God is Doing Amazing Things around the World through the OC Global Alliance!

3 highlight graph 2015The Global Research Team, on which I serve, recently finished the 2015 Annual Report for the OC Global Alliance. Based on the information submitted by our field teams working in over 40 countries, we took a close look at three areas: personnel, countries impacted and ministry results.  We found surprising outcomes in each of these three areas.

  • With regard to ministry results, over 5,200 churches were started through the ministries of OC workers in 2015, almost double the number of churches started in 2014.
  • With regard to personnel, the number of workers associated with the OC Global Alliance surpassed 1,000 persons for the very first time. The news here is the large increase in the number of ministry volunteers serving alongside our teams outside of the United States. The number of volunteers working in the United States is up too, and it is interesting that our United States Mobilization Center has called 2016 the “Year of the Volunteer.” This link tells more about the “Year of the Volunteer.”
  • In 2015, God opened doors for OC Global Alliance workers to minister in 103 countries – the largest number in history and one more country than last year.

We are in awe of God’s unprecedented work!

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What’s it gonna take to see church growth surpass 10% per year?

Recently a good Romanian friend of mine, whom I consider one of the most influential champions of domestic church planting and foreign missions in Romania, wrote me a thought provoking question.

Given the reality that in Romania the rate of church growth is slowing down at the national level, as one who is familiar with the dynamics of church growth in different areas of the world and knows the context in Romania, what would be, in your opinion, steps to once again have an annual growth of over 10%?

Because achieving an annual church growth rate that surpasses 10% is universally relevant,  I’ve chosen to provide some background information that will offer a useful perspective to answer this question.  Here I will summarize the growth of the church in Romania since 1989 and the significance of a 10% annual growth rate in comparison to rates of church growth in other countries. I believe this perspective is needed to answer the question: What’s it gonna take to see church growth surpass 10% per year?

Church Growth in Romania since 1989

The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 opened the way for a period of extraordinary church growth. During 1999-2001 I was part of a team who performed a nationwide church census in Romania. We determined that the number of evangelical churches easily doubled in the 1990s. Likewise a significant number of new believers were added to evangelical churches.

In our report, God’s Heart for Romania, we documented that for the period 1990-1995, 14 of Romania’s 42 administrative regions had an average annual church planting growth rates between 10% and 27%, which is quite strong. Likewise we documented that between 1996 and 2000, just two administrative regions continued to have growth over 10%, although several denominations in these regions continued to have exceptional growth, with an average annual growth rate (AAGR) above 10%.

We continued to monitor church planting after 2001 based on information provided by the Romanian evangelical denominations.  The data is approximate, but I would say that the number of evangelical churches in Romania grew from 5,000 in 2001 to approximately 6,000 in 2011.  Thus the approximate AAGR for 2001-2011 is in the area of 1.8% – a good bit less than the 10% my friend would like to see.

When we look at the change in the number of evangelical believers in Romania, the government census data can be used to monitor this dynamic.  We found the 2001 Census figures to be very close to the information we gathered in 1999-2000. So I consider the Census information to be reliable. According to the Census, between 1992 and 2001, the number of members of evangelical churches rose at least 35% (3.05% AAGR).  An annual average growth rate of 10% is equivalent to a ten year growth rate of 160% (also known as the Decadal Growth Rate). From 1992-2001, a growth rate of at least 160% for all denominations was recorded in the Calarasi, Ialomita, Olt and Vrancea regions, though individual denominations also realized exceptional growth in certain regions.

For the period 2001-2011, the government unfortunately has not published Census information for denominations with less than 100,000 members. So we have information for only the Pentecostals and Baptists. On average, the Pentecostals grew by 12% (or 1.14% AAGR) but the Baptists decreased by -6.8% (-0.65% AAGR).  It is important for us to keep in mind that Romania’s population decreased 12.2% between 2001 and 2011. In this context any positive growth is significant.  Two general factors contribute to Romania’s population decline: a drop in birth rates and an increase in emigration. The Pentecostals in Ialomita have continued to have a high growth rate (192% DGR) and Buzau has a DGR of 312%. I recollect a pastor telling me that several entire villages of Gypsies came to faith in this area.

This brief overview for Romania shows that since 1990, there have been regions where the church planting rates and the Christian growth rates have been 10% or more per year. In the 1990s, the national church planting average was approximately 7.2% and some areas of Romania had church growth rates of over 10% per year. However since 2000, the church planting rate has declined to 1.8%.  The growth rate for new believers was around 3% in the 1990s. Since 2001, the Pentecostals in a few areas in Romania have seen the number of new believers surpass 10% per year; but their average annual growth rate is 1.15%. The Baptists are in decline – and it probably is a reasonable assumption that the other evangelical groups are in decline as well.   But on a positive note, since 1990 we do see exceptional cases in Romania were 10% annual growth has occurred and continues to occur. So the growth rate proposed by my friend and colleague is attainable. But you can also imagine that it will take some effort to turn this growth trend around.

Romanian Church Growth in Global Context

I also want to view the goal of achieving an annual growth rate of 10% from a global perspective. When I wrote a blog last August on the top  20 “hot spots” in the world where Christianity is growing the fastest, https://discipleallnations.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/the-top-20-countries-where-christianity-is-growing-the-fastest/  I observed that only two countries in the entire world are projected to have an annual growth rate of over 10% for the period 1970-2020: only Nepal (10.94%) and China (10.86%). Thus an average annual growth rate of 10% over a long term growth is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Take away points

There are two take away points from what I’ve written here. First, it is possible to see church growth surpass 10% per year. We documented several areas in Romania where this has happened and continues to happen. Second, an annual growth rate of 10% or higher is an extraordinary accomplishment.  Might extraordinary outcomes require extraordinary actions? We will see.

My next posting will focus on Church Planting Movement and will examine the growth rates for several of these movements from around the world. We will see groups of churches growing at much higher rates than 10% for an extended period of time.  I believe case studies of Church Planting Movements can help us answer the question:  What’s it gonna take to see church growth surpass 10% per year? I hope you will follow along.

The Challenge of the Harvest Field in Eastern Europe

Evangelicals EEEastern Europe is where East meets West, and this clash of cultures has shaped the region. Except for Greece all of these countries were a part of the Communist “Eastern Block.” Also this region is where the Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim worlds intersect. As a result there are nearly 10 million Muslims in the region (7%), and the only Muslim majority countries in Europe are found here: Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo.  Likewise the Protestant Reformation did not deeply penetrate this region. As a consequence Evangelical Christians are few. Eleven of the sixteen countries are less than 1% Evangelical. Eight of the countries – half the region — are less than 0.5% Evangelical. Overall the region is 1.56% evangelical compared to 2.5% for Europe and 7.9% for the entire World. Europe’s least evangelized countries are found here: Kovovo, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro.  Several of the most challenging unreached people groups in Europe are in this region.  For example the Bosniak people group is perhaps the least evangelized in Europe – 2.2 million people spread over nine countries in the region.

God @ work

In spite of these challenges, God is at work in this region. The number of evangelical believers is growing in all but one country. In fact some of the most responsive peoples to the Gospel in Europe are found in this area.  Montenegro, Albania, Moldova and Macedonia have growth rates above the world average and ten countries are better than the European average. Likewise there are significant movements developing in Romania. Throughout the region the Romani people (gypsy) are generally very responsive to the Gospel. Among established churches there is a growing vision for church planting and cross cultural work. These are some signs that God is at work in the region.  Still there are significant challenges to making disciples of each people group in this region.

Harvest Field Considerations

1.    This region has been shaped by a clash of Eastern and Western Cultures. Some examples are:

  • The Pope and the Patriarchs (Catholic Church vs the Orthodox Church – battles for control)
  • The Mongolian Empire spread by Ghengas Khan in the 12th century touched the eastern part of this region.
  • The Ottoman Empire (Islam) vs. the Christian West (13th century until early 20th century)
  • Some countries were impacted by the Protestant Reformation more than others: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania for example.
  • Democratic powers vs Totalitarian powers (Nazi German and Communism – Russia).
  • Every nation in the region was under the yoke of Communism except Greece.
  • Relations with the European Union now greatly influence the development of region.

2.    There are 9.7 million Muslims in the region (7%). Three countries have a Muslim majority (Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia). Another four countries have significant Muslim populations ranging from 12% to 31%. There are twelve large Muslim people groups in the region (more than 10,000 individuals).

3.   The “Christian” world is 50% Catholic, 45% Orthodox and 5% Protestant. Evangelicals are just 1.56%.

4.   There are 4.7 times as many Muslims in this region (9,707,732 or 7%) as Evangelical Christians (2,076,634 or 1.56%).

5..   There are more evangelicals in Romania (1,149,647) than all other countries combined (926,987).

6.    According to the Joshua Project, there are 91 “least reached” peoples in the region (“least reached” referring to a rank 1.0 on the Joshua Project scale).Together they number nearly 5.5 million people.

7.   There are 23 “least reached” people groups larger than 10,000 individuals are in this region.

8.   31 languages are spoken by more than 100,000 people in the region. An additional 12 Languages are spoken by over 40,000 people in the region.

9.    There are 18 distinct language groups in this region without any Scripture. Ten are spoken languages. Eight are sign languages. The deaf seem to be generally neglected in the region.

10.  13 language groups have just portions of the scriptures (Wycliffe)

11.  The number of Evangelicals is growing in all countries since 2005, except for Slovenia. For ten countries, the AAGR (Average Annual Growth Rate) for 2005-2010 is better than the European Average of 1.1%. Four countries are better than the world average of 3.0%.

12. All “Eastern Block” countries – except the Czech Republic – experienced better numerical church growth in the 1990s. It appears that the negative trend in the Czech Republic might be starting to turn. Greece (the only non-Eastern Block communist country) experienced better growth in the first decade of the new Millennium. The decade of the 1990’s was overall a better decade of growth. Examining the AAGRs for the first decade of the new millennium shows a slight trend toward greater growth in the second half of the decade as opposed to the first.

Disciple Making Priorities

1.   The church is to evangelize everyone.

  • Of the nearly 135 million people in the zone, 80% claim to be Christian but there are just two million evangelicals (1.56%).
  • Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria (and probably Kosovo) are the least evangelized countries in the region (all more than 5% unevangelized according to OW).

2.    Those without Christian churches in their midst are to be given high priority.

  • High Priority countries (largest  percent unreached) are Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Montenegro.
  • The 12 large Muslim people groups represent a priority
  • The Bosniak people group is perhaps the least evangelized in Europe – 2.2 million people spread over nine countries in the region.

3.   Those relatively responsive to Christ should receive high priority.

  • Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Moldova are hotter spots, all having a higher AAGR for evangelicals than the global AAGR since 2005.
  • The Romani (gypsy) people in the region seem very responsive.

This is an executive summary prepared for the Global Church Planting Network in January 2013. The full report, with supporting documentation is available at www.GCPN.info