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The Great Commission, restated several times in Scripture, commands us to go into all the world and make disciples. While the experience of the first missionaries in the New Testament show us that this will not be easy, and many will reject the truth, the Bible also gives us some cause for optimism.
The Trajectory of Early Church Growth
In Daniel 2:35, Daniel prophecies that the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which represents the Kingdom of God springing up from Christ’s ministry, would grow to fill the earth. “[T]he stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.” In John 12:32, Jesus says that “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” The way the New Testament uses the word “all,” this most likely means that all kinds of people will be drawn to him, rather than each and every person. However, it still conveys the idea that ministry will be largely successful. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says that the “gates of hell” will not prevail against his church. This is also suggestive of the power that his church will have in ministry.
In example after example, the book of Acts shows us congregations that grew up incredibly fast in response to the gospel. Paul would visit a new city that had no believers, and within 3-4 years, there would be a church there of significant enough size to warrant a letter, possibly several hundreds or thousands of believers. Paul may have been an exceptional missionary, but there were others spreading the Gospel independently in the same time who saw similar results. If we assume that the church started with approximately 3,000 believers at Pentecost, then the church grew, on average 26% per decade for at least the next 150 years.
By 180 AD, around a century and a half after Pentecost, the population of the church was around 100,000. This amounts to 0.05% or 500 in one million of the total world population at the time. This is even more impressive when you consider that Christianity was mostly confined to the Roman world, and had not reached the Americas, Northern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, or Eastern Asia. Due to the intense persecution at this time, we can reasonably assume that almost none of these people were “nominal” Christians; they would almost all be true, practicing believers.
The Size of the Holiness Movement
If we assume, as the Holiness movement does, that it represents the purest part of God’s universal church (or perhaps, all of God’s universal church, as the phrase “Holiness or hell” suggests), let’s see how its size compares to the early church. Estimates for the size of the Holiness church are not available anywhere that I can find, however, we can use the church directory in the publication “the Holiness Messenger” to approximate the size of the movement. There are currently 446 churches listed online. Although there is no way of knowing whether they all meet Holiness standards, we will assume that they do. If we make the rather generous assumption that there are 45 practicing Holiness people in each, that only amounts to 20,070 Holiness people. If we make the equally generous assumption that there are at least 100 Holiness churches outside of the US of comparable size, that brings our total to just under 25,000 Holiness people in the world. That makes the population of the Holiness movement 0.0003% of the world’s population, or 3 in one million.
Furthermore, as best as we can tell, that population is shrinking. Looking at the print directory published in 2010, the number of Holiness churches used to be 660. While some of this is probably measurement error, the trend does seem to be moving in a bad direction for the Holiness movement.
In my own personal experience, all four of the Holiness churches that I have previously attended are smaller than they were when I attended 10-20 years ago (and one has ceased to exist). It’s a simple question to ask yourself, how many people have been saved at your local Holiness church and remained there in the past five years? Can you count them on one hand? Can you count them without a hand? If you subtract backsliders, do you need negative fingers to count them?
Holiness is also not very geographically distributed. It seems to be completely absent from 17 states and there is only one church in 6 other states. Holiness had 37 missionaries registered in the 2010 directory in at best 10 countries, so that leaves around 180 countries with no Holiness presence. Holiness is also not very diverse. Hispanics and African Americans make up very little of God’s true church. I personally do not know one, though I may have seen one at a camp meeting somewhere. I have never seen a Holiness person of Asian descent anywhere. Holiness also tend to be lower on the Socio-economic ladder. I know very few Holiness people who are in the upper 40% of American income earners. I know of no Holiness doctors, lawyers, pilots, military officers, or business executives. Holiness mayors, sheriffs, city counsel-men, state representatives, and judges are equally conspicuous in their absence. If you know one, I’m surprised, but you certainly don’t know many. If Christians are the salt of the earth, and Holiness people are the best Christians, then Holiness people are only salting a tiny fraction of the earth. Their influence is limited almost exclusively to white, poor, rural, America.
So, allow me to illustrate the size of the church visually. The first picture, of 500 soldiers, represents the 500:1,000,000 ratio of the early church (180 AD) to the rest of the world.
This picture represents the 3:1,000,000 ratio of the Holiness church to the rest of the world.
Clearly, if the Holiness church is the true church of God, then the church has decreased in influence dramatically over the past 1,900 years. Far from growing to fill the whole earth, it has “shrunken to a corner of a corner of America.”
Explaining the size of the Holiness movement
There are a few possible reasons why that could be the case. Allow me to examine each.
1) There are lots of Holiness believers around the world that simply go by a different name.
Proponents of this belief would have to present some evidence to support that claim. I have visited 39 countries and attended church in many of them. I have never found other churches that share even 50% of Holiness theological distinctive and practices. The beliefs themselves are not that original, but the blending of the beliefs varies considerably from group to group. I typically notice people that “look Holiness” in the US (most of which who end up being members of the “Oneness” United Pentecostal Church), but I have not seen people on the street in other countries that stood out to me. I have seen no evidence that there are large numbers of people around the world who are Holiness by another name.
2) There are a lot of true Christians in other denominations, but God is just less happy with them.
This belief is shared by some more liberal Holiness people, but it runs into issues when you try to determine to degree to which it is true. If you believe that only a tiny fraction of other mainline denominations are Christians (say 5-10%), then you have done little to expand the numbers of the universal church, and we are still stuck with the question, “Why has the universal church failed so badly?” If you grant broader latitude to other denominations, like a very generous Holiness person might, we could imagine that 50%-80% of mainline denominations are true Christians, but that God isn’t very happy with them. If that is the case, then why doesn’t God convict the majority of the church to conform to the “true standards” of the Holiness movement? I have interacted with hundreds of Christians from other denominations, and I have observed no evidence that they are convicted by Holiness standards. I have heard of no “purification movements” within these churches to “return” to Holiness standards. If God is sending a large swath of non-Holiness Christians to heaven, but he is not happy with them, why wouldn’t at least the most sincere of those people be migrating to the Holiness church? I have never met a single person who migrated from a mainstream protestant denomination to Holiness. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, I’m just saying it seems unlikely that this could be the explanation.
3) Jesus says that “few” people will find the truth. The 25,000 are just the few people.
Jesus did say in Matthew 7:14 that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” There are multiple ways that this statement could be true. Reasonably, if 1 in 5 people was a true Christian, then the number of Christians would be “few.” The 1 in 26 people that say they are Bible believing Christians also certainly meets Jesus’ description. While Jesus could have had in mind the 1 in 300,000 people who are Holiness, this is not necessary for his words to be fulfilled. If it were, he might have said “and pretty much no one will find it.” Furthermore, it is unsatisfactory that the few who found him would decrease, not only in percentage of the population, but also in absolute number from the early church. If that’s true, then the “few” decreased fourfold, while the population of the earth increased thirty-eightfold. The few decreased, while the gospel traveled to entirely new continents that had never had a chance to receive it before.
4) We are experiencing the “falling away” foretold in 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.”
There are a few of possible answers to this objection. First, this passage may not be referring to the end times at all. Paul references “the son of perdition” “sitting in the temple.” A quick google search will show you that no temple currently exists (although a certain school of thought predicts that it will be rebuilt for a fourth time), and this could very feasibly be referring to the persecution foretold by Christ in regards to destruction of temple in 70 AD. The son of perdition could refer to either Nero proclaiming himself to be a God, or the Roman military leaders who desecrated the temple, and then sacked it. Second, even if this is referring to end times, no one can say that the broader church outside isn’t experiencing this phenomenon. Although the church is growing in parts of the world, it is experiencing a “falling away” in most of the West. Third, it is notable that a lot of people misquote the verse by adding the word “great” before “falling away.” Even if the falling away is currently happening, that probably does not refer to a shrinkage of the 95%+ required to make Holiness the “remnant.” If the church is cut in half from what it was in 1900, that certainly constitutes a falling away, but it doesn’t make Holiness all that remains.
5) Holiness does not represent the fullness of the universal church.
This, I think, is a sensible explanation. The universal church, the bride of Christ, has flaws, but has not failed to fulfill her mandate. The Church has expanded to all the corners of the globe, and I have seen it. I have personally seen it in the poverty stricken Haiti, in Muslim oppressed North Africa, in the spiritually frigid Northern Europe. I have seen the power of the gospel transform lives, and Christians live out the commands of Christ to love, serve, and grow. We may be a remnant, but we are an influential one. We are salting the earth at all levels of society, in all cultures, and among all races. Although we thought Holiness was the only one left, like Elijah, we find that there are 7,000 prophets who have not bowed to Baal. If we only count people who say they believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God, the population of Christians is around 285 million or 3.7% of the world’s population.
This amounts to 37,000 in one million people. Allow me to illustrate what that looks like.
Isn’t that army so much more reassuring than the army of three? Be of good cheer. Christ has overcome the world. There is much more to be done, and it is not for me to say when God will decide to end the world. But in the interim, the salt is still good for something.
These arguments do not prove conclusively that the tiny fraction of the world who is Holiness is not the last remnant of the universal Church. However, these observations helped me to understand that God is doing something much bigger, with many more people, than I ever imagined while sitting on a padded pew in a Holiness church that no longer exists.
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Early Church Population: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2017/09/how-many-christians/
Population of the World: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates
Number of Bible Believing Christians: https://www.learnreligions.com/christianity-statistics-700533
Number of Holiness Churches in 2010: http://holiness-preaching.com/frame-church-directory.html