(CNSNews.com) – Once the world's epicenter of Christianity, Europe now accounts for only 25.9 percent of the global Christian population, down 40 percent from a century ago.
The change is explained in part by the massive growth of Christianity in Africa and Asia, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The study, “Global Christianity: A report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population,” compares population trends for the adherents of the world’s largest religion in 1910 and 2010.
“The geography of where Christians are distributed has changed tremendously in the last hundred years,” Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said during a conference call Monday.
“While the majority of Christians lived in Europe in 1910, by 2010 only about one in four Christians live in Europe.”
Europe accounted for 66.3 percent of the world’s Christian population in 1910. Today, it represents 25.9 percent. The proportion of European Christians has dropped from 94.5 percent of the population to 76.2 percent in 100 years.
According to the report, the United States is the country with the largest number of Christians in the world – 246.8 million, or 11.3 percent of the global Christian population.
Over the 100-year period reviewed, the U.S. saw its Christian population grow by 190 percent (from 85 million to 247 million), while Europe’s grew by 39 percent (406 million to 566 million).
The report found that there are 2.18 billion self-identifying Christians globally as of 2010, and that they are far more geographically spread than a hundred years ago.
In 1910, Christians were primarily located in Europe and the Americas. Substantial growth in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific has changed the landscape of the world’s leading religion.
Over the century since 1910, the number of Christians in Sub-Sahara Africa has grown by a factor of 60 – from nine million to 516 million.
“Today, as a result of these changes, there is no indisputable regional center of Christianity,” said Lugo. “In terms of population, Europe was clearly at the center of the Christian world in 1910. In 2010, no one region holds a majority of the world’s Christians.”
Proportion of world population that is Christian holds steady
The researchers used a broad definition in determining the number of Christians worldwide, with a sociological purpose rather than a theological one. “We are attempting to count groups and individuals who self-identify as Christian,” the report states. “This includes people who hold beliefs that may be viewed as unorthodox or heretical by other Christians. It also includes Christians who seldom pray or go to church.”
“The report does not seek to measure religiosity or religious intensity,” said Lugo. “Undoubtedly, many of these folks we pick up are nominally Christian, but they self-identify as such so they’re counted.”
Although Europe is no longer Christianity’s center, Brian Grim, senior research and director of cross-national data at the Pew Forum, finds it significant that 76.2 percent of Europeans still identify as Christian.
“Given the communist domination of much of Eastern Europe for nearly a century, combined with growing secularism in Western Europe, it still comes as a surprise to some, I think, that three quarters of Europeans are affiliated with some Christian tradition,” he said.
Grim said despite attempts by communist governments to suppress religion in Russia, 73.6 percent of its population (105 million) identify as Christian – the largest Christian population in Europe.
“For those that grew up in the United States during the Cold War period and went to houses of worship it was a frequent prayer that I remember hearing of being thankful of being able to worship in a country where there was freedom of religion,” said Grim. “And a lot of prayers were for Christians behind the Iron Curtain.”
“There really was no idea of whether or not religion would somehow have a rebound after so many decades of communism in Eastern Europe,” he said. “In Cuba, where we still see about two-thirds of the population related to primarily Catholicism; Russia, almost two out of three people affiliated with the Orthodox Church; and in China, though the Christian numbers are relatively smaller, we’re seeing hundreds of millions of people affiliated with religion.”
“Religion has endured despite a century of attacks from not only communism, but also – not that you would call it ‘attack’ – the more secularization of many Western societies.”
The researchers noted that over the last century Christianity has remained roughly one-third of the global population (35 percent in 1910, 32 percent in 2010), calling it a “picture of relative stability” as world population has grown.
“I was surprised, frankly, and I think a lot of people may be surprised to find that Christians make up, roughly speaking, the same proportion of the world population today that they did a hundred years ago,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.
Cooperman said 32 percent is in “the same ball park” as the 1910 figure, because of the differences in collecting data.
“To maintain that relative stability, in terms of percentage, there has to have been significant growth in absolute numbers,” said Lugo. According to the report, the number of Christians in the world has grown from 611.8 million in 1910 to 2.18 billion today.
“It is no small thing to keep up with a rapidly expanding global population, which is essentially what Christianity has managed to do in the last one hundred years.”