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Mission and the Numbers Game


We're all looking for the silver bullet, that one technique, idea, strategy that will lead to exponential growth in our congregations. Of course, we deny it, but numbers is the sole criterion by which we judge success or failure in church life. Don't believe me? Ask yourself why you feel the need to justify the lack of numbers in a Sunday worship service? When you organise a 'mission' event, do you worry whether it's been worth it if a hundred people turn up? I bet you worry if four attend! We kid ourselves that it's not about numbers, but it really is.

Of course, the truth is that statistics can be deceiving. I have sat in many meetings where the growth in the Church in Africa is ascribed to mission activity and overt evangelism. It is true that, in the next 30 years or so, the number of Christians on the continent will grow to over a billion, an increase of 600 million on 2010.

On it's own, the fact that the Christian Church will more than double in size is impressive. But that not the whole picture for, by 2050, the population of sub-saharan Africa will also grwo exponentially. In fact, as the table below shows, the percentage of the population that will identify as Christian will actually decline by 5%. Other research shows that the vast majority of numberical growth in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South is attributable to demographics: put simply, the strategy employed is to have more children!

Our context is Western Europe, once the centre of the Christian world, now a sub-continent experiencing population decline and increasing longevity or, put another way. fewer children and more elderly people. So why do we continue to think that a congregation full of chidren represents success and one full of older people is a failure? This represents a mindset from a former age what fails to see the Church in its current context. And mission that fails to be contextual, fails.

Mission takes reality with the utmost seriousness. The task of the Church in mission is to abandon the search for institutional security in favour of life in the Spirit. An obsession with numbers (or their lack) is the fruit of a colonial minset, one which seeks to acquire the lives and souls of others as possessions and wield power based on wealth and dominance. It is time for a radical detox, whereby we learn to trust God to provide us with what we need and that includes companions on the journey. Mission begins at the margins and if we want to be with the living Christ today, he is always to be found among the poor.

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