|Last Tuesday I spent the day on the Chesapeake Bay with eight others fishing for cobia. This is a fine eating fish; they come big and fight hard. We went out early and stayed for two tide changes.
After three hours of watching the tips of the rods not move, enjoying the banter of fishermen, and getting hungry, I decided this was the time and place to bring God onto the scene. I told them I would say grace over our lunch and also would address the One who gave us the food, asking Him to show cobia where they could find a snack. I might have even said, “…where they can get hooked on a snack.”
Later, within an hour of our time to head in, we landed two large cobia.
Was that a “sign of God”? Certainly to the woman on board, a friend who is applying to Anglican Frontier Missions. Probably to the others as well. There was talk among them of the Lord sending “seconds”.
But we know that quantifying answers to prayer is difficult, not because the answers aren’t there but because God’s answers are not always so obvious as “fish on line”.
In the sphere of missions there is a place for seeing signs of God. The best quote for this comes from Prior Roger Schutz of the Taizé Community. He wrote in 1960, “Les chiffres sont les signes de Dieu.” Or, “Statistics are the signs of God.”
William Carey knew the importance of statistics for mission work. He wrote a pamphlet commonly known as “An Enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the Heathens.” The title continues in smaller type: “In which the religious state of the different nations of the world, the success of former undertakings, and the practicability of further undertakings are considered.” Then he gives 23 pages of tables by continent of the religious state, the former undertakings, and the relative success of these efforts. Carey knew statistics tell the tale.
World Christian Trends
WCT shows us ways to discern the signs of God, how to sight trends. The pattern is the same for international missions as for local church. We build upon an irreproachable mandate, use reliable sources, and then find valued analysis.
The Mandate: WCT lists 23 verbs from our Lord and throughout the Bible that urge measuring by numbers. A sample of these are: Add (Acts 2:41); calculate (Luke 14:28); count Rev. 11:1); list (1 Tim 5:9); measure (Rev. 11:1); survey (Josh 18:6); register (Luke 2:1). From this list come another 51 English imperatives related to what WCT calls missiometrics.
Clearly, God leads us into the dimension of records. How can we know what God is doing, after all, if we cannot see the before and after?
Reliable Sources: As much as this exercise applies to the task of world evangelization, we also must apply the same principles to leadership in the local church.
Listed first in “50 new facts and figures about trends” is this statement:
“Every year the churches hold a megacensus costing $1.1 billion, sending out 10 million questionnaires in 3,000 languages, which covers 180 major religious subjects.”
The categories for these reports are not randomly chosen. They plunge into the realities of church life. Is there growth in attendance? Is growth by birth or conversion? What ages are leaving, what ages joining? And more, many more areas to be examined.
Who reads these? Maybe your bishop or Superintendent, maybe not. But researchers do. They pore over the findings, study the documents, and track the changes.
Major missionary organizations also carry extensive databases. Some of these are:
Summer Institute of Linguistics for Bible translations (http://www.sil.org/linguistics);
Joshua Project (https://joshuaproject.net/index.php);
Global Prayer Project (http://www.globalprayerdigest.org);
World Christian Database (http://worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd/);
Operation World (http://www.operationworld.org).
In addition to these religious surveys are the extensive reports of the United Nations (UN) and United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In one major section, WCT carries 171 columns of data for each country. The data come from reports of these and other organizations. The lengthy composite reveals quality of life in several key areas, the strength and needs of the church, and key steps towards evangelization. The columns for your church reports also give composites, composites that show strength, gaps, needs, and more. Wise leaders will push for understanding, then push more for reasons, and push again for what to do and where.
Valued Analysis: Actually the analysis comes in pages and tables of the book; the value must come from the student of these figures.
For instance, planning for work in Cambodia will examine life there. show that only 13 % have access to clean water. There are only 12 hospital beds per 10,000 people. Cambodia has 40,000 blind people and 672,000 deaf. The country has a very high murder rate of 70 for every 100,000 people. Results of this study must determine the shape of ministry there in the name of the love of Jesus Christ.
The benefits of studying the signs of God through statistics can prevent errors all too common in the church. I will mention three:
Duplication. This is the arrogance that my particular ministry is so far superior to another’s that I must pursue my effort as if other efforts do not count and are not there.
Neglect. Evangelization of an ethnic group or a city requires multiple layers. Studying the trends as represented in books like WCT will highlight needs that have been overlooked. In Cambodia, for instance, these numbers reveal the deeper picture of poverty of respect for life.
Hunch. Factors that determine emphasis in ministry can be less than honorable. Some may be the particular likes or dislikes of the leader, ministries popular with donors, or where the glitz—the photos, the stats, “the bang for the buck”–is greatest. The counterparts of these fit easily into ministry in the local church, do they not?
Before we scoff at studying statistics to discern trends, we should recognize how statistics serve this purpose in other spheres. During the recent All Star Baseball game in the US, with each batter the TV screen showed layers of statistics to tell us what we might expect him to do. Watching a golf tournament now gives the viewer the exact length of the putt and the % for that golfer on that putt.
Next week: a composite of Turkey—its government, churches, demographics, and society.
Photo: Part of a team researching one of the large unreached peoples, in preparation for devising strategies.