The twentieth century saw a radical shift in the Christian world, with a majority of believers now being found in the global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America, Oceania) rather than the global North (North America and Europe). This has not been the case since AD 923 (see graph 1 below). The shift has been well documented and presented by scholars over the past decade, most notably Philip Jenkins in his work The Next Christendom.1 However, it often seems that there is a noticeable gap between the scholar and the layperson on this point, with few people being able to picture just how dramatic this decentralization of the Church has been.
As an assistant who attended the 2006 Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering in Malaysia, I had an opportunity to see a presentation prepared by Jason Mandryk and Justin Long (available online at www.momentum-mag.org/200611/200611-article1.pdf). Mandryk and Long visually presented the shift of Christianity and highlighted the overwhelming missionary force that is now coming from non-western countries. We are living in an increasingly post-literate society—a society which is much more responsive to oral and visual stimuli than to the written word. There is a certain importance and urgency in helping the whole Church to understand the multi-faceted ways that God’s kingdom is moving, especially as we remember Christ’s words that “the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Several facets of this shift can be seen through the visualization of the average annual growth rates of Christians and megablocs2 around the world.
Perhaps the first thing to notice about Christian growth rates is that the percentages in and of themselves are of limited usefulness without the numerical data used to calculate the growth rates. It is in the comparison of growth rates, however, that fascinating patterns emerge which give us insights into the major shifts that have occurred in Christianity during the last century. You will notice that graphs 2-4 below illustrate a comparison of growth rates. Graphs 2 and 3 compare the average annual Christian growth rate per United Nations region (represented by the bars), with the average annual population growth for the same region (represented by the red lines). Graph 4 compares the growth rate of Christian megablocs within a continent (bars) by the overall growth rate of Christianity within that same continent (thin black line). There are a few major facts I will highlight; the rest of the exploration is up to you.
Contrary to the title of this article, graph 2 shows us that during the last century Christianity as a whole has grown at roughly the same average annual rate as the population (1.32% and 1.37% respectively). This means that in AD 2000 the percentage of Christians in the world was nearly the same as in AD 1900. So what is meant by the phrase “Christian growth”?
Shift is perhaps a better word to use here since there is certainly no equality in the way Christianity has grown regionally or denominationally. From graph 2 we see that all of the places where Christianity has grown at a faster rate than the population occur on non-western continents (the global South). Europe and North America have experienced declining Christian growth rates, yet all of the African and Asian regions have seen phenomenal Christian growth rates (North Africa and Western Asia are the exceptions due to the dominance of Islam in those regions).While none of these facts are particularly shocking (since the Church has been well aware of these shifts for several decades), visualizing just how dramatic they are paints a compelling picture of the increasingly diversified Church both now and into the future.
Graph 3 takes the data shown in graph 2 a bit further by showing the more recent overall growth of Christians from AD 1970 to AD 2000. While Africa and Asia both led the charge in Christian growth over the last century, Africa did so rapidly during the first part of the century and has since slowed down. Asia, especially eastern Asia, has been responsible for a large portion of the Christian growth over the last few decades. All of these figures can be attributed to a variety of factors: social, political and otherwise. Some, like the impressive growth of Christianity in Eastern Europe during the last thirty years, can be attributed to a single event and its consequences—in this case, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Graph 4 is less detailed than graphs 2 and 3, only providing growth data at the continental level. However, some important trends are observed in the growth rates of megablocs that sociologically consider themselves Christians. Independent and marginal Christians are by far the fastest growing denominations in almost every area of the world. We must remember that growth rates are only part of the story. Almost twenty percent (385 million) of the world’s Christians were categorized as independent Christians in 2000, and only slightly over one percent (twenty-six million) were categorized as marginal. From these figures we can see just how significant the high growth rates of independent Christians has been to the whole landscape of Christianity—a fact which should prompt even lay Christians to think about their understanding of Christian unity through a global lens.
The decline of Christianity in certain areas of the world is certainly discouraging for some, and all would be wise to dismiss statistics like these as definitively indicative of who is and is not a part of the true Kingdom of God. We must remember that even Jesus in just a few verses before the often quoted Matthew 24:14 warned his disciples that “you will be hated by all nations for my sake” as well (Matthew 24:9). It is the calling of the Lord, not the state of the world, that drives us to ministry, missions and evangelism. However, with a better understanding of the state of the world, we can more effectively complete the task given to us to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
1. Jenkins, Philip. 2002. The Next Christendom. New York: Oxford University Press.
2. Megablocs refer to denominational groupings. For definitions of megabloc groupings see: Johnson, Todd USA “Evangelicals/Evangelicalism in a Global Context” in Lausanne World Pulse, January 2006; or Barrett, David, George Kurian and Todd Johnson. 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.