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Pew: Christianity has become global faith in past century

WASHINGTON (BP) — Christianity has grown into a global faith in the last century, moving from a predominantly European, North and South American religion to one that is now practiced in large numbers on every continent, particularly Africa and Asia.

That 100-year view is one of the major findings of a new report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which compares the worldwide Christian population of 2010 to that of 1910.

“Clearly, Christianity has spread far from its historical origins,” the 130-page report says. The report used a broad definition for Christianity and was based on census reports and population surveys.

In 1910, Europe had 66.3 percent of the world’s Christian population and North and South America had 27.1 percent. Today, Europe’s share of the Christian population is only 25.9 percent and the Americas is 36.8 percent. During that century, Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of the world’s Christian population has grown from 1.4 percent to 23.6 percent, while the Asia-Pacific region has grown from 4.5 percent to 13.1 percent. At the same time, the Middle East-North Africa region has seen a slight decline in its worldwide share (.7 to .6 percent).

Jim Haney, director of global research for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, says the Pew numbers are “consistent with IMB’s global research effort,” although the IMB’s global research is “more focused on evangelical Christianity” as reported by missionaries and evangelical partners.

Christianity, Pew says, remains the world’s largest religion “by far” and has seen the number of adherents nearly quadruple in the last century, yet its growth — as a portion of the population — has not kept pace with worldwide population. In 1910 there were about 611 million Christians, making up 35 percent of the world’s population of 1.75 billion. Today, there are 2.2 billion Christians, which comprise 32 percent of the world’s 7 billion people.

Pew’s broad definition of Christianity includes Catholics and Protestants as well as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, although the latter two make up only a small percentage of the total population. Pew says Catholics comprise 50.1 percent of the world’s Christian population, Protestants 36.7 percent, Orthodox 11.9 percent and “other” Christians — a category that includes Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses — 1.3 percent. (Evangelicals typically see the beliefs of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, particularly their views on the doctrines of God and Christ’s deity, as outside the tenets of historical Christianity.)

Protestantism, too, is worldwide. Sub-Sahara Africa has the largest share of Protestantism (36.9 percent), followed by the Americas (32.9 percent), Asia-Pacific (17.4 percent), Europe (12.6 percent) and the Middle East-North Africa (.2 percent).

China — a country where religious freedom is limited and the underground church has thrived — has the world’s third-largest Protestant population at 58 million, trailing only the United States (159 million) and Nigeria (59 million), Pew says.

Haney, of the IMB, says much work needs to be done to spread the Gospel. At the end of 2010, he said, 5,776 of the world’s 11,642 people groups “were engaged in church planting efforts by evangelicals around the world,” with 741 of those “engaged by teams including IMB missionaries.” There is bad and good news when examining data on the growth of Christianity, he said.

“We are disturbed by the kind of Christianity practiced today and heavily influenced by secularism, post-modernism and atheism, even among those counted as Christians because of baptism or affiliation,” he said. “On the other hand, field research is showing that unreached people groups, thought to be resistant to the Gospel in times past, are seeing amazing church planting movements where God is working mightily. Those coming to Christ within these people groups are likely still counted as adherents within their religion, but testimonies of new believers among these peoples give glory to God for new faith in Jesus Christ.”

Among Pew’s other findings:

— Nigeria has more than twice as many Protestants as Germany, the birthplace of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

— Muslim-dominated Indonesia has more Christians than all 20 countries in the Middle East and North Africa combined.

— Only 10 percent of the world’s Christians are minorities within their own country. Ninety percent live in countries where Christians are in the majority.

“The challenge of missions today is before the church: when the Lord returns, will He find a multitude from every language, people, tribe and nation knowing and worshipping our Lord Jesus Christ?” Haney asked.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.

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  • Michael Foust