Christianity, by the numbers

George Weigel

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: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.