Christianity in Global Context

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Over the past 100 years global Christianity has experienced a profound southern shift in its geographical centre of gravity. Whereas in 1900 over 80% of all Christians lived in Europe and Northern America, by 2005 this proportion had fallen to under 40% and will likely fall below 30% before 2050 (Table 2). This southern shift is outlined in the map which tracks the statistical centre of gravity of Christianity from the time of Christ to the year 2100.

Table 1 also illustrates this shift by highlighting the cultural traditions of Christianity. Europeans (including Americans of European descent) in the vast majority one hundred years ago are now in the minority. Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans are more typical representatives of Christianity than Americans or Europeans. Table 2 puts this in the context of United Nations regions. One can immediately spot the meteoric rise of Christianity in the South and the corresponding decline in the North. Table 3 lists the top 10 Christian counties by size in 1900, 1970, 2005, 2025, and 2050. The Top 10 Christian countries in 1900 are all Western countries (except Brazil) whereas in 2050 only the USA remains in the Top 10. Table 4 lists the Top 10 Muslim countries for the same dates. Nigeria and Egypt move steadily up the list over time. Relating Tables 3 and 4 India and Nigeria are common to both lists in 2005, 2025, 2050.

What does it mean for the future of Christianity that the centre of gravity of Christianity continues to move South and East? Three areas can be briefly mentioned here.

  1. Southern Christians will interpret and critique Northern Christianity's recent 1,000-year dominance in theology and ecclesiology by producing their own reflections and by looking back to the earliest Christian centuries when they were in majority.

  2. The dominant languages of Christianity are shifting South. Already by 1980, Spanish was the leading language of church membership in the world. Chinese, Hindi, and Swahili are increasingly important languages of Christianity.

  3. Christianity is in closer contact with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This will potentially intensify both conflict and dialogue.

In all three areas, the central question remains: How well will global Christianity navigate its diverse composition and southern majority?

Note that as defined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a person's religion is what he or she professes or confesses or states that it is. Totals follow the methodology of the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (2001) and World Christian Trends (2001), using recent censuses, polls, surveys, yearbooks, reports, Web sites, literature, and other data. See the online World Christian Database for more detail.

Dr. Todd Johnson is director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Communications to him may be directed to [email protected]