List of Illustrations


Figure I.1 The four major contemporary Christian traditions

Figure I.2 Development of major historical Christian traditions

Figure 1.1 Where Orthodox Christians live

Figure 1.2 Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral (Sibiu, Romania), interior of main dome

Figure 1.3 Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral (Sibiu, Romania), nave and iconostasis

Figure 1.4 Key events in Orthodox history

Figure 2.1 Where Catholics live

Figure 2.2 Key events in Catholic history

Figure 3.1 Where Protestants live

Figure 3.2 Key events in Protestant history

Figure 4.1 Where Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians live

Figure 4.2 Growth of Pentecostal/Charismatic movement

Figure II.1 Nine cultural-geographic regions of the world

Figure II.2 Where the world’s Christians live

Figure 5.1 Map of Middle East and North Africa

Figure 5.2 The Ottoman Empire at its peak, c. 1800

Figure 5.3 Where Christians live in Egypt

Figure 5.4 The Armenian genocide

Figure 5.5 Palestinian Muslims and Christians demonstrate at Al-Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus, October 9, 2009

Figure 6.1 Map of Eastern Europe

Figure 6.2 Map of post-World War I Communist Europe

Figure 6.3 Three religious subregions of Eastern Europe

Figure 6.4 The Lord’s Ark Catholic Church (Nowa Huta, Poland)

Figure 6.5 Population estimates of Orthodox Christians in the Russian Federation

Figure 7.1 Map of Central and South Asia

Figure 7.2 Where Christians live in India

Figure 7.3 Christians take part in a prayer meeting to protest against the killings of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa, in New Delhi, 27 December, 2007

Figure 7.4 An Indian shouts slogans in front of a mock crucifixion during a protest rally in New Delhi to demand government job reservations for “dalit” or oppressed Christians

Figure 8.1 Map of Western Europe

Figure 8.2 Chiara Lubich, Founder of Focolare

Figure 8.3 Padre Pio celebrating the Mass

Figure 8.4 Western Europe showing Catholic, Protestant, and religiously mixed regions

Figure 8.5 Francesco Franco and wife taking communion at Sunday Mass (1952)

Figure 8.6 Two of the most important Western European theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner and Karl Barth

Figure 8.7 Anglican Communion: numbers by region

Figure 8.8 Members of the Church of England attending worship on a typical Sunday

Figure 9.1 Sub-Saharan Africa

Figure 9.2 Map of Africa showing European colonial claims, c. 1920

Figure 9.3 Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa (% of population)

Figure 9.4 Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa (number of adherents)

Figure 9.5 Christianity as a percentage of total national population

Figure 9.6 Distribution of Christian population in Nigeria

Figure 9.7 Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola

Figure 9.8 Carrying the tabot to be rechristened during the festival of Timkat

Figure 10.1 Map of East Asia

Figure 10.2 Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin at a rally in Manila, 2000

Figure 10.3 The EDSA I protests, Manila, Philippines, 1986

Figure 10.4 Map of Indonesia showing distribution of Christians

Figure 10.5 Reformed church (next to mosque) in Malang, East Java, Indonesia

Figure 10.6 Christians attend Sunday service at Shouwang Church in Beijing’s Haidian district, October 3, 2010

Figure 11.1 Map of Latin America

Figure 11.2 The religious profile of Latin America in 1900 and 2005

Figure 11.3 Padre Marcelo Rossi participates in an outdoor mass, November 2, 2000, in São Paulo, Brazil

Figure 11.4 Catholic fighters of the Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

Figure 11.5 Evangélico (non-Catholic) Christianity in Mexico

Figure 11.6 The island nations of the Caribbean

Figure 12.1 Map of North America

Figure 12.2 Percentage of the Canadian population (by province) reporting no religious affiliation

Figure 12.3 Religion in the USA using “American” categories of description

Figure 12.4 Religion in the USA using four world Christian traditions as categories of description

Figure 12.5 Church attendance rates by state

Figure 12.6 Bishop T. D. Jakes of the Potter’s House Church

Figure 12.7 Where Catholics live

Figure 12.8 Where Mormons live

Figure 13.1 Map of Oceania

Figure 13.2 Map of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia

Figure 13.3 T. W. Ratana

Figure 13.4 Frank Bainimarama (leader of 2006 coup)

Figure 13.5 The religious profile of Australia

Figure 13.6 Entrance to Saint Shenouda Coptic monastery (New South Wales, Australia)

Figure 13.7a Hillsong Church, Australia

Figure 13.7b Pastor Bobbie Houston from Hillsong Church, Australia

Figure 14.1 Timeline for the Ancient Tradition

Figure 14.2 Roman Empire at peak, c. 120

Figure 14.3 Timeline of Christianity and the Roman Empire

Figure 14.4 Head of the giant statue of the Emperor Constantine in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, Italy

Figure 14.5 Estimated growth of Christianity as a percentage of the Roman population

Figure 14.6 Sasanian Empire, c. 250

Figure 14.7 Timeline of Christianity in Persia

Figure 15.1 The Great Division

Figure 15.2 Christian “East” and “West” and the general geographic locations of the four major traditions, 500–1000

Figure 15.3 Byzantine and Arab Empires, c. 800

Figure 15.4 Timeline of Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, 500–1000

Figure 15.5 Timeline for Church of the East, 500–1000

Figure 15.6 Charlemagne’s domain

Figure 16.1 Ten General Councils of the Catholic Church, 1123–1512

Figure 16.2 Fourteenth-century Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri holding his book Divine Comedy against a backdrop of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in a 1465 painting by Domenico Michelino

Figure 16.3 The path of the Black Death

Figure 16.4 St George’s Carved Stone Church (Lalibela, Ethiopia)

Figure 16.5 Changing Christian–Muslim boundary line in Spain, 800–1492

Figure 16.6 Map of the Crusader states, c. 1150 and c. 1200

Figure 16.7 Latin Empire in former Byzantine territory, 1204–61

Figure 16.8 The Mongol Emperor Hulegu with his Christian wife, Sorkaktani-beki

Figure 16.9 Timeline of Christian decline in Persia

Figure 17.1 Dirk Willems rescuing his pursuer

Figure 17.2 William J. Seymour with other leaders of the Azusa Street revival

Figure 17.3 Portuguese and Spanish empires, sixteenth century

Figure 17.4 African slaves brought to the Americas, 1650–1860

Figure 17.5 Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping Tianguo

Figure 17.6 Global map of the Cold War, c. 1980


Table 2.1 Global organization of Catholic Church

Table 2.2 Global distribution of Catholic parishes and priests

Table 3.1 The main “families” of Protestantism and their global presence

Table II.1 Christians as percentage of the population in the nine world regions

Table II.2 Relative size of the four Christian traditions in the nine world regions

Table 5.1 Christian profile of the Middle East and North Africa

Table 6.1 The main Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe

Table 6.2 Estimated size of Christian traditions in the Balkans today

Table 6.3 Christian populations in Catholic Central Europe

Table 6.4 Estimated size of Christian traditions in Russian region today

Table 7.1 Religious profiles of nations in North Central Asia

Table 7.2 Distribution of major religions in South Asia

Table 7.3 Estimated size of the five major Christian subgroups in India

Table 8.1 The four main Christian traditions in Catholic Europe

Table 8.2 Levels of religiosity in Catholic Europe

Table 8.3 The four main Christian traditions in Protestant and religiously mixed Europe

Table 8.4 Levels of religiosity in Protestant and religiously mixed Western Europe

Table 8.5 Ten largest denominations in the United Kingdom

Table 9.1 Social and economic data for 10 largest African nations

Table 9.2 Growth of four Christian traditions in sub-Saharan Africa

Table 9.3 Religious affiliation in the 10 largest nations in sub-Saharan Africa today

Table 9.4 Denominational profile of Nigerian Christian population

Table 9.5 Denominational profile of South African Christian population

Table 10.1 Distribution of three major world religions in East Asia

Table 11.1 Christian profiles of the 10 largest nations of Latin America

Table 11.2 The 10 largest non-Catholic churches in Mexico

Table 11.3 Religious profiles of five largest independent Caribbean nations

Table 12.1 The mainline Protestant denominations in the USA

Table 12.2 Historically black churches with more than one million members

Table 13.1 Religious profile of Melanesia

Table 13.2 Religious profile of Micronesia

Table 13.3 Religious profile of Polynesia

Table 16.1 Major Muslim empires, indicating general attitude toward Christianity

Table 17.1 Modern European empires

Table 17.2 Distribution of Christian population by continent, 1800 and 1900

Table 17.3 Distribution of global Christian population by continent, 1900 and 2000


Plate 1 Matthew the Poor/Yūsuf Iskandar

Plate 2 Coptic Pope Shenouda III

Plate 3 Ancient Armenian church near Lake Van, Turkey

Plate 4 Aerial view of St Sava Serbian Orthodox Church (Belgrade, Serbia)

Plate 5 Hill of Crosses, Siauliai, Lithuania

Plate 6 The Queen of Heaven, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa

Plate 7 Christ the Savior Church, Moscow, destroyed in 1931

Plate 8 Christ the Savior Church, Moscow, rebuilt in 2000

Plate 9 Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Plate 10 Cathedral of the Epiphany (CSI), Dornakal, India

Plate 11 Young Muslim demonstrators shout slogans as they march in central Paris

Plate 12 Pope Benedict XVI (R) meets France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Vatican, December 20, 2007

Plate 13 Victims of the Rwandan genocide lying outside a Catholic Church

Plate 14 Members of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church (AIC), West Africa

Plate 15 Yoido Full Gospel Church, Seoul, Korea, July 27, 2008

Plate 16 Zhongguancun Christian Church, Haidian District, Beijing (TSPM/CCC)

Plate 17 Golden Lamp Church, Linfen, Shanxi province, China; now closed by the authorities

Plate 18 Our Lady of Guadalupe

Plate 19 Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Brazil

Plate 20 “This Home is Catholic” (Este Hogar es Catolico) door sign

Plate 21 Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, May 20, 2008

Plate 22 Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee

Plate 23 Paul Gauguin: Two Tahitian Women, 1899

Plate 24 Paul Gauguin: Haere Pape, 1892

Plate 25 Detail of a painting of Tiwi art, Northern Territory, Australia

Plate 26 Icon of Symeon the Stylite

Plate 27 Ancient cross marking the purported burial site of St Thomas in Mylapore (near Chennai), India

Plate 28 Icon of the “Nine Saints” painted on a church wall in Ethiopia

Plate 29 Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Cretan School

Plate 30 Icon depicting Saints Cyril and Methodius, Varna

Plate 31 Thirteenth-century reliquary of the arm of St George

Plate 32 Andrei Rublev icon of John the Baptist

Plate 33 A page from Jefferson’s pasted-together Bible

Plate 34 Baroque church, Steingaden, Germany

Plate 35 The Christian King Nzinga Nkuwu (João I) of Congo


Roughly one third of the world’s population is Christian – more than two billion people in all – and the diversity within this community of faith is stunning. Christians are members of thousands of different churches, speak hundreds of different languages, and are present within almost every country and culture on earth. Christianity has been a world religion for centuries, but the global dispersion of Christianity has increased dramatically in recent years. This book surveys that expansive terrain, mapping the complex contours of Christianity, documenting its dimensions, and painting a portrait of the largest contemporary religious movement on earth.

I first decided to write this book more than 20 years ago while I was attending a meeting of “Third World” theologians held at Princeton University. What was then still being called the “Third World” has since become the first world of the global Christian movement. More Christians now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America than in Europe and North America, and that southern shift in the movement represents more than mere geography. The Christian movement is changing and moving forward in ways that are very different from the past, and it is constantly becoming more diverse, but the many different kinds of Christians around the world continue to be linked together by their shared desire to follow the way of life that Jesus of Nazareth articulated and embodied when he lived in Palestine two thousand years ago.

Much of my research during the last two decades has been spent trying to understand these new global developments, and in many ways it has felt like trying to catch a train as it is pulling away from the station. Realities on the ground are changing all the time, and literally thousands of academic works have been produced that try to document and analyze those changes. Scholars often say that their own work is possible only because they have been able to stand on the shoulders of others. In this case, it feels much more like being carried along by a great crowd.

I learned long ago, in graduate school at the University of Chicago and in my initial foray into teaching at the University of Illinois, that understanding a subject with enough depth to explain it clearly to others is a challenge. When the subject is as complex as world Christianity, this challenge is immense. The amount of information is overwhelming, and yet making things too simple runs the risk of misrepresenting reality. Finding the right balance between information overload and oversimplification can be difficult, but to whatever degree that balance has been achieved here, I have my students at Messiah College to thank. In my classes on the history of Christianity and on contemporary Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, they have helped me distinguish between what is important and what is merely intriguing and between what is significant and what tends to confuse with too much nuance and detail.

This work has also been tremendously enriched by interactions I have had with Christians around the world. Visits to more than 50 nations have allowed me to experience first-hand some of the amazing diversity that exists among the world’s many different kinds of Christians, from attending a crowded Catholic mass in China, to participating in raucous worship with Pentecostals in Zimbabwe, to being moved to tears by the music of an Orthodox choir in Romania, to joining in devotion with pilgrims at the shrine of La Negrita in Costa Rica, to singing hymns with a Presbyterian congregation in Northern Ireland, to hearing the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch describe the difficulties of being a Christian in the Middle East while I was in Syria. It would be impossible to name all the people and organizations that made such experiences possible, but it is an understatement to say that I am truly grateful.

The goal of this book is to describe the world’s Christians as fairly and accurately as possible, without skewing that picture one way or the other. In a sense, then, this book is a kind of scientific field guide that identifies all the different “species” of Christianity around the world. As is true for any good field guide, geography and numbers matter. This volume, accordingly, tries to categorize and count all the various types of Christians found in the different regions of the world. Grouping and enumerating individual Christians is not an easy task. Even though most Christians know and are willing to say, for example, if they are Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Pentecostal/Charismatic, estimating the country-by- country numbers can be surprisingly difficult. The World Christian Encyclopedia (2nd edn, 2001), edited by David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd Johnson, along with the online World Christian Database, which constantly updates the information provided in the encyclopedia, is both the logical place to begin and a rich mine of information. However, the numbers given in the World Christian Encyclopedia and the World Christian Database do not always agree with other sources of information about the world Christian population, including church membership and attendance records, national census figures, regional and national surveys (when available), and statistics provided by international governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

The numbers included in this book are my own best estimates based on a careful comparison of all the sometimes conflicting information that is available. Other scholars might reach slightly different sums since there are a variety of valid ways to assess the data, but the figures provided here have been compiled with great care. The most significant difference in this regard has to do with the number of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians. It is not uncommon to read claims that Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians now account for 25 percent or more of the world’s Christians. But the only way to arrive at that number is to double count millions of people who are also counted as Protestants or Catholics. The percentages used in this book do not allow for that kind of double counting. To make everything add up to 100 percent, some adjustments have accordingly been made both to the Pentecostal/Charismatic numbers and also to Protestant and Catholic numbers.

In the end, however, numbers provide only the skeleton of the story that needs to be told. Religion is personal. It involves deep-seated emotions, lifelong habits of devotion, and distinct ideas about who God is, how the world is put together, and what it means to be human. To understand Christianity as a living religion requires awareness of that personal dimension, and this book attempts to put the flesh-and-blood substance of everyday faith onto the bones of the world Christian movement as it is defined by the demographic data. Doing so requires empathy, the willingness to suspend one’s own beliefs and values and to enter into the world of the other as much as possible. No one can do this perfectly – the other always remains other, and no one can fully understand what it means to walk in the shoes of someone else – but given the religious conflicts and controversies that exist around the world, it is imperative that we try. My hope is that this book will serve as a fair introduction – both empirically grounded and empathetic – to the world’s many different kinds of Christians and the hopes, fears, and challenges they face in their lives.


The Christian movement began with just a handful of people, maybe a few hundred, who had known Jesus while he was alive and who looked to him even after his death as their religious teacher and guide. Jesus was born in a remote part of Palestine at the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, and during his lifetime his following never extended beyond that region. Most of his closest associates were of modest means, and many – perhaps most – were illiterate. All in all, there was little to suggest that someday this movement would span the globe, yet it has. Today Christianity, the religion of Jesus, is the largest and most widely disseminated religion in the world.

All Christians seek in some way or another to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The term “Christian” comes from the honorary title “Christ,” which was given to Jesus by the early church and means the “anointed one.” Christians see Jesus as being the Chosen One who came to proclaim “good news” (the “gospel”) to humankind, to announce God’s love for the world and God’s desire to redeem the world from sin, sorrow, and all that is wrong. But Christians also believe that Jesus was more than a mere messenger. In some sense, he was the message himself. He was, in his person, the redeeming presence of God on earth, the Messiah foretold in ancient Jewish scriptures. And it is that belief that has been the main driving force behind the growth of Christianity through the centuries and around the world: that, in Jesus, God came to earth to help and to heal the woes of humankind.

The historical Jesus was an unlikely leader. He lived his first 30 years in relative obscurity as the son of Mary and her husband Joseph, a carpenter in the small town of Nazareth. Then, for just a few years before he was killed, he took on the role of a wandering Jewish prophet and teacher, first in the rural region of Galilee and later in Jerusalem.

His message was simple but profound. Jesus affirmed much of the Judaism of his day, including the Golden Rule (“do unto others what you would have them do unto you”), but Jesus frequently added his own twist to those teachings. Some of these additions – the folksy way he referred to God as “abba” (best translated as “daddy”), his willingness to bend the law to human frailty, his claim that he was able to forgive sins – were troubling to traditional Jews. His message was also troubling to Rome. Jesus spoke of a coming “kingdom of God” and described his own actions as the dawning of that kingdom. He instructed his followers to give appropriate respect to Caesar, the Roman Emperor, but he also told them to give their entire lives to God, a qualification that clearly limited any loyalty owed to Caesar. And, while he did not seek political power for himself, he refused to cower when he was arrested and questioned by Rome’s political appointees in the region. All of that seemed potentially subversive to an empire that demanded absolute obedience, and Rome responded vigorously, as Rome always did. Using the gruesome spectacle of execution on a cross, the Empire eliminated Jesus and sent a public message to his followers that the show was over.

Most local residents thought that was the end of the matter. Another pesky prophet had come and gone, and life would now return to normal. But killing Jesus did not stop the movement. His closest followers soon became convinced that Jesus had survived his crucifixion or, as they put it, he had conquered the grave and triumphed over death. They reported that they had seen him alive, in a glorious resurrected body, and that he had commanded them to continue the work he had started. They were to preach the gospel throughout the world, to every person, in every tongue, in every nation.

The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea says that the disciples of Jesus cast lots to determine where each of them should go. Eusebius says that Thomas was assigned to Parthia (now Iraq and Iran), Andrew to Scythia (the lands north of the Black Sea), and John to the province of Asia Minor (now Turkey). Peter, as the leader of the group, was given freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Eusebius did not always get his facts straight, and this particular story may well be fictitious, but his basic point is accurate. Within a century of Jesus’s death the Christian gospel had been carried as far west as Spain and as far east as India.

Jesus never produced any writings of his own, but his spoken words, remembered and written down after his death in short books called “Gospels,” quickly became the key texts of the movement, and even today portions of them are read every week in most Christian churches. While Christians believe that the entire text of the Bible is in some sense inspired, the words of Jesus are seen as special. Some versions of the Bible even print the sayings of Jesus in red ink, rather than black, so they stand out from the rest of the text. And some Christians call themselves “red-letter” Christians to underscore the emphasis they put on the teachings of Jesus within the context of the Bible as a whole.

Part of the appeal of Jesus’s words and actions is that they require reflection in order to be understood. The words of Jesus necessitate self-examination and transformation and require “hearers of the Word” to become better people in order to make sense of what he said. When Jesus says things like “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” for example, people have to ask themselves what it means to be poor or to be blessed or to be part of the kingdom of heaven, and there isn’t one right answer because each person brings something different from his or her own life to those questions. It is this power to draw people in, to make them rethink and refashion their own lives, that has led many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to value Jesus as a great religious teacher. Christians across the ages and around the world have also called Jesus savior and lord because they believe the power of the still living Jesus (now in heaven) has spiritually changed them in ways they could never change themselves.

The dynamic quality of Jesus’s life and message – its probing open-endedness – has been a boon to the global spread of Christianity. Jesus taught by using parables, paradoxical sayings, and symbolic actions, and the history of Christianity is largely the story of how people and groups in many different cultures have come to their own varied conclusions about what those words and actions mean for them. The flexibility of this interpretive process has allowed people all around the world to read the Bible as if it was written specifically for them, and to be confident that the meaning they have found in the text is as valid and worthy as the interpretations of other Christians. In particular, Christians in cultures that have only recently encountered Christianity can see themselves as having equal access to Jesus and an equal right to interpret the words of Jesus in ways that make sense in their own unique circumstances.

This process of cross-culturally enlarging the meaning of the Christian message began early in the history of the movement. The first major transformation – moving from Hebrew to Greco-Roman culture – is visible in the pages of the New Testament itself, where the Apostle Paul and other writers try to explain the message of Jesus to Gentiles (people who are not Jews) in a language (Greek) that Jesus did not speak. And as the followers of Jesus moved further afield, engaging Persian, Indian, Arabic, Berber, Gothic, and Coptic cultures, the work of translation and cultural adaptation became ever more complex. The categories of thought and perception that exist in one culture never line up precisely with the concepts and ideas in another, and practices that are symbolically meaningful in one culture may have no symbolic power in another. So the act of translating the Christian message from one setting to another often involved rethinking that message in radically new ways, with each new context stretching the meaning and message of Christianity in different directions. The incredible diversity of Christianity that exists around the world today is the result of this process.

But despite the freedom that has been part of this history, and despite the amazing internal pluralism of the Christian religion, there are a few central items – a handful of things – on which all or almost all Christians agree. Thus, for example, Christians corporately affirm that Jesus was somehow both human and divine, and most believe that God is a “Trinity” consisting of three “persons” (traditionally called the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) eternally bound into oneness by their mutual and indestructible love. Explaining the details of these two doctrines – how Jesus can be two yet one and how God can be three yet one – has always been a challenge for Christians, but most still affirm these concepts. Christians also believe that “salvation,” however it is construed – and Christians construe it in many different ways – is ultimately a gift from God. Human effort towards salvation may or may not be necessary, but salvation is impossible apart from God’s grace.

All or most Christian churches also share certain practices. One of them is weekly worship. Whether taking place on Sunday (for most Christians) or on Saturday (for some Christians), gathering for weekly worship is a nearly universal Christian practice. Not every Christian attends worship every week, but the opportunity is always available. Most Christians also believe that baptism – accomplished by either submerging a person under water or pouring water over their head – is the standard ritual of initiation that publicly marks a person as a follower of Jesus. Baptism symbolizes both the washing away of sin and identification with Christ’s death and resurrection (going into the water and then rising out of it is like being buried and then raised from the dead). Some churches baptize babies while others baptize only adults, but baptism in one form or another is almost always required for full membership. Finally, all or most Christian churches celebrate the Eucharist (which is also known as Communion or the Lord’s Supper) on a regular basis. This mini-meal, which takes place within the context of worship, consists of a small piece of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice, but it is rich with symbolism. It commemorates the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples. It represents Christ’s body that was broken and his blood that was shed on the cross – in fact, many Christians believe the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharistic celebration. It reminds those who participate that they are part of a community of mutual care and affection. And it anticipates the banqueting in heaven that Christians hope someday to enjoy with God.

But while Christians throughout history and around the globe share some beliefs and practices and some hopes about the future, the diversity within the movement is simply stunning. The goal of this book is to explain that diversity: to describe the who, where, and how of Christianity around the world. Part I describes who the world’s Christians are, focusing on the four major contemporary traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Charismatic/Pentecostal. The experiences of believers from each of the four traditions will be described: what they believe, how they worship, how they sense the presence of God in their lives, and how they institutionally organize their communities of faith.

Part II – the largest part of the book – is organized geographically and describes where Christians are living in the world today. Nine distinct regions are identified, based on a combination of factors including geography, the similarity of Christian experience in each region, cultural practices, and the size of the total population in each given area. To some degree, the world’s Christian geography follows the world’s continental divides, but not entirely. Thus North America (minus Mexico) constitutes one region, Central and South America (including Mexico) form another, Australia along with New Zealand and the Pacific islands represents a third, and sub-Saharan Africa exists as a fourth separate and distinct zone of Christian experience. But the European continent is divided into two subregions (East and West) because the Christian population of the continent is so large and because the history of Christianity in these two regions has been so different. And Asia, the home of more than half the world’s people, is divided into three subregions: East Asia, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East, with the last of these broadened into a larger region that includes the north coast of Africa. As these regions are examined, it becomes clear just how diverse and how dispersed the Christian movement has become. There is no longer any identifiable spiritual or geographic center of world Christianity. Instead, the Christian world is now “flat” in the sense of being roughly evenly spread around the globe. In this newly flat world of global Christianity, every region has the own power to influence other regions while simultaneously being influenced from elsewhere.

Part III describes how Christianity developed its current global shape. It includes four chapters, each covering 500 years of history. This is not a complete history of Christianity, but is instead an overview focusing on how Christians, both theologically and geographically, got to where they are today. This history also underscores the ever-changing dynamics and character of the movement. Some of the most important Christian communities of the past – for example, the Church of the East that once contained thousands of churches in a far-reaching zone extending from what is now Iraq all the way to China – are now teetering on the brink of extinction. Other Christian traditions have only recently come into existence – most notably, the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement – but they have expanded very quickly and already circle the globe. While Christianity has been a world religion for a very long time, its global shape has changed dramatically over the course of two thousand years, and it is still changing today.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Barrett, David B., George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson (2001). World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd edn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Ted A. (1996). Christian Confessions: A Historical Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.

Chidester, David (2000). Christianity: A Global History. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Davies, Noel and Martin Conway (2008). World Christianity in the 20th Century. London: SCM Press.

Dougherty, Dyron B. (2010). The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion. New York: Peter Lang.

Dupré, Louis and Don E. Salaiers (eds) (1989). Christian Spirituality: Post-Reformation and Modern. New York: Crossroad.

Hasting, Adrian (ed.) (1999). A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Irvin, Dale T. and Scott W. Sundquist (2001). History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Jenkins, Philip (2007). The Next Christendom, The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Philip (2008). The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. San Francisco: HarperOne.

Kim, Sebastian and Kirsteen Kim (2008). Christianity as a World Religion. New York: Continuum.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2009). Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking.

McGinn, Bernard, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclercq (eds) (1985). Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century. New York: Crossroad.

Patte, Daniel (ed.) (2010). The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Raitt, Jill (1988). Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation. New York: Crossroad.

Part I Who They Are


To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, but not all Christians follow Christ in the same way. That fact is underscored by a quick survey of the social structure of contemporary Christianity. Christians are institutionally divided into more than 35,000 separate churchly organizations, ranging in size from the enormous Roman Catholic Church which has more than a billion members to the grandly named Universal Church of Christ which has 400 members worldwide, most of them in the USA and the West Indies. Every week, Christians gather at more than five million local churches and parishes to worship God. And that’s just the formal structure. Informally, there are millions of additional Christian groups which meet in homes, schools, and places of work for Bible study, prayer, and mutual support. Each of these groups and each individual follower of Christ is in some sense unique, yet almost all of the world’s two billion Christians are affiliated with one or another of four major Christian traditions that dominate the movement today: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.

The word "tradition" comes from the Latin world traditio, which means “to hand down,” and religious traditions represent specific packages of beliefs, practices, and spiritual attitudes and emotions that have been handed down within different religious communities from generation to generation for years, if not centuries. This definition of tradition might make it sound as if religious traditions never change, but that is not the case. All traditions change, though most change slowly. In essence, a religious tradition is like a long, multigenerational conversation in which each new generation adds its own new insights and concerns, sometimes affirming and sometimes critiquing and revising what was done in the past. Over the course of two millennia, Christianity has produced a number of different major traditions, each with its own distinct sets of beliefs, practices, and spiritual affections. Some historical Christian traditions have become extinct, but the four traditions described in Part I are still quite vigorous and strong.

The four major contemporary Christian traditions (% of total global Christian population)

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Within the overarching category of being Christian, most individuals see themselves as belonging to one and only one of these four traditions. A person is either a Catholic or a Protestant or an Orthodox or a Pentecostal/Charismatic Christian. But while this general rule of thumb rings true for most Christians, there is sometimes fuzziness at some of the boundaries. Thus, for example, some people think of themselves as Orthodox Catholics (because they are members of Catholic Churches that use an Orthodox liturgy for worship) and others consider themselves to be both Catholic and Protestant, most notably “Anglo-Catholic” members of the Church of England. This kind of blurring of identity is especially common at the borders where the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition touches the Protestant and Catholic traditions, with literally millions of Christians considering themselves both Catholic and Charismatic or both Protestant and Pentecostal. Even with these exceptions, however, most of the world’s Christians can be classified quite easily into just one of the four major traditions.

The Catholic tradition has the largest number of adherents, including roughly half of all the Christians in the world. The Protestant tradition comes next in terms of size, followed closely by the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. Eastern Orthodoxy is the smallest of the four major traditions. (See .) A full accounting of the world’s Christians would also need to acknowledge a handful of other traditions that cannot be shoehorned into the big four. Some of these were once large and important Christian traditions such as the Church of the East (sometimes called the Nestorian Church) and the Miaphysite Churches (also known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches); see . Others are much smaller or of much more recent origin, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church). These smaller alternative traditions will be discussed where appropriate in the regional and historical sections of this book, but they are not given separate treatment here.

Every Christian tradition has a beginning point, though the particular “birth date” of a tradition is not always easy to identify. The Pentecostal/Charismatic movement is the youngest of the four major traditions, and its beginning is the easiest to date, usually being associated with the Azusa Street Revival, which took place in Los Angeles, California from 1906 to 1908 under the leadership of the African American preacher William J. Seymour. October 31, 1517 is sometimes cited as the start-up date for the Protestant movement – the day when Martin Luther first posted his famous “95 Theses” protesting the practices of the Roman Catholic Church on the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany where he served as both priest and university professor. The origins of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions are harder to date, both because these traditions are ancient and because each emerged slowly as the result of a long process of development and consolidation. Many of the ingredients that make up these two traditions existed from the earliest years of the Christian movement, but those ingredients had to be mixed and baked for quite some time before they took on the specific characteristics that still define these traditions as they exist today. Viewed in terms of their contemporary identities, the Orthodox tradition can be said to have acquired its distinctively Orthodox shape around the ninth century, while the Catholic tradition developed its decisively Catholic identity sometime around the twelfth century.

Development of major historical Christian traditions

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The Orthodox Tradition

Today there are about 240 million Orthodox Christians in the world, accounting for roughly 12 percent of the world’s total Christian population. They are part of a family of about 40 independent and geographically defined churches that all see themselves as part of a single Orthodox tradition. The Orthodox tradition is defined by its shared consensus rather than by a hierarchically imposed uniformity. Historically, the highest office within the Orthodox tradition is the Patriarch of Constantinople (also known as the “Ecumenical Patriarch”), but this title denotes honor and respect, not power or control. Most contemporary Orthodox Churches are organized along national lines, a fact that is reflected in names such as the Greek Orthodox Church or the Romanian Orthodox Church or the Russian Orthodox Church (which is the largest of the Orthodox Churches, having about 115 million members). For Orthodoxy, the liturgy (the service of worship in the church building) is at the center of lived faith, and Orthodox worship is a full body experience that involves hearing the words of the prayers, seeing the images (icons) of the saints that are painted on the walls and ceiling, and smelling the incense that wafts through the room from the censors swung back and forth by the priests.

The Catholic Tradition

The Catholic tradition is housed almost entirely within the single massive institution that is known as the Roman Catholic Church. This church is overseen by the Bishop of Rome, who is also called the “Pope” (meaning “papa” or “father”). The current Pope is Benedict XVI, who assumed office in 2005 after the death of his long-serving and popular predecessor, John Paul II. Because of its size and its hierarchical organizational structure, the Catholic Church can appear to be a monolith when viewed from the outside. But the term “catholic” means literally “from the whole,” and the Catholic Church has always been a big tent where many different expressions of Christian faith and practice have been able to exist side by side within the wholeness of the church as a corporate body. The Catholic Church is the most ethnically and culturally diverse organization in the world, with more than 130 nations having at least 100,000 Catholics living within their borders. The five nations with the largest Catholic populations are Brazil (145 million), Mexico (90 million), the United States (70 million), the Philippines (65 million), and Italy (55 million).


The Protestant tradition is housed in a bewildering mix of thousands of different separate, independent denominations. Catholic and Orthodox Christians often consider the Protestant tradition to be unruly. In fact it is – but that is also the point. Protestants view faith largely as an individual matter, and Protestants are encouraged to read the Bible and determine what it means for themselves. As diverse and confusing as Protestantism can sometimes seem, the overall pattern is actually tidier than one might suppose. While Protestantism has tended to fragment with time, like-minded Protestants have also been busy gathering themselves together into a relatively limited number of major Protestant subtraditions. The largest of these are the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed subtraditions, and these five groups together account for roughly 85 percent of the almost 400 million Protestants in the world today.

The Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement

The newest of the four major contemporary Christian traditions is still in the early stages of formation. It has one core tenet: God is still active in the world through the Holy Spirit, so that miracles and spiritual gifts are an expected component of the Christian life. But while the movement’s distinctive emphasis is relatively easy to describe, the boundaries of the movement are somewhat fuzzy, and they are fuzzy precisely because Pentecostal/Charismatic faith is defined by an emphasis rather than by a distinctively different set of beliefs. The question is how much emphasis a particular group has to place on the active work of the Holy Spirit in order to qualify as Pentecostal/Charismatic. Answers to that question differ considerably and, as a result, claims about the size of the worldwide Pentecostal/Charismatic movement vary widely. On the low side, some say that the movement now accounts for roughly 10 percent of the world’s Christians. On the high side, some say 25 to 30 percent of the world’s Christians are now Pentecostal/Charismatic in orientation. The 17.5 percent figure used in this book represents a middling estimate based on a careful region-by-region analysis of the numbers.

In the next four chapters these traditions are examined in more detail, with each chapter following the same basic format. First, the spirituality (the core convictions and lived experience) of believers in each tradition is described. Each chapter then explores how the Christian concept of salvation is understood. A third section focuses on the structure of the tradition, the movement’s institutional and sociological organization. Finally, there is a brief outline of the story (or history) of the tradition. Taken together, these chapters provide a broad-brush description of contemporary Christianity. They answer the question “Who are the world’s Christians?” by explaining how different Christians conceptualize God and salvation, how they have organized their churches, how they have institutionally housed and preserved their particular form of Christian faith, and how they have passed that faith down from generation to generation.