Are We Losing the Battle?
How to Kill Vision with Statistics
Here is a guided tour but a drastically hopeless picture turns out dramatically hopeful!
An earnest, godly spokesman for the Gospel has recently produced a book in which he begins by trying to shock the reader about the present world situation. My comments are in no way intended to belittle or ridicule, but are intended to show how easy it is in the mood of our times to slip into pessimism about world events, even Christian world events.
Although the author concedes a few heart-warming and encouraging statistics to begin with, he proceeds to hold up to the reader figures clearly chosen to shame and alarm. (I do not question that we need from time to time to be shamed and alarmed--but not at the expense of our readiness for battle.)
In the early pages, any huge number seems grounds for drawing negative conclusions. For example, the idea that we need to plant 6,000,000 more churches by the year 2000 is cited as a self-evident impossibility without any further discussion--even though to plant 6,000,000 more churches only represents one more church for each existing evangelical congregation.1
Don't be Fooled by Wildfire Growth?
While he acknowledges the existence of "Christian strength in the wildfire regions of the world," he hastens to warn us "not to be fooled" by such facts. By "wildfire" he refers to his own earlier comments on the growth of African Christianity from 3% in 1900 to 46% today, and Asian Christianity growing from 16 million to 75 million in just the last nine years. Unstated but well known: the evangelical movement in Latin America is growing at three times the general rate of population.
So, this covers Africa, Asia, Latin America. What part of the world is not a "wildfire" area? Well, Europe? But Europe, especially Eastern Europe has made a more sudden and massive turn to Spiritual things than anything comparable in the last 2,000 years. Plus, there are thousands of new "house churches" in England; there are 20,000 new churches in the U.S.A. in just the last 15 years.
In what way may we be "fooled" by this incredible, global evidence of the work of God's Spirit?
His basic gloom may derive from his impression that "in general, population growth is exceeding Christian growth and our earlier ambitious projections of evangelizing the world by the year 2000 are ebbing away with each passing year, ebbing away into the reality that we are losing the battle."
The actual fact is that in not one of the last 20 centuries has the "general population growth" of the whole world exceeded Christian growth--otherwise how in the world would the global percentage of people who call themselves Christians have risen steadily in every century beginning with just 12 disciples to one such "Christian" for every two other people in the world today. Isn't that something?
If Christians are 33% of the world population today that simply means that there are only two other people in the world today for each person who calls himself a Christian, and we are not going backward. Are we really losing the battle? We started with 12 out of 200 million. That was one Christian to 17 million others. Now it is one to two. Is that losing the battle?
Even if you only count evangelical Christians the ratio today is one evangelical believer to every 10 other people in the world, one to every 7 non-Christians in the world, one to every 4 who have had no exposure to the Christian faith.2 And, with each passing year we are in a better and better position to evangelize the world.
Losing Which Battle?
One problem lies in his repeated statements that we are "losing the battle." The "battle" itself is not clear at all. If he said, "We are losing the battle of Christians in media," that would be one thing. If he means we are losing the battle of the Great Commission, that is something quite different.
At one point in his narrative it would seem that the battle is to make everyone a Christian--which is not a Biblical Great Commission (we are to invite everyone, but not expect everyone to respond in faith).
Later on, it seems we are losing the battle if a handful of Christians are becoming Jews. He does not mention that far more are coming the other way.
He even concludes we cannot "win the warƒagainst the gates of hell" if three out of four missionaries are not "directly involved in church planting," when, in fact, it is a sure sign of success--not failure--when national church leaders take over that function almost completely!
However, to be more specific, he feels we are "losing the battle" on six different fronts:
1. Too Few Missionaries?
He says, "We are losing the battle in personnel." He does not deny that the number of missionaries both from the West and from the mission fields themselves are numbers that are really rising rapidly. No, we are "losing the battle" because (by the most luxurious estimates) to start from scratch in a mission field takes, he understands, fifteen years--and that would obviously carry us beyond the year 2000. In other words "we are losing the battle" if we do not win the world by the year 2000. God has not told us we need to win the world by the year 2000. But we can clearly be in the process of "winning the war" even if we don't do everything we would like to do by the year 2000.
But, further, his 15-year figure comes from Bible Translators. He is apparently assuming that a formal, printed, New Testament is essential for there to be "a viable, indigenous, evangelizing, church movement," and that simply is not true, nor has it been true for the vast majority of Christians who have lived in history. It is a vital goal, now that literacy is so widespread, but it is still true that most of the people in the world cannot read.
What is true is that there needs to be a Bible in the picture, that is, someone who is bilingual needs to be able to read the Bible and translate on his feet, so to speak. This has worked in many places and still works in many places. Non-literate congregations can single hundreds of verses of hymns without hymnbooks and can tell you volumes about the Bible as well. Bible translators often come along after the church is present and in force. They are a vital help, but not an absolutely essential element.
2. Too Few Converts?
"We are losing the battle," he says, due to "insufficient converts to Christ." Here he points out certain resistant countries like Japan and Turkey. But in a Japanese government census, when asked, "Who is the greatest religious leader of history?" 67% of the Japanese replied, Jesus Christ. Is that losing? Jesus did not convert everyone. He shook the dust off His feet in some cases. The Biblical mandate is not to convert but faithfully and humbly to confront. We do not measure our faithfulness by how many respond but by how many hear.
The overall growth increase of Bible-believing Christians in the world is increasing faster than that of any other large movement. It is doubling every ten and a half years, while the world population is only doubling every 35 years.1 Also, see the diagram of the little men!
However, his major case regarding "insufficient converts" is simply to cite the number of "16,750" groups and to point out that they constitute 59% of the world population (now more like 50%). Does he think that 59% is amazingly large or amazingly small? He does not say. We are left to assume that it is impossibly large.
(For one thing, it is a number that is at least eight years out of date in our publications and we have re-evaluated the basis of our estimate, the number now being 11,000.)
In any case, neither 17,000 nor 11,000 are large numbers in view of the fact that there are 7,000,000 evangelical Bible-believing congregations in the world today.1 That means there are hundreds of churches for each group to be reached. In view of the Is that "losing the battle?
3. Too Few Churches Planted?
He says "A third front on which the battle rages fiercely but badly is in churches planted," and he goes on to mention that "By informed estimates, the missionary enterprise needs to plant 6,000,000 new churches by the end of the century." This huge number seems daunting, of course, if one does not take into account the fact that it is about equal to the number of Bible believing churches already in existence. But what is also mentioned is the fact that most (Western) missionaries are no longer involved directly in church planting--e.g. since they are working mainly in older, well-established mission fields.
Sure, in a well-established mission field, not one out of 100 (perhaps not one out of 500) new churches are planted by missionaries. Obviously we don't need missionaries to plant churches in places where there is already a national church. (Where pioneer missionaries are truly essential is in the remaining pioneer fields, called Unreached Peoples.)
But he goes on to imply that most missionaries have lost their vision and are involved in social work. Fact is, if missionaries did not plant schools and hospitals and vocational training programs and industrial and agricultural projects, there would not be very many national Christians to become either pastors or missionaries.
4. The Odds are Way Too Great?
"Another front on which we are losing the battle...is the statistical front. As impressive as the reports are from the wildfire regions of the world... these figures pale into insignificance when compared to the number of non-Christians and the need for additional missions personnel. The statistics....indicate that we are losing the battle."
The "huge numbers" he assumes to be impossible goals are in every case matched by (but unmentioned) huge numbers in Christian resources.
He illustrates his fear with a lengthy citation that criticizes an article in Christianity Today appearing almost a decade ago. I myself did a very detailed analysis of that same material.3 I can't blame him for believing what he read and not happening to see my own published analysis. However, it is relevant to say right here that the difference between those who are converted in Africa in his understanding and in my analysis is the difference between 750 per day and 15,000 per day. That is quite a difference. Remember that decisions are no better than the facts on which they are based.
5. Nominal Denominations are not Growing. Well?
"Another front on which the battle is being lost is in the established church." Here, very simply, he proposes that the phenomenon of low attendance in the "established churches" means we are losing the battle. Which battle?
Is the phenomenon he describes a matter of failing to present the Gospel, or is it a separation of the wheat from the chaff? Why look at England and only note the declining Anglican attendance? There is a vital, burgeoning growth of spontaneous "house churches" which is now a truly major movement. Is Christ losing the battle of Britain, or is the Anglican church?
The same could be said for the United States. Sure, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) lost a net of 40,000 members last year. Chances are many of those were drawn away to more vital congregations in other Christian movements. They weren't lost to the Kingdom but to an ailing denomination. This is a sifting process not a losing battle.
6. Christians are Leaving the Faith. And?
"One final front on which the battle is being lost...is the number of 'Christians' leaving the faith." He goes on to point out that a friend of his converted to the Jewish faith, and that he has heard of others who have also done so. He does not compare this loss with the vastly more common movement in the reverse--Jews finding Christ and becoming His followers in the Christian tradition.
His concluding section presents a final few negative remarks in passing.
Past Goals were "Grandiose" and "Unrealistic"?
He suggests that hoped-for goals for the end of this century forged a few years ago have been "grandiose" and "unrealistic" in view of what has happened since then, even though what has happened since then is totally unprecedented in world history. Incredible growth statistics have already been cited.
He does not betray the slightest awareness of the colossal missionary significance of the opening of the former USSR territory.
He is unaware of the January 1989 conference in Singapore which brought hundreds of key leaders together to reflect soberly on what could be done by the year 2000. He is unaware, apparently, of the resulting, incredible, global movement called "The AD2000 Movement and Beyond"--planning a meeting in Korea in 1994 that may be the largest face-to-face meeting of human beings in human history. He is unaware that the evangelical movement world wide is growing more than 3 times the rate of the world population.
He points out the very real problem that the "baby boomer" generation is less interested in missions than the older generation. However, the global evangelical movement is now far larger than our USA resources, and is beyond the average person's imagination the most beautiful, bright-eyed company of millions and millions of people passionately proclaiming Christ! What happens to the baby boomers in America does not really spell out some great doom for our goals, although it may spell doom for America.
We are Outnumbered?
This is his final summary: "Regardless of what the preachers of prosperity, the prophets of millennial bliss, or the overly optimistic strategists say, the battle is raging and we are not winning. The archenemy has more soldiers and more resources than we have. In fact, the only thing we have going for us is our Commander- in-Chief."
Wow! How I wish he knew all that our Commander-in-Chief has actually been doing! Our Commander-in-Chief has not been idle or inactive or a bystander while the battle is being lost!
Jesus, the Downhearted Disciples, and Their Secondary Goals
Dear reader, let us be reminded of that poignant scene (Luke 24) in which the two disciples who were trudging down-heartedly toward Emmaus were joined by an incognito Christ. The goals they had in mind were, indeed, "smashed." But note well, they had the wrong goals. They thought that Jesus would win only if He threw the Roman soldiers into the sea. They thought that Jesus had come to liberate the Jews from the Romans--rather than to enlist them into the kind "bondage" of which Paul willingly spoke.
Our own inner, heartfelt goals may be to defend the streets of our town against muggers, or to protect the owls of Oregon, the rain forests of Brazil or the oil fields of Kuwait. We may desperately hope for global democracy or nuclear disarmament or the cessation of all armed conflict, homelessness, unhappiness.
We may carelessly assume that the Christians of China really have no chance unless and until democracy comes to China! The fact is that the forty years of Communist oppression in China has not prevented the Christian movement there from growing from one million to over 50 million (that requires an average of over five times the general population growth rate). During an even longer period of oppression in the former USSR, the number of Christians grew to more than 100 million--more than the total population of Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution.
Or we may think superficially about "winning the world to Christ" (although the Bible never assures us everyone will respond positively). We may think the return of Christ is far, far away, simply because world hunger is not being eliminated and tears are still being shed. (In the well-known hymn the hope for America-- "citiesƒundimmed by human tears.")
Those millions who already have had the Bible for a thousand years may whale away at each other, cheat, rob, and war. They may simply kill each other on the streets.
The human race is in the grim process of proving that human resources will never suffice. In which direction are we "looking?" It is at the return of Christ when "He shall wipe away every tear." That is not going to be a human accomplishment.
The Bible does tell us that there will be some response from every nation, tribe, and tongue. We can go the ends of the earth in the confidence that some will respond everywhere, and there are not a whole lot more places and peoples to whom we must reach out. These are our marching orders. This is the victory. These are the goals we can reach. We are not losing this battle.
Let's Look Forward into a Fantastic Future!
Let's do be realistic: two years from now (at the huge face-to-face meeting in 1994, when the final push to the year 2000 will be the center of attention) we may have to conclude that we cannot mobilize sufficiently even to plant a church movement in every people group by the year 2000. Yes, many months before the year 2000 it may become necessary to say, "We are impelled to give up the hope" (of penetrating every remaining unreached people, or of presenting the Gospel to every creature).
We won't need to "call it quits" even then. The harm is not in hoping for too much. It is in conceding defeat unnecessarily soon, basing our judgment on faulty figures interpreted negatively. This is no time for confusion or paralysis or debilitating pessimism.
We have before us the brightest set of hope-filled resources, the most extensive, global network of eager believers in thousands of prayer cells and strategizing committees. We have never ever had as many competent, sold-out solders for Jesus Christ. The job to be done is now dramatically smaller in terms of our resources than ever before.
This is no time to slump back into despondency or to let pessimism salve our consciences as we pursue the tinsel and trash and seedy evils intertwined in the American dream.
Just as expecting mothers are often overtaken by primordial urges to start cleaning house more radically than ever before, we need now in this hour to yield to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit of the Living God as never before. He it is Who broods night and day over the nations and peoples of this world, especially those who have never heard.
Joyful, Serious, Global Spiritual War
Or, to use a different analogy: we can be fun-loving and serious and joyful in all of this without being pleasure seekers bound for the bitter dregs. We can accept the reality of global Spiritual "War" which calls us to devout and serious lives, to new levels of determined obedience, to new levels of consciousness in which the things of this earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. We can draw quietly and decisively on the empowering grace of God to liberate our lives and our families from the hemorrhaging humdrum of conventional modern life in the fast track.
There is another, different "fast track." It is the exuberant, never- a-dull-moment daily newness of walking with Christ in tune with the Global war in which His Spirit is winning.
Are you ready for that? Can you accept that? Do you admit that there is no other definition of His highest will for you? What radical steps of new obedience is He asking of you today, right now?--before you grasp for distraction and yield once more to studied, deliberate mediocrity in your Christian life, in your fellowship with the Living God?
Why settle for less than "your utmost for His highest?"