Is Christianity growing or declining? Most people would give an answer to that question based on partial information. Here is a bigger picture of what is happening with Christian faith on a global sale. As of 2017, there were approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world. This figure includes all groups that fall within the traditional understanding of Christianity, including, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and various groups of Protestants. Compare Christianity with its closest rival, Islam which is approaching 2 billion. There are significant groups of Christians on every continent and in every country in the world.
Where Christianity is growing
Approximately 2.7 million people convert to Christianity each year from some other religion.
For example, since the year 2000, Muslim converts to Christianity have averaged more than 100,000 per year.
Another example is found in the 1.6 million Americans of Jewish background who identify themselves with some form of Christianity.
Since 1945, Christianity in China has grown from more than 1 million to perhaps 70 million.
Also since 1945, Christianity in South Korea has increased from around 2% of the population to around 30%. The largest congregation in the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church has more than 200,000 members and is located in Seoul South Korea.
Roman Catholicism has grown by approximately 11% worldwide since 2000, with the largest gains in Africa. Since the mid-20th century, Protestant groups have grown 300% faster than the world population rate, and 200% faster than the rate of growth for Islam. Protestants of all groups now account for 40% of all self-identified Christians. For example:
There are 300 million Protestants in Africa, apart from the Muslim majority regions of North Africa.
Even so, there are more than 2 million Protestants in North Africa and the Middle East.
North and South America combined account for 260 million Protestants, with countries like Brazil, Guatemala, and Haiti experiencing impressive growth in the past 50 years.
Europe currently has around 100 million Protestants.
Where Christianity is declining
Since 2000, the United States has seen a 7% decline in people who identify as Christians of any kind. Experts believe this decline has resulted from the increasing climate of skepticism in general, and a growing hostility toward Christian faith in various influential sectors within society. An even steeper rate of decline has occurred in Canada and Europe, with the exception of portions of Eastern Europe, where Christian faith has been on the upswing since World War II.
Overall, Christianity is doing very well around he world. Contrary to the predictions of many in the Western world, Christianity is not in any danger, but continues to be the largest single religious family and is steadily gaining ground in many parts of the world. American Christians can be encouraged by this fact, while finding new and creative ways to stop and reverse the decline we are seeing in our own culture.
Sources: World Christian Encyclopedia, Pew Research Center.
Many so-called experts claim that we cannot trust the Bible. They assert that the written documents of the Bible were not well preserved and that the copying process resulted in many mistakes. Yet Christianity and Judaism have traditionally claimed that the Bible we read and study today represents the Word of God faithfully handed down through the centuries by God’s people. But which claim is true? How can we be sure that the Hebrew and Greek copies scholars use for translation into English are faithful to the original documents? In other words, can we really trust the Bible?
Where did our Bible come from?
Let’s begin with how the Bible came to be preserved and passed down. As far as anyone knows, none of the manuscripts of the Bible that were written by the original authors are still in existence. This fact leads to the legitimate question of whether what we read in the Bible today accurately represents what was written down by Moses or Isaiah or Paul. Because of the lack of original material, scholars must rely on early copies of the original manuscripts. Experts in the discipline of manuscript study can compare the various early copies available in order to sift out the small percentage of variations in the text and synthesize the original content. Over the years, this process has yielded a very high degree of confidence in the texts of both the Old and New Testaments.
Evidence for the Old Testament
The manuscript evidence for the Old Testament is quite strong. It might seem obvious that most of the books of these Hebrew scriptures were written in the ancient Hebrew language, but a few of the later portions were actually composed in a related language, called Aramaic. These books were probably written over a nearly 1,000-year span between 1400 and 400 B.C. by several dozen different authors, including Moses, Ezra, David, Solomon and others. Until 1947, the best and earliest manuscripts for the Old Testament were known as the Massoretic Texts. The Massoretic Texts were copies of still earlier manuscripts (now lost) made by Jews in eastern Europe between 800 and 1000 A.D. Many critics of the Biblical text argued that the accuracy of these manuscripts, which date from the Middle Ages, was probably very poor due to the more than 1, 200 years between the original documents and these copies.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
But in 1947, through the providence of God, the accuracy of the Massoretic Texts was confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This large collection of miscellaneous writings dating from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. included dozens of much earlier copies of Old Testament books. The scrolls were found carefully preserved in desert caves in the Qumran area of the Dead Sea. What scholars have discovered in studying them is that, apart from a few very minor differences, there had been virtually no change in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures for more than 1,000 years. So, almost overnight, doubts about trustworthiness of the Old Testament suddenly became much less convincing.
In addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is also an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament made around 200 B.C, known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint also confirms the copying accuracy of the Old Testament. So, based upon the evidence of the extreme care with which the Jews copied their scriptures, as well as the insight provided by the Septuagint, we can have confidence that the material of the Hebrew Scriptures is highly accurate.
Evidence for the New Testament
When it comes to the New Testament portion of the Bible, the evidence is even better. The books of the New Testament were probably written in Greek between A.D. 45 and 100. The very earliest copies we have of the original books date from just after A.D. 100. For example, there is a fragment of chapter 18 of the Gospel of John, which dates from around A.D. 110. Since the Gospel of John was probably originally written around A.D. 90, that puts the time from original to earliest known copy at about 20 years. An even earlier manuscript portion, known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus, dates from around A.D. 100. Since Paul probably wrote this portion in the years A.D. 55-65, that puts the time lapse from original to copy at less than 50 years. These examples illustrate the very strong evidence for the reliability of the New Testament compared with other works of ancient literature.
All told, there are something like 5,000 early Greek copies of the New Testament in existence today, as well as hundreds more in Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Armenian translations. With the aid of computer software, scholars are able to do intensive comparisons of the available copies in order to “weed out” any copying mistakes and synthesize the original text of the New Testament. More evidence for the trustworthiness of the New Testament comes from the writings of the Christian Church before 400 A.D., called the Patristic writings. These early Christian works quote so extensively from the New Testament that it can be virtually reconstructed from these writings alone. One expert estimated that only one half of one percent (.05 %) of the New Testament is now in any doubt as to its original wording. Most of this small percentage of uncertainty has to do with word order, rather than content. For example, there are a few passages that are unclear as to whether they said Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ – hardly a reason for doubting the reliability of the New Testament. So, just as with the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the New Testament has been shown to be highly accurate.
All of this evidence points to the conclusion that the Bible we use today is extremely reliable and can be trusted. It has lost very little, if anything, in the copying process from the original writings of the authors. While none of this by itself proves the Bible’s inspiration, it does support Christianity’s ancient claim that the Scriptures are the word of God, fully inspired and authoritative for the ages.
What are the benefits of Christianity? The days when most people saw the Christian Church as a necessary part of Western Culture are long gone. Studies of how North Americans and Europeans make choices in the early twenty-first century show that when making important decisions, most people think in terms of personal fulfillment and well being, rather than of Christian values.
This is a significant shift away from the thinking of much of the twentieth century, when Christian values were the template for decision-making. Christian believers may bemoan this trend but, like it or not, it would appear that this way of thinking will be around for the foreseeable future. So maybe Christianity should be evaluated from a new, more pragmatic perspective. What, then, are the benefits of Christianity in society? Let me suggest a few of the positive outcomes of Christianity in society.
The presence of churches that teach biblical family values results in more couples staying together. I am not just talking about husbands and wives who agree to remain married under difficult circumstances, but also about couples who discover a deeper and more lasting love for one another because of their relationship to God. Many Christians can attest that a commitment to one’s spouse, a willingness to work though issues, and a dependence upon God for wisdom and strength has saved marriages that otherwise would have ended in divorce court.
Better family life
Along with husbands and wives staying together, there tend to be fewer problems raising children when families are involved in church. “Parents– don’t exasperate your children, but bring them up in the teaching and discipline of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), is a valuable principle at a time when families are breaking down in record numbers. Churches that teach the Bible by precept and example tend to have a higher percentage of intact and reasonably healthy families.
People are moving so fast in our century that it is difficult to form deep, long-term friendships. Again, churches that teach the Bible’s perspective on relationships tend to produce people who know how to befriend others and work through issues. Churches also provide venues for meeting people who desire lasting friendships. In many Christian circles, it is a rather routine thing to meet people who have remained friends over many years and weathered some pretty difficult circumstances together.
One of the best kept secrets is the fact that churches regularly provide free counseling, not only to their members, but often to virtually anyone who desires it. Many churches have pastors or staff members who are trained and gifted in the art of listening to people, helping them understand the dynamics behind their situation and offering practical, biblical advice toward a solution. Obviously the more people who receive this care, the healthier a community becomes. This is especially refreshing in a time when people are sometimes seen as figures on a spreadsheet, rather than as persons who are valuable in themselves.
While it is not the only voice in society encouraging people to become more than they are, the Christian Church performs this role as well. Not only does it encourage people to dream large dreams and achieve great things, but it also builds character in ways that few others are: correction. Where can you go in twenty-first century Western Culture to have someone tell you the honest truth about yourself? I know that this sort of thing seems out of fashion these days. I also know that constructive criticism can be abused. But when a person is involved in things that are self-destructive and harmful to others, isn’t it a good thing that there are venues where people can be lovingly confronted and helped to find a new path in life?
When people get tired of the rampant materialism and the pursuit of personal fulfillment, many crave something more substantial. Christianity promises that if anyone desires to find God, God is willing to be found. In fact, the truth is even better than that. God has made himself very accessible by becoming one of us, living as we live and doing what was necessary for us to have full and abundant relationship with him. Of course I am speaking of Jesus Christ as the Son of God made human.
I am aware that some people reject this basic Christian belief. Other religions teach that people must attain some ultimate spiritual goal through hidden knowledge, austere self-denial, or the offering of something precious to win God’s favor. The core Christian message is so simple and so accessible that some people object that it is too good to be true. A person may be welcomed into relationship with God simply by putting their trust in Jesus. Trusting in Jesus means believing that he is who he claimed to be: the Son of God; accepting his self-sacrifice in payment for your wrongdoing; and embracing his offer to join with you in making you new from the inside out.
The irony is that faith in Jesus actually brings the personal fulfillment that has eluded many people all their lives. Far from being a narrow or exclusionary faith, Christianity is incredible inclusive. Faith in Jesus is something a small child can do. It is something a mentally disabled person can exercise. The basic message of Christianity is truly trans-cultural, finding those in every ethnicity who resonate with its good news. It embraces both men and women. It reaches every strata of society. The good news of Christianity changes lives when nothing else can.
All this and more come with an active Christian presence in society. Those who are concerned with the welfare of their communities would do well to make certain that churches are free to do what they do so well: benefit communities and positively change lives, one by one.
I want to conclude my discussion from parts one and two of this blog about 21st Century faith. Christians who were raised in the 20th Century often find it a challenge to communicate the gospel in the 21st Century because of the quite different values and viewpoints of younger people.
In part one of this blog I discussed how 21st Century people tend to value functionality. Rather than asking the question of whether something is moral, they may ask whether it is practical. So given the practicality of people in our times, maybe we should be saying, “Come and meet my Jesus. Try him. You won’t be disappointed. OK, so you don’t believe Jesus is the THE truth. Fine. He is the truth, but he is also a lot of other things you do believe in. Jesus is real and loving and gracious and intriguing and full of purpose and adventure–things you value. Those qualities all ultimately come from Jesus Christ.”
As they check Jesus out, we older Christians must be more patient than we have been. 21st Century people may not change as quickly as we hope as they begin to follow Jesus. They may not immediately adopt everything we think a devoted follower of Christ should.
So in bringing this discussion to a close, let me ask a basic question: What if we actually succeed in reaching a significant number of 21st Century people? Along with that big question are some more specific questions to ponder.
Some questions to consider:
Can 21st Century people meet Jesus among us? In some cases we may have to be Jesus to them until they are willing to meet the Lord himself.
Will we want 21st Century people once they respond? They will change the way we do things in our churches and gatherings. Some of them won’t fit in very well. They may bring their kids– some of which will be disruptive. They may use a vocabulary we aren’t accustomed to. They may have a past that is pretty colorful.
What sacrifices are we willing to make to bring 21st Century people to Jesus and grow them in the faith? Remember, the gospel is for them as much as for any generation. What’s more, they are the future of Christianity in our society. So what are we going to do now to include them and prepare them to carry the banner of Christ into the future?
I want to continue my discussion from the part one of this blog about bringing good news to 21st Century people. Bridging the distinctly different cultures of the 20th and 21st Centuries is a challenge. If you are over 40, you were born and raised solidly in 20th Century Culture. In those days there was a much clearer line between right and wrong. People believed in truth and were at least open to the possibility of changing their minds if they found that they were wrong. I was born in the 1950s, so I am a child of the late 20th Century. But I have spent the years since the turn of the current century trying to understand 21st Century people and communicate the gospel to them.
When I started teaching community college students nearly 25 years ago, I began to realize that you can’t reach many contemporary people with the gospel using 20th Century approaches and methods. They just don’t get a lot of it. We older Christians don’t understand why. What we may be missing is that 21st Century people don’t want to be 20th Century Christians. Here’s the hopeful part: they can be reached with the gospel. But here’s the catch: the good news about Jesus must given in a way that meets the needs of 21st Century people. Let me be clear: it is the same good news, just packaged for a different group. Let me show you what I mean.
A 20th Century Preaching Model
Consider this biblical example of gospel preaching that was used in much of the 20th Century. In Acts 2, Peter and the Apostles preached the first gospel sermon on the day the Church was founded. They had been filled with the Holy Spirit and we doing some unusual things such as speaking in languages that they had never learned. Verses 14-16 give Peter’s answer to people’s mistaken thinking that the Apostles were drunk.
“ Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel..’”
Peter brings the sermon to the point in verses 36-39 where he says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.’”
Notice that Peter is confrontational. He directly accuses them of missing and even rejecting their Messiah. He is blunt, direct and does not attempt to soften the blow. Peter also assumes that these religious Jews know the scriptures and respect them. He builds on this knowledge by appealing to the their desire to be biblical and obedient.
In other words he preached to people with a basic understanding of the Bible and God’s ways and he confronted them directly about their sin and disobedience. This approach is the main model used by believers to preach the gospel in the 20th Century. It is very biblical, and for people back in the 20th Century, very effective.
21st Century Preaching Models
But this isn’t the only way the gospel was preached in the Bible. For example, here are a couple of samples of gospel preaching that may better fit people in the 21st Century.
The Samaritan Woman.
In John 4, Jesus is traveling through Samaria and met a woman drawing water at Jacob’s Well. They have a conversation about water and being thirsty. In verses 14-17. Jesus says to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied.
In Acts 17, Paul is in Athens and finds himself addressing some of the noted philosophers of the day. Notice that not once in this sermon does he quote scripture. Verses 22-23 show his ability to adapt to his audience: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
The differences between 20th and 21st Century preaching.
In both John 4 and Acts 17, Jesus and Paul are interactive, rather than confrontational in their approach. They see the situation and viewpoint of the people they are speaking to and tailor a message for them. In John 4, Jesus knows that the woman has some knowledge of scripture, but that this knowledge is highly distorted, so he straightens out her cultic misunderstanding of scripture. He doesn’t criticize her for her misunderstanding, but instead he appeals to the woman’s obvious desire for acceptance and fulfillment. Hence her five failed marriages and current dysfunctional relationship. In the Acts 17 passage, Paul assumes no knowledge of or loyalty to scripture by the Athenians, so he doesn’t use it. Instead, Paul appeals to the Athenians’ spiritual emptiness and hunger for wisdom. Both of these approaches are very biblical. Both fit the needs of the people they were focused on.
What is my point? I am not suggesting any compromise of doctrine. I am not suggesting that we stop using scripture. I am saying we have to be open to changing at least some of our approach and ways of thinking in order to reach 21st Century people. Unless of course, we just plain don’t care what happens to them. I will suggest some ways that can help us be more effective with 21st Century people in the third and final part of this blog.