Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Value of Numbers

Numbers can be numbing. But we’re battered with them everyday. Polls and percentages, stats and stocks, discounts and death tolls – it’s all coming at us in every form of media available. It’s no wonder people switch off when they hear the latest estimates of a famine or a bomb blast. It’s the downside of an IT culture in which so much information is available that we can’t possibly absorb it all, let alone give a considered response.

And yet I think there’s value in knowing what’s going on. As a Christian who believes that Christ has called His people to share the Gospel with every people group on the planet, I find numbers helpful. I think it’s worth knowing that there are about 16,314 people groups in the world and that about 6,739 of those are still considered unreached with the Gospel (that’s about 41.3%). Now depending on whether you’re a glass half-full or glass half-empty person, you could find that encouraging – about 59% of the world’s ethnic groups have a viable Christian church already among them, and essentially two-thirds of those groups are considered primarily Christian! In fact, of the world’s 236 countries, 169 (or 72%) are Christian-majority countries. And isn’t it encouraging to know that over 95% of the world’s population has the Bible, Bible-portions, the Jesus film, gospel radio, or gospel recordings available in their language (4,334 out of 6,516 languages)?

I could throw around so many more numbers that you’d have to be a real stats junkie to keep reading. If you want more like that, Joshua Project is a great place to go. But it doesn’t take long before all those numbers begin to feel overwhelming – or like some kind of artificial reality. After all, a number doesn’t move us the way a real person does. A number is data that informs our mind, but a face is a neighbor that touches our heart. That’s why it is known among aid agencies that the calamities that draw the television cameras will get far more dollars than more serious tragedies that are merely reported in print.

Though I understand why this would be, I still believe that numbers have great value in helping us to understand the state of the world. Do you know how many people are on this planet? Do you care to know how many of those people still have no Christian witness living among them? Or do you want to know how many people in this modern world still live without safe drinking water, or how many kids in Sudan have no access to a school? Such numbers shouldn’t be used to appeal to a sense of guilt, but rather to stir our interest. Figures can feed passions, and depending on what our passions are, some numbers will interest us more than others. But the point is, know what God has given you passion for and know the numbers that will feed that passion. Don’t go numb to all the numbers coming at you just because there are so many. Look for the ones that matter to you. That’s why I’ve inserted a population counter just above the news headlines in the left margin of this blog. And that’s why you’ll also find a live stat-counter regarding all kinds of concerns at the bottom of this blog (just scroll down to view it).

But the million dollar question is, What good are such numbers – even the ones that pertain to our passions – if we aren’t going to do anything about them? The danger, of course, is that if all we do is read the data and do nothing with it, we will become bloated with facts and calloused to the plights of the people they represent. We’ve got to act! Ezekiel 16:49 says that the sin of God’s people was that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” I live in a land of physical and spiritual abundance, and that leaves me feeling vulnerable to the same thing being said of me! And it is for that reason that numbers matter to me. Numbers like how many are in need, how many are unreached, how much money do I earn, how much can I share? I can’t respond to all the numbers – and nor am I expected to – but I can do something about the numbers that tally the things God has given me passion for. And that is why there is great value in numbers.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

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