A comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries finds that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion. Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.
A century ago, this was not the case. In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.2 Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%). A plurality – more than a third – now are in the Americas (37%). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24%), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13%).
The number of Christians around the world has nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years, from about 600 million in 1910 to more than 2 billion in 2010. But the world’s overall population also has risen rapidly, from an estimated 1.8 billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion in 2010. As a result, Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32%) as they did a century ago (35%).
This apparent stability, however, masks a momentous shift. Although Europe and the Americas still are home to a majority of the world’s Christians (63%), that share is much lower than it was in 1910 (93%). And the proportion of Europeans and Americans who are Christian has dropped from 95% in 1910 to 76% in 2010 in Europe as a whole, and from 96% to 86% in the Americas as a whole.
At the same time, Christianity has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, where there were relatively few Christians at the beginning of the 20th century. The share of the population that is Christian in sub-Saharan Africa climbed from 9% in 1910 to 63% in 2010, while in the Asia-Pacific region it rose from 3% to 7%. Christianity today – unlike a century ago – is truly a global faith. (See world maps weighted by Christian population in 1910 and 2010.)
These are some of the key findings of Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population, a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The study is based primarily on a country-by-country analysis of about 2,400 data sources, including censuses and nationally representative population surveys. For some countries, such as China, the Pew Forum’s estimates also take into account statistics from church groups, government reports and other sources. (See Appendix C [PDF] for more details on the range of estimates available for China.)
Christians are diverse theologically as well as geographically, the new study finds. About half are Catholic. Protestants, broadly defined, make up 37%. Orthodox Christians comprise 12% of Christians worldwide. Other Christians, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, make up the remaining 1% of the global Christian population. (See Defining Christian Traditions.)
Taken as a whole, however, Christians are by far the world’s largest religious group. Muslims, the second-largest group, make up a little less than a quarter of the world’s population, according to previous studies by the Pew Forum.3
Almost half (48%) of all Christians live in the 10 countries with the largest number of Christians. Three of the top 10 countries are in the Americas (the United States, Brazil and Mexico). Two are in Europe (Russia and Germany), two are in the Asia-Pacific region (the Philippines and China), and three are in sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia), reflecting Christianity’s global reach.
Clearly, Christianity has spread far from its historical origins. For example:
- Though Christianity began in the Middle East-North Africa, today that region has both the lowest concentration of Christians (about 4% of the region’s population) and the smallest number of Christians (about 13 million) of any major geographic region.
- Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, is home to more Christians than all 20 countries in the Middle East-North Africa region combined.
- Nigeria now has more than twice as many Protestants (broadly defined to include Anglicans and independent churches) as Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation.
- Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics as Italy.
- Although Christians comprise just under a third of the world’s people, they form a majority of the population in 158 countries and territories, about two-thirds of all the countries and territories in the world.
- About 90% of Christians live in countries where Christians are in the majority; only about 10% of Christians worldwide live as minorities.
Global Distribution of Christians
So where are the bulk of the world’s Christians today? The Pew Forum study suggests at least four possible answers, depending on how one divides up the world:
The Global South
In recent years, a number of scholarly books and articles have discussed the rapid growth of Christianity in the developing countries of the “Global South” – especially Africa, Asia and Latin America – and debated whether the influence of Christians in the “Global North” is waning, or not.4 A century ago, the Global North (commonly defined as North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) contained more than four times as many Christians as the Global South (the rest of the world).5 Today, the Pew Forum study finds, more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South (61%), compared with about 860 million in the Global North (39%).
The Global North
But even though Christians are more numerous in the Global South, the concentration of Christians is much higher in the Global North, where 69% of the population is Christian. By contrast, 24% of the people living in the Global South are Christian. This reflects the fact that the total population of the Global South is about 4.5 times greater than the population of the Global North.
Another way of looking at the distribution of Christians around the world is by region. Numerically, at least, Europe no longer dominates global Christianity the way it did 100 years ago. Rather, the bulk of Christians are in:
Of the world’s five major geographic regions, the Americas have both the largest number and the highest proportion of Christians. More than a third of Christians worldwide (37%) live in the Americas, where nearly nine-in-ten people (86%) are Christian. The three countries with the largest Christian populations – the United States, Brazil and Mexico – are in the Americas. Together, these three countries alone account for nearly one in every four Christians in the world (24%), about the same proportion as the whole of Europe (26%) and all of sub-Saharan Africa (24%). Although Christians make up a smaller portion of the 2010 population in the Americas (86%) than they did in 1910 (96%), the Americas account for a higher share of the world’s Christians (37%, up from 27% in 1910).6
Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia-Pacific
But sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region now have a combined population of about 800 million Christians, roughly the same as the Americas. And five of the top 10 countries with the largest Christian populations are either in Africa (Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia) or Asia (Philippines and China). Moreover, the fastest growth in the number of Christians over the past century has been in sub-Saharan Africa (a roughly 60-fold increase, from fewer than 9 million in 1910 to more than 516 million in 2010) and in the Asia-Pacific region (a roughly 10-fold increase, from about 28 million in 1910 to more than 285 million in 2010).
How Estimates Were Generated
The Pew Forum, in consultation with demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, acquired and analyzed about 2,400 data sources, including censuses and general population surveys, to arrive at Christian population figures for 232 countries and self-administering territories – all the countries and territories for which the United Nations Population Division provides overall population estimates. (See Appendix A [PDF] for a more detailed explanation of how the estimates were made; see Appendix D [PDF] for a list of data sources by country.)
In many countries, however, censuses and surveys do not contain detailed information on denominational and religious movement affiliations. Christian organizations remain in many cases the only source of information on the size of global movements within Christianity (such as evangelicalism and pentecostalism) and on Protestant denominational families (such as Baptists and Methodists). The figures in this report on pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical Christians and on Protestant denominational families were commissioned by the Pew Forum from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., whose researchers generated estimates based in large part on figures provided by Christian organizations around the world. Readers should bear in mind that these breakdowns were derived differently from the overall Christian population estimates.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are about 279 million pentecostal Christians and 305 million charismatic Christians worldwide. (Charismatic Christians belong to non-pentecostal denominations yet engage in spiritual practices associated with pentecostalism, such as speaking in tongues and divine healing; see Defining Christian Movements.)
In addition, more than 285 million Christians can be classified as evangelicals because they either belong to churches affiliated with regional or global evangelical associations, or because they identify as evangelicals. Since many pentecostals and charismatics are also evangelicals, these categories are not mutually exclusive. (For more details, see Christian Movements and Denominations.)
2 Historical figures throughout the executive summary are courtesy of Todd M. Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. Johnson is co-editor of the Atlas of Global Christianity, Edinburgh University Press, 2009. (return to text)
3 As of 2010, there were about 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, representing 23.4% of the global population. For more details, see the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030, January 2011, and Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population, October 2009. As noted in the preface of this report, the Pew Forum is gradually compiling baseline population estimates and projecting future growth rates for the world’s major faiths. (return to text)
4 See, for example, Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2002; Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, University of California Press, 2009; and Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, InterVarsity Press, 2009. (return to text)
5 This common definition of Global North and Global South is not a simple geographic division of the world into Northern and Southern hemispheres. Rather, it takes into account levels of economic development as well as geography. Figures for 1910 are from a Pew Forum analysis of data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. (return to text)
6 Figures for 1910 are from a Pew Forum analysis of data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. (return to text)