Global Analysis

Highlights of Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020

Society, Religion, and Mission

Todd M. Johnson & Gina Bellofatto Jun 2013

Christians around the world today find themselves in contexts that are very different from those of 40 years ago:

  • Nearly 20% of the global population was either agnostic or atheist in 1970.
  • The decades leading up to the 21st century witnessed dramatic social and political upheavals, in addition to horrific environmental catastrophes.
  • By the year 2010, only 11.8% of the world was non-religious, and amazing technological innovations have changed the way people communicate worldwide.

Such changes challenge Christians to think differently about the people among whom they live and work, the ways in which they interact with them, and the potential for future cooperation.

2013 Report

Researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA, USA) have produced the 2013 report, Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission. The report offers a timely overview of the changing context of Christianity and Christians’ activities since 1970, while looking forward to 2020. The full report is available for PDF download.

Christianity in its Global Context presents data on the demographics of world religions, providing evidence for the continued resurgence of religion into the 21st century. It covers global Christianity, including Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and offers projections for where growth of all major Christian traditions is most likely to occur in the future. The bulk of the report details the Christian, religious, and social contexts of each of the 21 United Nations regions and what changes have or will likely occur from 1970 to 2020. The report also details several issues related to mission and society, such as the worldwide missionary movement, unreached people groups, international migrants (see Darrell Jackson’s article on European migration and lessons for the church) and pressing social issues.

Key Findings

This article highlights several key findings of the report:

1. The percentage of the world that is religious continues to increase.

In 1970, nearly 80% of the world’s population was religious.  By 2010 this had grown to around 88%, with a projected increase to almost 90% by 2020.  Religious adherence is growing largely due to the continuing resurgence of religion in China.  In addition, in 1970 Christianity and Islam represented 48.8% of the global population; by 2020 they will likely represent 57.2%.

2. In 1970, 41.3% of all Christians were from Africa, Asia, or Latin America. By 2020, this figure is expected to be 64.7%.

Between 1970 and 2020, each of the six major Christian traditions is expected to grow more rapidly than the general population in the global South.  The fastest-growing tradition on each continent in the global South is:

  • Marginals (i.e. individuals holding most mainstream Christian doctrines, with exceptions such as the nature of Christ and the Trinity) in Latin America (5.8% growth per annum);
  • Independents in Asia (4.8% p.a.);
  • Anglicans in Africa (4.4% p.a.); and
  • Orthodox in Oceania (2.54% p.a.).

The significance of this shift was recently demonstrated in the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Pope Francis, the first Latin American head of the Roman Catholic Church.

3. Renewalist movements (Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Independent Charismatics) have grown at nearly four times the growth rate of global Christianity.  

In 1970, Renewalists were 5.1% of all Christians, but by 2010 they had grown to 25.8% (averaging 4.1% growth per year between 1970 and 2010).  Looking forward to 2020, it is expected that Renewalist movements will grow almost twice as fast as global Christianity as a whole, and represent 27.8% of all Christians.

4. Christianity will continue to grow as a proportion of Africa’s population.

From 143 million in 1970 (38.7% of the continent’s population), there will likely be 630 million Christians in Africa by 2020 (49.3%).  Roman Catholics and Anglicans are both growing rapidly:

  • Roman Catholics will rise from 44.9 million (12.2% of Africa’s population) in 1970 to 232 million (17.3%) by 2020.
  • Anglicans will grow from 7.7 million (2.1%) in 1970 to 50.8 million (5.0%) in 2020.

By the year 2000, the Anglican Church was larger in Africa than in Europe, its historic home.

5. Christianity is expected to grow faster than any other religion in Asia between 2010 and 2020.

Christianity will likely average 2.1% growth annually in Asia, more than twice the rate of growth for the general population (0.9%).  Many of these gains are by conversion, although some countries, such as Afghanistan, have experienced fluctuations with the entrance and exit of large expatriate populations.

6. Christianity in Europe grew between 1970 and 2010, but it is now in decline.

Christianity in Europe rose from 492 million (75.0%) in 1970 to 580 million (78.6%) in 2010, largely due to a resurgence of religion in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Between 2010 and 2020, however, the Christian population will likely plateau and the Christian share of the total population will decline.  Individuals are increasingly leaving the faith, mainly to agnosticism and atheism.  In addition, many European countries have rapidly ageing populations and birth rates below replacement level.

7. Evangelicals and Renewalists are growing dramatically in Latin America.

Evangelicals will likely grow from 3.2% of the population in 1970 to 9.1% in 2020, while Renewalists are expected to grow from 4.5% in 1970 to 31.1% in 2020.  Many Roman Catholics in the region are becoming Catholic Charismatics or switching to Evangelical or Renewalist denominations.

8. Agnosticism is the second-largest tradition in Northern America, and growing.

By 2020, agnostics in Northern America will have tripled from their 1970 percentage in the United States and increased their share by a factor of seven in Canada. Between 2010 and 2020 agnosticism will grow almost four times faster than Christianity in the region (2.17% vs. 0.56% per year). Christianity is declining as a percentage of the region’s population, from 91.2% in 1970 to 76.9% in 2020.

9. The internal makeup of Christianity in Oceania is expected to change going toward 2020.

Anglicanism and Protestantism are the oldest traditions in Oceania, and in 1970 these traditions together represented 46.4% of the population.  By 2020 this percentage is expected to drop to 32.0%.  The Roman Catholic share of the population is declining as well, while Independents, Marginals, and Orthodox are all poised to make gains, through missionary efforts and immigration.

10. Countries of the global South are sending increasing numbers of international missionaries.

Of the ten countries sending the most missionaries in 2010, three were in the global South: Brazil, South Korea, and India.  The ‘second top ten’ included six Southern countries: South Africa, the Philippines, Mexico, China, Colombia, and Nigeria.  Southern missionaries go not only to other Southern countries but also to Northern countries, in a reverse of the pattern seen over much of the 20th century.

11. Of all people in diaspora worldwide, nearly half are Christians and another quarter are Muslims.

Christians and Muslims together made up 55.3% of the world’s population in 2010, but they represented 72.8% of all people living in diaspora. Most of these migrants are individuals who have moved from the global South to the global North (see Gina Bellofatto’s article on migration and the religions of people on the move).

12. Among key social issues, the poorest children have made the slowest progress in terms of improved nutrition, and hunger remains a global challenge.

Between 2006 and 2009, 850 million people around the world still lived in hunger, 15.5% of the world’s population.  Even though extreme poverty has decreased, progress has been slow in reducing child malnutrition.  In 2010, nearly one in five children globally was underweight, including one third of children in Southern Asia.

Suggested Responses

These findings reveal the continued importance of equipping Christians to be knowledgeable about and engaged in the world in which they live. There are numerous ways that Christians can respond to these ongoing realities:

  1. Encourage interaction with individuals in religiously diverse environments.  Experiencing religiously diverse environments provides opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding.  Doing so humanizes the ‘other’, allowing individuals to develop friendship and mutual respect for other people, cultures, traditions, and worldviews.
  2. Deepen knowledge of other world religions.  Reaching out to adherents of other faiths is strengthened when both those who are sending and those who are sent better understand the religions of the world, including their histories, significant figures, sacred writings, and beliefs and practices.  Foundational to such an understanding is theological perspective on both the similarities and differences between Christianity and other religions.
  3. Provide training in civility.  Seeing others as equally made in God’s image and worthy of love and respect is integral to Christianity.  Civility to those outside of the church should be as valued as civility toward those within the church.  The Christian message is strengthened by the civility that is practiced toward adherents of other religions (see Os Guinness’ article on Civility and the Global Charter of Conscience).
  4. Promote social action, both locally and globally.  There is no lack of opportunity for individuals to be involved in social action, both locally and globally (to address issues such as child malnutrition).  Local ministries and organizations are knowledgeable about the needs of their own communities, and generally have resources to connect volunteers to those helping improve conditions abroad as well, supporting social, environmental, and economic change.


Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission illustrates that fundamental shifts in the demographics of global Christianity and religion are continuing into the 21st century. Christianity is still growing rapidly in the global South, but in many places Christians still have little interaction with adherents of other world religions.

The entire development community, including Christians, continues to struggle in addressing critical social and economic issues. Christian resources are often poorly deployed and are not reaching those who could benefit most from them, in terms of both mission and social action. At the same time, Christians are more involved than ever in spiritual and social transformation. The challenge for Christians in both the North and the South will be to be effective in carrying out global, integral mission.

Note: Contributors to Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission are Todd M. Johnson, Gina A. Bellofatto, Albert W. Hickman, Bradley A. Coon, Mary E. Krause, and Sujin Park. The assessment offered in this report is part of an ongoing investigation by researchers from around the world. Feedback on the report is welcomed by the authors, and can be directed to Gina Bellofatto ([email protected]).