News Articles

Mapping project led by Southeastern to advance church planting globally

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Utilizing the latest in computer technology, along with old-fashioned personal contact, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is spanning the globe to produce the first-ever world atlas that will eventually identify every evangelical church on the planet.
Five other evangelical Christian organizations have joined Southeastern in an effort to develop the ultimate church-planting tool, a mapping project called “Churches in Habitat” aimed at documenting every indigenous evangelical church in the world.
The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Campus Crusade for Christ, DAWN (Discipling A Whole Nation), Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Jesus Film Project are joining Southeastern in the “Churches in Habitat” project.
All six organizations are combining resources to “find out where the churches are located, so we can find out where new churches need to be planted,” said Ed Pruitt, project administrator and a master of divinity student at Southeastern, based in Wake Forest, N.C.
Pruitt visited a dozen countries last year, making contact with researchers there who are compiling data on evangelical churches. This year, he is scheduled to visit countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Over the next three years, he plans to visit about 120 countries. “Our goal is to have 80 percent of the world mapped in three years, not including the U.S.,” said Pruitt, a former pastor in South Carolina and Alabama.
Keith Eitel, director of Southeastern’s Center for Great Commission Studies, said the “Churches in Habitat” project is the modern equivalent of an evangelical church mapping project published in 1925, called “The World Missionary Atlas.”
“All they could actually track in that day and time was location of Protestant mission stations,” Eitel said. In an article written in 1925, one of the atlas’ editors, Charles H. Fahs, acknowledged then “to attempt the mapping of the work of the indigenous churches in any adequate way is still impractical.”
“An atlas of the present-day Protestant forces for all the world, or an atlas of Christianity covering all communions for all lands, may be compiled in the years ahead, but an entirely new technique of presentation will be required,” Fahs wrote.
Said Eitel, “In essence what we’re doing is trying to generate a modern version of that atlas published in 1925. [Fahs] couldn’t envision the rise of the computer era and the Internet. It’s fascinating because he is basically saying, ‘Somebody needs to do this.'”
Even with advances in technology, it’s still the personal interaction with church planters around the world that is making this century-old vision a reality. Building relationships with researchers around the world, Pruitt brings the church data back to Southeastern where about a dozen students enter information such as a church’s name, denomination, size, pastor and language into a computer database in the seminary’s crowded Center for Great Commission Studies, currently operating out of Broyhill Hall.
Information on more than 50,000 churches in countries such as Canada, Spain, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Guatemala and Belgium has been entered in the database. The project is being funded by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, Pruitt said.
Churches in Habitat was established at Southeastern in 1992, but the project stalled because of a lack of response from internationals. In the first five years of the project, only about 7,000 churches were registered in the database.
“We tried to write letters to people who were heads of organizations; we tried to collect directories of evangelical associations around the world,” Eitel said. “What we’ve got now is nothing in comparison to what needs to be done, but just in the last 18 months we’ve grown almost eightfold,” he said.
Southeastern’s planned 16,000-square-foot missions center, when built, will provide much-needed space to facilitate the Churches in Habitat project, Eitel said. “Right now we’re stepping on top of each other in here,” he said. “We can’t even find room to store something when we need to store it. With the new missions center’s audiovisual capabilities, we will be able to deliver instant fingertip data that’s fresh and accurate.” The seminary still needs $1.4 million to fund construction of the new Center for Great Commission Studies.
When churches want to know how they can make the greatest impact in global missions, Eitel said, “we will be able to show them a map of the world and help them make that strategic decision. We will be able to graphically display that for them.”
Eitel said the church mapping project got a breath of new life when it partnered about a year and a half ago with DAWN, an evangelical organization founded 25 years ago to help international church leaders strategically evangelize their countries. DAWN projects that by the year 2000 it will have compiled data on 97 percent of the world’s population.
Once the church data is entered into the seminary missions center’s computer database, Southeastern students download information from a U.S. government-owned Internet site that identifies every geographic location in the world by city, town, village or province along with latitude and longitude markings to map the locations of each evangelical church in a given country.
International Mission Board personnel then use this information to produce maps that identify the churches in relation to data they have compiled on surrounding people groups, such as their accessibility to Scripture or the “Jesus” film.
“Data is important only after you see it in comparison or contrast to other bits of data,” Eitel said. “We need to not just see church data in the raw; we need to see it in relation to who the people are in and around these churches and the socio-ethnic dynamics involved.”
Wycliffe Bible Translators provide more context for the church data by providing information they’ve assimilated through anthropological studies that further help describe people groups.
“Once we find out where the churches are and the languages that are being spoken in the church, that will clue us into other information we need such as the extent of the concentration of a people group speaking a certain language in an area,” Pruitt said.
This data can then be used to help missions agencies target people groups who do not have access to the gospel in their own language as well as areas around evangelical outposts that remain unreached.
Finally, representatives with Campus Crusade’s Jesus Film Project publish the information-laden maps on an Internet map-server on the World Wide Web for free distribution. “You’ll then be able to download text files that provide interpretations of people groups, area religions and the historical development of Christianity in those locations,” Eitel said.
Currently the Churches in Habitat project has maps of Spain published on its website. Maps of Canada, Thailand, Belgium, Guatemala and Denmark are due to be published on the website next year.
To access these maps, log on to Southeastern Seminary’s Center for Great Commission Studies’ website at www.greatcomm.org and click on “Churches in Habitat.”

    About the Author

  • Lee Weeks