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Mission and Numbers October 31, 2020

Posted by Pete B in Statistics.

I’m encouraged to have been able to help highlight some encouraging new numbers with respect to Bible translation. (700+ languages with the full Bible, 3415 with at least some Scripture, and new article soon about how many are available online). Each of those languages represents people who have waited too long to be able to read or hear God’s word in their own language.

Population data informs many reports, services and strategies – sometimes to support already held opinions and sometimes used to challenge them.

I’ve been aware of some of the numbers around global mission ever since 1992, when I spent a year pretending to be William Carey*.

(*I acted in play that toured the UK for the 200th anniversary of the Baptist Missionary Society)

William Carey's Enquiry published 1792

Carey started a trend when in 1792, he used 23 of the 85 pages of his famous Enquiry, to list nations, populations and brief comments on their religious state. This was used to inform and motivate the church of his day, alongside scriptural argument and speculation about strategies and possibilities.

A later post will discuss whether, and perhaps how, we should use data today. This post gives a few examples of how numbers have been used both in missions and in wider society.

At the end of the 20th century, statistics plus the simple graphical power of a map and box, called the 10/40 window, was used by the AD2000 Movement in 1996 to motivate people to mission, highlighting that the majority of the world’s unreached peoples lived in a very large but definable region convey need. Today that same focus continues as part of the Joshua Project with a range of interactive maps.

1040 Window 1996 and 2020

Bible translation, one of the important strands identified by both Carey, the AD2000 movement, and Joshua Project has also been supported by data, with counts of translation progress, of how many groups need scripture translation, and of how long it might take.

In 1959 an article in Christianity Today reported that “1,127 languages have now received the Scriptures either in whole or in part”. It also spoke of a “Call To Prayer And Special Effort To Reach 2,000 Bibleless Tribes In This Generation”. It didn’t specify a date but while that target was reached we discovered the needs were greater than perceived and that many more groups are still waiting.

The picture is further complicated today by the fact that neither people nor languages fit neatly into single locations or categories. Bible translation isn’t just for isolated communities but for those migrating to towns and cities within or beyond the borders of their original home country. Migration and multilingualism is complicated, as are the attitudes of people to newcomers in their communities.

Data and rhetoric has often been used to support and attack the idea of multicultural societies. For example an infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech by Enoch Powell in 1968 got some of the numbers right but used them to stir up hatred. More recently in the Brexit campaigns around whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union, the ‘pop-up political party’, UKIP used both numbers and images of crowds of migrants in what supporters would see as presenting facts and detractors would see as playing on fears.

A language census in 1987 identified 172 languages spoken by children in Inner London leading some to ‘stunned disbelief’ (Pattanayak 1991). By the end of the last century over 300 languages had been identified in the capital but there may well be more.

More neutral innovative displays of data included the interactive language map on the Guardian Data Blog (2013) which showed the percentage of “non-English as main language”. The interactive version of the map is now longer working but data enthusiasts can still download the spreadsheet that lay behind it.  A later feature showed second languages mapped by tube stop.

Current use of language data by the church at large seems more limited but the Church of England did made use of census data as part of a program called Presence and Engagement, to identify parishes where there are higher than average populations following other religions. Other indicators are used by the church urban fund to identify parishes with particular socio-economic needs.

Another new set of largely untapped data is that relating to digital Scripture access. For the first time in 2018 United Bible Societies reported data around online distribution of Scripture revealing that 20% of Bibles distributed globally were “downloaded from the internet”.

While language does get press, it is often secondary to other issues of migration and it is the challenges of language and culture rather than any blessings, that gets most attention.

This isn’t the place for a full discussion of how else data could be used or misused, but here’s a couple of simple question:

  • How many languages are spoken by people living in your community?
  • How many languages are spoken by the people in or connected to your church?

What do you want to do next?


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