Seven Billion and Counting
by Pastor George Van Alstine
Sometime on Halloween Day, October 31, a baby was born in some corner of the world, that lifted the number of humans now living to 7 BILLION!
This is an important milestone in the worldwide population expansion that has escalated in the past 200 years. Actually the rate of growth peaked in 1963, and experts project that the total will level off about 2050 at somewhere in the range of 10 billion.
Population growth had been quite slow and gradual through most of recorded history, interrupted by wars and plagues and limited by high rates of infant mortality. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the rapid growth began, due largely to medical advances that lowered the number of infant deaths and improved life expectancy, agricultural advances that increased food production, and the industrial revolution’s expansion of commerce and transportation.
To get a feel for what these numbers mean, I did a comparison of some important moments in faith history, looking at the total world population during a particular era and contrasting the size of the faith community at the same time. If God was revealing himself to the world through this particular chosen group, how challenging was the evangelizing task before them?
First, let’s look at Abraham’s world. This First Father of Israel, God’s people, lived about 2,000 BC, at a time when experts estimate that world population was about 35 million. God called Abraham to be his messenger of a new covenant of promise. He said,
“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. . . . I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you. . . . And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 17:5,7; 12:3)
Let’s see, Abraham, his wife Sarah, his son Isaac and his household—this extended family will have a powerful positive influence over the entire 35-million population of the world? Quite a challenge.
A thousand years later, when King David sat on the throne of the nation of Israel, the estimated world population was 50 million, which represented a very modest increase since the time of Abraham. David ruled over a tiny percentage of that total, maybe 300,000 people. And yet, in his psalms he praised the God of Israel as the God of the whole earth:
“The Lord sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment. He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity. Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you. Put them in fear, O Lord; let the nations know that they are only human.” (Psalm 9:7-8, ,19-20)
King David ruled only 300,000, but his God ruled all 50 million world inhabitants.
Another thousand years, and King David’s distant descendant was born in a humble stable. When Jesus entered the scene, there were about 200 million humans alive worldwide. That is a significant increase from David’s time, but nowhere near an explosion. During the same period the population of Jews, the historic people of God, had increased to about 5 million, which represented a growth rate almost four times that of the world population.
But Jesus seemed unimpressed with the recent rapid numerical growth of his people, even though it was largely the result of active evangelistic efforts:
“Hypocrites! You cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new converts twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)
Instead, Jesus narrowed the focus to one, himself, dying on the cross for the sins of the world. The new message that began to go out from that moment is summarized in the familiar words “God loved the world so much, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
The world population kept on growing at an increasing rate, but God, essentially, started over. Jesus taught and empowered twelve special followers, to whom he gave the renewed challenge “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19). “All nations”? For 2,000 years, since Abraham lived among a total world population of 35 million, God has been working on transforming one small nation. Now, when there are six times as many people worldwide, Jesus is telling these twelve men to reach “all nations” with God’s Good News?
Here we are today, looking at 7 billion, and we hear the same worldwide challenge! What will our missionary strategy be?
Are you waiting for an answer? I don’t have one. But a song from my childhood Sunday School memory popped into my mind, and I’m accepting it as God’s challenge for me as one Jesus follower among 7 billion people who need to hear about him:
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine;
This little light of mine; I’m going to let it shine;
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine;
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”