Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

My Friend “Z” and the Staggering Stats About UPGs

Written by: on February 7, 2024

“How to Make The World Add Up” is a book about how to look at statistics and how we might be able to navigate the sea of numbers that bombard us every day. We often make significant decisions, based on the numbers, so it’s helpful to have a framework to work with that can help us assess them. I did struggle with how basic these 10 rules were. Honestly, when making a life-altering decision or major directional decision, I would probably want more expert help to interpret the data. I’m not so sure that I would trust the ten rules alone.

We have a friend, that we support, named ‘Z’ who left her career in Canada to serve an Unreached People Group (UPG) in Asia. She has a real name, but we don’t share it publicly because she works in a creative access country. She works among people who have never been exposed to Christianity or the gospel. At the start of COVID, she had to return to Canada, leaving all her possessions in her tiny, cell-like apartment. A colleague of hers was just recently allowed to return to collect belongings and take them to the new country ‘Z’ is working in. She lives on the margins of the world we know. She drifts across borders, never fitting or belonging anywhere. Unlike most ministry leaders, she would never have the obligatory social media platform to promote herself and her work. She sends old-school letters in the mail, and she returns to Canada once every 4 years to connect with those who support her. She works as a teacher by day and during her “off hours” she builds relationships, shares the gospel, and does bible studies with local people. She has witnessed people coming to faith in Christ and has daringly baptized new believers in a country where there is no visible Christian witness.

The Alliance Canada, the denomination I work with, has deployed international workers primarily among UPGs. My friend ‘Z’ is one of these. They serve in 13 out of the 50 most dangerous countries in the world to be a Christian and where following Jesus is restrictive, illegal, or dangerous.  213 Alliance Canada International workers are engaged in 65 UPGs in the world. Through strategic pathways of church development, relief & development, and in the marketplace, they are sharing the gospel to reach new believers, plant new churches and transform communities.

The Joshua Project research group defines a UPG as, “a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without outside assistance.”[1]

Some interesting, and rather overwhelming, numbers from The Joshua Project website:

  • 23 % of the world (Almost 1 out of 4 people) lives in the world’s 100 largest UPGs.
  • 2,085 people groups totalling 146 million individuals have neither Scripture, the Jesus film, or Christian recordings available in their primary language.

The numbers are staggering and based on these types of statistics, and the eternal realities they represent, people like ‘Z’ have responded to the call of Jesus to sacrificially go and share the Good News in these difficult and dangerous places. Based on these types of statistics, denominations like the one I belong to have intentionally re-directed mission resources to the least-reached people in the world.

Numbers must be taken seriously but how can we trust them? How can we be sure we’re not being duped? How can we know that we are not simply giving in to an emotional response when we see staggering numbers? There are many cautionary tales of people who have invested large sums of money into a “sure thing” only to lose their savings.

How to Make the World Add Up” provides a good starting point to help make sense of the stats rather than avoiding them, treating them with cynicism, or getting fooled by them. The purpose of his book is to help the reader learn how numbers might help shed light on issues that we might normally be unaware of. Numbers, understood properly, help make sense of the world as we know it and without statistics we can live in the dark. He is convinced that, while we might be deceived by statistics, it is just near impossible to see the truth without them.[2] However, Harford notes that many people avoid the data because of the anxiety it could create.[3] This common behaviour is known as “The Ostrich Problem”.[4] This problem occurs when people intentionally avoid negative information to avoid discomfort. Think about those times when we don’t want to step on a scale after a vacation, or when we don’t want to check our credit card statements after Christmas. I remember a high school report card that took me days to open because I didn’t want to see the ‘D’. Sometimes it’s easier to bury our heads in the sand than to look at the numbers because the numbers can be hard to face. I wonder if this is the case with UPGs and other uncomfortable truths about global matters like poverty, hunger, and human trafficking.

Perhaps if more Western Christians saw and reflected on UPGs, and other global stats in context, we might need to draw different conclusions about the stewardship of our lives.

This book is helpful regardless of where we come to land on UPGs, other global issues, and the implications for Western Christians. Harford encourages us to take a more curious, rather than a gullible or cynical, approach to numbers. Statistics should be met with a deeper look and a host of questions.[5] To do that, Harford provides 10 non-technical rules, and the overarching golden rule of curiosity, for how we might evaluate numbers without being a math expert. If you’re like me, you breathed a sigh of relief. I was thrilled that none of these rules required math skills but rather provided a framework to scrutinize the numbers that required nothing more than a curious mind. I don’t love math, but I can ask lots of questions.

As much as I struggled with the simplicity of these rules, when faced with complex decisions, I still think that they are a beneficial starting point and provide us with some help as we wade through the maze of data available to us. Perhaps, we may want a deeper and more thorough analysis, though, when we’re making major life and organizational decisions.

[1] “The Joshua Project,” accessed January 17, 2024, https://joshuaproject.net/help/definitions.

[2] Tim Harford, How to Make the World Add up: Ten Rules for Thinking Differently about Numbers (London: The Bridge Street Press, 2021), 19.

[3] Harford, 27.

[4] Thomas L. Webb, Betty P. I. Chang, and Yael Benn, “‘The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information About Goal Progress,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 7, no. 11 (2013): 794–807, https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12071.

[5] Harford, How to Make the World Add Up, 282.

About the Author

Graham English

I was born in Cape Town, South Africa 30 minutes from Table Mountain, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. My family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada where I spent my teen years, met Wendy, and got married. We now live on the Canadian prairies in northern Alberta. I think God has a sense of humour. I'm a follower of Jesus, work in leadership and church development, love my family and walk a lot.

10 responses to “My Friend “Z” and the Staggering Stats About UPGs”

  1. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Wow. The ministry fascinates me that your friend is doing. We all forget that there are still people out there who put their lives for the gospel every day. I will keep “Z” in my prayers.
    “Sometimes it’s easier to bury our heads in the sand than to look at the numbers, because the numbers can be hard to face.” I think this happens more often than not. I want to believe everything I have read, but the last 10 years have shown me that I can no longer.
    You also stated, “Perhaps if more Western Christians saw and reflected on UPGs, and other global stats in context, we might need to draw different conclusions about the stewardship of our lives.” How can we deal with all the numbers and stats about global issues like poverty and hunger without getting too emotional or avoiding them?

    • Graham English says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for the response. I do believe that the stats are overwhelming. I think that prayerful engagement, rather than avoidance, with the numbers is important. Seeking to know God’s heart and how he would want us to respond is important. We can’t do it all, but we can do the part that God is asking us to do.

  2. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Graham. Wow! Firstly please tell Z that they are doing an amazing job. What a hero! Everything we don;t see, God does, and what an amazing reward in heaven for serving God’s purposes. Please send our love and regards.
    “How can organisations (like Alliance Canada) and individuals working with Unreached People Groups, particularly in restrictive and dangerous environments, effectively balance the need for data-driven decision-making, as advocated in ‘How to Make The World Add Up,’ with the inherent challenges of accessing reliable statistical information in such contexts?”

    • Graham English says:

      Glyn, The Alliance Canada works with local agencies to collect data, build relationships and would do extensive field studies before any major initiatives to get the worm’s eye view.

  3. Julie O'Hara says:

    Graham, Thank you so much for your post and presenting such meaningful statistics. I have a feeling that it is impossible to adequately convey the impact of people like ‘Z’ in UPGs. Perhaps the number of known converts is small relative to the population, but how can we measure the impact of Holy Spirit through each one? How might your denomination overcome these limitations when presenting the need?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Julie. I have always found storytelling to be a powerful way to convey the impact of the Holy Spirit. The numbers to present the bigger pic and the story to convey impact.

  4. Elysse Burns says:

    Graham, thank you for this thought-provoking post. I resonate with the questions you asked, “How can we be sure we’re not being duped?” “How can we know that we are not simply giving into an emotional response when we see staggering numbers?” I ask myself these questions regularly in a UPG context, as I have found stories “from the frontlines” can become exaggerated (positive or negative). I always find it a tricky balance to give hopeful statistics without being wishful thinking, but to also convey the difficult reality of living within a UPG context.

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks for the honesty in your response, Elyse. I have also sensed that when raising funds for international work as a local church pastor. I’ve wanted to make sure that we are presenting accurate details through stats and stories. Again, I appreciate your challenge. Blessing you as you work among one of these UPGs.

  5. Chad Warren says:

    You made the statement, “Perhaps if more Western Christians saw and reflected on UPGs, and other global stats in context, we might need to draw different conclusions about the stewardship of our lives.” Has your own reflection on these matters caused you to draw different conclusions or steward your life differently? Great challenge!

    • Graham English says:

      That’s a good question and one I regularly reflect on. Since I threw down the challenge, I should probably share how I wrestle with this.
      At one point we thought we might go and serve internationally but never sensed the freedom to. So, I have felt led to support those who do go through prayer, relationships and funding. As well, I try to steward my influence as a pastor/district leader to encourage others. In the church I pastored, before this role, we had mutual agreements with a number of international workers that we supported directly. Then as part of the Alliance Canada we asked people to give over and above regular giving to a global fund.
      I’m regularly evaluating this for my own life but feel compelled to steward time, talent, treasure and influence toward the spread of the gospel globally.

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