In December 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (Washington) issued A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population. Some of the data were developed in collaboration with the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (South Hamilton, Massachusetts). The two institutions are responsible for the bulk of reliable statistical information on religion worldwide. They are directed, respectively, by Luis Lugo and Todd Johnson. I happen to know these two gentlemen quite well. They are the religious nose counters par excellence. Ask them how many Lutherans there are in Mongolia, and how many Buddhists in Finland, they will within a few minutes come back with reasonably accurate numbers.
While the broad outline of the situation has been known for some time, reading the sheer mass of figures in the Pew report is startling. The ongoing comparison is between the years 1910 and 2010. Apart from marking the beginning of a century convenient for comparison, the earlier date is significant in itself. 1910 marked the date of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. It was attended by about 1,300 delegates (all Protestants—Catholics and Orthodox were not invited), most from Europe and North America. The conference (whose centennial in 2010 was celebrated by a series of events) is now seen as the culmination of the Protestant missionary movement of the nineteenth century, and as a prelude to the ecumenical movement of the twentieth. Its official theme was “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation”. The mood was triumphalist, the expectations grandiose. Yet I doubt whether any of the participants could have imagined either the size or the shape of Christianity a century hence.
The world population has, of course, expanded enormously between the two dates. Thus the proportion of Christians in the world population has remained stable at about 33%. But the absolute number of Christians has increased very greatly, from about 600 million to about 2.8 billion. Christianity is by far the largest religion in today’s world. Muslims come second, at about 25% of the world population. Among Christians, about 50% are Catholic, about 37% Protestant. [These last figures should be taken with a grain of salt: Catholics tend to include as adherents all who were baptized as Catholics—even if, particularly in Latin America, many may now be noisily enthusiastic (mainly Pentecostal) Protestants. In the other camp, many Protestants (again especially Pentecostal ones) belong to informal groups meeting in private homes, storefronts, garages—and are thus hard to count. Therefore, the above total of Protestants is probably an underestimate. General advice: When counting Christian noses, have a good supply of salt at hand.]
If the size of world Christianity today is amazing, the distribution is even more so. There has been a massive shift in the geography of the religion. In 1910 two thirds of Christians lived in Europe. In 2010 26% lived in Europe, 37% in the Americas, 24% in Africa, 13% in Asia and the Pacific region. But this still does not give the full picture. The figure for “the Americas” is ambiguous, since it includes both North and Latin America. According to the Atlas of Global Christianity (2009—it, by the way, was co-edited by Todd Johnson), in 2010 there were about 283 million Christians in North America (United States and Canada), about 549 million in Latin America. The basic fact: About 1.3 billion Christians, 61% of the total number, live in the Global South. [This is without figuring in the fact that a considerable number of Christians in North America, Catholics as well as Protestants, are Latinos.] The most dramatic shift has occurred in Africa: Christians were 9% of the population in 1910, 63% in 2010. [This figure lumps together mainly Muslim northern Africa and mainly Christian sub-Saharan Africa. The percentage of Christians in the latter would be much higher: Sub-Saharan Africa is basically Christian territory.] Example: Nigeria now has twice as many Protestants than Germany, the homeland of the Reformation. Example: Brazil has twice as many Catholics than Italy, where the Vatican sits as it tries to make sense of the religious landscape. [It is hardly surprising that Pope Benedict XVI regards the “evangelization of Europe” as a top priority. Some African priests might be helpful for this project.]
To understand the importance of this geographical shift, one must look at the respective religious characteristics of Christianity in the two sectors of the globe. In recent years a number of influential works have described this, such as Philip Jenkins’ The New Faces of Christianity (2006) and Mark Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity (2009). The slow-burning schism in the Anglican communion, with dissident Episcopal congregations in the United States putting themselves under the care of African bishops, has made clear that Christianity in the Global South is both theologically and morally more conservative. Thus African Catholics are rarely troubled by the issues (from papal authority to traditional sexual morality) which agitate their liberal coreligionists in Europe and North America. Thus African Protestants, across denominations, are largely Evangelical in their beliefs and values. More than that: Christianity in the Global South is robustly supernaturalist, while Christians to the north of it tend to constrict the supernatural components of the faith within an essentially naturalist worldview. This is most glaring in the case of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians. The Pew report lumps these two categories together—very plausibly, as the dividing line between them is artificial; the report claims that about 584 million Christians, or about 26.7% of the world total, fall under this category. However, what I have called “supernaturalism” is not limited to the Pentecostal/charismatic grouping. The Catholic Church, dramatically in Latin America, has always succeded in adapting itself to the supernatural beliefs and practices (“superstitions”, if you will) of indigenous people it baptized. And (largely Evangelical) Protestantism in Africa has been strongly infiltrated by charismatic supernaturalism—some scholars have coined the term “Pentecostalization” for this process.
If this seems a bit complicated, let me simplify: A few months ago I was talking about this North/South split with a Methodist minister in Boston. I said that, it seemed to me, the North could be put on the defensive over this split. When he asked what I meant, I said: “I would like you to explain to an African Christian why you do not raise people from the dead in your church.” I said that the African interlocutor might go on: “Jesus did. The Apostles did. We do. Why don’t you?”.
Of course this is an oversimplification (albeit, I think, a useful one). There are pockets of supernaturalism in America, as there are Christians in Africa whose notion of “superstition” is no different from that of a liberal Protestant in America. And admittedly, the question about raising people from the dead is a little extreme: It is a relatively rare event even among Catholic curaderas in Guatemala or Protestant charismatics in Nigeria. But the broader category of miraculous healing is empirically more applicable. Virtually all Christians believe, at least in theory, that God can heal illnesses, and most will pray for such healing if the occasion arises. But in America most Christians (even conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants) will assume that God heals through naturalist means—the hands of a surgeon, the efficacy of a drug. African Christians are much more likely to believe that a charismatic healer, by putting his hands on a sick person, can directly cause a miraculous healing there and then.
Behind all the numbers collected so assiduously by Lugo, Johnson et al. looms a vast challenge to the taken-for-granted naturalism in Europe and North America: The majority of global Christians (and, needless to say, the majority of all religious people in the world) question this naturalism, and behave accordingly. Will this challenge diminish with greater affluence and higher education? Possibly. Thus far it doesn’t look like it. Thus it would seem that an important dialogue is still outstanding. In recent decades there has developed a veritable dialogue industry, much of it initiated by official church bodies. There have been dialogues between Christians and Jews, Muslims, Buddhists—dialogues between Catholics and Protestants as well as agnostics, Lutherans and Calvinists, and so on. As far as I know, there has been no sustained dialogue between Christians in the two global regions—other than what must be sporadic exchanges in informal settings. I am not at all sure what would be the result of the outstanding dialogue. I am sure that it would be important. [Full disclosure: Our research center at Boston University has such a dialogue on the drawing board.]