Special Report

Thriving Christianity

Its numbers increase worldwide with every new day.

By 2.28.11

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Most secular media in the U.S. imply that the world is largely dividing between resurgent Islam and enlightened secularists, with isolated evangelicals and Catholics left on the sideline. A recent report by the ;International Bulletin of Missionary Research indicates otherwise, with one third of the world professing Christianity, virtually unchanged as a global percentage since 100 years ago. Christians today are estimated to number about 2.3 billion. About 1.5 billion are estimated to attend church regularly at over 5 million congregations, up from 400,000 100 years ago. 

There are 1.6 estimated Muslims, 951 million Hindus, and 468 million Buddhists. Atheists are thought to be 137 million, a declining number. The report estimates about 80,000 new Christians every day, 79,000 new Muslims every day, and 300 fewer atheists every day. These atheists are presumably disproportionately represented in the West, while religion is thriving in the Global South, where charismatic Christianity is exploding. Over 600 million Christians, including millions of Roman Catholics, are charismatic or Pentecostal.

Where Christians live has shifted dramatically of course. Once Christian Europe is now largely secularized, while "heathen" Africa is largely now either Christian or Islamic. China is on its way to possibly becoming the nation with the most practicing Christians. And Latin America has surging Catholic and evangelical populations. Contrary to common assumptions, America remains about as religious as ever. A 2008 Baylor University survey showed the percentage of American atheists at about 4 percent, unchanged since 1944. The survey also showed that only about 10 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, unlike the 15 percent or so claimed in other recent surveys that claim growing secularization. Baylor found that many "unaffiliated" are actually tied to non-denominational churches or spiritual groups. Mainline Protestantism continues its 45-year meltdown, with Americans less and less identified with old denominations. But Americans by and large are attending churches at about the same rate they have for most of the last 70 years. About one third of Americans are now evangelical. Fewer and fewer attend, or even have a cultural memory of, oldline Episcopal or Presbyterian churches. Many stately old urban sanctuaries sit empty, while nearby thriving congregations meet in school gymnasiums or hotel ballrooms, if they haven't already built a mega-church campus.

A Gallup poll in 2010 showed the percentage of Americans reporting to attend church regularly (at least monthly) was 43 percent. In 1937 it was 37 percent, was slightly lower in the early 1940s, reached 49 percent during the 1950s, and settled at 42 percent in 1969, where it has remained steady for the last 40 years. Current church membership is about 61 percent of Americans, lower than the 73 percent reported 70 years ago, but also reflecting the increased fluidity of Americans religious affiliation and not a reduction in religious belief or practice. Many evangelical churches especially deemphasize membership and instead focus on attendance at worship and in small groups. A Pew survey found that about 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations since childhood. Mostly they are switching away from Mainline Protestantism. Forty-five years ago, about 30 million Americans belonged to the top 7 Mainline denominations, accounting for about one sixth of Americans. Today, it's about 20 million, accounting for about one fifteenth.

One standout from the Mainline implosion is the United Methodist Church. It has lost over 3 million U.S. members since the 1960s, more than any other U.S. church. But, almost uniquely among U.S. denominations, its membership is international, and it now has more than 4.4 million members overseas, mostly in Africa. The church's global membership just surpassed 12 million for the first time in its history. Just released data shows the U.S. church lost more than 300,000 members just across four recent years, while the African churches gained almost 1 million. The denomination's most liberal U.S. regions, on the West Coast and in the Northeast, were the fastest declining, while the relatively more moderate Southeast remained almost steady. The United Methodist News Service quoted a U.S. academic faulting U.S. church decline on a U.S. population shift from the country to urban areas. This is nonsense of course. Like all Mainline denominations, United Methodism's many once potent urban downtown churches are largely shells of their former glory. Its growing, mostly conservative U.S. congregations are in Sun Belt suburbs. The nearly century old Mainline Protestant liberal project, so preoccupied by secular fads rather than the historic faith, is collapsing from its own irrelevance.

At current rates, the Africans might achieve a majority of United Methodism within 12 years or so in what used to be an almost entirely U.S. denomination. The Africanization of America's third largest religious body is underreported but its impact may be significant. Almost all the U.S. Mainline denominations have liberalized their views on homosexuality, as on so many other theological and ethical issues. But the United Methodists are edging in the opposite direction thanks mostly to the dramatic growth of conservative African churches. At its next governing convention in 2012, about 40 percent of the delegates will come from outside the U.S., virtually guaranteeing United Methodists will not follow the Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans, United Church of Christ and others whose membership declines accelerated after accommodating liberal sexual standards. Those denominations also have suffered schisms, with conservatives forming new communions. Many traditional Episcopalians are now aligned with autonomous, and thriving, Anglican churches in Africa. 

Church liberals, so proud of their historic liberationist solidarity with the Global South, are befuddled by conservative African churches. The American United Methodist bishops even contrived to contain the African influence by proposing a new U.S. only church convention that would omit the Africans and other internationals. That plan failed in 2009 when local United Methodist annual conferences voted overwhelmingly against it. The Africans will remain full partners in United Methodist governance, with increasing repercussions for U.S. church members. African church growth will dramatically affect global Christianity. The International Bulletin of Missionary Research reports that Africa had fewer than 9 million Christians in 1900, compared to 475 million today, and 670 million expected by 2025. 

More somberly, the missions report also cites 270 new Christian martyrs every day in the world over the last 10 years, reaching 1 million during 2000-2010, and compared to 34,000 Christian martyrs in 1900. Presumably, radical Islam can be faulted for most current-day Christian victims. But overall, despite the distortions of secular, U.S. elite culture, people of faith in America and around the world can be hopeful that faith, and not Western secularism, represents the future for the vast majority of the world.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.