International Bulletin of Missionary Research

Issue 35:1, January 2011
FULL ISSUE (56 pp., 9.8 MB PDF)

Mission by the Numbers

At the boarding school in Ethiopia where I spent eight formative years, personal Bible reading—in the King James Version—was an essential part of the daily regimen. Given my youthful preference for tales of adventure, conflict, and war, St. Paul’s epistles vied unsuccessfully with such action-packed books as Genesis, Joshua, Judges, and 1–2 Samuel. Here I could escape the everyday banalities of primary education by losing myself in the richly textured dramas of men and women, tribes and nations, whose stories—replete with love and war, trust and treachery, bravery and cowardice, success and failure—seemed much more interesting than my own. And there were enigmas, too, such as the one in 2 Samuel 24 (KJV): “And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” It seemed odd that God should vent his anger against Israel by prodding King David to try his hand at demographics! If it was anger against David for smiting someone, I could understand the Lord’s displeasure—but counting? How upset could God actually have been? Both arithmetic and geography were our daily fare as pupils, and we had to learn population counts for countries and major cities all over the world if we wanted to pass. Were the censuses that yieldedthese numbers an expression of God’s displeasure?

The New Testament, of course, has its own share of number-words, specific and general. “There followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan” (Matt. 4:25 KJV). And in the prologue to the world’s most famous sermon, “Seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain” (Matt. 5:1KJV). Multitudes gathered, multitudes followed, multitudes marveled, multitudes heard—and so on it went. (How many people does it take to make one multitude?) The Bible’s grand apocalyptic finale includes somewhat more precise, if symbolic, numbers: twelve tribes, seven churches, seals, angels, plagues, and bowls of God’s wrath, as well as twenty-four elders and 144,000sealed. But St. John the Divine otherwise avoids quantification. He allows only that he saw in his vision “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, [standing] before the throne, and before the Lamb . . . [crying out] with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9–10KJV). Modern utilitarian sensibilities recoil from such numerical imprecision.

Data from Mission Handbook (2010)

Since it first appeared twenty-six years ago, the annual statistical table on world Christianity published in this journal each January has tended to elicit one predictable response: “Where do they get these numbers?!” We refer such questioners to the prefaces of two benchmark reference works: the original World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford Univ. Press, 1982) and World Christian Trends, A.D. 30–A.D. 2200: Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus (William Carey Library, 2001), where the statistical methodologies are explained. Since the inception of the feature in 1984, and although our demographers have rounded off their numbers to the nearest thousand, they have never employed the terms “multitudes,” “great multitudes,” or “multitude which no man could number.” Numbers thus expressed are notoriously difficult for spreadsheet software to tabulate and analyze.

The “Missiometrics 2011” feature in this issue reports the story of Christian martyrs and “martyrdom situations” in stark numbers and explains how the authors arrived at their astonishing estimate of one million Christian martyrs over the past decade. While some may perhaps debate the statistical methodology, these tallies represent the annihilation of real people. Each humanly authorized and administered killing is an affront to God. After all, no matter what a temporal power might maintain, God’s image, not Caesar’s, is stamped on each human being. To render unto Caesar what can never be his is idolatry.

The graph accompanying this editorial is a supplement to Scott Moreau’s perceptive analysis of the latest edition of the Protestant Mission Handbook, one of the premiere sources of reliable North American missionary numbers. From the graph one can garner a number of interesting bits of information. We learn, for example, that over the past decade, the number of American “on-location” missionaries serving assignments of from one to four years has increased significantly, while the number of those serving longer terms has increased only incrementally. Beyond that, we know nothing more about the men and women (without whom there would be no numbers) than that they are Americans. The graph can tell us how many, but not whowherewhatwhy, or so what—the only important questions of everyday life.

Mission by numbers is helpful, but limited. In the work of God there can be no substitute for inefficiency. The Incarnation was an astoundingly inefficient and parochial event. What moved Jesus to compassion (Matt. 9:36, 15:32; Mark 6:34) were not nameless, featureless digits behind some grand aggregate, but specific children, women, and men such as the two blind men of Matthew 20:34: “So Jesus had compassion on them” (KJV). For readers of the IBMR, then, compassion is the most Christian response to numbers.

—Jonathan J. Bonk

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