World Christianity

There are more Christians than adherents of any other religion; at the beginning of the twenty-first century Christianity embraces approximately one-third of the world’s population. This proportion has not changed much since 1900, but in the twentieth century massive changes in the distribution of Christians occurred. A drastic decline in the number of Christians in Western Europe and, to a lesser degree, in North America has been offset by enormous gains in Asia (where Christianity has multiplied 15-fold since 1900) and Africa (where it has multiplied 42-fold). Whites now comprise only a minority of Christians worldwide.

Rooted in virtually every culture on earth, Christianity has taken on forms unfamiliar to someone exposed only to the more common forms of North American Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Some Christian expressions—such as Armenian Orthodoxy, Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and the Thomas Christianity of South India—are very ancient and closely bound up with non-European cultures. Others are independent churches founded over the past century by prophets, particularly in Africa, drawing deeply from their local culture and pre-existing religious beliefs. About 19 percent of Christians worldwide are reckoned to belong to such indigenous churches, most with few or no ties to European or North American denominations.

The variety within Christianity can also be seen in the proliferation of denominations and sects that began in Antiquity, accelerated during the Reformation in Europe, and exploded in the twentieth century, particularly in North America and Africa. A recent compilation lists 33,089 Christian denominations world-wide, including the massive Roman Catholic Church (with a billion adherents), 25 principal forms of Eastern Orthodoxy, numerous varieties of Protestantism, and tiny store-front churches with fewer than 100 members. These include churches whose governance is democratic, conciliar, or authoritarian; churches whose worship is ceremonial, ecstatic, or mostly silent; churches whose politics are conservative, liberal, radical, or quietist; churches founded and run by women; churches that seat males and females on opposite sides of the church, and churches whose clergy are celibate, monogamous, or polygamous.It is of course impossible to study the entire panorama of world Christianity. History 249 provides a brief overview with opportunities to write final papers on Christianity in any part of the world. Two books, each written by a team of experts, give an introduction to the subject, with useful bibliographies. These are The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, ed. John McManners (1992) and A World History of Christianity, ed. Adrian Hastings (1999).