Where is Christianity still growing, and why?

Where is Christianity still growing, and why? May 8, 2021

THE QUESTION:

Where in the world is Christianity still growing, and why?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This page often addresses topics that have been in the air for months, even years. But this one is raised by a brand-new article this week at ChristianityToday.com and a more academic version posted by the journal Sociology of Religion. There’s further timeliness in the Gallup Poll’s March bombshell that less than half of Americans now claim religious affiliations, the lowest mark since it began asking about this 84 years ago.

The C.T. article, headlined “Proof That Political Privilege Is Harmful for Christianity,” is found here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/may-web-only/christian-persecution-political-privilege-growth-decline.html/ The academic article is headlined “Paradoxes of Pluralism, Privilege and Persecution: Explaining Christian Growth and Decline Worldwide,” and available for purchase here: https://academic.oup.com/socrel/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/socrel/srab006/6213975/

So: Bad times for Christians are good times for Christianity? That contention is a modern update on Tertullian’s 2nd Century maxim during an era of outright persecution, “semen est sanguis Christianorum” (“blood is the seed of Christians.”  If you persecute us, we grow even more. And so it was.

The scholars proposing a 21st Century version of this are Nilay Saiya (writing solo in C.T.) and study partner Stuti Manchanda, both at the public policy department of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This team analyzed data on churches’ rise and decline in 166 countries from 2010 to 2020, found impressive expansion, and examined causal factors.

Looking back, Asia began the last century with only one Christianized nation, the Philippines, but more recently the faith “has grown at twice the rate of the population.” Africa in 1900 had only pockets of Christians, mostly in coastal locations but today is “the world’s most Christian continent in terms of population.”

Now, all of that is familiar to missionary strategists and historians of the modern church. What’s new here is the team’s fresh look at explanations. They conclude “the most important determinant of Christian vitality is the extent to which governments give official support to Christianity.” It’s often said that the American founders’ pioneering separation of church and state energized Christianity across two centuries.

The team claims this research substantiates the following theory, which is not new but now gets statistical grounding. As official aid increases, “the number of Christians declines significantly.” They report this is cause-and-effect, not mere correlation (unrelated events occurring simultaneously) and holds true after accounting for other factors like demographic trends.

Essentially, the team examines churches through the lens of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” published in portentous 1776. Smith argued that “a market economy spurs competition, innovation and vigor among firms by forcing them to compete” so in theory “an unregulated religious marketplace would have the same effect.”

South Korea is a much-discussed example. Across just one century it moved from a land largely devoid of Christians to the faith’s command of a third of the population, with vibrant churches that send evangelists across the globe.

What about places where the state has propped up churches with money, favoritism, status, and legal advantages? The team looks at the familiar and dismal story of Europe, with its “state churches.” The continent is now firmly established as “the most secular region of the world — and also the richest,” with the lowest church attendance in the Christianized world.

And what if a government turns from neutral indifference toward active persecution? The team says the pattern holds as “hundreds of millions of Christians live in countries where they experience high levels of persecution” and yet “prove extraordinarily resilient.” They claim clandestine Christian revivals are occurring in “some of the worst places on earth to be a Christian,” for instance Iran and Afghanistan where it is a crime to forsake Islam.

Communist China has been in the news over its thorough campaign to root out Islam (with minimal protest from Muslim nations). But it is also the homeland of the world’s largest population of persecuted Christians — though repression does not currently involve large-scale killings as under Mao’s dictatorship. Back then, the atheistic rulers forced Christians into underground churches, which greatly fostered expansion. Tertullian would not be surprised.

The church situation is not rosy in European nations that have thrown off Communism but are still affected by atheism’s past cultural power. Look at the team’s list of the world’s 10 fastest-declining Christian populations. Alongside Germany we find Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Serbia.

The Guy would dispute the team’s depiction of vastly important and perpetually troubled Russia. It is the major example used to claim “the relationship between political privilege and Christian decline is strongest in countries dominated by” Eastern Orthodoxy. Here the regime, for instance, funds sacred sites and imposes restrictions on Christian competitors. But if Orthodoxy is weak nonetheless, remember the decades when Communists made every legal and illegal effort to exterminate the Orthodox faith and with it to exterminate unnumbered priests and parishioners.

Saiya concludes with a sermonette aimed at the United States and especially its “evangelical” movement, seen as “at a very precarious crossroads” after the Trump presidency. Despite the legal “separation,” he thinks, believers have succumbed to “the temptation of privilege.”

“Christianity has become increasingly intertwined with partisan politics” alongside years of European-style decline, he writes. Thus Christianity appeals to “an increasingly narrow group” while driving away political liberals and moderates. He thinks all this should “strongly caution Christians against equating any political party, political ideology, or nation with God’s plans.”

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