The 100-year shift of Christianity to the South - Gordon Conwell

The 100-year shift of Christianity to the South


Professor of Global Christianity and Mission

In the past 100 years the most significant trend within global Christianity is that, demographically, Christianity has shifted dramatically to the South. This shift has been documented by many scholars as a groundbreaking process affecting not only all religions worldwide, but how Christianity itself is practiced as a global phenomenon. Over the course of the twentieth century and already into the twenty-first, Christians have continued to make up approximately one-third of the world’s population. However, this sustained percentage masks dramatic changes in the geographical make-up of global Christianity—a process of both North-South and East-West movement stretching back to the earliest days of Christianity that is far from inconsequential.

The shift of Christianity to the global South is most clearly illustrated by the drastic changes in Christian percentages by continent between 1910 and 2010. In 1910 the majority of Christians worldwide resided in the global North, with only small representations in Oceania, Africa, and Asia; in 1910, 66 percent of all Christians lived in Europe. By 2010 Europe’s claim on Christianity had dropped to only 25.6 percent. Conversely, less than 2 percent of all Christians lived in Africa in 1910, which skyrocketed to almost 22 percent by 2010. The global North contained over 80 percent of all Christians in 1910, falling to under 40 percent by 2010. This shift has continued and today 67% of all Christians live in the Global South while just 33% live in the Global North.

These remarkable geographic changes in Christianity also reflect serious differences between the worldviews of “Northern” and “Southern” Christians. In many ways Christianity has shifted to the global South demographically, but not culturally. This is a legitimate concern for Christians around the globe. Compared to most other religious traditions, Christianity has been generally accepting of scriptural, liturgical, and cultural translation throughout its history, with the translation process of the Christian message going back nearly to its inception. Christianity is the only world religion for which the primary source documents are in a different language than that of the founder (the New Testament is in Greek, while Jesus spoke Aramaic). Cultural and linguistic translatability are some of Christianity’s greatest strengths; strengths that, in light of its recent demographic shift, ought to be seen more readily in the diverse communities of Christians worldwide. The kind of cultural translatability needed today is similar to that seen when first-century Christianity moved out of its original Jewish setting.

For more on this concept see Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).