A statistic I have often cited when speaking about the status of world evangelization is this: that for the past century, Christianity has been stagnant at about 33% of the world. We know that the fastest growing world religion is not Christianity (growing at 1.36% p.a. in AD 2000) but rather Islam (growing at 2.13% p.a. in AD 2000). (I know that we like to compare the growth of evangelicals with that of Islam, but that, in my opinion, is rather like comparing apples to oranges.)
However, saying that the church is stagnant at 33% globally covers over the vast changes that are happening regionally within Christianity, and the reasons for those changes. Likewise, saying Islam is the fastest growing religion worldwide also masks some of the reasons for this. The reasons for these changes are important, because they help us shape our response.
For this purpose I am going to use the AD 2000 statistics from World Christian Trends. There are some more recent updates, but WCT has these statistics in Table 1-2 for every continent in the world and it is available fairly inexpensively for those who wish to explore this further.
There are two drivers of growth in both Christianity and Islam: natural and conversion. “Natural” growth is not the result of any evangelistic influence within the church: it is basically births in Christian homes, minus deaths, plus Christian immigrants, minus Christian emigrants. Unfortunately I do not have ready to hand anything that separates demographic growth—births minus deaths—from immigration growth. This would be a very interesting statistic and trend to delve deeper into, and perhaps later we will. “Conversion” growth, on the other hand, is conversions minus defections.
These numbers are fairly easily computed. We know, for example, what the AD 2000 and AD 2010 population of Christians is, so we can compute the annual growth rate based on this. And, we know what the global population growth rate is. But of course the natural, secular population growth rate does not have any conversion factor—so we know what the average global population growth rate is for demographics alone. We extract this from the Christian growth rate and the balance is the conversion factor.
Globally, each year, the number of Christians grows by an average of 25.2 million people. Of these, 22.7 million are “natural” and just 2.5 million are “conversion.” Globally, it appears the vast majority of Christian growth has little to do with the conversion efforts of the church.
Islam is in a similar situation: globally, it grows on average by 22.5 million. So, it’s actually adding fewer total people each year: and of these, some 21.7 million are “natural” and just 0.8 million are conversions.
The reason that the growth rate of Islam is faster than the growth rate of Christianity (2.1% for Islam vs 1.3% for Christianity) is that Islam is smaller: in AD 2000 it was roughly 1.1 billion people to Christianity’s 1.9 billion. But, it is adding nearly as many people every year as Christianity is.
The African continent is growing at a rate of about 2.47% p.a. Christianity is growing at 2.68%, so right away we can see that Christianity is increasing its share in the population. Part of this is “natural”: 7.9 million new births per year. Part is “conversion”: a net of 0.4 million new converts per year.
Islam as of AD 2000 was actually in a slight decline in Africa as a whole (although clearly dominating the northern regions). It was growing at 2.37% p.a. – both less than Christianity and the continental population growth rate. It was adding about 6.5 million new births per year, and making just 0.1 million converts per annum on average. Although Islam is gaining strength in certain key areas of Africa, in the continent as a whole Christianity clearly has the (slight!) upper hand.
Also note the African growth rate of Christianity (2.68%) is higher than the global growth rate of Christianity by a significant margin: thus clearly the church is becoming more African. Something like one-third of Christian births and one-quarter of its net conversions are African!
Here the reverse of Africa is true. The Asian continent has an annual growth rate of 1.48%: much slower. It has many more people: over 3.5 billion compared to Africa’s 0.7 billion.
Muslims are the largest religious block in Asia: numbering some 751 million in AD 2000. They were adding about 15.6 million per year in new converts—15.1 million “naturally” and 0.4 million through conversion. Islam’s growth rate of 2.1% is greater than the continental growth rate, but less than the Christian growth rate of 2.3%.
However, Christians are only adding about 6 million new believers each year—4 million from births and a staggering 2.3 million through conversion. Globally, there is a net of just 2 million new converts per year, but the conversion rate is exceeded in Africa and Asia. The global number of conversions is offset by losses on other continents.
The bottom line is that there is a staggering conversion rate in Asia, but Muslims are still outgrowing Christians by nearly 2.5 to 1 through births alone. Christianity is may be traveling down the highway at a faster speed, but they have a long way to go to catch up with the Muslims who are far out ahead.
Europe’s population is growing at just 0.9% p.a. The world is progressively becoming less European. Much of the European population decline is the result of the catastrophic demographic crash in the East.
Christianity with 560 million members is the top religion in Europe (although of course there is much debate about how many “Christians” are truly followers of Christ—a debate we won’t focus on here). Christianity adds about 0.9 million believers yearly—0.6 million through births and 0.3 million through conversions.
Islam’s far smaller numbers, with some 31 million total, are growing far more slowly. They are adding about 6,000 new babies per year, yet a staggering 229,000 through conversion. This gives them a growth rate of 0.7% p.a.—some seven times faster than Christianity. Nevertheless, as with Christians in Asia, Muslims in Europe have a long way to go before they come anywhere close to dominating the European scene (although they can be strong in certain areas, as they have proven).
As in Europe, Christians with nearly 0.5 billion members are the top religion. They add 7.4 million new children per year—but they have a net loss in “conversions” of 250,000 per year. This is simply the result of massive losses amongst nominal unaffiliated Christians who defect to become non-religious, as well as losses from Roman Catholics. Protestants and others are gaining members through conversion.
Islam, on the other hand, is adding just 20,000 members per year “naturally” and some 9,000 through conversion. It has just 1.6 million members and is not really a threat to Christianity any time soon.
Christianity is the top religion in North America, making up about 85% of the population. It adds 2.3 million new babies—but loses a net of 0.3 million per year through defection. So each year, Christianity in North America is gaining just 2 million.
Islam is growing twice as fast as Christianity in terms of its annual growth rate. However, its numbers are still vastly small. Christians made up some 260 million in AD 2000, while Muslims made up just 4.4 million. They add about 37,000 “naturally” and 26,000 through conversion. In total, Islam grows by just 63,000 per year.
Finally, in the Pacific, Christians are again in the top category. The 22 million Christians in the Pacific add 0.3 million per year: 340,000 of these are babies, but there is a net defection rate of 30,000 yearly.
Islam has very small numbers: about 0.3 million total. It adds about 3,000 babies and 5,000 converts per year.
In the places where Islam has a fast conversion growth rate, its total population numbers are nothing to fear. The demographic growth of Christians in these areas far outweighs the conversion growth of Islam at this point. Rather than being afraid, it is time to work from a position of Evangelical strength to evangelize the Muslims who come to these shores.
In Asia, Christians certainly need to be a little more discerning, since Muslims vastly outnumber believers. However, it is clear that Christians are being bold there: their conversion rate is nearly six times that of Islam (although, obviously, not all of those converts are from Islam). The difficult point is that Muslim babies vastly outnumber the religious growth of all other individual religious groups. The only group really close to Islam in Asia is Hinduism.
Africa is perhaps the place where Christianity and Islam are most directly comparable. There, on a continental level, Christianity’s natural growth rates and conversion rates just barely squeak past those of Islam. Significant evangelistic effort is needed here.
Yes, Islam globally is growing faster than Christianity. But the vast majority of the numbers it adds on a yearly basis are babies, not converts. Christians should not fear Muslim conversion rates. We should rather stand boldly on truth and reach out in love to proclaim the Kingdom of God.