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Christianity is Booming in Asia PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 06 October 2009 08:06
This is another one of those long, number-crunching posts.

Sandro Magister’s article: The Kerala Exception. A Trip to India's Most Christian and Peaceful State, is fascinating and a great read for those of us who are intrigued by news of the Church in the global south.

Magister’s primary focus in the article is the very important issue of peace vs. persecution in India. But I was non-plussed by the first few sentences:

“The Christian fertility of Africa contrasts with that of another continent, Asia, which instead shows itself to be much more impervious to the Gospel.

In Asia, the Philippines is the only nation with a Christian majority, and South Korea is the only nation in which Christianity is growing. Elsewhere, Christians are a more or less scant minority, in many cases busy resisting persecution, oppression, hostility of every kind.”

For reasons that are unclear to me, when discussing Asia, Catholic pundits (John Allen does the same thing) merge the categories “Catholic” and “Christian” in a way that they would never do when talking about Europe or the US or even Latin America. In those places, they are clear that a distinctly non-Catholic Christianity is a real force.

But they seem to be unaware that Asian Christianity, as whole, is growing like gang-busters in our own day and that two thirds of the new Christians of Asia are not Catholic. Which may explain the factual errors. The Philippines is no longer the only majority Christian nation in Asia (East Timor is overwhelmingly Catholic) and Kerala is not the most Christian state in India. Nagaland is over 90% Christian. 75% of it's population is Baptist.

We also have a tendency to assume that minority status and persecution means that the Christians of Asia are a fragile, cowed, static minority. The work of David Aikman (Jesus in Beijing) and Phillip Jenkins (The Next Christendom and other works) has received enormous publicity in recent years but it doesn’t seem to be enough to re-write our centuries' old script.

The stories of the persecution of Catholics from the 16th, 17th, and 19th centuries seems to trump any sense of what is happening in Asia in our own day. The problem is that in those centuries, the only Christians doing missionary work in Asia were Catholics (and the Orthodox to a much smaller extent) and they did heroically endure terrible persecution which ensured that Catholicism remained a tiny minority. But all that began to change about the year 1800 when the Protestant missionaries began to arrive.

If we are really concerned about and referring only to the fortunes of the Catholic Church in Asia, let’s say so. But if we are truly talking about Christianity, the far more accurate way to re-write that first sentence to describe our present situation would be “The Christian fertility of Asia contrasts with that of another continent, Europe, which instead shows itself to be much more impervious to the Gospel.

Here we need to turn to the resources of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Seminary and their annual report: the Status of Global Mission (or SGM which is an annual summary of the changes in global Christianity as monitored by the staff of famous World Christian Encyclopedia, now available online.)

Let’s start with a look at the relative “Christian fertility” of Africa and Asia as opposed to the other continents of the world.

In mid 2009, African Christianity saw an annual growth rate of 2.59% which is far above the current global population growth rate of 1%. But Asian Christianity was a close second with an annual growth rate of 2.48%. These two continents are by far the fastest growing centers of the Christian faith in the world

The staff of the Status of Global Mission breaks down the figures in ways that really brings it home. They estimate that Africa sees 32,000 new Christians every 24 hours. And that by tomorrow morning, there will be 25,000 new Christians in Asia.

Compare that to the figures for Europe and North America and you really start to get the picture: Growth in European Christianity is almost non-existent (0.12%) and North America isn’t that much better (0.66%). There are more than twelve times as many new Christians in Asia as in Europe every single day.

The SGM contains figures by continent from 1800 on and a little analysis is mind-altering.

In 1800, nearly 84% of all the Christians in the world lived in Europe but the second most Christian continent was Asia with just over 4%. There were nearly twice as many Christians in Asia as in Latin America, (2.4%) and in Africa (2.1%) for instance.

The 19th century marked the beginning of the great Protestant missionary push and a century later, things had begun to change. By 1900, Europe held only 66% of all Christians and Latin America and North America held almost three times as many Christians as did Asia. Africa brought up the rear with a mere 1.7% of global Christianity. But 77.4% of all Christians still lived in what could now be called the “industrialized west” (Europe, North America, Oceania).

The 20th century was a century of staggering African growth. African Christianity grew from 8.7 million in 1900 to 355 million in 2000. But Asia was hardly standing still. Asian Christians grew from 20.7 million in 1900 to 293.8 million in the same century and by 2000, comprised nearly 15% of the Christians in the world. Only 38.5% of Christians lived in the industrialized west at the beginning of the new millennium.

By 2025, a mere 16 years from now, the SGM estimates that African and Latin American Christianity will have dramatically passed Europe, which will hold less than 20% of all the Christians in the world. There will be nearly as many Christians in Asia as in Europe and less than 30% of all Christians will live in the west. In the 125 years since 1900, Asian Christianity will have multiplied nearly 24 times.

The fastest growing Christian community in the world (China) and the largest churches in the world (South Korea) are in Asia. Even prestigious secular sources recognize this. For instance, the Economist published a thought-provoking article last October which began:

"ZHAO XIAO, a former Communist Party official and convert to Christianity, smiles over a cup of tea and says he thinks there are up to 130m Christians in China.


. . . according to China Aid Association (CAA), a Texas-based lobby group, the director of the government body which supervises all religions in China said privately that the figure was indeed as much as 130m in early 2008.

If so, it would mean China contains more Christians than Communists (party membership is 74m) and there may be more active Christians in China than in any other country."

Since 1960, dramatic Christian growth has occurred in China, Nepal, South Korea, and Indonesia. (For instance, there were about 50,000 Christians in Nepal in 1991. 18 years later, that number has mushroomed to 800,000.) Not to mention the fact that small, overwhelmingly Catholic East Timor broke away from Indonesia to become the second majority nation in Asia. And that in the last year or so, the number of Asian Christians has caught up with and probably passed the number of Asian Buddhists.

The fact that the vast majority of Asian growth is non-Catholic, is among Independent Christians, should not stop us from recognizing the vast change that has taken place in Asia any more than it has stopped us from recognizing the facts on the ground in Latin America.

If we don’t realize that “Christian fertility” is very much an Asian phenomena as well as an African one, we will be very seriously misreading the times in which we live. These days, we must distinguish between Christianity as a whole and Catholicism as its largest communion. We recognize the impact and dynamism of evangelical Protestantism in the west routinely. We must do the same in Asia as well.

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