What an incredible difference a century makes. In 1910, according to a new study on global Christianity, there were about 600 million Christians in the world, two-thirds of them living in Europe.
"Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population" was released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The changes it describes over the last 10 decades are simply breath-taking.
Before offering some thoughts on what these changes might mean, I want to look at a few highlights from the report:
* About 37 percent of the global Christian population today lives in the Americas. That's up nearly 10 percentage points from 1910.
* Christianity has exploded across sub-Saharan Africa. In 1910, only 1.4 percent of the world's Christians lived there. Now almost a quarter all of Christians do.
* In that same period, the percentage of Christians living in the Asia-Pacific region of the world has gone from 4.5 percent to 13.1.
* Christians in 1910 made up just over one-third of the world's population. That figure still is roughly the same today, give or take a percentage point or three. As the Pew Forum's associate director of research, Alan Cooperman, noted to journalists in a conference call I participated in yesterday, "In absolute terms, it's a picture of relative stability."
* Today there are more Christians in the U.S. -- almost 247 million -- than any other country. The next three on the list are Brazil, Mexico and Russia.
The Executive Summary of the new study says that it "is based primarily on a country-by-country analysis of about 2,400 data sources, including censuses and nationally representative population surveys. For some countries, such as China, the Pew Forum’s estimates also take into account statistics from church groups, government reports and other sources."
In the conference call for press yesterday, Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, noted that among the many changes in Christianity over a century, "Protestantism has changed dramatically. We pick this up, for instance, in the United States, where obviously we've done the most polling on this. (There) people's identification with particular denominations has become more tenuous. . ."
Much of the growth of Protestant Christianity in the U.S. is coming in independent churches, meaning Protestantism in the U.S. is becoming "post-denominational," Lugo said.
Well, there's much more in the study, and you are free to dig through it, which will take you a bit of time. The embargoed copy I worked from to prepare this report ran to 130 pages.
Is there anything shocking about this report? In broad sweep, no, though seeing the 100-year comparison brings all these changes home in ways we may not have experienced before.
As Conrad Hackett, a primary researcher for this study, noted yesterday, "One thing that I didn't anticipate going into this study is just the fact that two out of three countries and territories in the world have majority Christian populations. And furthermore, 90 percent of all Christians live in a country that has a Christian majority. That's not something I expected."
But lots of scholars have been giving us the broad outlines of these changes for some time. The best known relatively recent books have come from Philip Jenkins (The Next Christendom) and Mark Noll (The New Shape of World Christianity). They and others have made the point that the growth of Christianity has been happening in the Southern Hemisphere and Asia and that North American and European Christianity are very much minority voices in the faith now.
Similarly, John L. Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Reporter has looked at these trends as they affect Catholics and analyzed them in his book The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church.
None of the information in this new study suggests what the global Christian population will look like in the future, though the Pew Forum folks are working on those projections, which should be released next year or in 2013. Previous projections about Islam suggest that religion will grow more quickly than the general population in the decades ahead.
What all of these and similar studies and analyses tell me is that what we used to think of as Christendom -- the intermingling of the faith with the culture and the state -- is dead or dying. That's less true in the U.S. than in Canada or Europe but it nonetheless seems an unstoppable trend. More, it is good for the church. It allows the church to be the church and not a kind of ruler or dictator of political, social and economic practices.
The church needs to be free to exercise its prophetic voice, to point out what is wrong in the world, what has run morally amok, and what to do about it.
That's hard to do when you run the world.
It would be foolish to predict the shape of global Christianity in 2110. But at least for the next decade or two the trends we've seen in recent years of growth in Africa and Asia can be expected to continue. As I say, though, we should know more about that from the Pew Forum folks in a year or so.
Beyond that, as we Christians are wont to say, who knows where the Holy Spirit of God will be moving and how people will respond?
Finally, when considering global estimates of adherents of any religion, I think it's helpful to keep in mind a distinction that author Rodney Stark draws in his book, The Triumph of Christianity, which I reviewed here. He notes there that there may be 2.2 billion Christians on the planet, but only about 1.5 billion of them can be considered active participants in the religion. And much the same thing is true for other religions, too.
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IS B-16 JUST POOPED?
Observers are noting that Pope Benedict XVI seems worn out, and it is raising questions about whether and when popes should resign. It has always struck me as odd that popes think they need to stay on the job until their dead.