It has been a marvelous last several weeks. I have had the wonderful opportunity to join the leadership of Good News Broadcasting in leading a group through the nation of Greece, following the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. For the most part, this has been a reliving of Paul’s second missionary journey. After seeing a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to Greece, Paul set foot on the European continent for the first time at Neapolis, or what is now called Kavalla. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Our pilgrimage has taken us to Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth, along with a number of other sites. One of those other sites took us to Delphi, the location where Greeks of ancient times believed the gods gave revelations to female prophets. There we considered the difference between the religion of the plurality of gods which involved subjective encounters, and the revelation of the God of Abraham revealing Himself through His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
But Greece has also caused me to reflect on the ever popular pastime of estimating the size of the Christian population worldwide. Greece claims that somewhere around 95% of its population is Christian. Last Sunday, a group of us attended a Greek Orthodox Church on the Greek Island of Santorini. The population of the island is around 16,000 people. We attended the largest church on the island, and found around 100 worshippers gathered. It is seems likely to me that somewhere around 1,000 people attended church on this island this Sunday.
But this is no different than what I have seen in a number of Muslim countries. The city of Cairo has Mosques everywhere, but as the call to prayer goes out from the Minarets, the vast majority pays it no heed whatsoever. Cars keep driving, shops stay open, and life carries on with the drone of prayer in the background. Indeed, on Friday, the Muslim holy day, most of Cairo simply ignores it. And yet, all those who ignore it are still counted in the Muslim census.
But the estimation of the Christian population count also goes the other way around. In many restricted countries, Christians who attend underground churches are not eager to indicate their commitment to pollsters. Hence they are numbered among Muslims or some other group, even while they meet secretly as they worship Christ.
But there is still another factor. Almost all of Greece counts itself as “Greek Orthodox.” While there, out of curiosity, I picked up a book introducing the theology of the Orthodox movement, and found, among other things, that the Orthodox church denies that Jesus’ death on the cross was to satisfy the righteous demands of the Father. Furthermore, from the very few Greeks that I have had an opportunity to speak with, it seems that a great many of them are syncretistic in their beliefs, freely borrowing religious ideas from a wide variety of contradictory sources.
And all of that has got me thinking about the Christian count. How many genuine Christians are there – really? Perhaps we are obsessed with the question. After all, we in the west live in a world where election polls, opinion polls, shoppers’ preferences and personal attitudes are constantly being measured and quantified. And so it is natural for us to wonder how to measure the growth and advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I recently read a report that stated that by the middle of this century, Islam will overtake Christianity as the world’s leading religion.
But, in real terms, what does all of this mean? Perhaps, just as is so often the case, the polls have it wrong? I wonder if we might be content to say, that we simply do not know the numbers at all?