The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a project undertaken by the non-profit Pew Research Center, gave the world a Christmas present in a comprehensive study of "Global Christianity."
The forum, seeking "to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs," had already released, a few years ago, a detailed survey and analysis of religion in the United States.
The most recent Pew project, unveiled in December, deals not with religion or Christianity in a specific country, but with worldwide changes in the size and distribution of Christianity over the past 100 years.
In collaboration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis of Laxenburg, near Vienna, Austria, the Pew Forum analyzed about 2,400 data sources to arrive at its profile of Global Christianity in 2010. Estimates for comparative 1910 figures came from Todd M. Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
While the findings do not surprise religion scholars, the report, which does not explore the reasons for the changes, is nevertheless valuable for its thoroughness in documenting demographic shifts that have occurred within the past century.
Those prophets of doom who predicted the demise of Christianity within a few generations as a consequence of secularization were clearly mistaken. Far from disappearing from the globe, the report finds Christianity is still the world's largest religion, while the number of Christians worldwide "has nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years, from about 600 million to more than two billion in 2010."
We should not forget, however, that world population also rose from 1.8 billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion in 2010. Christianity still represents about one-third of world population, as was true a century ago.
What has changed, however, is where proportionally these Christians can be found today when compared with their presence at the beginning of the 20th century. While most Christians (63 per cent) still live in Europe and in North and South America, the recent survey found this percentage represents a considerably lower share than it claimed in 1910, when 93 per cent of Christians lived in Europe and North America.
In Europe, people calling themselves Christians decreased from 95 per cent to 76 per cent, and in North and South America from 96 per cent to 86 per cent of the population.
Sub-Saharan success story
Significant growth of Christianity occurred in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the Asia-Pacific region, where now 37 per cent of the world's Christians are living, whereas in 1910 it was only six per cent.
"The share of the population that is Christian in sub-Saharan Africa," according to the Pew report, "climbed from nine per cent in 1910 to 63 per cent in 2010, while in the Asia-Pacific region it rose from three per cent to seven per cent."
In sub-Saharan Africa, the three countries with the largest Christian population are Nigeria (50.8 per cent; ca. 81 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (95.7 per cent; ca. 63 million), and Ethiopia (63.4 per cent; ca. 52 million), while in the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines and China dominate, with 93.1 per cent or nearly 87 million Christians in the Philippines. China's numbers are more difficult to determine, with a total estimated figure of 67 million Chinese Christians - five per cent of the total population.
Ecclesiastically and theologically, today's Christians can be broken down globally into 50.1 per cent Catholic, 36.7 per cent Protestant, and 11.9 per cent Orthodox, as well as 1.3 per cent "other."
Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians represent today 27 per cent of Global Christianity or roughly 585 million people, which is eight per cent of the world's population.
The vitality of this strand of Christianity has also been particularly strong in our own province over the past century at the expense of other Protestant denominations, notably the Methodists and their successor, the United Church.
North and South America
Among the 10 countries in North and South America that contribute the most Christians to Christianity globally, Canada ranks eighth, with 1.1 per cent of the world Christian population.
Yet if we look at the percentage of the population that is Christian in each of these 10 countries, Canada clearly ranks last - only 68.9 per cent of Canadians are Christians - while the United States is next to last with 79.5 per cent. The country in the Americas claiming the largest percentage of Christians is Peru, with 95.6 per cent, followed by Guatemala (95.2 per cent), Mexico (95), Colombia (92.5) and Brazil (90.2).
This brief overview can only touch on some of the highlights in the larger report, which is fully accessible on The Pew Forum's website at www.pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-exec.aspx.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University, and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.