Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That does not mean that some church buildings do not close, but that the living church of his people would continue to grow larger and stronger and not be overcome by Satan. In 1973, 40 years ago, there were 1,600,000 congregations throughout the world. Today there are 4,600,000!
However, the impact of the church has lessened somewhat. Back in 1973, 33.2% of the world’s population claimed to be Christian adherents; today it is 33.0%. That shortfall should be seen against the number of Muslims—16% of the world’s population in 1973, but 23% today. So researching the church is crucial to world evangelism, to our understanding of what helps churches to grow, and to sustaining the life of individual believers.
Here are some key issues that need to be considered:
- Many would say that discipleship, dedication, commitment to God’s kingdom by individual Christians is not as strong today as it should be or has been. Is that really true? How do we measure the depth of discipleship? How can we clarify the confusion between spirituality, belief, faith, and truth? A recent survey in one Western so-called ‘Christian’ country found many believers spending only a short time in daily prayer and only two-fifths of Christian couples regularly praying together.
- Some churches are growing fast, some are growing slowly, and some are not growing at all. What makes the difference? Is it the size of the church? Is it the leadership? Is the location of the church important? Is it the denomination of the church? Is the churchmanship of the church (charismatic or mainstream) crucial? What other factors are important?
- Evangelism is critical, but with continuing onslaughts of the enemy, proclaiming the gospel is lukewarm in some countries in the Western world, while in other parts it is restricted or prohibited. In some places there is a loss of confidence in the gospel; in others a diversion into ‘good works’ to the detriment of proclamation; in areas of persecution, the evil one seeks to stifle and destroy. Even in a Lausanne context, what is evangelicalism, and how do we best assess the number of evangelicals across the world, and the answers given to this question?
Forty years ago in the UK there were 38,000 ministers, 1% of whom were female. Today there are 37,000 ministers, 18% of whom are female. This is but one of the changes of recent years, but inevitably there will be many more ahead, especially as South America, Africa, India, and the Far East replace the West as the growing expression of the Christian faith.
Research about the church is continuing, through Lausanne publications, academia, books, and many private sources. The three key issues listed above are a priority, and large-scale research is currently being done or planned for the years ahead.