We Christians desperately want to think we are still [sic!] having a positive effect with traditional mission efforts. And it is not hard to produce evidence that seems to support that belief. Never before have more missionaries been sent to 'foreign' fields: American missionaries, European missionaries, Korean missionaries, Indian missionaries. Tens of thousands of people convert to Christianity each year as a result of these efforts. Christianity is still the largest religion in the world, with almost two billion members.
But what do these numbers mean? Consider: never before have more Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim 'missionaries' been sent to 'foreign' fields. Tens of thousands of people convert to Buddhism and Islam each year as a result of these efforts. Islam grew faster than Christianity in the 20th century, and Buddhism has become a viable religion in both Europe and North America.
In fact, when Christian growth numbers are considered as a percentage of world population, for the last hundred years the results of the Christian mission movement have remained stagnant. According to David Barrett and Todd Johnson in World Christian Trends [link to pdf here], in the year 1900 Christians made up 34.5% of the world's population; in the year 2000, Christians made up 33% of the world's population (2001, 4).
And what do we do about these realities? We talk about the places Christianity is still growing and ignore those where it is either stagnant or in decline. We was eloquent about growth that can't be measured or confirmed--house churches in China and background believers in the Muslim world--and pretend we don't notice the closing of national borders to Christian mission workers across the 10/40 window.
The growth of Christianity in the so-called southern world [sub-Saharan Africa] is indeed a wonderful story. But the status quo state of Christianity in the Middle East, North America, and Europe is a scandal. The lack of growth in Asia and South Asia is a nightmare. In those places where people have embraced an enduring world religion other than Christianity, we have had and are having little mission success.
Consider one aspect of the nightmare: the Buddhist world. The Christian mission movement has failed in cultures with a dominant Buddhist element. Lets generously define failure as at least a century of mission effort that has resulted in less than 25% of the people in such cultures coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
No predominantly Buddhist culture has ever been a Christian mission success, that is, with more than 25% of the people in the culture embracing Christianity.
Korea has come the closest. The most recent figures for South Korea have between 25 and 30 percent of the population identifying themselves as Christians. But if you add North Korea figures, the figures fall below our failure threshold. Other Buddhist countries don't even come close. Consider nine other Buddhist countries:
Country ... %Buddhist ... %Christian
Bhutan ...... 78 ........... 1
Cambodia .... 86 ........... 1
Japan ....... 55 ........... 3
Laos ........ 43 ........... 3
Mongolia .... 23 ........... 1
Burma ....... 73 ........... 8
Sri Lanka ... 68 ........... 9
Thailand .... 83 ........... 2
Vietnam ..... 49 ........... 9
Total the figures for these Buddhist countries, and you find that the Christian mission movement has resulted in an average of less than 5% of the population of these countries embracing Christianity, despite almost two centuries of mission efforts.
Lest we think that this is the norm for Christian mission efforts, compare it with the results from two other heavily missionized parts of the world, Oceana and Africa. The first Christian mission workers went to Africa in the seventeenth century, and by 1900, 10 million Africans knew Christ, that is, 10% of the population. By the year 2000, 360 million Africans had become Christian, 46% of the population.
The first Christian missionaries went to Oceania, the South Sea Islands, in 1843. By 1900 an astounding 76% of the population were Christian (5 million people), and by the year 2000, 83% professed Christ, 25 million people.