Among the highlights: 2007 to 2013 has seen a rapid increase in those who categorize themselves as “not religious,” nearly doubling from 12% to 23%. There’s also been an eleven-point swing in the percentage of people who say they are absolutely, mostly, or somewhat certain there is a God: from 79% to 68%
And by thriving, I mean — as Skye Jethani does — growing numerically at a rapid pace. In a recent post at Out of Ur, Jethani discusses the sustained trend of decline that American Christianity is experiencing. This fact causes deep anxiety for American evangelicals and other sorts of Christians, and evangelicals typically have two things they say to each other as a means of calming themselves down. The first thing is some theological variant of “God is in control and everything will be all right.” I won’t spend my time arguing the theology of the issue, so I’ll let that pass.
The second thing evangelicals say is, “Christianity may be in decline in the United States,” and some evangelicals might add a mention of Europe’s post-Christian state, “but worldwide Christianity is experiencing an exciting worldwide revival.” In Jethani’s recent article “The Church is Dead . . . Long Live the Church!“, Jethani trots out variants of both evangelical responses to church decline. Here’s the bit I’m interested in:
Recent numbers I saw indicate that [in the United States] about 50 churches are closing ever [sic] week, church attendance is not keeping pace with population growth, and the average age of church members is going up. These facts, like the ones reported by the SBC last week, are what make us think the church is dying. And the truth is some churches are dying and others reached room temperature years ago. But that doesn’t mean the Church is dying.
My time in Cape Town, South Africa, last October made that abundantly clear. I was attending the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization with about 4,000 other delegates from over 200 countries. The evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, show the global church is more than surviving…it’s thriving! Some of the growth may be attributed to strategic planning on the part of Western churches and missions agencies in the early 20th century. But what we heard again and again were the unexpected and even miraculous ways in which the church has been planted, germinated, fed, and nurtured.
Jethani assures of the existence of “evidence, both scientific and anecdotal” which shows that, worldwide, Christianity is “more than surviving . . . it’s thriving.” What this evidence consists of, Jethani does not tell us. And so we can either “take it on faith” that Jethani has seen clear evidence — but does not wish to share it — that the global church is thriving, or we can go to a source which has actually been compiling actual numbers on the size and growth of the global church. The best such source, as far as I know, is Operation World, which keeps handy online country-by-country demographic and religious profiles with a special focus on Christianity in general and evangelical Protestantism specificially. You can find Operation World’s numbers online: here.
When I was a wee little laddie around the turn of the millennium, I had a copy of, if I remember correctly, the Operation World book for 1993. In 1993, it was certainly true to say that globally, the church was thriving. A state of mild decline among the billion or so white people of the United States plus Europe was being more than offset by the approximately 4.5 billion people on the world’s other continents, among whom the evangelical version of the faith was growing as fast as 4.5% per year.
However, since then, the growth of Christianity has ground to a halt worldwide. According to the latest Operation World (2010), this is where world Christianity is:
Largest Religion: Christian
|Religion||Pop %||Ann Gr|
Answer to Prayer
Evangelical Christianity grew at a rate faster than any other world religion or global religious movement. The post-WWII surge of evangelical missions was an astonishing success story, but most of the subsequent growth came from a new generation of indigenous evangelical movements around the world. Evangelicals numbered 89 million (2.9%) in 1960, but by 2010 they were 546 million (7.9%). The growth rate peaked around 1990 at 4.5%. With population growth rates for the world generally in decline, it is almost inevitable that all other rates will see a relative decline as well. Without an amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, such growth cannot be sustained.
For those not schooled in the peculiar jargon of the evangelical tribe, that last sentence means, “Unless the laws which normally control human affairs are magically suspended, the already slow growth of world Christianity cannot be sustained.” And that’s quite a statement, as the current growth rate of world Christianity is only enough to keep up with population growth. A fall in that rate would mean a decrease in the percentage of the world that is Christian.
How is it that Jethani is convinced of scientific and anecdotal evidence at odds with what Operation World has found? I can’t say for sure, seeing that Jethani has not shared this information with us, but my guess is that if the evidence for the growth of global Christianity presented at the Lausanne Conference leans heavily toward anecdotes of conversions and local explosions of Christianity, without any serious attempt figure out what the net situation is after deconversions and driftings-away-from-the-faith are accounted for. That, at least, is the presentation style I’ve seen at all the Christian conferences I attended during my first two decades, back when I was an evangelical.
Though a statistical look at the worldwide extent of Christianity is difficult even for a single country, there’s enough country by country information that the rough outlines of the situation can be drawn. No matter what source of data you go to, there has been a marked slow-down in world evangelization over the last two decades.
And whether Christianity is exactly at a standstill (as Operation World data for 2010 indicates), still growing a little, or even in decline (as I think it is), the future looks dim. And it looks dim because, when you go through the countries of the world, one by one, and look at the state of Christianity in each of them, an unmistakeable pattern emerges. Christianity is falling wherever people live about seventy years, have access to education for all children, and live in relative safety, food security, and adequate healthcare. Christianity is still growing where people have lifespans of fifty-some years, where many people cannot read, worry about their next meal, experience high levels of violence, and consider witch doctors an important component of healthcare.
In short, Christianity is receding in well-developed countries, and disappearing in under-developed countries. Unfortunately for the spread of Christianity, many of the most miserable places to live, generally in sub-Saharan Africa, are already majority-Christian, and don’t have a whole lot of people left to convert to Christianity, or they are majority-Muslim, and thus really, really hard to convert. Even more unfortunately for the spread of Christianity, the world is becoming wealthier, quickly. The average person’s standard of living, worldwide, has increased 70% in the last three decades, and things continue to improve.
The countries where people still experience the sorts of misery that Christianity feeds on number fewer and fewer. This has caused Christian growth worldwide to stall, and will likely cause Christianity to begin shrinking in the near future. Is the global church thriving? It is not. And things look like they’re only going to get worse.
For more on the trends being experienced by Christianity worldwide, see here.
I have a habit of doing methodologically dubious back-of-the-envelope-style calculations, using dubious statistics in dubious ways. And people love to tell me how suspect these are. And they may be on to something there. That said, let’s engage in a quick and dirty way of calculating the decay rate of American fundamentalism. Our only source of data will be a survey by Barna: here. (more…)
There was a time when I thought that the US federal budget deficit was an insurmountable problem which would lead to an inevitable default. Maybe I was wrong.
Writing about Al Mohler semi-innumerate article on fertility trends has got me thinking again about fertility and religion. One model of the relationship between fertility and religion, the one implied by Mohler’s title “No belief, no babies” is that secularism cannot produce children, but that religion can. Superficially, this may seem true. If you look across the world, you’ll see that many of the most religious countries, like those of sub-Saharan Africa, have total fertility rates of 4.0 or higher. On the other hand, many of the most secularized countries, like those of Northern Europe, have very low fertility rates, some below 1.5.
And so the story told by some is a story in which secular societies are on the verge of collapse, and will soon depopulate, while more fertile religious folk will inherit the earth. But are the secular societies on the verge of collapse? Today I’d like to look at Europe, to see whether its fertility rates are really driving the population toward a permanent slow-motion collapse. In the interests of time, let’s look at the ten largest countries in Europe, then at Europe as a Whole and then at the Scandinavian countries, which provide one possible future for European countries. (more…)
Al Mohler’s got a new article out on the recent minor uptick in American fertility rates — our total fertility rate is around 1.90 as a country. Mohler’s article starts out reasonably, noting that demographers explain the fluctuations in terms of recent economic changes: first the Great Recession, and now the mild recovery we seem to be in. But then Mohler reaches a little bit too hard for his preferred sort of explanation — “worldview”:
But, wait just a minute. Economic factors certainly play a role in decisions about having children, but it hardly seems that economic factors alone can explain these fluctuations. After all, even in the bleakest of times human beings have decided to reproduce. It simply makes sense that worldview issues are also at stake. (more…)