How many Christians are among the American expatriates working abroad

Dear Justin,
Have you read anything recently that estimated the # of Christian American Expats working abroad? Not missionaries, just people working but just so happen to be Christians?
No. I haven’t. I don’t think it can be readily figured out, either.
The American government apparently doesn’t track how many people live overseas. This article cites estimates between 2.2 and 6.8 million. It also says that while Americans live in 100 countries, 66% of American expatriates live in 10 (including Mexico, Canada, Israel, the UK, France and Germany). This article, from the Association of Americans Resident Overseas, estimates 6.32 million, and breaks it down by country (with 2.59 million in the “Western Hemisphere” and another 1.6 million in Europe).
Estimating how many are Christians is even more difficult. We could theorize any population significantly large enough to be a randomized sample of the larger group would carry the same characteristics. If you randomly selected a few thousand people from America, theoretically they would have the same % Christian as the American population as a whole. But those who go overseas may not be a truly randomized sample. It’s doubtful, to me. Very few Americans have passports; not many go abroad. Those who would be sent by a company to work overseas with a reasonable expectation of success in a cross-cultural environment may vary wildly from the general American population (unlike the Philippines).
So, I must confess to being a little stumped on this one. If anyone has reference to studies, feel free to comment. But at the very worst, I would start with the idea that the expatriate population would probably have a makeup at least somewhat similar to the American population as a whole–quite a few Christians, some of them quite public in their faith.
Got a question? Email I’ll answer it here. I won’t share your name.

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Unreached is not Unevangelized is not Unengaged

This post covers this concept and may be updated from time to time to improve it for clarity and answer questions.

We use terms to quantify the “remaining task” – words like “unreached,” “unevangelized,” “unengaged,” and “least-reached.”

Often we use these words interchangeably. This can be quite dangerous, as they do not mean the same thing, and we may not be meaning the same thing when we use them. An in-depth look at the history of these terms and how they have been used is given in the book World Christian Trends. Here, I’m just going to briefly summarize how they are used today.

“Unreached” is a term that was originally defined in a meeting of missiologists held in Chicago shortly after the whole idea of unreached peoples really took off. It was defined as, “a people group lacking a church that can evangelize the group to its borders without cross-cultural assistance.”

  • It is not a statement about how many people in the group are Christians, or even how many have heard the Gospel.
  • “Unreached” is a measure of the local church’s ability to finish the job on its own.
  • As originally defined, there was no statistical measure that quantified this. It wasn’t “2% Christian” or “5% Christian”–it was far more a subjective evaluation of the local church.
  • This “squishiness of definition” leaves significant flexibility: a church that could not have evangelized a large group in the 1970s might be able to do so now, thanks to the multiplying power of media, the Internet, etc.

“Unevangelized” as it is generally used was defined in the World Christian Encyclopedia (and World Christian Trends, its related work) as a mathematical equation for estimating the number of people within a people group that would have access to the Gospel at least once in their life time.

“Unevangelized” is used by others with slightly different definitions, so it’s important to understand what is meant by “unevangelized” whenever it is used. Usually, when people refer to “2.3 billion unevangelized,” they are referring to the number in the Status of Global Mission, which comes out of the World Christian Encyclopedia research.

  • It is based in part on how many people are Christians, and in part on the results of various ministries (like Bible distribution, film, media, personal witnessing, mass crusades and the like) aimed at the group.
  • It IS a quantification of the number of people who have access to the Gospel. A group can be, for example, 30% evangelized, which means that many people have heard the Gospel (and 70% have not).
  • It is not a statement about the quality of the local church or its ability to finish the task on its own.

“Unengaged” was created by Finishing the Task and is defined as a people group lacking a team with a church planting strategy. If a group of several million has a team of 2 or 3 that has “engaged it” with a church planting strategy, then it is “engaged” (but it may be “underserved” based on a ratio of 1 team per 50,000). The unengaged list is maintained by Finishing the Task and is a derivative of other lists.

“Least-reached” is a generic term used to refer to the core of the remaining task. It does not have a specific definition, and is often used when no specific definition is desired.
The number of people considered “unreached” and those considered “unevangelized” are often different, because the definitions are different:

  • a group can be reached yet mostly unevangelized, particularly if the church within the group is sufficiently large and strong (even if it is a minority).
  • a group generally will not be evangelized and unreached.
  • People will disagree about whether certain traditions within the Church are ‘reached’ or even ‘evangelized.’ For example, some have argued that you are not adequately ‘evangelized’ unless you are a Christian, and even that some within the Church are ‘unevangelized’ because they do not know the Gospel (they are ‘cultural Christians’). Unevangelized does not usually measure whether a person knows or can share the Gospel; it measures whether they have access to it.
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Sustainable Closure

“Closure” is the missiological technical term for “finishing the task.”

“Closure” can mean different things to different people, since the “finish line” is often defined differently. Some examples:

  • everyone has access to the Gospel, even if they haven’t specifically heard it: the Gospel is available, in the form of a nearby church, or copies of the Bible, or Christian broadcasting, or Christian friendships.
  • everyone has (most likely) actually heard the Gospel, in a way that they can understand it and respond to it.
  • a substantial portion of the population (>60%) are professing or affiliated believers.
  • a substantial portion of the population is an evangelical Christian (“true believer”).

For our purposes, let’s consider “closure” at a “minimum definition”: everyone has access to the Gospel. (Other definitions require roughly the same kinds of work, albeit more of it.)

To achieve closure in any single people or place would mean everyone among the people or in the place has “crossed the finish line.” For 10 people, this is fairly easy. For 100,000, it’s far more difficult. To achieve closure for the entire world – across multiple languages, and in the midst of governmental restrictions – is so challenging that it hasn’t been achieved in 2,000 years.

The most obvious method for achieving it would be to deliver the Gospel as a mass produced message, translated into every available language, within a short period of time. Yet part of the problem with such an effort is the very public nature of it.

An example of the difficulties of great, public, global campaigns is the campaign to eradicate polio. This has little (at least on the face of it) to do with spiritual issues, and even governments are generally in favor of it. Yet it has aroused fear of conspiracy, and vaccination workers have been killed.

A global campaign to present the gospel at a single point in time would obviously be fought against and blocked in many places. Realistically, it will have to be done bit by bit, place by place, people by people.

This kind of bit-by-bit progress encounters all the same issues as a global campaign, but it can slowly circumvent them over time.

Governments that block the gospel during global campaigns today don’t last forever. Walls come down, governments change, new platforms and technologies make the spread of the Gospel possible.

But since it must be done over time, closure encounters another problem that once-in-a-moment campaigns do not: demography.
In every place and among every people, new people are being born every day (and others are dying).

The closure achieved by delivering a message to the population of today misses the children born today. In three to five years, when those children are old enough to understand the message, it will have to be delivered to them. Today’s message doesn’t count for that moment.

If people hear the message today, but do not respond, they are still non-believers. They will not pass the message on to their children. Thus, the children of non-believers grow up unevangelized (even though the parents, hearing the message, were themselves once evangelized), unless they hear the message from an outside source.

If “Closure” is “Everyone has access to (or hears) the Gospel at least once in their lifetime,” then this situation means each generation must hear the Gospel. Several of you are thinking, yes, this is obvious. But it’s important: the primary reason peoples and places become unevangelized over time is the loss of gospel witness. If there is no local church, the gospel witness must come from the outside, and that is little different than a series of “localized campaigns” held over time, and faces much the same challenges as global campaigns.

“Sustainable closure” is my term which means the individuals in a people group or a place are continuously evangelized – the current generation, and future generations. The strategy simply calls for building up “sustainable closure” in each people and place, group by group, place by place, until all of them are sustainably closed. We don’t worry about “losing” progress in one place as we go on to another because we leave the place in a position of sustainable closure.

The primary way this is done is to plant a church among a people or in a place that can achieve this. And that, by definition, is “reached”: a people group possessing a church that can evangelize the group to its borders [here I would add, at least once per generation, and ideally once per year] without cross-cultural assistance.

(You can also apply the same definition to “place” provided that you say the church evangelizes all peoples within the place.)

“Sustainable closure” has the added benefit that, with a church that can reach everyone in a place, you are reaching all of the individuals, not just a minority.

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Part of the challenge when talking about, thinking about, describing and measuring church planting movements (also called disciple making movements, CPMs/DMMs), is defining them. Many different definitions are floating around.
When most practitioners speak of “movements,” they do not mean “we added a few more people to the church this month than we did last month” or even “a few more this year than last year.”
A key part of movement theory has to do with scalability and rapid multiplication.
The most commonly used definition of a movement is something that consistently gets to 4th generation: I make a disciple, who makes a disciple, who makes a disciple, who makes a disciple.
If at any point a movement stops consistently getting to 4th generation in most of its branches, it is described as “stalled.”
Another way of thinking about a movement is in terms of where it’s coming from and where it’s going to. Our car has movement when we travel from our house to someone else’s. The gospel has movement when it travels from believers to non-believers, and ideally to the “boundaries” of a particular segment (be it geographic, linguistic or cultural). If the “speed” of the movement in question will not reach the defined edges in a timely fashion, then it may be moving, but it’s not a movement.
We can see parallels to this in secular companies: as they try to scale toward market saturation. There’s quite a lot in business literature that is helpful when thinking about movements. Unfortunately, most churches structure themselves more like “owner-operated businesses” – the mom & pop grocer down the street – then they do in terms of markets, market penetration, and multiplication across various markets to saturate a country. You can’t serve a nation like Walmart does while retaining the methods and models of the neighborhood grocer.
When movements become the “it thing” of the moment, we want to call what we are doing a “movement.” But the problem is, doing that just means we want to be part of the “it thing” without giving up the things that don’t work and with discipling doing the things that DO work to get us to be a movement. Defining what we mean by “movement” and measuring ourselves to a standard is more important than simply slapping a hip label on something.

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If 100% of your target area is reached (unless your target area is VERY small):
They can’t all go to your small group.
They can’t all go to your church.
They can’t all go to your Sunday School.
They can’t all go to your Vacation Bible School.
They can’t all go to your retreat.
What happens when someone is in a Bible Study led by one of your church members – but don’t come to Sunday morning service?
What happens when someone goes to a DIFFERENT place?
How do you enable them to be part of an ekklesia – any ekklesia? – even if it’s not yours?
Do you still care about them? How do you express that?

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The cost of holding on

This thought originated from Heidi Long:
In order to hold on to your “what ifs” you have to not to do anything about them.
What if I did _x_ and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams?
Sometimes, it can “feel” better to hold on to the hazy daydream of what life might be like “if” you did something, than to put it to the test and find out the truth–especially if there’s a substantial possibility of failure.

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Sometimes I hear people some variation of, “Let’s make God famous here.”
And I have to wonder: what kind of famous?
Golden Globes famous? Oscars famous? Michael Jackson famous? Bono famous? Pope famous?
Fame is fleeting, we tell our children.
No matter how hard I work, can I make God something more than He already is?
Is the God who seemed disinterested in a Temple interested in me making him famous on Twitter or in my city?
Is “glory” the same as “famous”?

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There are three factors that have been used to describe the status of a people group: unevangelized, variations of “unreached”, and unengaged.
Unengaged is the newest. It means that a people group has a team of people engaging it with a church planting strategy.
Even a team of 2 or 3 is enough to count for this status. To be “engaged” is, as Paul Eshleman has said from time to time, not “the end” but rather “the beginning.”
What we don’t talk about very much openly, I think, is the reality of disengagement.
Many workers who go to the field do not stay on the field. We hear anecdotal stories of “once upon a time” when “workers sent their belongings to the field in coffins” because they expected to die there. (Side note: they expected to die quickly, too, because diseases hadn’t been conquered yet.)
Today, a lot of workers wash out after 2 years due to a variety of issues that make them think “Maybe this wasn’t my calling, really, to begin with.” And more return home after 4 to 6 years, that being about the term of commitment of many.
Real effectiveness often doesn’t begin until about the 8 year mark, and many don’t make it that far. Few indeed are the workers who get to the 10 or 20 year point. I say this not to brag: I’ve been in missions research for over 20 years. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’ve seen a lot of ideas come and go. This “come and go” has done as much as anything to keep the missions world from progress, I think.
More to the point: if an unengaged people group has 2 workers today, and those workers are less than 2 years on the field, it is highly probable (sorry for the Eeyore rain cloud here) that in 2 years that group will be disengaged.
What’s the lesson? Everything a church can do toward missionary retention and endurance is important: better disciple development, better selection processes, better training, better support on the field. It’s very costly–in every sense–to send a worker only to have them return home in 2 years, especially from foreseeable and avoidable circumstances.

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70% solutions: world-changing, but probably costly

In the book “Corps Business,” the author describes how the Marine Corps look for “70% solutions” – e.g. solutions solving 70% of any given problem. Having started at that baseline (which is similar in approach to the idea of the Minimum Viable Product), one can measure where inefficiencies are, iterate a test correction, and see if you can improve on the 70%.
Along that line, this morning I was thinking about what provinces and peoples form 70% of the remaining task. A quick and rough analysis of my Provinces spreadsheet gave me a list of 55. Unsurprisingly most are in India and China, with a handful of other places (e.g. Indonesia, Ethiopia, Turkey). The #1 largest province in the world is Uttar Pradesh. Change that, and it would make a dramatic difference in the world.
Having formed an initial list, the next thing I’m thinking about is this: of those provinces, which are positioned in such a way so that if they were dramatically transformed, they would ripple out into the provinces on their borders? In other words, what is the core of the core of the 55?
I theorize that the radical transformation of just a handful of places–probably no more than a dozen, maybe only eight or ten–would bring about a massive change in the world.
But to get to that transformation would likely be costly.

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The need for margin

Do you have enough margin in your work?
I have several projects that are presently on tight deadlines. Unfortunately, I did not put in enough margin on a few of them. A small delay in one meant I didn’t get the work done before Christmas. I didn’t get the work done over Christmas (as should be expected). Then I came down with a massive cold/bronchitis after Christmas, and completely lost the post-Christmas week.
Now I am late on a deadline, and scrambling–and largely because I didn’t build in enough margin. Enough empty space.
If you have no empty space on your calendar, you’re just setting yourself up for flameout, eventually. Not just one day a week, but big chunks of empty space for rest, reflection, recuperation.
If you don’t embrace the margins, they will reach out and grab you, one way or another. Better to do it in a semi-controlled fashion.

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