Published February 25, 2015
The Catholic Difference
The annual “Status of Global Christianity” survey published by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research is a cornucopia of numbers: Some are encouraging; others are discouraging; many of them are important for grasping the nature of this particular moment in Christian history.
This year’s survey works from a baseline of 1900 A.D., and makes projections out to 2050. Within that century and a half there’s some good news about the global human condition that ought to be kept in mind when remembering the bad news of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. For example: In 1900, 27.6 percent of adults in a world population of 1.6 billion were literate. In 2015, 81 percent of the adults in a global population of 7.3 billion are literate, and the projection is that, by 2050, 88 percent of the adults in a world of 9.5 billion people will be literate—a remarkable accomplishment.
Of the 7.3 billion human beings on Planet Earth today, 89 percent are religious believers, while 1.8 percent are professed atheists and another 9 percent are agnostics: which suggests that Chief Poobah of the New Atheists Richard Dawkins and his friends are not exactly winning the day, although their “market share” is up from 1900.
There were some 267 million Catholics in the world in 1900; today, the world Church counts 1.2 billion members, with a projected growth to 1.6 billion by the middle of the century. Yet in the last quarter of the twentieth century Catholicism was displaced by Islam as the world’s largest religious community, as the global Muslim population grew from 571 million in 1970 to today’s 1.7 billion.
The most extraordinary Christian growth over the past century has come in Africa: home to 8.7 million Christians in 1900, 542 million today, and perhaps 1.2 billion by 2050, when there will be as many African Christians as Latin American and European Christians combined. Twenty-first century Christianity is also a far more urban reality than a century ago. In 1900, 29 percent of the world’s Christian population lived in cities; it’s 65 percent today, although that’s projected to decline to 59 percent by 2050. But perhaps the most astonishing numbers in the survey involve Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians. There were 981,000 of these souls in 1900; there are 643,661,000 of them today; and there are projected to be over one billion Charismatics and Pentecostals in 2050. In raw numbers, then, Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity is the fastest growing phenomenon in world religious history.
These three phenomena—African growth, urbanization and the rise of Pentecostalism—also help account, I suspect, for the greater fragmentation of the Christian world. What might be called entrepreneurial Christianity—founding your own church—is very much a part of all three, and that helps explain why the number of Christian denominations grew from 1,600 in 1900 to 45,000 today, with projections of 70,000 in 2050.
For all the admirable growth noted in the survey, Christianity seems stuck in something of a rut, if the measure is Christians-as-a-percentage-of-
Figuring out how much of this is due to the decline of European Christianity as a percentage of world Christianity would require number-crunching beyond my capabilities. But it’s worth noting that, in a century of dramatic, aggregate Christian growth, European Christianity had the lowest annualized growth rate (0.16 percent), and the European share of world Christian population has shrunk from 66 percent in 1900 to 23 percent today—thus raising more questions about the warrant by which European Christian leaders, Catholic and Protestant, pass judgment on the pastoral practice of fellow-Christians around the world.
One more disturbing number: according to the survey’s projections, only 14 percent of non-Christians today know a Christian—a number that speaks to both the isolation of religious groups from each other and the failures of evangelization. So there’s a lot of work to do in fulfilling the Great Commission, especially with those who have no contact with the faith.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.