The Christian Century
July 29, 2012
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink.” – John Lennon
It seems to be common knowledge that Christianity is in decline. Once upon a time everyone was Christian but no more. Now the church is in free fall. Many are using this as a call to radical change. For example, Rachel Held Evans says that evangelicals are losing young people because we are focused on the culture war instead of being grace filled Christians. Others think we need to reinvent church.
I hate to break it to everyone. Christianity is not in trouble. It is not declining. It is not shrinking. It is certainly not in free fall. John Lennon said in 1965 that Christianity will vanish from the earth. He could not have been more wrong. In fact, Lennon was in the middle of a century of amazing world wide growth of the church. There was so much global growth that sociologist Phillip Jenkins has started referring to it as the Christian century.
Pew forum recently published an overview of global adherence to Christianity over the past 100 years. As a percentage of the world, the number remains almost unchanged (dropping slightly from 35% to 32%) and in Europe the drop in adherence was significant (from 95% down to 76%). And even in America where people still go to church and evangelicalism still has political clout the numbers dropped (from 96% down to 86%).
When people see these statistics they are often surprised that the numbers are not worse but they generally feel that they affirm the “common knowledge” that the church is in decline.
But if you stop there, you miss something major. You miss seeing the Christian century that we have just lived through.
Let’s ask ourselves a few questions. If Christianity is a largely Western Religion (“Christendom” referred to Europe and the USA in centuries past) and Christianity saw 20% declines in Europe and 10% declines in the USA, how did the religion manage to only lose 3% of the whole? And now consider this. Not only were there percentage declines as a whole of Europe and the USA but both Europe and the USA declined as a percentage of world population. The center of gravity for world population shifted south (into historically unchristian territories) over the past 100 years.
In 1910, the global north made up 33% of the world’s population. In 2010, it only made up 19%. So even if Christianity had not lost a single percentage point in Europe of the USA, it should have dropped significantly as a percentage of world population. In 1910, Christianity was adhered to by 87% of the Global North’s population and 9.2% of the Global South’s population. If you held those percentages the same in 2010, Christianity would drop from 35% to 23%! A 12% drop without losing any percentages in Europe or the USA.
So, in spite of the population shift (putting us 12% behind the 1910 percentage) and in spite of losing a significant percentage of Europe and the USA (an effective 3% of the world’s population) Christian adherence is not down 15% as would be expected. It is only down 3%. What accounts for this 12% difference from expectations?
Massive growth in the global south. Southeast Asia and Africa became Christian in many parts. Sub-Saharan Africa went from being 9% Christian to 63%. China, Korea, Malaysia, and many other parts of southeast Asia saw major gains in Christian adherents. Some estimates say that there are over 100 million Christians in China making it one of the most Christian nations in the world. The growth on almost every continent is stunning. Christianity went from being a regional religion to being the global religion in about 100 years.
Christianity is not in decline. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the 21st century will be more remarkable. If you look at where Christianity grew in the 20th century, that is where the population is supposed to grow most in the 21st century. Sub-Saharan Africa, now a majority Christian, has the highest birth rates in the world.
Christianity is not fading away.
Source: Pew Forum