Think Christianity is dying? No, Christianity is shifting dramatically

Washington Post, May 2015
By Wes Granberg-Michaelson

While Christianity may be on the decline in the United States, the world is becoming more religious, not less. While rising numbers of “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation when asked — claim the attention of religious pundits, the world tells a different story. Religious convictions are growing and shifting geographically in several dramatic ways.

The center of Christianity has shifted from Europe to the global South.

The religious landscape is particularly changing for the world’s Christians. A century ago, 80 percent lived in North America and Europe, compared with just 40 percent today.

In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than the North for the first time in 1,000 years. Today, the Christian community in Latin America and Africa, alone, account for 1 billion people.

Over the past 100 years, Christians grew from less than 10 percent of Africa’s population to its nearly 500 million today. One out of four Christians in the world presently is an Africa, and the Pew Research Center estimates that will grow to 40 percent by 2030.

Asia is also experiencing growth as world Christianity’s center has moved not only South, but also East. In the last century, Christianity grew at twice the rate of population in that continent. Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.

The global religious wildcard is China. Even today, demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States. Future trends, while difficult to predict because so much is below the religious radar, could dramatically drive down the world’s religious “nones.”

In Latin America, the massive Christian population is becoming more Pentecostal or Charismatic.

The growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America is estimated to be at three times the rate of Catholic growth. Non-Catholic believers now account for 2 percent of Latin America’s 550 million Christians.

Today, Brazil not only has more Catholics than any other country, but also more Pentecostals, reflecting Pentecostalism’s astonishing global growth. Tracing its roots to the Azusa Street revival in 1910, and comprising 5 percent of Christians in 1970, today one of four Christians is Pentecostal or Charismatic. Or think of it this way: one out of 12 people alive today has a Pentecostal form of Christian faith.

Global migration matters.

Such global trends are being experienced locally through migration. About 214 million people have moved from one country to another as migrants and refugees, or are in that process.

Those capturing today’s headlines are Africans clinging to precarious vessels trying to cross the Mediterranean, or the hundreds of thousands uprooted in Syria and the Middle East. But the striking religious factor is that overall, about 105 million who have migrated are Christians — a significantly higher percentage than their 33 percent of the world’s population.

Sociologists report that the process of migration typically increases the intensity of religious faith — whatever its form — of those persons crossing borders of nations and cultures. Fresh spiritual vitality in both North America and Europe is being fueled by the process of global migration.

Immigration shapes the U.S. religious landscape.

In the United States, about 43 million residents were born in another country, and immigrated here. Of these, about 74 percent adhere to the Christian faith, while 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent Buddhist and 3 percent Hindu. Of those presently migrating into this country, that proportion remains high — about 60 percent. The religious impact of immigration on U.S. society is typically overlooked in the debates over immigration reform, and the presence of about 11 million immigrants without acceptable legal documentation.

Yet, the reality is that patterns of immigration since the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration and Naturalization Act, and continuing to this day, are having a decisive impact on the Christian community in the United States. A vast majority of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic, and immigrants are sustaining the demographic presence of U.S. Catholicism, accounting for 70 percent of Catholic growth since 1960. They also provide fresh spiritual enthusiasm. Demographers estimate that 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics practice charismatic forms of worship found in Pentecostal churches. Among Catholic millennials, over half are now Hispanic.

There are three times more Protestant Hispanics in the United States than Episcopalians.

Immigration has transformed Protestantism in America. Some of President Obama’s strongest advocates for immigration reform are found in more evangelical and Pentecostal leaning Hispanic groups, as well as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops.

Asian and African immigrants who bring their faith with them across oceans likewise are also reshaping America’s religious landscape, and especially the Christian community. The Philippines follows Mexico as the country sending most immigrants to the United States, and those are overwhelmingly Catholic. The influence of Korean Christians is felt throughout both mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Fuller Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif., a center of moderate evangelical scholarship and training, counts about 1,000 Asian and Asian Americans among its 5,000 students.

While African immigration is less numerical, its growth has been exponential, from 35,355 African immigrants in 1960 to 1.5 million 50 years later. Many carry their devotion to forms of Christian faith that are transforming sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, started not by missionaries but as an indigenous church in Nigeria, has grown to 5 million members in 147 countries, including 720 congregations in the United States. North of Dallas, it has built a worship pavilion holding 10,000 at the cost of $15.5 million.

While Chicago has 590,000 foreign-born residents in its city limits, 984,000 are found in its suburbs, with a majority forming places of Christian worship or joining multicultural congregations, if they find welcome. At the Vineyard church in Columbus, Ohio, 28 percent of its 9,000 members come from 147 countries other than the United States.

The United States cannot ignore the impact of immigration on religious patterns.

The growth of religious practice in the world is being experienced through patterns of immigration to the United States, patterns that should become a central feature of the debate over immigration reform.

I am mystified, for example, by political conservatives who cry for the resurgence of religious values in this country, and then support the deportation of those actually growing the nation’s religious vitality. And I am disappointed with political liberals, who, like I, support comprehensive immigration reform, but can seem deaf and dumb to the religious life of immigrants themselves, who often combine their unapologetic faith with commitments to social solidarity, welfare and reform of the broken immigration system.

The history of immigration to this country has been a story of unintended consequences which have tested our commitment to religious and cultural pluralism. The religious impact of immigration, largely unnoticed in hotly contested rhetoric around political reform, offers the potential, once again, to enrich our society in ways we have not yet imagined.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson, served for 17 years as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.