.

We can further use this to begin comparing the generally known % Christian of each of these places with what we are learning about the movements. I am presently using four categories (Stage 1, <2%; Stage 2, 2% to <8%; Stage 3, 8% to <32%; Stage 4, >32%). Places in each of these four categories are generally similar to each other the world over. Movements can be “less visible” in some places, but if a movement were to “tip” a place from one stage to another, it would be slightly more visible because that place would start to take on the characteristics of the next stage (e.g. if it was at Stage 2 and tipped to Stage 3, we would start to see some of the frictions of that tipping, even if the movement weren’t as visible because it was still a very small movement).

Asking these kinds of geographic questions can help us understand the movement better. Some movements “sound” big to us, and we think, “why can’t I see that?” But, if such a movement is geographically dispersed over a large area, or over numerous people groups, it will in fact be far less visible because it’s only a small percentage of certain areas. Parts of the Bhojpuri movement in India – one of the largest in the world – are well over 10 million in size — but they are often less visible because they are dispersed, and 10 million within Northern India is still a very small percentage. (Plus, of course, much of this movement is underground.)

Counting Movements 3: pots, bushes, Sycamore

Our yard is home to several different kinds of growing things, ranging from weeds to trees. For the purpose of this post, let me use three things by way of analogy: potted plants, bushes, and the big Sycamore tree in the front yard.

First are the numerous potted plants that my daughter is pouring time and attention to. She has a large cherry tomato plant, two pepper plants, and two small trees – a blood orange tree, and a lemon tree. All are in pots. (Actually, the tomato plant is dead; last night she replaced it with flowers.) The pepper plants, oddly enough, bore very little fruit during the summer, but as temperatures cooled off in the fall, they started producing–we’ve gotten a number of peppers off both of them. The lemon and the blood orange tree are both in their “childhood.”

Plants in pots are very controlled. They either (a) bear fruit for a season, and then die, or (b) are nurtured along until they are hardy enough to transplant into the ground. If and when bad conditions come (storms, freezing temperatures), we can move them off the deck and into the garage (or even into the house). We can preserve them through things that would normally kill them–but the very thing that helps them live also means they can’t spread wild over the yard.

Some churches can treat their small groups like “potted plants”; some movements are treated likewise by the organizations and leaders that wnt to see them grow. They are kept in very controlled environments. If they bear fruit, it’s for a season, and perhaps the fruit is used to start new plants elsewhere (or to add to the “mother church”). Some groups are just for preserving fruit (“community groups” in a lot of Western churches). We watch over them, fret over them, observe each little individual branch, watch for worms and blight, prune them, pluck the fruit and the bad leaves, and so on. They get a lot of our attention, monitoring, and measuring–but the level of care required of every group means they can’t “run wild in the yard.”

Our backyard is also home to some runaway hedges. In the front, we’ve been pretty good about them. Once or twice a year we go through them with a power hedge trimmer and cut all the extraneous branches off. We don’t let them run amok: we carve them down to nice, solid, dense little rectangles. We gather up all the branches and toss them away. But the hedges in the back – well, there’s a small group of them that I didn’t bother to trim one year, and they grew and grew. The next year, they were “too big for me to trim back”–so they grew and grew some more. Now they are essentially small trees. If I tried to trim them down, I’d probably kill them – so I just leave them. They shade the house, so they’re fine where they are.

Some collections of small groups in some movements are like these hedges. Left alone, they’re not going to “run rampant” all over the yard like dandelions. They’re going to grow to a typical and certain size, and they’re probably not going to get much bigger than that. Some movements have called these “palm trees.” They count leaders, assuming each network started by a leader will be like these hedges–they will grow to a certain size (whether it be 100, 1,000, or 10,000 believers) over a certain time period. Knowing what leaders “do,” they They concentrate more on raising up leaders than on the specific numbers. Numbers change constantly, anyway, until these “palm trees” or “hedges” reach a certain threshold and level off. This leads to round numbers that are in the right order of magnitude and a leader-focused strategy.

Finally, our front yard is home to a towering Sycamore tree. This thing is huge. It’s far and away taller than our house. If you’re going to trim it, ideally you bring in a locally-owned tree-trimming company–guys that are braver than me, who will scale the tree with power tools and trim the right branches. If the tree ever toppled, it would destroy the house. (Thankfully I think the odds of that are pretty slim.) It’s a beautiful sight to behold: an awesome reminder of what things can grow into, given enough time.

These trees remind me of what church planting movements, too, can grow into–given enough time. Most movements in the world today are just a few years old. Some are not much more than tomato bushes or potted trees. Others are like the hedges: they’re a bit taller than the house, but nowhere near a massive sycamore. A few are enormous, in the millions of members, with decades of experience.

Sycamores, it’s true, don’t “fill up the yard” like grass. But they do dominate a space, and for the purposes of our analogy sycamores do one thing that potted plants and hedges don’t: they put out seeds, that float on the wind. Admittedly, my family and I are not especially enamored with the seeds from our front yard: these little bits of puff-and-fluff get into everything. But it is amazing to consider: thousands of sycamore trees are found within each these little puff that each sycamore puts out. Sycamores are sycamore-starters. And that’s what the biggest, most established movements are.

Once these movements get to a certain size, it becomes almost impossible to measure the exact scope of the movement. How would you count the leaves on a sycamore tree? You could, but it might be more productive to count the number of sycamore trees in a forest or the average number of seeds a sycamore puts out. That would give you a stronger sense of what’s coming.

Counting Movements 2: grandparents to grandchildren

When movements are very small – that is, they are five generations or smaller in size – they can be fairly easy to count. You can even track the generations on a big piece of paper or a computer spreadsheet.

A simplistic diagram might look like:

Now, in reality, if I saw a movement that diagrammed out like this, I’d be suspicious – it’s “too perfect.” Movements are messy, and are very rarely (and only randomly) exactly like this. But this illustrates the point: a set of churches can be diagrammed on a page. Globally, the average is about 15 to 18 per group; so we could round to 20 and say this diagram represents between 250 and 300 people.

We can know a lot about this group: the names of the leaders of the groups, the locations of the groups, when they meet, and so on. It’s not likely we’d know all the people in the group–once you get past 150, it’s not easy to hold that kind of information in one’s head–but it is possible to track this on a regular basis.

This kind of graph can also be the ‘nucleus’ of a larger movement: that is, movements are made up of smaller “4 generation” collections. We can track these “families” within larger extended families; any single individual within the “family” can easily describe his family using five relationships:

These are “spiritual” relationships (which is why I only identify one parent and grandparent–although obviously your “spiritual parents” might be a couple etc). The point here is that you can articulate who mentors you, and who mentors them – and you can articulate who you mentor and who they mentor. Doing so places you in a “five” generation stream, and brings all of the generations into view. (Some of these relationships will obviously parallel “demographic” or “birth” relationships; some will be purely spiritual.)

This is one easy way to begin “counting” within a movement. It also brings in an element of “self-assessment”: Anyone who looks “up” and “down” in a demographic family would be able to know where the spiritually mature and spiritually immature are. The same can be said in a spiritual family. And, it begins to introduce the idea of leaving a legacy and generations that are outside your view: great-grandparents won’t always know all of the great-grandchildren; we have to leave the future to God.

For most movements, this form of “counting” would be enough – many movements are within the scope of this size. In the next post, I’ll look at how we can begin to count tomato plants, bushes and Redwood forests.

Counting Movements 1: how we count believers and churches in many denominations

One of the questions we have to address in documenting (and even assessing, auditing, evaluating, etc.) movements is how to count the number of people in them.

Movements are another form of a group of churches–a network or denomination. Movements have some unique characteristics, chiefly around rapid growth. Most would probably never want to be called a denomination, but the term is not entirely without validity.

The word denomination originated somewhere around the 14th century and comes from the two roots de (“completely”) and nominare (“to name”). A denomination from the mid 15th century was “a class name” or “collective designation of things”; which rapidly became (a) a religious sect (“Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, etc”) and (b) a monetary classification ($20 dollar bills or $100 bills, etc).

Christian denominations are made up of churches, which are in turn made up of people. How do we count the number of churches and people? It’s not as simple as going from church to church and counting up the number of people “in the church.”

To begin with, which people within the church count?

1. Some churches count Sunday morning attendance (“We have about 1,000 people in Sunday morning worship”). The flaw with this method: there can be non-believers in the service, so you’re not getting an exact number of Christians.

2. Some churches count baptized church members. The challenge with this, in a denomination as a whole, is that some people are baptized and then, for one reason or another, leave the denomination.

a) they may no longer go to church. It might be a case of backsliding, or it might be a case of advancing age, or it might be a case of a health crisis or some other stage in their life.

b) they might transfer to a different church, or transfer to a different city, state or country, but not be struck from the membership rolls.

3. Some churches only count adults, while others count both adults and children. This can lead to a significant difference when comparing two denominations.

Further, the numbers of members are constantly in flux. New people are being born. New converts are being baptized. Children are becoming adults. Some people die. You can have a more or less “exact” number as of some specific day in some specific year, and 24 hours later that number could very well have changed.

Some denominations have a specific methodology for taking a count, and they ask their churches to turn in that number as of a specific date of the year. Other denominations have a much more haphazard approach. But the discussion above illustrates why we should never consider “number” so obtained to be very exact, and why we should always be aware of the methodology of counting when comparing one denomination to another. I’m not saying the “numbers” are invalid: we just need to know how they are obtained and what they mean. Some denominations will have to have their numbers adjusted to make for an “apples to apples” comparison (e.g. churches that count only adults will have to be adjusted to compare to churches that count both adults and children).

Obviously, there are theological implications of these points. As an illustration of such discussions, check this article (I just Googled quickly for it; I’m sure other denominations have other examples).

The task is yet more complex. Denominations have to count the number of churches, and these, too, change over time. Churches are planted, and churches die. In some cases churches can leave one denomination and join another; in other cases, churches can be disfellowshipped from one part of a denomination, yet remain part of a larger denominational network (e.g. a Southern Baptist church could be disfellowshipped from a State convention, yet retain its name, and remain part of the National denomination). So simply asking ‘how many churches are in the denomination’ is not always a straight-forward thing.

In movements, this whole process is far more difficult than in many Western denominations, because:

1. Movements are aggressively growing through outreach. What is the line where a person moves from being a seeker to being a believer? Especially in contexts where baptism might be postponed for a while? In some countries, some groups have a theology that insists only a certain type of minister can baptize people, and this mean that hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of believers are still waiting for baptism. In some movements, there are long periods of time where people are discipled, and their commitment seen before baptism is “offered”; are these people believers even though they have not yet been baptized? Movements have to deal internally with these theological issues.

2. In many places, there are significant family issues that affect counting. In most Western environments, if the “father” becomes a believer, that doesn’t mean the wife or the children are automatically counted. In other environments, if a Christian woman with children (e.g. perhaps a widow) marries a Muslim man, her children (and often her) are automatically counted as now “Muslim.” If the head of house becomes a Christian, what happens to families? These are thorny issues that impact counts.

3. Many movements feature “seeker groups” that eventually become “house churches.” What is the line where a “group” becomes a “church”? When do they get counted? Different movements will deal with this in different ways.

4. Given the enormous numbers of groups/churches being planted through viral reproduction, how do they get counted? When a movement consists of just 4 generations, it’s usually easy to know how many groups there are. When a movement reaches 6th generation or higher, it becomes exponentially more difficult.

5. Further difficulties arise as churches split (divide-to-multiply), migrate (as people migrate to different areas for work), die (stop meeting for any of a variety of reasons), etc. Tracking all of these popping and moving bubbles of activity is obviously very challenging.

6. Another issue is security – simply collecting data on lists can be very problematic in some areas.

Even though movements face big challenges in counting these numbers, we shouldn’t think that they are somehow more challenging or less accurate than Western churches. For the reasons noted above, it’s well known that many Western denominations have difficult counts as well. For an interesting but more academic look at some of the methodological difficulties the Southern Baptists face (and I chose this just because it showed up first on a Google search), see this research paper.

Counting is a difficult process, but if the basic challenges are understood, they can be methodologically dealt with. Having surveyed some of the issues in this background post, I’ll be writing about some approaches to counting churches in movements over the next few blog posts.