I like numbers. They make sense to me. With a background in business, numbers are critical to my work, and often I find you can’t get at the real story without having a look at the data. But unfortunately, the numbers can’t tell us everything. Consider a very simple question that comes into the discussion whenever you think about missions work.
How many Christians are there in [given location]?
This seems simple, but that’s really quite deceptive. This could be asking one of at least four questions, as follows:
- How many people would check “Christian” on a census form?
- How many people attend church services at least once a month?
- How many people have a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord?
- How many people are active and growing in their faith?
Looking at those questions, it would seem they reduce the population with every iteration. Lots of people might self-identify as Christian (question 1). This may be because there’s no better option for them to select. It may be because they were born into it. But out of that group who identify themselves as Christians, at least some of them likely don’t attend church services regularly (question 2). Out of the group who attend church services, not everyone would say they have a personal faith (question 3), and certainly not all of those people would call it an active and growing faith (question 4) if they’re being honest.
All this is to say, it’s not that simple to investigate how many Christians there are in Ireland. Of roughly 4.6 million people living in the Republic, 90% would call themselves some type of Christian – mostly Catholic, but some Protestants. But this is like our question #1. Do people identify as such because they are living out a faith in Jesus as Lord? Or is it because that’s the religious culture with which they most closely identify? We have to ask questions in a different way to see anything.
If self-identification is not the way, perhaps we can look at church attendance. These figures are on the decline. In the ‘70s, church attendance was the norm for an overwhelming majority of self-proclaimed Christians. Today’s Irish Catholic church sees attendance below 20% in places like Dublin. We can look at whether or not people see themselves as “religious”, and this figure is dropping in Ireland as well. We can look at how many people identify as “convinced atheists”, and this number is on the rise. In fact, a recent Gallup poll put Ireland in the top 10 worldwide for decided atheism.
Clearly, none of these numbers – nor any other numbers I can imagine – would speak to the condition of the heart. And we must remember that the decision to follow Christ is something that is independent of what one may say or represent. By definition, we have no access to numbers that would tell a complete story. But the numbers we do have do not paint a rosy picture. Ireland, with her centuries of Christian tradition and culture, is now considered by many to be a post-Christian nation. I’m reminded of Matthew 9:37, shown here in the NASB:
Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Plentiful. Few. These are not numbers that would fit into a graph. But they are actionable! Be praying for the people of Ireland.