The starting point for a clear assessment of where the church is in the world is to make sense of the enormous amount of information collected by churches every year. Every year they hold a huge census (a megacensus!) costing $1.1 billion, for which they send out ten million questionnaires in 3,000 languages covering 180 religious subjects. This includes church surveys such as the Roman Catholic Annuario Pontificio and detailed country studies done by Evangelical Alliances and others. Over half of the world’s governments include a question on religion in their decennial censuses as well.
Two Contrasting Views of Church Statistics
Two contrasting views of church membership censuses have emerged. The first is the so-called objective view. In the 1960s sociologists often predicted the complete demise of organized religion, including Christianity. In 1968, Peter Berger told the New York Times that by AD 2000 “religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” At the same time, a second view was emerging as missionaries around the world noticed the rapid expansion of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Anglican Missionary David Barrett published an article in the in January 1970 projecting that by AD 2000 there would be 350 million Christians in Africa.
In 2005, we see that this latter view was a more accurate depiction of what Christianity and religion would look like around the world. Nonetheless, there is still a latent tendency to consider church statistics as exaggerated and notoriously unreliable. Fortunately, the annual documentation of church members around the world provides strong evidence that counting Christians is a thorough and reliable discipline.
Bookkeeping vs. Accounting
If churches are collecting this valuable information, what is the role of a research center dedicated to collecting and analyzing church statistics? One parallel is the distinction between bookkeeping and accounting. Bookkeeping is “recording financial transactions,” whereas accounting is defined as “the system of classifying and summarizing financial transactions and analyzing, verifying and reporting the results.” In the financial world, only accounting is seen as essential in making sense of financial transactions. Similarly, researchers in global Christianity make sense of information collected by churches. One example is from a web site which states there are 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States, compared to sixty-two million Roman Catholics and sixteen million Southern Baptists.1 The three numbers quoted above are not comparable. Roman Catholics and Episcopalians count baptized infants and children, whereas Southern Baptists do not. Without adjustments, the numbers are not accurate in comparing one denomination to another.
Global Religious Demographics
The intersection of demographic data with religious affiliation (shown in Table 1) provides us with several interesting trends.2 Note that Christians (or Evangelicals) take up twice as much floor area per person as ethnoreligionists or Muslims. Another trend is that Christians and Buddhists are approximately forty times richer than Hindus.
Table 1. Global Religious Demographics
The megacensus of global Christianity reveals at least seven signposts of God’s initiative in our day.
Signpost #1: The Size, Diversity, and Vitality of Global Christianity
There are today more than 37,000 denominations. These are listed for each of the world’s 238 countries in the World Christian Database, http://www.worldchristiandatabase.org/, and can be grouped into six major ecclesiastical megablocs:
|Roman Catholics||1,119 million|
The fastest growing bloc is the Independents which now make up 20% of Christians. We are witnessing some of the fastest Christian expansion in China with 10,000 new converts (babies born to Christians, adult conversions) every day.3 At the same time, Christianity is also growing in the form of non-baptized believers in Christ (NBBCs). In 2005 there are approximately twelve million (counted as both Hindus and Christians).4
At the same time, Philip Jenkins has highlighted the consequences of the southern shift of gravity of Christianity.5 In 1900 81% of all Christians were Caucasian. By 2005 this has dropped to 43%. Graph 1 illustrates this phenomenon.6
Graph 1. The Changing Ethnicity of Global Christianity, AD 1900-2025
Though it may be fashionable to speak of Southern Christianity or non-Western Christianity, it is important to realize that this is by no means a monolithic, homogeneous category. In fact, Christians in the South7 are comprised of 22,500 denominations, 6,000 peoples and 10,000 languages. In a similar fashion, Christians of the North8 represent 11,300 denominations, 3,000 peoples, and 3,500 languages. Table 2 illustrates that although the largest Christian countries are shifting to the South, by 2050 the largest Christian country in the world will still be the USA.
Table 2. Countries with the most Christians, 2005, 2025, 2050
However, there are still unique roles for Northern Christians in the future of global Christianity. The following are a few examples:
1. Engaging culture on a missiological, philosophical, theological and ecclesiastical level
2. Bioethics and genetics
3. Financial accountability
4. Reaching postmodern youth
5. Radical contextualization beyond Christianity
6. As members of multinational churches and missions
7. Science and theology
8. Pilgrimage sites
9. Scholarship on pre-modern Christianity
Another reality is that Christianity has yet to be represented among the 13,000 cultures not yet penetrated with the gospel and therefore not represented among the “ethne” of Matthew 28.
Signpost #2: The Massive Evangelistic Enterprise of Global Christianity
Every year Christians expend enormous amounts of time and energy in global evangelization. For example, regular listeners to Christian programs over secular or religious radio/TV stations rose from 22% of the world in 1980 to 30% in 2000. Scripture distribution has also grown dramatically. There are more than 227 million Bibles in certain non-Christian countries—more than needed to serve all Christians. These, however, are poorly distributed.
Christian martyrdom also plays a unique role in world evangelization. Seventy million Christians have been martyred since Christ—over half of these in the twentieth century.9 The five most dangerous vocations (greatest likelihood of being martyred) include bishops, evangelists, catechists, colporteurs and foreign missionaries.
The most significant conclusion in a survey of evangelization is that with 1.27 trillion hours of evangelism produced by Christians in 2005, there is enough evangelism for every person to hear a one-hour presentation of the gospel every other day all year long. The irony cannot be lost that over 1.7 billion people still have no opportunity to hear of Christ, Christianity or the gospel.
Signpost #3: The Challenge of Managing Resources
The personal income of Christians globally exceeds $17 trillion (US). Seventy-eight countries have Great Commission Christians whose personal incomes exceed $1 billion a year. Nonetheless, emboldened by lax procedures, trusted church treasurers are embezzling $21 billion out of church funds each year. Only 5% is ever recovered. Annual church embezzlements by top custodians exceed $20 billion–the entire cost of all foreign missions worldwide.10
Signpost #4: The Continuing Challenge of the Unfinished Task
Throughout the twentieth century, Christians of various traditions were offering books, conferences, pamphlets and ideas on how the world could be evangelized in a relatively short period of time. We call these “global plans.” A short list appears here.11
1900 The evangelization of the world in this generation
1908 The modern crusade
1910 The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world
1912 Reaching every home
1914 Inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth
1929 Each one teach one
1930 Bringing Christ to the nations
1934 Evangelize to a finish to bring back the king
1943 Into all the world
1946 Complete Christ’s Commission
1950 Help open paths to evangelize
1956 The gospel to every creature
1957 Global conquest
1959 Two thousand tongues to go
1963 The master plan of evangelism
1967 Crusade for world revival
1974 Let the earth hear his voice
1976 Bold Mission Thrust
1980 A Church for Every People by the Year 2000
1984 Strategy to Every People
1986 One million native missionaries
1990 Decade of Evangelization
There is a strong tendency to recreate plans without reference to previous plans. The most significant problem with this list of plans is the passage of time. One can see this in Samuel Zwemer’s(1911). He wrote this book in response to a request for a pithy survey on the unfinished task from the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. Much has stayed the same in the nearly 100 years since the book was published. His description of the unfinished task in 1911 stretching from Morocco to Indonesia is largely true today.
There is one simple explanation for the failure of all of these global plans: Over 90% of all Christian evangelism is aimed at other Christians and does not reach non-Christians. As long as this is the case, the world will not be evangelized and the unreached peoples will not be reached.
Signpost #5: The Responsiveness of the Least-Reached Peoples
At the same time, recent research has uncovered a remarkable fact. A study of the responsiveness of the world’s peoples (baptism rate divided by hours of evangelism) has revealed that the most responsive are the least reached. For populations over one million, the top five are the Khandeshi of India, the Awadhi of India, the Magadhi of India, the Bai of China and the Berar Marathi of India.12
Signpost #6: The Suitability of Postmodern Youth for World Mission
Converging with these trends is the changing nature of today’s global postmodern youth. Many church and mission observers see this as negative, fearing issues such as encroaching relativism. A positive of postmodernity is found in the title of a recent conference: “Out of the Christian Ghetto: French Roast Tall Latte Evangelism in a Decaffeinated, Nonfat, Post-Christian World.” This conference (and dozens of books)13 illustrate how Christian youth are making missiological adjustments in their evangelism. This will result in more effectively reaching people of all cultures.
As a result, a new vocabulary is emerging in theology, missiology and philosophy. Consider the following phrases: critical realism, epistemological humility, generous orthodoxy, chastened rationality, faithful uncertainty and non-modern metanarrative. 14
This vocabulary does not imply relativism. It is an admission that even in a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus Christ, there is a great deal that we will not know. According to Millard Erickson, “It is one thing to have absolute truth; quite another to understand it absolutely.”15 This leads one to admit that global youth today are developing some unique tools for mission in the context of postmodernity. These include: (1) a celebration of the world’s cultures; (2) an openness to dialogue with and learn from other cultures and religions; (3) a desire for community; (4) a comfort with uncertainty and doubt; and (5) no need to have all the answers. These five characteristics could make today’s youth the most effective missionaries in Christian history.
Two other trends need to be considered in light of these opportunities in a postmodern world. The first is globalization which can have a negative top down effect. The second is tribalism that pushes local culture up to the global level. In both cases, mission is impacted.
Signpost #7: The Emerging Face of Jesus
Books about Jesus in today’s libraries number More than 175,000 different titles in 500 languages about Jesus fill libraries today. Nearly four new books are published each day. We must also look at the changing face of Christianity, reflected in the changing ethnicity of Christians around the world and in how each culture offers a unique perspective of Jesus. No culture has as an unhindered view of Jesus. Only when all peoples worship him will we see his face clearly. In this way, we can speak of the missing faces of Jesus belonging to those peoples not yet reached with the gospel. We can conclude, in accordance with Scripture, that every tongue, tribe, nation and language will be represented at the throne of God.
1. University of Southern California Online, Kelly McBride, accessed March 2004.
2. Most of the statistics in this report can be found in one of four places: (1) Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press 2001); (2) Barrett and Johnson, World Christian Trends, AD 30-AD 2200 (William Carey Library 2001); (3) Barrett, Johnson, and Crossing, “Status of Global Mission, 2005, in Context of 20th and 21st Centuries”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2005, page 29; (4) World Christian Database, online subscription service found at http://www.worldchristiandatabase.org/.
3. Recent documentation on the house churches includes D. Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, Regnery, 2003, Brother Yun with P. Hattaway, The Heavenly Man, Monarch Books, 2002, and T. Lambert, China’s Christian Millions, Monarch Books, 1999.
4. See H. Hoefer, Churchless Christianity, William Carey Library, 2001 and D. Bharati, Living Water and Indian Bowl, ISPCK, 1997.
5. The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press 2002.
6. For a more detailed analysis of the centre of gravity of Christianity throughout its entire history see Johnson and Chung, “Tracking Global Christianity’s Statistical Centre of Gravity, AD 33- AD 2100” in International Review of Mission, Vol. 93, No. 369, April 2004, pages 166-181.
7. South is defined as sixteen current United Nations regions (185 countries): Eastern Africa, Middle Africa, Northern Africa, Southern Africa, Western Africa, Eastern Asia, South-central Asia, South-eastern Asia, Western Asia, Caribbean, Central America, South America, Australia/New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
8. North is defined here in a geopolitical sense by five current United Nations regions (fifty-three countries): Eastern Europe (including Russia), Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Western Europe and Northern America.
9. See Part 4 “Martyrology” in World Christian Trends for complete documentation.
10. See Part 20 “Finance” in World Christian Trends.
11. For a more complete list see Part 27 “Geostrategies” in World Christian Trends.
12. Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism, Baker Books, 1998, page 39.
13. One of the most substantial is P. Hiebert, Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Postmodern World, Trinity Press International, 1997.
14. These are discussed in S. Grenz and J. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
15. Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism, Baker Books, 1998, page 39.