Center for the Study of Global Christianity

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

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.

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Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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How fares Protestantism upon its 500th anniversary? Depends on where you look

How fares Protestantism upon its 500th anniversary? Depends on where you look

Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College (Illinois) furrowed many a brow with an April 28 Washington Post warning that “if current trends continue” without letup, Americans active in “Mainline” Protestant churches will reach zero by Easter 2039.

Talk about timing.

That bleak forecast -- mitigated by U.S. “Evangelical” Protestants’ relative stability -- comes in the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. This massive split in Christianity was sparked by a protest petition posted by 34-year-old German friar and professor Martin Luther on All Souls’ Eve (October 31) of 1517.

The Protestant scenario is rosy at the world level, however, according to anniversary tabulations by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a standard resource for statistics and trend lines from 1900 to the present (media contact here).  

Director Todd Johnson scanned the situation for Stetzer’s blog at with a 500-year infographic summary (.pdf here).

The CSGC anniversary report is especially useful because Pew Research Center’s comprehensive April update on world religions had numbers for Christianity as a whole but did not break out the Protestant segment. Pew does offer an estimate that 37 percent of the world’s Christians are Protestant if you include Anglicans and the burgeoning “Independents” in the developing world.

CSGC counts Anglicans as Protestant but treats the Independents, non-existent until the 20th Century, as a new, large, expanding and separate Christian branch from Protestantism. Despite some similarities, such churches lack direct ties with historic Protestant denominations.

From its 1517 start, Protestantism grew to claim 133 million followers in 1900, nearly doubled that by 1970, and more than doubled again to reach an estimated 560 million this year, with a projected 626 million by 2025. The faith exists in nearly all the globe’s 234 nations and territories.

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Big picture: Will global Islam overtake Christianity by 2050?

Big picture: Will global Islam overtake Christianity by 2050?

The Pew Research Center scored ample ink at GetReligion and elsewhere with its important April report on global trends that all religion writers will want to keep on file: “The Future of World Religions: Growth Projections, 2010–2050" (.pdf file here). The 245-page publication provides religious population estimates as of 2050 for each of the 198 nations and territories that have  populations of 100,000 and above, by calculating such factors as birth rates, age distribution, migration, life expectancy and  rates of switching between religions in 70 nations for which we have data.

The headline item was the Pew team’s estimate that “by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30 percent of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31 percent), possibly for the first time in history.” (Pew explains that Muslims might have outnumbered Christians sometime between 1000 and 1600 as Muslim forces repeatedly invaded Christian strongholds and the Black Death decimated Europe. But we’ll never know because estimates for the Middle Ages are “fraught with uncertainty.”)

The most significant response to Pew’s report (.pdf file here) comes from another essential resource for journalists, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  That analysis tapped the annual CSGC survey for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, which was expanded this time to include projections to 2050 (.pdf file here).  This center, which the Religion Guy recently visited, provides statistics for various reference books and has just began work on a 3d edition of its World Christian Encyclopedia.

As of 2050, CSGC projects a slightly lower global count than Pew for Muslims at 2.7 billion, and a considerably higher 3.4 billion for Christians.

Why the disparity?

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