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Numbers cruncher

David Barrett helped make church statistics count

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

If you happen to know that there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, making it the world's largest religion, you probably have David Barrett to thank for it. Barrett, who died Aug. 4 at age 83, was "the first one to figure out how to measure the church," according to his colleague Todd Johnson, who served as co-editor with Barrett on the second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia. Trained as a mathematician before he was ordained as an Anglican priest, Barrett in 1965 founded the World Evangelization Research Center. In 2003 it became the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, based at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In addition to compiling the first edition of the Encyclopedia-a 10-year effort first published in 1982-Barrett also compiled a companion reference volume called World Christian Trends.

Over a career spanning more than five decades, the British scholar, who spent most of his career in the United States, provided extensive research on global Christianity used by church leaders, mission and other religious institutions, and secular scholars alike.

To do that, he combined a gift for unearthing already collected statistics with a talent for tracking church leaders around the world who could provide up-to-date, close-to-the-ground human intelligence. According to Johnson, who now directs the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Barrett traveled to every country in the world between 1965 and 1980, collecting a network of more than 1,000 local experts. "He did some of it on horseback, some on motorcycles," said Johnson: "Friends called him the first Indiana Jones." As a result, Barrett became a long-time contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica and published the highly regarded International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

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His findings led to practical transformations. Over time Barrett was able to map what would become known in missiology circles as "unreached people groups." At Southern Baptist Mission Board headquarters (now the International Mission Board) in Richmond, Va., where Barrett served as a research consultant, administrators studying his numbers realized only 3 percent of their mission force was serving in unreached areas. That was 1989, and today 80 percent of Southern Baptist missionaries are in places with unreached people groups, according to Johnson.

Johnson was collaborating with Barrett on a new project at the time of the demographer's death, The World Christian Chronology, which Johnson says will contain the "13,000 most significant events in Christian history."

Does all the numbers-crunching and analysis feel like a ministry? I asked. "It is a witness to accurately show what is happening to God's people around the world," said Johnson. "One of the things we have done over the years is show that Christianity is not a Western religion. That's very important for people considering the claims of Christ."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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