Christianity by the Numbers: What Do New Projections Say About the Future of Religion?

The failure of Christian evangelization could prove to be an interesting development for Christianity over the next 35 years, said George Weigel.

(photo: CNA/Grey World via Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

WASHINGTON — Can numbers say something about the future of Christianity? George Weigel thinks so.

Weigel claims the past and present — together with a numeric projection about the future — can reveal something about what might happen to Christianity globally over the next 35 years.

The "Status of Global Christianity," a study recently published by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research,  illustrates a timeline from 1900-2050 and makes projections about Christians through the next generation. The study highlighted some high and low numbers across the globe.

Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, found that three groups in particular were creating a unique phenomenon: Christians in Africa, urban Christians and charismatic Christians.

Weigel, in a Feb. 25 column at First Things, pointed out that by 2050 there will be as many Christians in Africa as there are in Latin America and Europe combined — totaling to a projection of 1.2 billion. Africa has shown exponential Christian growth over the past century, revealing a promising future for Christianity on the continent.

Christians living in urban areas are projected to decline by 6% by 2050, making their total number 59%. However, Christianity made an urban comeback this century at 65% today, compared to only 29% in 1900.

Although there are approximately 644 million Pentecostal and charismatic Christians today, that number is expected to reach well over 1 billion over the next 35 years, making it one of the fastest-growing groups in the religious world today.

“These three phenomena — African growth, urbanization and the rise of Pentecostalism — also help account, I suspect, for the greater fragmentation of the Christian world,” stated Weigel, adding that the rise of “entrepreneurial Christianity” — that is, founding one’s own church — is contributing to these three staggering numbers.

“That helps explain why the number of Christian denominations grew from 1,600 in 1900 to 45,000 today, with projections of 70,000 in 2050,” he continued, saying that this entrepreneurial Christian attitude will also be partially responsible for what Christianity will look like in 2050.

Although some commendable Christian growth is anticipated globally, there is also an equally declining number that has been exposed within European countries.

For example, in Europe, Christianity has dropped by 43% since 1900, making its current Christian population only 23%; Christianity within Europe is expected to drop even more by 2050.

“It’s worth noting that, in a century of dramatic, aggregate Christian growth, European Christianity had the lowest annualized growth rate (.16%),” Weigel pointed out.

He added that in 1900 “there were some 267 million Catholics in the world. … Today, the world Church counts 1.2 billion members, with a projected growth to 1.6 billion by the middle of the century. Yet in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Catholicism was displaced by Islam as the world’s largest religious community, as the global Muslim population grew from 571 million in 1970 to today’s 1.7 billion.”

There is some good news about the global human condition that ought to be kept in mind when remembering the bad news of the past and current century, Weigel stated, pointing to the projection that 88% of adults will be literate in a world of 9.5 billion in 2050, compared to only 27% in 1900.

In addition to this accomplishment, 89% of the 7.3 billion human beings today profess religious beliefs, while only 2% are atheists, and 9% are agnostics.

“Chief Poobah of the New Atheists Richard Dawkins and his friends are not exactly winning the day,” he continued.

However, even if the majority of humans around the world profess religion, only 14% of non-Christians know a Christian: This means that 86% of non-Christians do not even have a Christian acquaintance, shedding light on the current problem of Christian isolation.

This failure of Christian evangelization could prove to be an interesting development for Christianity over the next 35 years, Weigel indicated.

“Christianity seems stuck in something of a rut,” Weigel said, pointing to the fact that Christians make up 33% of the global population today and will probably only see a 3% increase by 2050.

“There’s a lot of work to do in fulfilling the Great Commission,” Weigel concluded, “especially with those who have no contact with the faith.”

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