Christianity, by the numbers

For twenty years, David Barrett’s “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission” (available in the quarterly International Bulletin of Missionary Research) has offered a numerical cornucopia to anyone interested in pondering the state of Christianity, and indeed of religious belief, throughout the world. Even for the statistically-challenged (like me), two large conclusions jump out from Dr. Barrett’s 2005 table.

The first is the good news: as a global phenomenon, Christianity is by no means withering away under the assault of modernization; the only exception is Europe, where Christian decline is the rule. The not-so-good news, from the point of view of Matthew 28:19 and the “Great Commission” (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …”), is that Christianity’s impressive absolute growth in the last century is not matched by its relative growth: Christianity claims a slightly smaller percentage of world population today than it did in 1900.

Of the 6.4 billion people on Planet Earth, some 2.1 billion, or 33.1%, are Christians of one sort or another. As there were only some 558 million Christians in the world in 1900, the absolute growth of Christianity is, as I say, impressive. But because world population has grown at a somewhat faster pace than Christianity, Christianity’s relative position has slipped a bit since 1900, when Christians represented some 34.5% of world population.

David Barrett divides the Christian world into what he calls “ecclesiastical megablocs.” Of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians, 1.1 billion are Catholics, 375 million are Protestants, 219 million are Orthodox, and 79 million are Anglicans. 34 million are “marginal Christians” (who believe in a revelation in addition to the Bible or who have off-brand views on Christ or the Trinity — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Swedenborgians, Theosophists, Mormons, etc.). The remaining 426 million — the second largest “megabloc” — are “Independents,” which Barrett defines as those Christians “separated from, uninterested in, and independent of historic denominational Christianity” (think of the explosive growth of house churches and new micro-denominations in Africa and Latin America). 59% of the world’s Christians live in cities, a dramatic change from 29% in 1900.

Europe, including Russia, still claims the largest absolute number of Christians (531 million); but Europe is also the only continent where Christian numbers are declining now and will likely decline for the foreseeable future. Latin America claims the second largest number of Christians (511 million), while Africa (2.36% growth per year) and Asia (2.64% growth per year) are the fastest growing parts of the Christian world. Indeed, Christian growth in Africa is nothing short of astonishing: there were 8.7 million African Christians in 1900; there are 389 million African Christians today; and Barrett projects almost 600 million African Christians by 2025 (when Europe’s Christian population will have fallen to 513 million).

Many of the numbers, then, are encouraging: 54.3% of the world’s population was unevangelized in 1900, compared to 27.9% today. Yet for all that growth, the implementation of the “Great Commission” seems to have stalled. By 2025, world population will be 7.8 billion, with a total Christian population of 2.6 billion — a very, very modest relative growth of 0.05% over the next quarter-century. Meanwhile, the world Islamic population is expected to climb from 1.3 billion to 1.8 billion — almost certainly because of higher birthrates rather than conversions, but the fact remains that Christianity is growing at a decidedly slower pace than the other great world religion with global, culture-forming claims and ambitions. What would happen, though, if China opens itself to Christian mission in the next quarter-century?

In addition to these big picture numbers and trends, the Barrett “Status of Global Mission 2005″ report is chock-full of interesting detail. Did you know that giving to Christian causes will reach $340 billion this year? Or that 440 million computers are in “Christian use”? Or that 68.4 million Bibles will be distributed in 2005 (up from 25 million in 1970)? Or that you are reading one of the world’s 43,000 Christian periodicals? Or that there are 2.3 billion monthly listeners to Christian broadcasting?

All of which amounts to a very complex story, replete with promise but also with danger.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”