Leiden Religie Blog

The Shifting Centre of Global Christianity

The Shifting Centre of Global Christianity photo by Zheng, via flickr.com

In its history, the centre of Christianity has faced geographical shifts. It is safe to say that we are on the edge of a new shift.

In 1900, Christianity was primarily a Western religion, with over 80 percent of Christians living in Europe or North America. Today, however, Christianity is a truly global religion, with over 60 percent of Christians living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Christians in 2015

This seismic demographic shift has been undoubtedly complex and due to a range of factors. In a nutshell, however, many have argued that as the global South was decolonized, local actors appropriated Christianity, indigenized it, and created their own independent churches with successful evangelism campaigns. These factors coupled with relatively low fertility rates in the West and high fertility rates in places like Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, led to Christians being globally diffused. Yet, when we attempt to look at where most Christians will be living in the future, it seems that this diffusion might well be short lived due to one major factor: fertility rates.

The growth of the global population

New data from the UN Population Division in its annual report on World Population Prospects indicates that the world’s population will increase by almost four billion between 2015-2100. Africa alone will add over 3.2 billion people in this same period, accounting for approximately 83 percent of the world’s total population growth. Looking at this growth in another way, Africa currently accounts for about 16 percent of the world’s population, but by 2100 is expected to account for 39 percent.

These figures are based on a medium variant projection and are anticipated even as fertility rates in Africa are expected to drop from 4.7 children born/woman in 2015 to 2.2 children born/woman in 2100. As Richard Jackson recently remarked about this phenomenon in a Center for Strategic and International Studies article, ‘Demography is like an ocean liner: once it is steaming full speed ahead it takes a long time to turn around’.

Given that Africa might possess 4.4 billion people by 2100 and assuming that around 45 percent of Africans will continue to identify as Christian, there could be almost as many Christians on the African continent in 2100 (2 billion) as there are Christians in the world today (2.4 billion). Assuming again that Christians will continue to account for about one- third of the world’s population, there would be around 3.7 billion Christians by 2100. As a percentage of the world’s total Christian population, Africa would be home to an astounding 54 percent of all Christians—a 32 percent increase from 2015.

The geographical shift of Christianity

When Africa is included with Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, these areas could potentially be home to over 80 percent of the world’s Christians. In other words, within two centuries, the tables have dramatically turned. While this shift would partly be the result of a continued decline of Christian identification in Europe and North America and the expected rise in the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated, the primary reason would be the West’s comparatively low fertility rates. Indeed, many European countries already have either stagnant growth or even declining populations.

It should be noted again that these are only statistical predictions based on a number of ‘best guess’ assumptions. Yet, beyond these potential figures, it seems safe to say that the world’s Christians in 2100 are far more likely to be from Nigeria or Brazil, than from Italy or the United Kingdom. It also seems safe to say that just as the twentieth century witnessed a global diffusion of Christians, the twenty-first century is likely to witness the continued shift of Christianity to the global South and above all to Africa.

With this shift, we can also expect to see a continued transformation of power structures and leadership within global Christian communities. For instance, while the election of Argentine-born Pope Francis in 2013 was a surprise for many, popes and other major Christian leaders from the global South are likely to become a standard feature leading up to 2100 and beyond.

While Euro-American Christian institutions and theologies continue to play a dominant role today, this role will not only be challenged, but the roles will be reversed with institutions and theologies from the global South leading the way. While institutions like the Vatican and Canterbury will remain, expect to see new spiritual centres founded in the global South taking precedence for a majority of Christians.

If these implications seem far-fetched, consider that the Western orientation of Christianity is relatively new. Indeed, Christianity was born in the Middle East and has since had its centre of gravity shift many times, and along with it centres of power have both risen and fallen. Given the world’s population prospects, it appears that Africa is simply next in line.

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