Sherry Weddell Offers Some Striking Perspectives on the Growth of the Church

She writes, over on the Book of Face:

The history of Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries looks very different depending upon the questions you ask:

In 1900, twice as many Christians lived in Europe than in the rest of the world combined. In 1900 only 5.4% of the world’s non-Christians knew someone that they could identity as a Christian. In 1900, more than half of the world’s population (54.3%) was unevangelized.
 At the height of Christian power in Europe, more than half the world’s population had no living access to the knowledge of, or access to the kerygma of Jesus Christ and to the Church.

For eight centuries (very roughly 700 through 1500 AD) Christianity had been largely confined to and heavily concentrated in Europe by the power of Islam until the 16th century when Europeans discovered the “new world” of the Americas and the great re-expansion of Christian trading and then colonial empires outside Europe began. Evangelical scholars believe that 1983 marked the return to the experience of the first Christian centuries – the year that the number of Christians in the global south once again outnumbered the number of Christians in the global north.

So in 2022, what’s happening? Religious believers are growing more than twice as fast as unbelievers in the world.

1) “Particularly in the West, it can seem like secularism is growing and people are leaving the church and the faith. Globally, that is not the case at all.

While the number of all religious people is growing at a 1.27% rate, the growth rate of nonreligionists is less than half that—0.52%, well below the total population growth percentage. In particular, the number of atheists is almost stagnant, only growing 0.18% per year.”

2) The places where Christianity is growing the fastest?

Africa (2.77% growth) and Asia (1.50%). In 2000, 814 million Christians lived in Europe and North America, while 660 million Christians called African and Asia home. This year, 838 million live in the global North, while almost 1.1 billion Christians live in Africa and Asia alone.

3)

a. In 1900, twice as many Christians lived in Europe than in the rest of the world combined. Today, more Christians live in Africa than any other continent. By 2050, Africa will be home to almost 1.3 billion Christians, while Latin America (686 million) and Asia (560 million) will both have more than Europe (497 million) and North America (276 million).
b. As Christianity continues to grow in the global South, it is also becoming increasingly less concentrated. In 1900, 95% of all Christians lived in a majority Christian country. In 2022, that number has fallen to 53.7%. By 2050, a majority of Christians (50.4%) around the world will live in non-majority Christian nations. (You can’t build old style Christendom without a large majority of Christians but you can really evangelize!)

4) Missiondom perspective: 
With more Christians living outside of Christian nations, more non-Christians know a Christian. In 1900, only 5.4% of non-Christians could identify a Christian they knew. That percentage has risen to 18.3% today. By 2050, 1 in 5 non-Christians (20%) will know a follower of Jesus and have the opportunity to hear the gospel from them.

5) 
As a result, the percentage of unevangelized people around the world continues to fall. In 1900, more than half of the world’s population (54.3%) was unevangelized. That has now fallen to 28%.

6) 
As Christianity continues to grow, the printing of Bibles continues to grow along with it. This year, 93 million copies of God’s word will be printed, up from 54 million in 2000 and 5 million in 1900. By 2025, 100 million Bibles will be printed each year. Currently, almost 1.8 billion Bibles are in circulation around the world. That will climb to 2.3 billion by 2050. (This, of course, tied to the massive growth in global literacy.In 1900, only 20% of the world’s population was literate. Today, 86% of the human race are literate.)

Many of the same factors that dismantled the old European Christendom simultaneously fueled a massive global expansion of Christianity during exactly the same time period.

Your thoughts?

My thought is that the standard stuff you hear in the West, whether from Traditionalists moaning over the decline of the Church or anti-Christians celebrating it, is almost all of it coming from jingos who really do not think about the world outside of Europe and the US or, if they do, don’t count it is the Real World or the People Who Actually Matter.

Meanwhile, the Spirit of God marches on and keeps calling those who are neither powerful, nor of noble birth, since “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27-29).

The day may well come when the missionaries will come here from across the developing world. God knows we need them. It’s not All About Us.

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9 Responses

  1. Global Christianity is currently growing in raw numbers but shrinking per capita. In 2000 33% of the world was Christian; in 2010 it was 32%. Meanwhile Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are all growing both per capita and in raw numbers.

    Note that numbers for every religion are inflated by the increasing prevalence of syncretism. The spread of globalism and increasing exposure to other religions and cultures means that many people today embrace more than one religion. I, myself, once dated a woman who identified as both Buddhist and Christian. It is not clear to me how she reconciled that, but it is clear from the polls that she is not unusual. My ex counts on the polls cited by Ms. Weddell, but do you really regard her as part of Team Jesus? Discuss.

    – joel

    1. @joel

      Has your ex read the Contemplatives? I’m thinking Keating, Merton, Rohr, DeChardin. I think your ex would like them.

      Buddhist-Christian ecumenism was of great interest in the latter half of the 20th century, with the authors I’ve listed, but the Contemplative tradition of Christianity goes back much further, to the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

  2. Beautiful!

    The prophets of doom and gloom won’t like it.

    I had no idea that 86% of the world is literate now. What a stunning victory for mankind!

    To succumb to atheism seems to me more than a loss of a sense of God. It is an estrangement from the very self. A deep loss of connection.

  3. The day may well come when the missionaries will come here from across the developing world.

    Actually it’s already here. We have two African priests and 3 Indian priests in our diocese. I expect others in the Northeast are much the same.

  4. I don’t know about that. I think its telling that the places that originally spread Christianity to the rest of the world are also the places where Christianity is experiencing its sharpest decline. Its also not a particularly good look when the main driving forces behind Christianity’s expansion to the global South, were conquest and colonialism. Its not that hard to be on top when you’ve killed off your competition.

    This also brings up the question of what “growth” even means in this context. When Christianity is the default religion and culture most people are inducted into, as @Joel alluded to, how is this growth indicative of anything different than a simple growth in population?

    Another thing I think you’re understating are the effects Christianity’s cultural dominance has on people’s religious identification. Around where I live, I know of at least two different Christian denominations, one is more of a cult of personality while the other is more prosperity-gospel oriented, that also double as business networks. I also remember a work-related/social dinner I was a part of some time back, where they were talking about how to climb the corporate ladder and/or get a foot in the door within some prominent circles, you had to be married and a member of a Christian church. They also mentioned how there were some people they knew that were actually atheists belief-wise, who played along with the charade.

    Point is, that within these cultural contexts, not only is identifying as a Christian the default position, but its also part of the cost of doing business.

    Finally, given what passes for “Christianity” nowadays, hearing about its growth may not necessarily be a good thing, you know? As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

    1. Today’s system of global capitalist trade, is in many ways more humane than the conquest and colonialism system of the past centuries. Capitalism still has its flaws – it is still extractive, and wage slavery is a real issue, for example. But it is still better than totalitarian state control, as conquered and colonialized people experienced. The problem with capitalism comes when people put profits above every other good. This is disordered, as there are goods other than money, and goods higher than money. An objective moral system is needed, and Christianity is good at that.

      Christianity’s growth pattern has many factors – active evangelization, switching to other religions or belief systems (as is common in the West), and population changes. Switching to other belief systems is a big headwind in growth, and is mainly in the West. This switching nullifies population growth, as basically it is saying that kids may grow up Christian, but then they switch. Thus, that the per capita percentage of Christianity is roughly steady is very good news for evangelization, considering this headwind. This is important – converts are usually more enthusiastic than cradle Christians. So, the motivation to make change, for example, for better working conditions, or better distribution of pay, or spending more time with family. It is very good news that Christians have this in their Catechism, and that they should preach it.

      Business can be a Machiavellian and Randian affair. Profits above anything else. Work all hours. Exploit as you are exploited. Heck, join a Christian networking group if you want a leg up. But it does not have to be so Machiavellian or Randian. Business, work, and trade can be built on trust and fellowship, and can be very rewarding. It all depends on priorities.

      Is Christian growth a good thing? When I was young I thought that an education in accounting would be very helpful if made mandatory. I thought, and still think that it would help a lot of young people not get into financial trouble. As I got older, I thought that an education in theology and philosophy was very important, to learn moral theory. There are things more important than money. Nowadays, as I am yet older, I am appreciating Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. I am seeing the beauty of God’s creation, and its role in human health and spiritual growth. Here’s the beautiful thing. Knowledge in accounting, moral theory, and environmental science is not conflicting. These are all goods, goods that fit in a moral order. So yes, Christian growth is a very good thing.

      1. My point at the end was that there is quite a wide spectrum of ideologies that fall under the umbrella of “Christianity”, many of which people like yourself and Mark would consider to be its antithesis. As long as there is value in adopting the label and aesthetics of Christianity, you’re going to get people who are going to abuse those to whatever extent that they can.

        So before rejoicing at the apparent growth of “Christianity”, it might be worth checking under the hood first; that’s all.

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