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The World by 2000: what’s the true score?

by Jay Gary

Across the world today, corporate planners, visionaries and telecommunications experts from New York to Bombay are strategizing toward the year 2000. They are working from different places and through different companies, yet they share a common goal: universal telephone access by AD 2000. They are convinced everyone in the world should have access to a telephone by the close of the century. At the rate they re going, they just might succeed.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has adopted the slogan safe drinking water for all by AD 2000 And the Food and Agriculture Organization is working for adequate food for all by AD 2000.

As the close of this century approaches, Christians, as well, are setting goals for 2000. Since 1976, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board has been aggressively working on a strategy to reach every living person in the world with the gospel by the year 2000. This year alone they hope to raise a whopping $160 million to finance their all-time high of 3,720 missionaries overseas. More than a dozen sister denominations overseas are coordinating their mission efforts with the Southern Baptists in this worldwide movement. Called Bold Mission Thrust, their program might be one of history s most daring, most organized, most detailed and most extensive evangelistic plans.

Another countdown strategy comes from the U.S. Center for World Mission. For the past eight years, Dr. Ralph Winter, its founder and director, has backed the slogan, A Church for Every People by the Year 2000. When asked if it s really possible to reach the world by that date, Winter replies, I am absolutely convinced that it s perfectly possible. But it s utterly impossible if no one lifts a finger. It s utterly simple if everybody who believes in Christ truly gets involved.

Calling the church to finish the task of world evangelization by the turn of a century is nothing new. In the summer of 1885, D.L. Moody, the famous evangelist, convened a Bible conference in Northfield, Mass. where he proposed that a council representing all evangelical churches be formed solely to plan a worldwide campaign in order to proclaim the good tidings to every living soul in the shortest time. Three days later, this council presented to the conference a systematic plan to evangelize the world so that the whole present population of the globe would have heard the glad tidings by 1900.

Dr. David Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia and a researcher in world evangelization with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, says, The century 1871 to 1971 saw at least 60 major clarion calls like Moody’s to evangelize the world by a certain date. The history of world evangelization is littered with hundreds of well-intentioned plans and pronouncements that aroused enormous interest but then came to nothing. Barrett documents that more than 300 plans to evangelize the world have been put forward during the past 45 years. They include Evangelism in Depth, Latin America Mission s program of the 60s; the I Found It campaign by Campus Crusade in the 70s; and the recently announced The World by 2000, an effort by the three largest Christian radio organizations to broadcast the gospel in languages everyone can understand. While many of these 300 plans are either gone or clearly on the wane, most are st ill being pursued today, though often in relative isolation from each other.

Will these present plans to evangelize the world fizzle out as countless others have? What s the chance that every individual on this planet will have a reasonable opportunity to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ by the year 2000? The answer to t his question may surprise you.

Look at the Scoreboard

Every four seconds, the enormity of the task of world evangelization increases by 10 people because across the world that many babies are born. According to the United Nations Population Division, two billion new people will probably enter the world between the years 1975 and 2000. This trend is likely to continue into the first quarter of the 21st century. After 2025, however, authorities say the rate of new births per quarter is expected to taper off, as a result of worldwide economic development and declining birth rates. What significance does this have for world evangelization? The challenge is this: never before and perhaps never again in the history of the world will so many people who need to be evangelized be born during a 40-year period.

How is the church doing in keeping pace with the world? The figure above shows the relative progress of world evangelization during this century. The Christian population is just barely keeping even with world population; in other words, about 33 per cent of the world’s population during the period from 1970 to 1986 has been Christian. (These figures refer to all professing Christians in all branches of the Christian faith, as enumerated in Barrett s World Christian Encyclopedia.)

Yet a greater percentage of the world s population is becoming aware of the gospel each year. By 1986, 72 percent of world s population probably had some kind of minimal opportunity to respond to Christ. In 1970, only 64 percent of the world s population had such an opportunity.

Absorbing these figures can be difficult, at best. How should the church interpret the scoreboard of world evangelization? When the clock runs out on this period in history, the 20th century, will our Lord say his Great Commission has been completed?

Choose Your Yardstick

Answers to questions like these are hard to come by. Part of it depends on how we view the Great Commission. New markers developed during the last 20 years have totally revolutionized how we measure the church s progress in world evangelization.

The Response Yardstick
One marker measures the number of people who are Christians the number who have responded to the gospel. Most denominations and mission agencies overseas use this marker to determine their success. It measures the percentage of people out of the total population who are Christians and have become responsible members of the church.

For example, DAWN ministries of Pasadena, California, reports that in 1984, 350 Guatemalan church leaders decided to work toward increasing the evangelical population from 25 to 50 percent of the population of their country during the following 16 years. One gets the impression from reading their literature that the evangelization of Guatemala will only be completed when all of Guatemala is converted. If such a total response is the measurement of evangelization, then the Great Commission has just begun to be fulfilled in Guatemala.

The Exposure Yardstick
The other marker measures the number of people who ve heard or been exposed to the gospel. Those who distribute Scripture portions, beam radio programs, or hold evangelistic campaigns feel more comfortable measuring their pr ogress with this yardstick. They ask, How many people in this society have been exposed in one way or another to the gospel message?

For example, in 1964, World Literature Crusade began an Every Home Crusade program in India. Indian evangelists were commissioned to distribute gospel literature to every home. Eleven years later, they had finished the first distribution of literature to every home in India. So complete was their approach that they discovered 126 villages that the Indian government didn’t even have on its books.

Though India is, at best, only four percent Christian, a printed gospel message has been taken to most homes in the country. Those who use the yardstick of exposure might conclude that the task of evangelization in India is just about finished.

The truth is that neither response nor exposure, in and of themselves, measures the full extent of what the fulfillment of the Great Commission entails. Those using the yardstick of response are accused of naively expecting the conversion of the wh ole world. Those using the yardstick of exposure are accused of engaging in superficial evangelism that only plays the same old records with stronger amplifiers.

Both are valid yardsticks that help us measure our task, especially when we consider what Mark 16:20 says about the Great Commission. Today, specialists in world evangelization have turned to a measure of progress that has a more comprehensive scri ptural basis.

Recognizing the Turning Point

In the fall of 56 A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome announcing his upcoming plans to stop there on his way to Spain. He stated, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. … Now…there is no more place for me to work in these regions (Rom. 15:19b, 23a). As far as he was concerned, the tide of evangelism in Greece and Turkey had turned. (See 1 Thess. 1:7-8 and Acts 19:8-10 for examples of how churches kept the message growing after missionary Paul left.) His eight ye ars of breaking ground and starting churches in these provinces had left strong Christians who would be able to complete the task of evangelization as well as to carry on the ministries of compassion and assistance.

“The missions part of world evangelization is just the first step,” says Ed Dayton, vice president-at-large for World Vision, International. “The missions task is to establish a church within a people group which will have the capability to then evangelize that group.”

Winter agrees, saying, “Missionaries don’t have to plan to reach every person; they only have to reach every group with a witness that will carry to every person.” In the Apostle Paul s judgment, the turning point came when he had reason to believe that every person in the province would soon have an opportunity to see the gospel lived and preached by his own kind of people. Paul knew that not everyone would respond by becoming a Christian, but he was convinced that everyone would have a reasonable opportunity to make an informed, intelligent decision for or against Jesus Christ. And whoever responded positively would have a church to attend where he could be further trained as a disciple and, in turn, serve others.

Today, Christians call groups of people that have passed this turning point reached and those who have yet to come to this point unreached. The implication is that those groups considered to be reached no longer need the degree of attention that an unreached group needs. But how do average Christians who are watching the spread of Christianity know when any given country, city or people around the world has reached this turning point in evangelization?

Barrett says, “I define an unreached people as a group in which less than 20 percent of the people have been heard the gospel with virtually no Christians, no churches, no missionaries, no visiting evangelists and no broadcasting.” To measure the extent that a group has been evangelized, Barrett has developed an index of more than 200 measurements.

His index includes questions as fundamental as “What percentage of this country s population are practicing Christians, of all denominations?” “Has this country been adequately evangelized from the standpoint of all ethnic groups and sub-groups (tribes and languages)?” and as obscure as “Have any of the state’s official postage stamps and coins recently portrayed the Bible or life of Christ?” He says his research shows that about 26 percent of the world s population would meet his definition of being unreached.

Barrett counts 2,000 unreached groups out of a world total of 11,500 ethnolinguistic groups. Of these 2,000 unreached peoples, he counts 500 groups that have no numerically significant evangelizing church and that are located in countries with only a minuscule Christian presence.

Winter uses a more subjective measurement to identify the number of unreached people groups, which he claims could constitute 51 percent of the world s population. In 1978, he began trumpeting the figure of 16,750 unreached peoples out of a total of 24,000 social and cultural groups worldwide, which is a more specific kind of measurement than Barrett uses. Winter and other missiologists define a people group as unreached if there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without outside (cross-cultural) assistance.

Winter, who admits he’s not the day-to-day researcher that Barrett is, says the 16,750 figure (which he rounded up to 17,000, but later downscaled to 16,000) is just a best estimate. He has never compiled or published any comprehensive listing of unreached peoples.

When asked to reconcile the differences between Barrett s 1,700 and Winter s 16,750 in assessing the unfinished task, Dr. C. Peter Wagner, a leading authority on church growth, says, “I don t think any of these figures really make any difference, as long as we know what they are talking about.” Wagner feels they are both counting the same unfinished task, but that Winter feels it is helpful to slice up the task more finely for the sake of church-planting strategy.

Since the mid ’70s, the concept of unreached peoples has revolutionized the way Christian leaders look at the world. In addition to planning to reach entire countries or urban centers for Christ, Christian organizations also talk about reaching peoples within these spheres. Church missions committees are using the 16,750 unreached peoples concept as a standard by which to gauge their churches effectiveness.

As with any new way of thinking, it s taking time for the research, based on objective measurements, to catch up with the concept. No one not even Barrett has published a comprehensive list of unreached peoples. Nevertheless, the existence of unreached people groups today is a biblical reality that s motivating thousands to get involved in world evangelization so that no group will be untouched by the gospel.

The church has come a long way since those first few steps toward world evangelization recorded in the book of Acts. As Wagner says, The first century was very slow compared to what’s going on now. The latter decades of the 20th century are the great est time of harvest the world has ever seen. There s been nothing like it.

It’s not a question of whether the Great Commission can be fulfilled. It is being fulfilled.

This article first appeared in the January/February 1987 issue of World Christian magazine.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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