Church statistics were born the same day the Christian church was born, when the apostles decided to count the new believers who were baptized. Protestant missionaries have always been among the most enthusiastic users of statistical information on church membership—or more accurately, on church non-membership.
William Carey was the first missionary to do this when he wrote his famous clarion call for missions, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of Heathens (1792). This has blossomed into a whole industry of information on the state of the church and the need for missions worldwide. The most well-known examples include Operation World (Jason Mandryk) for those interested in missions and the more academic World Christian Database (Todd Johnson). Several lists, including Joshua Project, specifically seek to list unreached people groups.
All these are wonderful tools that the Lord has used to raise prayer and people for missions. However, they all have limitations that diminish their practical use for grassroots ministry. Operation World and the World Christian Database provide valuable information. However, because of their global scope, they do not go down to the level needed for strategic decision-making in missions. In addition, these lists suffer from a more serious problem: not enough insider information has been used to produce them.
A few years ago one of the authors of this article had an amazing experience at a missions conference in a strategic planning session for global leaders. He discovered he was part of an unreached people group in the Netherlands. He tried to explain that if that ‘people group’ ever had a clear separate identity, that time was at least 400 years in the past. He also told the group that he would be hesitant to tell the churches he preaches in on home assignment, with hundreds of members each, sometimes meeting in church buildings a thousand years old, that they were part of an unreached people group. Nevertheless, a year later his ‘people group’ was still on the list.
The other author of this article has had similar experiences. For example, he has met new missionaries from more than one missions group who have come to Thailand very excited to share the gospel with the Shan people, one of the people groups listed as unengaged. There is no doubt the Shan desperately need the gospel. However, it would have been helpful for those missionaries to realize before they came that the lists were inaccurate. OMF has been evangelising the Shan for over 50 years, and there are Christians and churches among them.
What is happening in mission statistics is wonderful for prayer and for mobilisation. By and large, what is missing are actionable data. To obtain data that informs on-the-ground ministry, another step is needed. If national churches and mission organizations are to use data in developing and implementing their strategies, data needs to be:
- Reliable. It should be collected from nationals who know the language and culture and can portray an accurate picture of the local situation.
- Recent. The growth of the church is dynamic. Therefore the data needs to be current. Old information is unreliable and can result in bad and often costly decisions.
- Detailed. National level information is not enough to develop a strategy for a nation. Provincial or state information is needed at a minimum. District and sub-district is even better. In areas with a strong Christian presence, information at the local or village level is necessary.
- Reportable. Gathering accurate data is only the first step. There must be a compelling way to report the data so that it can be effectively utilized.
The way to do this is to change from gathering statistics for missionaries to gathering data for a nation: national church statistics. An outsider perspective has to be changed to an insider perspective. That is the major challenge facing missionary statistics today. The current databases used in missions are not built for this, and the method by which data is collected does not reflect the value of an insider perspective. Because of the rapid spread of IT capabilities worldwide this now can be done. It is now easier to provide the insider perspective with the voice that it deserves.
In Thailand, the national church, assisted by several missionaries, set out to collect data that would be reliable, recent, detailed, and reportable. And it succeeded! This provided an important impetus to a national plan, supported by almost all denominations, to reach all of Thailand for Christ. Over the course of a decade, an ever-more powerful database was developed. As churches in other countries became aware of the possibilities, they started to express interest in having a database for their own country.
This led to the establishment of a new organization, GlobalRize, offering ‘online solutions for the global church’. A primary solution of GlobalRize is Harvest, a database and mapping web-application. Harvest is already being used to map all churches in Thailand and Cambodia; contracts have been signed for Ethiopia and Indonesia; and national churches and organizations from various other countries are looking into the possibilities of starting a Harvest database for their own country—or area, if it is a large nation.
Harvest is a highly secure cloud-based database, with maps and reports created in real time. New entries and changes in the database are reflected in the reporting on the same day. Harvest is highly customizable and is multilingual—it uses the written texts of each nation. This gives each organization using the system the freedom to decide what data to collect, what reports and maps to produce, and who receives access to which part of the database. A dedicated team of software developers continues to add new features to Harvest, while keeping a user-friendly interface. Harvest has a long list of features. The most frequently used are listed here:
- Districts or towns without a church, with number of inhabitants
- Provinces or districts with number and percentage of Christians and number of churches
- Mailing labels for any selection of churches through use of filters to select subset
- Denominations with number of members and number of churches
- Churches and Christians per worship language
Maps and graphs
- Christian percentage map, showing the numbers and percentage of Christians per province, district, and town
- Church location map showing the location of each church with address and contact information
- Year churches were started
- Worship language used by each church
- Average church size
- A research license allows extensive searches in the database on any data field
- A denominational license allows a denomination to update data about their own churches
- A group license allows a denomination or organization to add extra data fields which can be used to enter data important for their own purpose and only visible to themselves
- A church license allows an individual church to add extra data fields for their own church (eg on weekly attendance and/or offering)
- Online directory of churches, grouped by province, language, or denomination
- Contents include church information, pictures, maps, driving directions, etc.
- Accessible to anyone
- Indexed by Google (if Google search is used for a church, that church appears in the search list)
The license system is important to determine who gets access to which part of the database, but it also serves another function. Through selling licenses, the organization managing the national database of churches is able to pay for the system.
Rather than GlobalRize always looking for donations to fund the project, it has been designed such that those who receive benefit from the database are able to participate in the development and use of Harvest. Researchers, denominations, and other types of user must pay a yearly fee to have access to the database. Churches can purchase advertisements that display on the church directory when someone searches for a church in a particular area. There is also the facility to advertise on a national basis.
Implications for missions
Though it is possible to build up a Harvest database starting from one denomination, it is not ideal. It is better if an association of denominations takes the lead. The most promising solution is to set up an independent Church Resource Center that builds trust with and is willing to serve all denominations. The eSTAR Foundation in Thailand is an example of an existing Church Resource Center.
Harvest has the potential radically to change the face of mission statistics by making an insider perspective on a national church possible for everyone. It is the authors’ conviction that this contributes to the advancement of God’s kingdom in many ways, most notably in showing all the areas in a country where the gospel has not yet reached.
If you are interested in exploring how Harvest could be used in your ministry situation or how to launch a Church Resource Center, please contact one of the authors.
Christian presence map of Thailand: http://harvest.globalrize.org/thailand/christian_presence/
eSTAR Foundation: www.estar.ws