Head counts help us fulfill the Great Commission.
SHARON E. MUMPERSharon E. Mumper is associate director of Evangelical Missions Information Service in Wheaton, Illinois. In her travels, she has observed missions in Asia, South America, and Israel.
A sick peasant woman who lived in the hills of Zhejiang Province in eastern China had never heard the name of Jesus. So she was mystified when the strange white-robed “doctor” told her his name. He touched her head and seemed to remove the inoperable brain tumor that had troubled her for years.
“You can find me in the nearest town,” he said, and then he disappeared. After the woman regained her strength, she walked to the nearby town, where a group of Christians were able to tell her the true identity of her “doctor,” and lead her to faith in Christ.
Joyfully, she returned to her family, friends and neighbors, many of whom became Christians.
The experience of the Zhejiang villagers is not unusual. Healings, exorcisms, and other supernatural signs and wonders have accompanied phenomenal growth of the church not only in China, but in many other surprising parts of the world. In fact, the church around the world is growing in ways that have seldom before been seen.
The spectacular growth of the Chinese church in the last five to ten years has awed church observers. In God Reigns in China (OMF Books), Leslie Lyall, a former missionary to China, estimated that in the three years following 1980, as many as 27,000 people per day may have become Christians.
“The most massive church growth in the world is in China,” says C. Peter Wagner, professor at Fuller Seminary School of World Missions in Pasadena, California. “There is a quarter of the world’s population, and one of the highest rates of Christian growth that has ever been seen.”
Accurate statistics on the numbers of Christians in China are unavailable, and estimates range from 5 million to 100 million. Christian Communications Limited of Hong Kong says estimates of 35 million to 50 million are “credible”; and the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong says Christians now constitute nearly 5 percent of the total population of the country.
This may be the most remarkable church-growth phenomenon in recent history, especially given the government’s hostility toward the church. It is not, however, an isolated case.
“The last ten years has been the most dramatic harvest the world has ever seen,” says Patrick J. Johnstone, international research secretary, Worldwide Evangelization Crusade, and author of Operation World (STL Books).
Although in many places all segments of the church are growing, evangelical churches have made especially significant gains.
“The number of evangelical adherents in the world today is probably between 245 to 262 million,” he says. “Possibly 5.3 or 5.4 percent of the world’s population would be evangelical now, which in the last ten years is an increase of possibly 1½ percent of the world’s population. That means there has been enormous church growth—which very few have realized.”
Where The Growth Is
The body of believers is growing fastest outside of the so-called Christian West—North America and Western Europe. Because of the extraordinary growth of the church in China, Johnstone reckons there may now be nearly as many evangelical Christians in Asia as in the West.
A sampling of evangelical growth in developing countries:
• South Korea has seen phenomenal church growth. Bob Waymire, general director of Global Mapping Project, Inc., estimates that 24 percent of South Koreans are part of the Christian community. Korea boasts the largest churches in the world, including the largest Pentecostal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. It may soon have the largest Baptist church as well, according to Wagner.
• The Protestant church in the Philippines has been growing at 10 percent per year since 1975, when church leaders decided to add 46,000 churches by the year 2000. At this rate, the church expects to double every seven years.
• “Africa south of the Sahara has seen tremendous church growth … especially among animistic groups,” says Donald McGavran, founder of Fuller School of World Mission in Pasadena, California. “It is becoming a Christian land mass, just as Europe did between the years 200 and 1000.”
• Ethiopia has the Lutheran church’s fastest-growing body worldwide, according to Wagner. Despite the hostility of a Marxist government, tribal peoples are being converted by the thousands.
• The Protestant church in Latin America has grown considerably in the last few decades, gaining millions of converts from among nominal Roman Catholics and Christo-pagans, Amerindians who syncretize folk Catholicism with traditional pagan religions.
• Costa Rica’s evangelical churches have increased over 100 percent in four years, according to Norm Mydske, director of Latin American ministries for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “Similar growth is reported in El Salvador,” he said. “Believers are multiplying in Brazil more rapidly than leaders can be trained.”
Amsterdam ’83 and follow-up conferences held in Latin America “have kindled … [a] fire in the hearts of evangelists and pastors in every country,” said Mydske (Decision, September 1985).
Anibal Valle Pascual, an Assemblies of God pastor who attended the 1983 Amsterdam conference for evangelists, said that after his return from the conerence, membership in his church tripled in only 12 months.
“At Amsterdam, I learned I must involve the church in evangelism rather than trying to do it all myself, and I learned how to do it,” he said.
Quechua Indian pastor Victor Laguna Giraldo said that the fruit of Amsterdam ’83 was evident in churches throughout Peru.
“There is mounting evidence that the ripple effect of Amsterdam has become a tidal wave of sorts in Latin America,” says Edward E. Plowman, communications director for the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists.
Major church researchers use thousands of sources in their attempts to get accurate, up-to-date statistics. Even with these sources, however, it is often necessary to extrapolate on the basis of the best information available.
In view of the difficulty of getting hard data on the church, some people wonder whether it is worth the effort.
“Until you get real data, you are talking in a vacuum about what should be done,” says Jim Montgomery, president of Dawn Ministries. “We refer to it sometimes as the Nehemiah effect. Nehemiah was happy to be in the palace of the king … until he got the data.
“That is what we try to do with research. Until the church understands the situation, they are not going to be working realistically or effectively in their own situation.”
“Research is desperately needed,” says McGavran. “We need to get hard facts as to what percent are nominal Christians and practicing Christians and those who are not Christians at all. This information is not available. A good many Christians are afraid to get it because it would not be very flattering to the church.”
Despite all the effort, there is often disagreement on the numbers themselves and on what they tell us about the state of the church around the world. Zaire is a case in point. A predominantly Roman Catholic country with a sizable Protestant minority (constituting about 28 percent of the population), Zaire is a notable example of church growth, according to McGavran. A study he did about six years ago showed that at least 63 percent of Zairians had their name on some church roll, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. Another 25 percent would also call themselves Christians, he says.
But other missionaries are frustrated by the common perception that Zaire is evangelized. “There are more than 30,000 villages in Zaire,” says Dawn Ministries’ Montgomery. “At the most, 10,000 have Protestant village churches. That means there are 20,000 villages without a single Protestant church. In the cities, there are 10,000 people for every one Protestant church.”
A key problem in identifying degrees of church growth is establishing what people make up “the church.” Premier church statistician David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford Univ. Press), asserts that those who chart church growth must look at the complete spectrum of the Christian church, including every branch of the visible church.
Other statisticians narrow their focus to the Protestant church or to evangelical denominations. This is one reason for the wide discrepancies in church-growth figures. Many church leaders praise the growth of the Protestant church in Guatemala, which in the last 25 years has rocketed from 3 percent of the population to 20 percent, according to figures compiled by Johnstone. According to Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia, Guatemala is already 99 percent Christian. Most of the Protestant converts previously considered themselves Catholics. “This isn’t church growth,” says Barrett. “This is one part of the visible church transferring to another part.”
But not everyone would agree.
“It’s important, at least from our standpoint, to understand what we mean by ‘Christian’ in the growth of the church,” says Montgomery, “because we really need to see what is actually happening among the born-again, Bible-believing people.”
Montgomery goes even further. “We tend to take the emphasis of Matthew 28 to go and make disciples. So, we are concerned not just about Christianity, but those who are truly disciples. It is hard to imagine someone who is truly a follower of Christ, who isn’t in a church. That is why actual church-membership and church-growth rates are so crucial for us.”
Even church rolls, however, are not a foolproof source of information. Apart from sloppy church record-keeping (the bane of all researchers), there is the problem of churches like those in Finland or West Germany, where well over 90 percent of the population professes Christianity.
In Finland, nearly 94 percent consider themselves Lutherans, but only 5 percent attend church on Sunday, and less than 1 percent take Communion.
“In West Germany, the average Lutheran church has 3,000 members, but average weekly attendance is slightly over 100,” says Wagner.
A Delayed Harvest
Panya Baba, director of the Evangelical Missionary Society of Nigeria, would later call it an “outbreak of the Holy Spirit.” But at the time, it was apparent only that something unprecedented was happening in the north of Nigeria. The Maguzawa people were turning to Christ by the hundreds, and the few missionaries in the area were desperately calling for help.
For decades, Western missionaries had preached nearly fruitlessly to the animistic Maguzawa people. Independent and industrious, they needed no one else’s religion—neither the Islam of their Hausa neighbors nor the Christianity of the missionaries.
But since the late seventies, some 6,000 people have declared their faith in Christ. Some 200 churches have been planted, and hundreds attend Bible training, including 145 couples who are enrolled in four-year Bible schools. Despite this, EMS faces continuing demand for workers to come and teach increasing numbers of new converts.
By Sharon E. Mumper.
Components Of Church Growth
Often those who chart church growth look primarily at conversion rates. However, Barrett says, there are six components of church growth:
1. Conversion from non-Christian religions or atheism is a major factor in the growth of the church in China, South Korea, and the Soviet Union.
2. Apostasy—the flip side of conversion—is a factor in countries such as West Germany and Austria, in which taxes are levied for the support of the church. In these countries, about 1 percent defect annually in order to avoid paying the church tax.
3. Natural increase is a major factor in places like Africa. At 5 percent a year, Kenya’s birth rate is one of the highest in the world. This kind of population growth naturally affects church totals.
4. Death rates also affect the size of the church. In Uganda, at least 300,000 church members were murdered by Idi Amin. Despite this fact, during the ten-year period that included the reign of Amin, the church grew at a rate faster than that of the population.
5. Immigration is also a factor: for example, the large-scale influx of Mexicans to the United States has increased the Roman Catholic church in the Southwest.
6. Emigration has dramatically affected Algeria, a country that once boasted a thriving Roman Catholic community among the Berbers. After the French left the country, most of the Christians elected to leave as well. Today, there are huge Berber communities in Paris and Marseille. The Catholic population in Algeria hovers at less than 1 percent, and Protestants number even fewer.
Automatic Church Growth?
Most church growth worldwide is biological growth, or natural increase. Perhaps as much as 80 to 90 percent of growth is due to increase in Christian populations, according to Wagner.
In many places, however, the church is growing rapidly by conversion from non-Christian populations. In those areas, all churches and denominations are growing, according to Barrett.
“It becomes ludicrous when one church claims to be growing because their methods or theology are right in some way,” he says. “Countries with the largest Christian growth are all experiencing the same sociological, missiological, political, economic, psychological, theological, and religious factors.”
Wagner disagrees, stating that in every country, some churches are growing and others are not: “There is no such thing as automatic church growth. You can blow it, which many people do.”
“This is true,” Barrett responds. “But in the same area, more than one church will be growing, often churches at opposite ends of the theological spectrum. You can’t simplistically say that those that are growing have correct theology, while those that are not growing do not. It is much more complex than that.”
Megachurches and Misunderstandings
On the privately owned buses of Seoul, commuters are entertained by music and messages broadcast over loudspeakers. On many of those buses, the message is a sermon.
At work, at home—or while commuting—Korean Christians are constantly alert for opportunities to witness to their faith. This zeal for witnessing is probably a major factor in the phenomenal growth of the church in Korea.
In 1960, some 6 percent of Korea’s population were Christians. Today, nearly a quarter of the population are Christian, and over a million continue to be added to the church each year.
In Seoul, a city of megachurches, congregations of less than 2,000 are scorned. Christian leaders from around the world have come to Korea to study church-growth methods and to admire the enormous churches.
Yet the church in Korea faces knotty problems, including serious strife and misunderstanding between leaders and a tendency to denominational schism.
By Sharon E. Mumper.
Ferment And Flight
According to Wagner, some common sociological factors contribute to church growth.
He noted that immigrant populations are generally more receptive to the gospel than those that are more stable. “When the Vietnamese came to America in 1976, there was tremendous openness to the gospel,” he says. “Now, ten years later, that has largely passed. The Buddhist temples are probably growing faster among the Vietnamese than the Christian churches.”
“When a society is in ferment, the church is ripe for growth,” says Mont gomery. For 75 years, missionaries working in Cambodia were able to produce only 5,000 to 10,000 converts, he says. Within a few short years, since thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee camps, as many as 20,000 have become Christians.
“Wars, earthquakes, strife, refugees, famines—all can make people more responsive to the gospel.” Montgomery noted that churches in Mexico City have found greater opportunities for ministry since the earthquake of 1985. Colombians in volcano-stricken areas have been more open since that disaster.
In Argentina, the Protestant church has grown nearly 7 percent a year since 1980, according to figures compiled by Johnstone. Those who chart church growth say much of that growth has occurred since the country’s defeat in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands war of 1982.
“The Falkland Islands crisis changed the whole national social psychology of Argentines and opened them to the gospel like never before,” says Wagner. Today, people in Argentina are “falling all over each other to become Christians.”
Social ferment may also develop when people feel their expectations have not been met by their society. This is the case in Japan, where missionaries report that people who have been disillusioned by the emptiness of materialism are now investigating Christianity.
“When there is any kind of trauma, the troubles of society open the way,” says Montgomery. “That is when we need to rush resources in.”
“Of course,” Montgomery continues, “there is trauma in countries all over the world. For that reason, Donald McGavran says, ‘There are vastly more winnable people in the world now than ever before.’ ”
Spirit Powers Vs. Gospel Power
There is often greater responsiveness to the gospel in animistic societies than in Westernized, industrialized cultures. “These people are aware of a real spiritual world, with real powers,” says Montgomery. “They are afraid of the spirits; they have to appease them. So, when they see the power of the gospel to change lives through miracles or just through changing habits, they respond.”
Even those who have been removed from their tribal backgrounds by a generation or two continue to be influenced to some degree by the animistic world view. This was a major factor in the great responsiveness in Guatemala, where 50 percent of the population may be considered tribal, and another 40 percent have tribal ancestry.
The ability to deal with the spirit world is a major reason for the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches in many countries.
“The Pentecostal world view takes the area of the demonic and supernatural very seriously,” says Wagner. “It matches the world view of most people out there in the Third World. They know how to handle the supernatural dimensions of Christianity better than most other groups.”
For this reason, Pentecostals have been on the cutting edge of church growth in countries like Brazil, where Protestants in the last 25 years have gone from 6 percent of the population to nearly 20 percent.
“The church is growing in Brazil like very few other places in the world,” says Wagner. He notes that some 80 percent of Brazilians are nominal Catholics heavily influenced by spiritism. Although 40 years ago only 8 percent of Brazilian adults were practicing spiritists, today 60 percent practice spiritism. These people can be reached only by those who know how to handle the supernatural, he says.
With accelerated Third World church growth, non-Western Christians are beginning to make an impact on the world scene. Today, some 20,000 non-Western missionaries work in scores of nations. By the year 2000, non-Western missionaries could far outnumber those from Western countries, according to Larry Pate, Overseas Crusades’ coordinator of emerging missions.
Such Christians are already making an impact on the traditional churches. “In Europe, a lot of older churches that have been moribund are now getting an influx of people from the Third World,” says Barrett. “They are bringing a dynamism and holy turmoil into the churches.”
Rapid church growth may be a mixed blessing. “In some cases, the growth is out of control,” Barrett says. “Churches cannot be properly organized and new converts tended to. One result is that in Africa, there is great apostasy.”
“We need to remind God’s people of the tremendous responsibility … to nurture and shepherd these people,” says John A. Gration, professor of missions and coordinator of the missions/intercultural program at Wheaton College. “Otherwise, we could be facing wholesale syncretism in a generation down the road. We are not beginning to keep pace with the development of spiritual shepherds to do this kind of work.”
In China, where millions have turned to Christ in recent years, the need for teaching and Bibles is acute. “Pastors in China are crying for help,” writes Paul Kauffman, editor of Asian Report (January 1986). “In some areas there are only three or four workers to several tens of thousands of believers spread across the countries. The workers labor literally day and night to minister and teach.”
The village in Zhejiang Province now has a church, but no pastor. Their faith is vibrant and infectious, but largely unschooled. Many of those who watch the growth of the church around the world are concerned about the millions who, like these villagers, have rushed through the open gates of the kingdom of heaven.
The very success of the gospel may have thrust upon the church the greatest responsibility it has ever faced.
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