Center for the Study of Global Christianity researcher Gina A. Zurlo, addressing the third global gathering of the Global Christian Forum on 26 April 2018. Photo: Peter Kenny/WCC
Three factors emerging in global Christianity are Africa’s new place in it as of 2018, the rise of Independent Christianity and Christians who self-identify separately from Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants.
These aspects are in research by the Massachusetts-based Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
It has new research showing level of denominational affiliation that the center is calling ecclesiastical “families,” Gina A. Zurlo has told the third gathering of the Global Christian Forum meeting in Bogotá, Colombia.
Her talk was enthusiastically received at the gathering that has drawn participants from ever strand of Christianity to Bogotá.
Zurlo is the Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, in the United States, an academic research center that monitors worldwide demographic trends in Christianity, including outreach and mission.
She addressed participants on “Global Christianity: Continuity and Change” on 27 April, noting, “Our 2009 Atlas of Global Christianity reported that 35 percent of the world was Christian in 1910, and roughly 32 percent was Christian in 2010.”
Center for the Study of Global Christianity
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity collates and analyzes data on church membership and Christians’ activities around the world in addition to other religious demographics, to provide a reliable picture of global religious adherence.
From 2007–2009 Zurlo was a research assistant and is now assistant director of the center.
“We provide a comprehensive collection of information on the past, present, and future of Christianity in every country of the world.
“Our data and publications help churches, mission agencies, and non-governmental organizations to be strategic, thoughtful and sensitive to local contexts.”
The two main projects of the center currently are the Edinburgh Companions to the Global Christianity, which is a 10-volume series highlighting regional trends and issues in Christianity throughout the world.
It featuring articles written by local Christians everywhere.
The first volume on sub-Saharan Africa came out last year, and this year’s volume on North Africa-West Asia will be out next month.
The second big project is the third edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, which will feature all new data, updated articles on the history of Christianity in every country of the world, and a full-color online version.
In 1910, unsurprisingly, Christianity was concentrated in the historic areas of ‘Christendom’ in Europe and North America.
100-year decline of Christian affiliation in the ‘north’
“However,” said Zurlo, “over the 100-year period, Christian affiliation has decreased slightly in the north and increased substantially in the south.”
This is the case in sub-Saharan Africa and in 2010, you could also see large concentrations of Christians in east Asia, south-east Asia, and India.
Considerable changes in Christian demographics have taken place in sub-Saharan Africa between 1970 and today.
“Sub-Saharan Africa was home to 134 million Christians in 1970 and grew to an astounding 621 million Christians by 2018,” said Zurlo.
Her research shows a rapid growth of Christianity in the region from 1970 to 2000 and an easing of growth since the turn of the 21st century.
“In a sense, we can conceptualize Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa as ‘continuity’ over the 48-year period. Christianity continues to grow, although now at a slower rate,” said the American researcher.
And contrasting the continuity narrative in sub-Saharan Africa is the narrative of change in North Africa-West Asia (or, the Middle East).
“This region was home to 12 million Christians in 1970 and 25 million in 2018, but these figures hide the tragic exodus of historic Christian communities in the region, despite roughly 400 years of Christian stability in the region before the 20th century,” she noted.
“Looking at the two dates comparatively reveals a downward trend of Christian affiliation due to war, strife, and persecution.
“It is critical to keep the story of Christianity in the Middle East at the front and center of discussions of world Christianity to prevent the narrative of ‘growth’ from overcoming the narrative of struggle and survival,” explained Zurlo.
She said some questions to consider are: “Where has Christianity moved over time? Who makes up global Christianity? What diversity exists within global Christianity? What does global Christianity look like today?”
The significance of Zurlo’s talk is that the GCF as a forum is a safe space for Christian faith to be shared across traditions. It does not seek to be an organisation or to replace other ecclesial bodies. Participants are drawn together for discussion, prayer and to explore common challenges.
The GCF’s gathering in Bogota is the most comprehensive gathering of global Christian leadership in contemporary Christianity today.
Its four pillar organizations are: the Pentecostal World Fellowship, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, World Evangelical Alliance and the World Council of Churches.