World Religion Database: Realities and Concerns
W hen my seminary in India obtained a copy of David
Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE, 1982), it
became the largest book in the seminary’s small library. Later,
big reality. India has sent and continues to send missionaries,
supported by a large educational network. But much of it is
done in primitive style, with few books and little use of modern
when I studied at Asbury Seminary in the United States, though I means. What appears valuable is beyond reach; the fox may see
bought plenty of books, I found that the WCE was too expensive only sour grapes!
for me. I never owned a copy of it, despite being convinced of Hence, from my context in India, I am unable to get too
the value of the information in it. Printed resources are often excited about the WRD and its value. Someone may object, “But
beyond the reach of theological students or of people in ministry. India is far advanced now. In fact, Indians maintain the computers
For research, though, we could rely on the copy in the library. for America!” Perhaps so. Theological students, however, come
“But it’s available now on the Net. You could easily down- largely from economic settings that do not allow a person to own
load it from the Web. There is so much more material available!” a computer. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s attempt to push India
Excited voices are heard in the corridors of modern theological into the computer age and his government’s economic policy of
centers of learning. Perhaps in the West, in the Northern Hemi- liberalization certainly improved some things, but it will take
sphere, computers are easily accessible, and information from another generation or more to raise Indian economic standards
cyberspace is well within the reach of every student of theology to be even close to global computer use. Till then, great tools
or minister of the Gospel. For those in the East, in the Southern such as the WRD will not make a broad contribution to Indian
Hemisphere, this is not the case. With some exceptions, we in mission thought or mission study. This will be true for many
the South are not yet in the computer era. Either the cost is too people groups, and for the Third World as a whole.
much, or the electricity is unreliable. Things are improving, but
conditions are still far from satisfactory. Let us now consider the WRD itself and its value for the rest
Let me share a recent example that illustrates the realities of the world’s regions and peoples. In the process of collecting
of the Third World and conditions prevailing among Christians, data, there is no danger. Surely the immense quantity of data col-
despite the confident claims we hear of the liberating power of lected is of great value. In the interpretation of the data, however,
the Gospel. When we started a doctoral program in missiology we can encounter pitfalls.
in India, students were introduced to the mysteries of searching
the Web. They were indeed excited when they found numerous • The disease of numberitis. Some mission efforts are moti-
articles relating to their subject areas of research. But they had to vated heavily by a concern to win people to the church.
use the magic only in the school itself, with their computer times The desire for denominational number growth motivates
restricted by having to share it with many other students. Later, some to work very hard to improve the numbers, even
when they were in the field and needing to write their disserta- by outright “sheep-stealing” through offering various
tions, they had no computer they could use. I was the dean, and incentives. Some groups have used the data simply to pat
my Governing Board gave me the job of raising funds. Gener- themselves on the back for an increase in their numbers.
ous donors gave enough to provide laptop computers for each Nothing wrong in counting the numbers, but question-
of the doctoral students. The treasurer of our board, however, able attitudes and priorities can lead to problems. In this
blocked use of the funds for the laptops. The board was quiet religiously plural world, where fundamentalist trends can
with an unholy silence. Time passed. The students completed so quickly unleash violence, number-oriented mission
their study and became doctors of philosophy in missiology. The thinking can be a real negative.
money remained in the bank, and the scholars did not benefit. • The distraction of quantitative emphasis. If we deal only
Even the donors kept an unholy silence! Such is the reality for