Population decline, 2050-2100

In the red countries below, populations will not just be slowing in growth. Current projections estimate the total population of these countries will decline: that, in each, the 2100 population total will be less than the 2050 total. To take the two most significant examples: India will fall from 1.5 billion in 2050 to somewhere around 1.3 to 1.4 billion in 2100; China will fall from 1.3 billion to slightly over 1.0 billion.

Where 2100 population is less than 2050 population. Source: UN Population Prospects 2017.

Where 2100 population is less than 2050 population. Source: UN Population Prospects 2017.

These are very long-range projections. Much can happen between now and then. Recently, population projections were revised up because African countries grew faster than expected. But while the exact numbers might change, which populations are like to rise and which are likely to fall is pretty much understood: researchers might revise how much they rose or fell, but the rise/fall call is very rarely wrong.

Let’s consider how these trends inform our strategies. Part of the issue that has driven me is the increase in population: we need strategies that grow faster than population growth. In China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh – some of the largest pools of unevangelized individuals – the data would seem to indicate population growth will become “less” of a factor.

We must keep in mind there are still very large populations in these areas. Even as growth slows, such large populations can add enormous numbers—far more than the much smaller church adds either through childbirth or conversion. This year, China’s birth rate dropped to its lowest since the 1940s: 15 million new babies. Back in 2000, when China had an estimated 60 million Christians, the World Christian Encyclopedia estimated Christianity was growing by ~2.4 million yearly: 1.7 million from conversion and the balance through babies born to Christian homes. We can estimate that double the number of Christians (now 120 million or more) should double the growth: to 3 million. This is one-fifth the national birth rate, and the gulf between the two seems very wide.

So while we are heading toward a world where the population will likely stabilize and growth will slow, we aren’t there yet, and we’re going to take the better part of 80 years to get there. We still need strategies that scale toward large populations and keep ahead of existing population growth.

Beyond that, we should consider the demographic realities driving these trends, and how they will impact the church and mission for the next several generations. In many of the “red” countries, we can expect to see age distribution pyramids change: the populations will “age.” We will need to consider strategies that engage older populations.

In some of the populations, special situations are driving the decrease of population. Russia and Libya are examples of this. Turkey and Iran are seeing plummeting birth rates due to the terrible internal economic and political situations, coupled with significant emigration. Engaging diasporas are not a silver bullet for world evangelization, but in some cases large pools of expatriates can make for strategy-shaping opportunities.

The reality is, there will always be children (though there will be fewer in some of these places in the future), and there will always be elderly, and there will always be people all along the stream in the middle. We in the church need to continually improve how we reach out to people, no matter where along the timeline and geography of their life they are.