When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method. Both collate everything available from government censuses, polls and social science surveys. But the CSGC emphasizes churches’ own reports and adds insider information from missionaries, “parachurch” organizations and its international network of contacts. It says those added sources are crucial for including easily overlooked small  groups and for depicting nations like China and India, where political or cultural pressure, or outright persecution, cause Christians to downplay or hide their growth.

Thus CSGC, rejecting data from China’s atheistic regime, says the two largest Protestant bodies in the world currently are that nation’s “house churches” among the Han people, with 82.4 million followers, and the government-authorized Three-Self Patriotic Movement, with 26 million. CSGC predicts that Christians in China and India will total 330 million in 2050 vs. Pew’s estimate of 108 million.

For more on methods, see “The World’s Religions in Figures” (2013, Wiley-Blackwell), co-authored by CSGC Director Todd Johnson.  

Since CSGC is part of an evangelical Protestant seminary, it’s naturally knowledgeable on that complex movement, which it puts at around 300 million believers. The center defines evangelicalism as denominations or individual congregations “characterized by commitment to personal religion (including new birth or personal conversion experience), reliance on Holy Scripture as the only basis for faith and Christian living, emphasis on preaching and evangelism, and usually on conservatism in theology.”

The Gordon-Conwell center (not to be confused with a similarly named center associated with Nyack College)  carries on the research project that Church of England missionary David Barrett inaugurated in Kenya in 1965. The result was the 1982 and 2001 editions of the ground-breaking “World Christian Encyclopedia,” edited by Barrett.  

For the past five years CSGC has been preparing a third edition of the encyclopedia, scheduled for publication next year by Edinburgh University Press. This is a must-buy for all media organizations with the sophistication to have a basic library, since it will provide statistics and descriptions for every religious group within every country on earth. If trends for all world religions are a story of interest, you might wait and peg a package to that release.

We see further shifts in Diamant’s list of countries with the 10 largest Christian and Muslim populations in 2015 compared with 2060.  For both years, the United States boasts the biggest Christian population. Communist China, post-Communist Russia and Germany are among today’s biggest Christian nations (along with Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, Nigeria, Congo and Ethiopia) but  will  disappear from the top 10 by 2060, while Tanzania and Uganda join.

With Islam, Indonesia is today’s largest nation, followed by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Algeria. But by 2060 India is predicted to have the world’s largest Muslim population even as it also, and not surprisingly, has the largest Hindu population. Afghanistan is predicted to join Islam’s top 10 while Algeria drops out.

For such articles, and for your source list otherwise, note that CSGC and Pew co-sponsor the continually updated World Religion Database, available by online subscription. 

Here are some contact points: Pew’s media contact is 202-419-4372. The CSGC is at 978-468-2750 or info@globalchristianity.org or to Johnson at tjohnson@gordonconwell.edu. Also note CSGC Associate Director Gina Zurlow atgzurlo@gordonconwell.edu, a fellow at Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs  and co-editor of its Journal of Religion and Demography

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