Once a tiny Jewish sect, Christianity has become the largest religion in the history of humankind. No other religion has enjoyed such size and global influence, so far as we know. This paper probes current trends in world Christianity by surveying important turning points in its history. The latter part of the paper investigates issues related to secularization, particularly in the context of post-Christian Western Europe.
Christianity is the largest religious institution in the history of humankind. In addition to having more devotees than any other religion, it is also the most global, most diverse, and perhaps most influential religion in history. Several of the world’s cultural blocks are today, at least in name, largely Christian: North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern and Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and parts of Asia. The enormous size and global influence of the Christian faith emphasize why Christianity must be understood as a global reality.1
But how did this happen? How did a tiny Jewish sect grow to become so large, so powerful, and so attractive to so many throughout the centuries?
This article is an exercise in macro-history. Rather than investigating a man, a movement, or an epoch, our purpose is to back up and see the bigger picture of Christian history. Gazing at this big picture causes us to ask a question: How did it happen? How did Christianity—this Middle Eastern sect—become the largest, most international, and most influential religion in the history of the world?
In this article we will:
- Look at some general statistics that illustrate the growth of Christianity.
- Point out pivotal moments in the 2000-year history of Christianity.
- Highlight some trends in Christianity today that may shed light on future possibilities for this religion, giving special attention to the phenomenon of secularization.
Christianity: The Largest Religion in the World
There are around seven billion people in the world right now. One-third (33%) are Christian, one-fifth (20%) are Muslim, one-eighth (13%) are Hindu, and one-seventeenth (6%) are Buddhist. These are the only religions in the world that are statistically significant; in other words, these are the only religions that contain more than one percent of the world’s population. Judaism, Sikhism, Baha’i Faith and all other religions in the world each amount to less than half of one percent.2
This might come as something of a surprise because the world is often thought to be a religiously diverse place. Actually, the world is not as diverse as one might think. When we combine Christianity and Islam, two faiths that trace their roots to Judaism, we see that over half of humanity (54%) is either Christian or Muslim. Cultural geographers point out that these two religions prevail over 70% of the Earth’s inhabited territory.3 Christianity and Islam are, truly, world religions. Christianity is more diverse and more global—as we will see momentarily—but both of these religions are very widespread.
It is important to point out that people rarely switch religions. When this does happen, it is newsworthy, and can deeply impact the future demographics of a particular region of the world. It has been estimated that over 99% of people in the history of humanity practiced the religion their parents modeled for them.4 While it is fairly common for people to convert to new doctrines or take a fresh perspective on their own faith, outright conversion to an entirely different religion is very rare indeed. People may shift from one form of their religion to another—for example from Presbyterian to Pentecostal—but these are not considered changes in religion. They are better characterized as changes in emphasis, since the core beliefs remain relatively unchanged. Those who deny the religion of their parents and make an outright conversion to another are, historically, exceptional.
Religions tend to be associated with countries or regions of the world. People in India tend to be Hindu. People in Latin American tend to be Christian. People in the Middle East tend to be Muslim. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is certainly a general tendency. A good example is the United States of America. Around 80% of Americans explicitly consider themselves to be Christian. When we combine all Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and other world religions in America, the total percentage is only 4.7% of the US population.5 Statistically speaking, America is a strongly Christian nation.
Imagine if by the year 2100, America was 50% Muslim. That would be highly unlikely. It is significant to point out, however, that this sort of thing has happened in human history. While rare, it will probably happen again. Why? In a word, the answer is proselytization—the concept of consciously attempting to convert someone else to one’s own faith. Christians call this “evangelism” or “missions.”6
General statistics on the growth of Christianity
While Christianity is the largest faith today, this is not necessarily going to be the case forever; nor, obviously, has it always been the case. Christianity’s rise to global prominence can be traced through quarterly estimations, using the years 500, 1000, 1500, and 2000 as a guide.7
It began as a Jewish sect shortly after Christ’s death in the first century AD. Through the work of Paul and others it morphed, surprisingly, into an inclusive religion regardless of ethnicity. Missiologist Andrew Walls has called this the Ephesian Moment, “the social coming together of people of two cultures to experience Christ.” Walls cites Ephesians 2:22 as the rationale for why there could be only one Christian community, instead of two: “In union with him [Christyou too are being built together with all the others to a place where God lives through his Spirit.”8 Had the Ephesian Moment not occurred, Christianity would have remained, in all likelihood, an ethnic sect. But with the Ephesian Moment a new frontier opened. Gentiles were in. What began as a Jewish thing swiftly became a Gentile thing.
By the year 500 there were approximately 43 million Christians alive, which would have been about 20% of the world’s population.9 Rodney Stark argues for a sudden spike in Christian adherence between the years 250 and 300. In the year 250, Christianity was the religion of only 2% of the Roman Empire. In the year 300, Christianity claimed around 10% of the empire. By 350, well over half of the Roman Empire was at least nominally Christian. He writes, “40 percent per decade (or 3.42 percent per year) seems the most plausible estimate of the rate at which Christianity actually grew during the first several centuries.” As a comparison, this is remarkably similar to the average growth rate of the Mormon Church over the last century.10
In the year 1000, still, approximately 20% of the world was Christian. In spite of successful missionary campaigns into northern Europe and Central Asia, all the gains had been offset by mass Christian defections to Islam, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the year 1500, Christianity’s world market share had not changed much and was still hovering right around 20%. Things would soon change, however.
The year 1500 marks a period of major Christian expansion, particularly in the voyages of the Spanish and Portuguese to the Americas. Subsequent European empires established bridgeheads all over the world. From West Africa to East Asia, Christian Europeans—and later Christian North Americans—were sent out by the thousands in the name of Christianity and commerce. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain rose to become the unrivaled superpower in the world, on land and on sea, and it opened up many opportunities for British missionaries: safe travel, military protection, an English-language infrastructure, and unprecedented access to the peoples of these lands.
The era of European colonialism did not yield an immediate harvest, however. In the year 1800, Christianity was the religion of about 23% of the world’s population.11 In other words, from 1500 to 1800, Christian growth was mild. However, as Stark has shown, exponential growth eventually pays handsome dividends. By 1900, this number had increased to around 33%, where it has remained for over a century. Approximately one-third of humanity was Christian by 1900, when the modern heyday of Christian missions ceased.
Thus, the years 1800 to 1900 represent a second important spike upward in Christian adherence. The first spike—around the year 300—was a result of, in Stark’s words, “the rather extraordinary features of exponential curves.”12 The second spike had much more to do with Christian missions and proactive evangelization campaigns to convert non-Christian peoples to the faith.
So what about the future? Will Christianity grow? Will it die? Either scenario is possible.
Christianity: A Religion That Is “Moving South”
Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted in recent years. This phenomenon has caused a splash in the academic study of religion. The changes are astonishing. Christianity—by far the largest religion in the world today—has moved South. No longer is Christianity primarily a Northern or Western faith. The majority of Christians today live in the global South.
What is meant by that expression the “global South?” What scholars usually have in mind are Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Historically, other expressions have been used such as the third world, the two-thirds world, or the developing world. The preferred term today is the global South.
Christianity’s demographics changed radically in a short period of time, and few scholars were aware of the massive implications of these changes until quite recently. The watershed moment took place around 1980. For many centuries prior to 1980 over half of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. After 1980 the majority of the world’s Christians lived in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.13
Another key statistic illustrates Christianity’s move to the global South.14 In 1900, 82% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe or North America; only 18% of the world’s Christians were outside the Euro-North American block. In the year 2005, only 39% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe or North America. During that century, Christianity’s heartland moved south to the point that over 60% of the world’s Christians now live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
How did this shift to the global South happen? The most obvious answer is Christian missions. In modern times, there were two great waves of Christian missions: the Catholic wave in the 1500s and the Protestant wave in the 1800s. During these periods, Christian missionaries from the West launched massive, expensive, and focused campaigns to take the gospel to non-Western nations. Millions of people accepted the Christian gospel and themselves became missionaries to their own peoples.
Herein persists one of the great misconceptions of Christian missions. It is all too easy to think that Western missionaries “won” entire continents over to Jesus Christ. Without minimizing the heroic deeds of these Euro-North American missionaries, the people who received them deserve equal credit for spreading the faith. The mass movements that occurred during the great expansion of Christianity could not have happened without indigenous agents. How could a missionary even communicate with people of different cultures unless someone accepted him, protected him, fed him, taught him the language, and introduced him to others?
Western missionaries often arrived to these lands with few language skills, and local people had to help them in the very basics of survival. Upon arriving to these foreign shores, Europeans and North Americans needed guidance on how to survive: which plants could be eaten, how to find fresh water, with whom to trade, how to act appropriately, how not to offend people. A few key locals would eventually “accept” Jesus Christ as their lord. These converts then explained Christianity to their people. And in many cases it made sense to them.
Once Christianity took root, it often indigenized, shedding many of the cultural assumptions brought by missionaries. Naturally, many of the indigenous social and cultural norms became interwoven with Christian teachings. The mission churches were often very different from the churches back home in the USA or in Europe. Nevertheless, they were clearly attempting to be Christian churches. Looking back, we can say that the Western missionaries to the global South were successful. They planted Christianity while locals made it their own, resulting in thriving churches comprised of hundreds of millions of people all over the global South.
Alongside Christianity’s historic, geographical shift is the changing Christian ethos—the way the world’s Christians prefer to live out their faith. If present trends continue, the world’s Christians will continue to embrace Pentecostal, charismatic forms of the faith. And this change in Christianity’s ethos is directly linked to the indigenization of the faith. Pentecostal Christianity is growing apace in the world right now. One influential scholar, Paul Freston, writes:
Within a couple of decades, half of the world’s Christians will be in Africa and Latin America. By 2050, on current trends, there will be as many Pentecostals in the world as there are Hindus, and twice as many Pentecostals as Buddhists.15
Indeed, Pentecostal Christianity is one of the fastest growing religious movements in modern times. Harvey Cox is another scholar who has noticed these changes in the global church. His important work Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century was his attempt to make sense of these new developments.16 Both of these scholars recognize that Christianity is undergoing seismic changes that will have inevitable consequences. Most notable among the changes are: (1) Christianity is receding from Europe—its center of gravity for a millennium; (2) it is gaining ground in the global South; and (3) its changing ethos is reflecting the customs, beliefs, and worldviews of its host cultures in remarkable ways.
The Future of Christianity
Major changes are going on in Christianity today—changes that will impact the future of this religion forever. This is not altogether surprising. Christianity has always morphed, reformed, and spread to new places. For example, Christianity in Norway in the 1300s was very different than Christianity in Zambia in 2000. While the Christians in those places in those times held many of the same principles, they varied considerably in how to practice the faith, and how to interpret the Bible. The genius of Christianity is its adaptability, its borderlessness.17 It is always changing: geographically, theologically, liturgically, and socially. Religions are never stagnant; like cultures they defy rigid categories and definitions. Christianity has proven to be particularly adept at finding its way into new people groups.
Historian Lamin Sanneh often points out that the reason Christianity has succeeded in adapting is because it is based on a person, Jesus. In Christianity, God reveals God’s self as a human being. This is very different from other religions. In Islam, for example, God reveals God’s self through text. Thus, in Islam, a person must understand God’s words, the Quran, to understand God’s revelation. Christianity is different. While one may or may not read and understand a text, the key is to know the man Jesus. The text can help with that task, but by no means is the text equated with the revelation. Knowing Jesus is far more important than knowing the texts about him. In Islam, the text remains most critical to the faith. This is why Muslims must learn at least some Arabic. Christians, however, do not have to learn a particular language. They have to learn a man. And Christians in the global South are continually being introduced to this man, in many cases for the first time. China is today witnessing an epoch similar to what happened in the book of Acts. Many people are hearing—for the first time—about the life, the teachings, and “the way” of Jesus of Nazareth. This is an awesome development, especially considering the fact it is coming in the wake of one of the more punishingly atheistic epochs in recorded history.
Today, the notion of Christianity moving South is attracting more scholarly attention because the implications are huge. Christianity is the religion of one-third of the human race and the likelihood of this changing anytime soon is small because of higher fertility rates in the global South. Many Western nations have fertility rates that are in decline or soon will be such as in Germany, Denmark, the UK, France, and Italy.18 Eastern European nations are in steep decline—the governments of Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine have launched national baby-making programs that reward mothers of multiple children. Some have even referred to the extremely low fertility rate in Eastern Europe as an auto-genocide.19
Westerners commonly perceive the future of Christianity to be dire due to these once strongly Christian nations becoming less populated. However, the statistic that is rarely given attention is that Christianity is growing rapidly in other places—where there are high birth rates. Most Latin American countries easily replace themselves. African birth rates are the highest in the world. It is not uncommon for African women to have six children on average, which is indeed the case in several African nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Angola. Overall, because the high fertility of the global South offsets the low fertility of the global North, Christianity will continue to remain the largest religion in the world.
According to today’s fertility trends, Islam and Christianity will continue to grow their world market shares. Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions will likely shrink in terms of global percentage. While Hindus constitute 13% and Buddhists 6% of the global population, these numbers will almost inevitably decline.20
Some scholars comment that Islam is growing much more rapidly than Christianity; this conclusion is premature, however. There is little reason to assume that Muslim nations will have higher fertility rates than Christian nations in the global South. Many of the theories which claim Islam is rapidly gaining ground on Christianity neglect the paradigm shifts in Christian demography.
While Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are missionary religions, they grow mainly because of fertility. It is significant to point out that there have been watershed moments in history when entire people-groups converted to one religion or another, but they are exceptional. How will this play out in the future? Nobody knows. Religious growth is uncontrollable and unpredictable; the history of Christianity showcases this principle remarkably well. Only in retrospect can we discern what events were decidedly pivotal in the history of Christian faith. We can home in on four dates that proved epochal in four different parts of the world.
First, the year 312 marks Constantine’s victorious Battle at the Milvian Bridge in Rome which he accredited to Christ. Shortly thereafter, Constantine began to show favor for this previously illegal religion, issuing the Edict of Milan in the year 313. That Edict represented a pivot in the history of Christianity—from illegal to legal status.
Second, the year 988 was when Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity and began Christianizing the people of the great Russian land mass.
Third, 1492 marks the year Columbus’s discoveries had the effect of initiating a massive campaign to Christianize the people of the Americas.
Finally, 1807 is the year the Slave Trade Act passed in the parliament of the United Kingdom. Led by a devout, evangelical Protestant Christian named William Wilberforce, this monumental act marked what would become a vital link between England and sub-Saharan Africa—the next heartland of Christianity. The Atlantic slave trade began its long decline in that year and the African continent became a popular destination for British missionaries.
Throughout history, Christianity was usually transmitted by isolated Christians who might travel in pairs across long, lonely stretches of land to win a handful of souls to Christ. The remains of dedicated missionaries litter the world’s crust from California to Japan, all in the name of bearing good news, the gospel, to new people-groups. In the vast amount of cases, missionaries converted only a family or two, and perhaps started a small Bible study or humble worship assembly. But as mentioned earlier, it is local people who do most of the recruiting and the converting of their own compatriots to the newfound faith. The role of the missionary as a seed-planter and nurturer, however, should not be minimized. In the past and still today, missionaries play a strategic part by building on the work of their predecessors in the faith, faithfully serving their God in the best way they know how—by teaching stories of the Bible, administering the sacraments, reaching out to the needy, and offering their lives to the people they love and serve.
Today, Christianity is witnessing the fruits of the labors of those missionaries. The Christian faith has taken root in those lands where missionaries worked and died. As a result, the nature of Christianity is changing dramatically. We are today eyewitnesses of a universal, transcultural, multi-lingual religion that spans the entire breadth of the world’s surface. Of this phenomenon, historian Stephen Neill wrote in 1964:
It is only rarely that it is possible, in the history of the Church or in the history of the world, to speak of anything as being unmistakably new. But in the twentieth century one phenomenon has come into view which is incontestably new—for the first time there is in the world a universal religion, and that is the Christian religion.21
Christianity, in this sense, may be considered the first world religion.
The four largest religions in the world today are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Hinduism has never really been a missionary religion, and its growth is through fertility alone. The great era of Buddhist expansion to new lands is over, and its market share of the world’s inhabitants is in decline. Conversions to Islam are isolated. Islam is growing today, but that is almost wholly through fertility rates.
Christianity is different. As many in the Western world walk away from the Christian faith, this trend is offset by people actually converting from non-Christian to Christian in other parts of the world—most notably in China. Globally, one out of every five people lives inside the border of China. After decades of insularity, the great walls are falling, and this could affect religious demographics significantly. While it is too soon to predict just how eager the Chinese people are for Christ, the opportunities for Christian growth are obvious. If a major movement of Chinese Christians were to occur, it would alter the face of Christianity. At this stage, educated estimates of the number of Chinese Christians range between 5-10%.22 In other words, 100 million Chinese citizens might be Christians.
The Christians of China are known to be Protestant in the majority, and generally evangelical. While most of them are recent converts, they are proving to be skilled missionaries. What is most striking is their zeal, even in the face of government opposition. A cover article for the New York Times recently reported on a congregation in Beijing that raised the eyebrows of the governing authorities when it raised $4 million for a church building. The police raided, evicted them from their meeting place, and took the leaders into custody.23 Some highly ambitious Chinese Christians have decided to missionize the Middle East. One group, known as the “Back to Jerusalem” movement, describes itself as “God’s call to the Chinese church to complete the Great Commission.”24
The cross-cultural transmission of the faith is more creative and ambitious than ever. Christians are spreading their faith through mission work, literature, and all forms of high-tech multimedia. The phenomenally successful Jesus Film (1979) has been labeled the most watched motion picture of all time according to the New York Times and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).25 Created by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, the Jesus Film has purportedly been viewed six billion times in over a thousand languages. The official website claims that since 1979, over 225 million people have made decisions to follow Christ because of the film’s impact on them.26 If these statistics have credibility, then this film is easily one of the most effective evangelistic tools in the history of Christianity.
A few words must be said here about secularization—a concept that is commonly applied to the Western world, Western Europe in particular. Western Europe was for centuries linked to Latin-based Christianity—first for the Roman Catholic Church and after 1517 various Protestant forms of faith. Secularization has destroyed that link—at least for the time being. But still, in many ways, Western Europe seems bathed in Latin, Roman Christianity.
Statistically, Western Europe is Christian. In every single Western European nation, Christianity is the majority religion. Overall, Western European Christians are 63% Catholic, 36% Protestant, and less than 1% Orthodox. Only a tiny percentage of Western Europeans explicitly identify themselves as members of non-Christian religions. A small but growing percentage claims to be “non-religious”—around 15%.
While Western Europe may have a Christian majority, in no way is this region the center of Christianity any more. In 1900, eight of the world’s top ten Christian-populated countries were in Europe: Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, although the latter three are in Eastern Europe.27 There was little doubt, however: Europe, clearly, was the axis mundi for the Christian faith.
Today, the situation is completely different. In 2005, Germany was the lone Western European nation still on that list.28 Western Europeans do not attend church much anymore. In 2006, Pope Benedict went to his native Germany—a country where less than 15% of the population attends Mass—and warned, “We are no longer able to hear God. . . . God strikes us as pre-scientific, no longer suited for our age.”29 Perhaps Philip Jenkins said it best:
Europe is demonstrably not the Faith. The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning. The fact of change itself is undeniable: it has happened, and will continue to happen.30
Why did this occur? Why did Western Europe, apparently, get up and walk away from faith? This is a big question, and many historians, theologians, and social scientists are still trying to make sense of it.
Many have argued that secularization is rooted in the social shocks brought on by the Protestant Reformation. One of the most important consequences of the Reformation was the rise of national identities. Luther paved the way to nation-states by undermining religious authority and triggering a long period of violence and instability. In 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia stopped the bleeding of the Thirty Years War with the dictum: cuius regio, eius religio, “whose realm, (use) his religion.” If your king is Catholic, be Catholic. If he’s Protestant, follow his lead. It may have stopped the war, but it did so at the expense of religious conviction, suggesting a sort of religious relativism. Are Catholics or Protestants the true Christians? Well, it depends on where you live. Not too satisfying for the seeker of truth.
In histories of Christianity, the Treaty of Westphalia is generally treated as a documented beginning for European secularization. Today, however, the concept of secularization is much more complex. It has come to be understood as a cultural movement that marginalizes faith. It challenges the assumption that religion is good for society. Like the Treaty of Westphalia, secularization is essentially a living argument that religions need to back off in order for society to be free and peaceful. Perhaps more than anything else, it is an erasure of the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Religious holidays become downplayed, sacred places lose their religious quality, and the influence of the clergy becomes drastically reduced. It is common today to visit Western Europe and see churches turned into pubs, stores, warehouses, even mosques.
Why did this happen? There are many answers, but we can highlight the most obvious:
- Nationalism: the nation-state supplanted the role of the Pope. People began to identify with the ruler of the land rather than the authorities of faith, due to cuius regio, eius religio.
- Urbanization: people moved to the cities. There was a breakdown in the old agrarian structure of society. In the city, people are anonymous. There is less accountability. Individuals choose how they want to believe rather than how their community expects them to believe. Quite naturally, this also affects behavior.
- Individualism: Luther’s legacy persists—a deep questioning and a need to return to the sources (ad fontes). Nothing is true except that which I can independently confirm to be true. Religious authority takes a beating.
- Scientific advance: experimentation takes precedence to religious tradition. There results an erosion of confidence in religious texts, clergy, and institutions. Truth is determined by demonstration and experimentation, not by conformity to social codes or religious norms.
- Religious pluralism: the Italian circumnavigators and Catholic missionaries began to encounter people from vastly different cultures in Latin America, Africa, India, and China. These people did not have Christianity, and some of them seemed to be doing fine without it.
These are some of the larger, contextual pieces of a puzzle that still confounds scholars. However, it is far from a complete picture. For example, Peter Berger, in his classic The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, persuasively argues that humans in the West are discontent because of mass bureaucratization. He writes that many humans no longer feel connected to their families due to migratory trends. Humans who change contexts are in many ways socially homeless, living a confused existence, “a world in which everything is in constant motion.”31
What is the net result? The result is that religion in the Western world is in serious crisis. “The age-old function of religion—to provide ultimate certainty amid the exigencies of the human condition—has been severely shaken.” Berger provides a label for this predicament: “social homelessness.”32
The reality of the basic premise of the secularization thesis is undeniable—Western Europeans do not go to church like they used to, and most of them know little about Christianity. However, what does this mean? Scholars do not really know. Are Western Europeans actually less religious, or are they simply avoiding the institutional structures of religion? Every single Western European nation has secularized, if by that we mean church participation has fallen precipitously. There are several other key indicators to illustrate the secularization thesis:
- Policy making takes place separate and apart from the churches;
- Schools are not in the hands of the clergy;
- Charitable, benevolent welfare is largely in the hands of the state;
- Hospitals are not controlled by the churches;
- Church attendance is, in most cases, under 10% of the population in Western Europe.33
The question persists, however: Why? Some scholars tend to think in Marxist terms: when the needs of the people are met, religion will simply wither away. While there is credibility to this view, there are so many counterexamples. The USA remains a vibrantly religious culture but is economically on a par with Western Europe.
The long decline of religion in Western Europe continues today. It is evidently a cultural juggernaut. Attendance rates are at their lowest in history, and there is little evidence to suggest a turnaround. In the late twentieth century, about 40% of Western Europeans claimed they “never” attended church.34 Grace Davie, a noted scholar of secularization in Western Europe, wrote, “An ignorance of even the basic understandings of Christian teaching is the norm in modern Europe, especially among young people.”35 A study in 2011 claimed religion may soon go extinct in nine countries.36
There are some creative theories, however, such as Graeme Smith’s, which call the secularization thesis into question. Smith argues a fascinating idea—that secularization is simply Christianity in disguise. He writes:
Secularism is not the end of Christianity. Rather, we should think of secularism as the latest expression of the Christian religion. . . . Secularism is Christian ethics [without] its doctrine. It is the ongoing commitment to do good, understood in traditional Christian terms, without a concern for the technicalities of the teachings of the Church. . . . Secularism in the West is a new manifestation of Christianity, but one that is not immediately obvious because it lacks the usual scaffolding we associate with the Christian religion.37
Graeme Smith is not alone in this claim. Anthropologist Jonathan Benthall argues a highly nuanced thesis that says, essentially, religion never went away. For all this talk about Europe secularizing, the propensity for religiosity is universal and intrinsic to our species, and nothing has changed that. Humanitarian movements, strikingly similar to Christianity’s prophetic voice of justice, are clearly a modern outworking of religious tendencies. In other words, religion is not receding in Western Europe; it is being reinvented.
Benthall argues that religion is very difficult to define. If we define religion as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, then sure, religion seems to be less prominent in Western Europe. However, if the definition of religion is opened up to include concepts such as social justice, environmental activism, charity, and civility, then religion in Western Europe has merely adapted itself to suit a scientifically advanced context created by modernization and scientific methods. While miracles may have been expelled in this worldview, the longing to heal people through medicine has not. Both of these approaches are rooted in a deep and abiding human orientation towards religion.38
Grace Davie argues that while Western Europeans tend not to belong to a church, they still believe in many identifiably Christian teachings. Her idea has become known as the “believing without belonging” thesis.39
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), while awaiting execution in a Nazi prison, famously wrote about the future of Christianity in Europe. Bonhoeffer foresaw a secular future for Europe. He was partially reacting to how his fellow countrymen could have possibly allowed Hitler’s rise to power—in a supposedly Christianized Germany. Bonhoeffer struggled with the meaning of Christianity as a religion. In his view, the future of Christianity in Europe was a “religion-less” Christianity.40
Hasn’t the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Aren’t we really under the impression that there are more important things than that question? I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that. But, fundamentally, isn’t this in fact biblical? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the Old Testament at all? Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything?41
Bonhoeffer envisioned a Christianity that was a lifestyle more than it was an institution. Even the doctrine of God was to be radically reoriented in an age when man has come of age and abandoned religion: “God as a working hypothesis, as a stop-gap for our embarrassments, has become superfluous.”42
If Bonhoeffer was right, then perhaps Christianity as an organized religion in Western Europe will indeed cease to exist. Maybe the Christianity of the future will be a Christ-like ethic, a sensitive and humane treatment of others, with compassionate social institutions, but without rituals, clergy, and buildings? Perhaps the future of Christianity will be kindness, love, and justice, without the constant prodding of the church?
While Western Europe continues to secularize, we would be remiss if we did not point out that there are faithful remnants scattered about the land, bearing a witness for a somewhat ghostly Christian past. In addition, immigration and reverse missions have led to new churches that are growing. London has several megachurches, and most of them are either African or Caribbean. Kiev, Ukraine, is home to the Pentecostal megachurch Embassy of God, led by Sunday Adelaja, a young Nigerian-born pastor. This church has now expanded to 35 countries.
There are thriving traditional churches as well, such as Holy Trinity Brompton, where, in the 1990s, Nicky Gumbel transformed the Alpha Course into a worldwide phenomenon for introducing the Christian faith to non-Christians—kind of ironic in a historically Christian city like London. Indeed, Gumbel recognized that his fellow Londoners had almost no idea about even the very basics of the Christian faith.
Western Europe is today no valley of dry bones. While the vast majority of people do not attend church, there are still bastions of Christian witness. For example, the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, is the hub for the largest Christian network in the world, and the flagship for the interdenominational ecumenical movement. Pentecostal churches are popping up all over the region, as in virtually all corners of the globe. Immigrant churches (and mosques) are full and growing, with few signs of becoming secular like their native counterparts. Thus, in many ways the ancient Christian faith is still alive in former Christendom.
Nevertheless, there is no way to predict what will happen in Western Europe. For all the talk about the rise of Christianity in the global South, it is perhaps just as likely that Christianity may, one day, rise up again in Western Europe, perhaps only in a different guise.
We cannot predict what will happen globally, either. Religions die, they flourish, and they pulsate back and forth, assimilating aspects of new and old cultures. For all we know there might be a new religion on the horizon that will take the world by storm at some point in the future. Perhaps the bizarre religion of “Chrislam”—a fusion of Islam and Christianity that has occurred in parts of Nigeria—is not altogether surprising considering the religious strife in a country that is about half Muslim and half Christian.43
Whatever the case, we do know this: Christianity is rather young, only 2000 years. And for those two millennia, it has grown, albeit in a punctuated way. In the beginning, it was a Jewish sect, marginal to another religion. Today, it claims the devotion of one out of three humans on the planet. Its rise has been gradual. And its future appears secure if history is in any way a useful measuring stick.
Dyron B. Daughrity is Associate Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. He is the author of numerous academic articles, book reviews, and book chapters, as well as two books, the most recent of which is The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (Peter Lang, 2010). He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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1 I am grateful to my home institution, Pepperdine University, as well as Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India, for the opportunity to present this paper. Faculty members from both institutions offered helpful feedback. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers at Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis for reading and commenting on the paper.
2 The percentages of world religious adherents are widely available, and there is slight variation in reputable sources as there is no one authoritative database. Currently, three of the most comprehensive sources for worldwide religious statistics are the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the government of the United States of America, the World Christian Encyclopedia—a resource originally intended for Christian academics in the 1980s but has evolved into a major source for world religion due to its statistical rigor, and the website Adherents.com. The CIA World Factbook lists Christianity as 33.32%, Islam as 21.01%, Hinduism as 13.26%, Buddhism as 5.84%. Every other religion is less than half a percent. For example, Sikhism is listed fifth with .35%. See https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook. The World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE) was last printed in the year 2001 but continues to update its statistics through an academic website associated with Brill Publishing called the World Christian Database. See http://www.worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd. The 2001 edition of the WCE lists Christianity as 33.0%, Islam as 19.6%, Hinduism as 13.4%, and Buddhism as 5.9%. The WCE also groups the various Chinese religions under one heading, “Chinese folk-religionists,” and has that category listed as 6.4%. Adherents.com has two advantages: it draws from 43,000 different surveys into its overall numbers, and it rounds off the numbers in order to avoid tenths of percentages. Adherents.com lists Christianity as 33%, Islam as 21%, Hinduism as 14%, and Buddhism as 6%. It is important to note that the well-known and respected Pew Forum has begun a major research project to map the religious world, country by country. Pew Forum injected new life into discussions of religious statistics when they figured Islam constitutes 23% of the world’s population. This statistic for Islam is rather high and is attracting scholarly attention. See www.pewforum.org.
3 Harm De Blij, The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 57.
4 John Hick wrote, “Consider a very obvious fact, so obvious that it is often not noticed, and hardly ever taken into account by theologians. This is that in the vast majority of cases, probably 98 or 99%, the religion to which anyone adheres depends upon where they are born.” John Hick, “Believable Christianity,” John Hick: The Official Website, http://www.johnhick.org.uk/article16.html.
6 An excellent article on the history of the term “missions” (as evangelization) is Paul Kollman, “At the Origins of Mission and Missiology: A Study in the Dynamics of Religious Language,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 2 (June 2011): 425-458. Kollman credits the term “mission,” in the sense it is used today, to Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century.
7 For quarterly estimates of world Christian population, see David B. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 7. For academic evaluations of the WCE and World Christian Database (WCD), see Norwegian Social Science Data Services, “World Christian Database,” MacroData Guide: An International Social Science Resource, http://www.nsd.uib.no/macrodataguide/set.html?id=47&sub=1. One evaluation, Michael McClymond, “Making Sense of the Census, or, What 1.999.563.838 Christians Might Mean for the Study of Religion” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70, no. 4 (December 2002): 875-890, says the WCE is “generally even-handed,” “fairly balanced,” and “usually neutral.” Perhaps the best evaluation of the WCD is Becky Hsu, et al., “Estimating the Religious Composition of All Nations: An Emperical Assessment of the WorldChristian Database,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47, no. 4 (December 2008): 678-693, http://www.princeton.edu/~bhsu/Hsu2008.pdf. They write: “On the whole we find that the WCD is reliable.”
8 Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 76, 78. Emphasis original.
9 Rodney Stark estimates the Christian population to have been around 34 million in the year 350. See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton, NJ: HarperCollins, 1997), 6.
10 See ibid., 8.
11 Wilbert Shenk, ed., Enlarging the Story: Perspectives on Writing World Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), xi–xiii.
12 Stark, 7.
13 Shenk, xii. We must point out that Christianity was actually more of an Eastern faith until well into the second millennium AD. In other words, Christianity was more affiliated with the Eastern side of the Roman Empire and Central Asia until 1100 or so.
14 Mary Farrell Bednarowski, ed., Twentieth-Century Global Christianity, A People’s History of Christianity 7 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 32–33.
15 Paul Freston, “The Changing Face of Christian Proselytizing: New Actors from the Global South Transforming Old Debates,” in Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets and Culture Wars, ed. Rosalind Hackett (London: Equinox, 2008), ch. 5.
16 Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995).
17 See Dyron Daughrity, The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).
18CIA World Factbook, Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, continually updated, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook. France hovers just under the two-children-per-woman mark, but the others are far from that benchmark.
19 Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, The Future of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 6.
20 Fertility rates combined with compounding growth are critical concepts for understanding future demographic trends. In other words, there comes a point where a religion’s market share will inevitably decline unless it manages to gain numbers by extraordinary fertility rates or by large numbers of conversions—which is rare. As numbers compound, the likelihood of percentage growth in minority religions rapidly declines. For example, well over two billion people in the world are today Christian and well over one billion are Muslim. It will become increasingly difficult for religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Judaism to claim a greater market share in the future because of the compounding numbers of these two gigantic religions. Unless the minority religions are able to claim a higher fertility rate than Christianity and Islam, their percentage of the world population will decrease in all likelihood. There are other variables involved such as the age of the women when they have children (cultures with younger mothers will multiply quicker), life-expectancy, and success at converting others to their faith. But even when those variables are considered, the staggering growth that results from compounding numbers becomes a statistical juggernaut.
21 Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Mission (London: Pelican Books, 1964), 559.
22 See See Brian Grim, “Religion in China on the Eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” Pew Research Center Publications, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/827/china-religion-olympics. Pew Forum refers to statistics from the World Christian Database and the Global China Center in addition to its own independent research. The WCD estimates 70 million unaffiliated Christians, while the Global China Center estimates 50 million Christians. According to Pew Forum, the Chinese government recognizes 21 million registered Christians. It is generally held that the unaffiliated churches are much larger than the state-sanctioned churches.
23 Andrew Jacobs, “Illicit Church, Evicted, Tries to Buck Beijing,” Asia Pacific, NYTimes.com, April 17, 2011,
25 Franklin Foer, “Baptism by Celluloid,” Movies, NYTimes.com, February 8, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/08/movies/baptism-by-celluloid.html?pagewanted=all; Giles Wilson, “The most watched film in history,” BBC News Online Magazine, July 21, 2003, located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3076809.stm (accessed August 27, 2009).
27 Bednarowski, 33.
29 Ian Fisher, “Pope Warns Against Secularization in Germany,” Europe, NYTimes.com, September 10, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/10/world/europe/11pope.web.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1.
30 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, rev. and expanded ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 3.
31 Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (New York: Random House, 1973), 163–67, quoted in Noel Davies and Martin Conway, World Christianity In the 20th Century, SCM Core Text (London: SCM Press, 2008), 203.
32 Ibid., 204.
33 On the decline of church attendance throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, see Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1994) and Hugh McLeod, Secularization in Western Europe, 1848–1914 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
34 Grace Davie, “Europe: The Exception That Proves the Rule?,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter Berger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 69.
35 Ibid., 83.
36 Jason Palmer, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says,” BBC Online, 22 March 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12811197.
37 Graeme Smith, A Short History of Secularism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008), 2–3.
38 See Jonathan Benthall, Returning to Religion: Why a Secular Age is Haunted by Faith (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008).
39 Davie, Religion in Britain.
40 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 280-281, 285-286, 380-381.
41 Ibid., 286.
42 Ibid., 381.
43 See, e.g., Fred De Sam Lazaro, “Chrislam,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/february-13-2009/chrislam/2236.