Who’s a Christian

How many Christians are there – only God knows! 

There has been a number of recent articles which has focused on the shift in the number of Christians living in the varius nations. There has been a trend over the past decades of a growing number of Christians in South America, Asia and Africa. In the corresponding period there has been a decline in the number of Christians in USA, United Kingdom and Europe. Overall, the number of Christians as a percentage of the world’s total population is somewhere near 32-33%, a third of the world. This figure has been fairly consistent since 1900 and perhaps was a little higher around the middle of the twentith century – possibly closer to 34% – but who really knows?

As I started to look at the various reference in the recent articles and waded through the results from conducting searches on Google you start to realise that the total figure reported for each religion is very much an estimate. The figures may give broad indications of the current situation but, in general, they are too inconsistent either in methodology, including definitional difference or difficulties involved at obtaining a reliable figure for all major population groups at one point in time to allow for any sort of rigorous detailed analysis. For example, not all countries undertake a census on the same date – therefore some type of intercensal estimate is required. The alternative is to use some sort of survey and then make an estimate for the total population. One of the major sources that I’ve used is www.adherents.com, a popular site that is worth a visit if you are interested in this topic. A quick look through the accompaning notes will quickly give you an idea of just how difficult it is to obtain realistic figures, at any one point in time.

The website www.adherents.com, outlines five different sources for their figures (a summary follows): Organizational reporting: Religious bodies are asked how many adherents or members they have – but this type of reporting can be highly unreliable. Census records: Many countries periodically conduct a comprehensive household-by-household census. Religious preference is often a question included in these census counts. This is a highly reliable method for determining the religious self-identification of a given population (at that point in time. Yet even a census count cannot be taken at face value, for example the Australian, August 2006 Census, has a question on religion, however, answering the question is ‘OPTIONAL’; it’s also interesting that the categories are Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Buddhism, Baptist, Islam, Lutheran and Other (please specify). Obviously, there is a fair bit of estimation required to provide usable figures. Polls and Surveys: Statistical sampling using surveys and polls are used to determine affiliation based on religious self-identification. Sample size is often a problem especially in undertaking estimates of religions with a small numer of members. Estimates based on indirect data: Many adherent counts are only obtained by estimates based on indirect data. Adherents of some tribal religions are sometimes counted simply by counting the members of the tribe and assuming everybody in it is an adherent of the religion. Field work: To count some small groups, or to count the number of adherents within a specific geographical area, researchers sometimes do “field work” to count adherents.

For the purposes of their list of major religions, the site has used adherent counts or estimates based on self-identification. The statement that adherent counts are based on self-identification is a core issue. Many people for a variety of reasons may self-identify as Christians – yet, in many cases, if we use a standard definition then we may have some confidence of adding apples with apples.

What is a standard and acceptable definition of a Christian? Let’s start with the most basic – a Christian is a person who follows Jesus, as their Saviour and Lord (the one true God), they demonstrate their faith by loving God and their neighbour with all their strength, heart and mind.

The Christian belongs to God: a community/covenant/sacramental sign is to be babtized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) and to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20). A Christian is born of water and the spirit – they must be born again (John 3:5-7). They believe in Jesus and have eternal life (John 3:16). ‘He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. (Ephesians 1:4-7). To be a Christian is not only to profess a belief system but it’s a life in action – a relationship with God – a relationship in which we pick up our cross and follow Jesus – ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Ephesians 2:10).

The Christian can honestly say the Apostles Creed: ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord (that is, God from God – not a created being [my emphasis]). He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Piliate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’

If we tried to summarise all of the above into one sentence we could lose some essential aspects of what it means to be a Christian. Obviously, there are cases where some of these aspects may not be evident – for example, the thief who was being crucified with Jesus said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23:43); it’s almost an absurd observation but this fellow did not have the opportunity to be baptised – yet he was obviously saved as demonstrated by his simple expression of faith and the response made by Jesus.

There are two essential elements – one is the statement of belief, and the second is living in accordance with that belief – they are inseparable in terms of determining if a person belongs to one belief system or another. This statement underpins the main theme of this article.

Consequently, self-identification for me is not a satisfactory categorisation method. Using the ‘definition’ I believe is correct: a number of religions are excluded, namely Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. Nothing special about these two religions for me to explicitly name them – except that they represent the larger groups based on estimated number of adherents that don’t meet my definition. There could be syncretic religions in Africa and South America based on elements of catholicism and cultural ancestral worship, animism and/or spiritualism such as voodoo that may also have large numbers (millions) of adherents.

I must admit that I’ve struggled with this issue of self-identification for quite awhile. I recall that many years ago I was having a friendly discussion with a work colleague who was a Jew, during the discussion we, some how started talking about the Crusades, one comment I made was that by the Crusaders’ actions I could say that they were, in general, not Christians – his response has always troubled me, which was: ‘But your problem is – that they identified themselves as Christians!’

‘Do we need to know the number of Christians?’ In my view the answer is: No! The question is limited to that area where we may look at numerical strength as some sort of proxy measure for the success of a particular belief system. I’m not saying that there should not be demographic or social studies to provide church administration, governments and other organisations with information to better serve their various constituents.

If we turn to Scripture we have many examples where God appears to be more interested in faithful remnants then the general masses. The dialogue between God and Abraham on the pending destruction of Sodom, is an example; “He answered, ‘For the sake of ten (righteous people), I will not destroy it.’ (Sodom)”. Genesis 19:32. A further example is when Gideon summonised about 32,000 men to attack the Midianites, God sifted them down to a force of 300 men, the reason given was: ‘You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her … ‘ (Judges 7:2). Finally, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel (the number of fighting men).” David’s sin was that there was no good reason to count the men other than to boast about his own strength as King, again the risk was that he would see his military successes as being due to the numerical strength of his army instead of the direct action of God.

This theme is also seen throughout the New Testament where we see occasions when small numbers of people are instrumental in delivering significant outcomes. Twelve men are the foundation of a new movement. Paul through his ministry, missionary travel and writings – formed the base for spreading the good news to the those living outside of Israel. It’s important to be confident in the words of Jesus (Matthew 16:18, And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

The followers of Jesus will never be overcome – there may be just a remnant – perhaps only ten – but when Jesus returns there will be a group of believers who will welcome Him back. The sadness is that when He returns all that see Him will then believe – too late for many.

So, what are the numbers? In the year 2000, we have the following estimated numbers* for the major religions, based on self-identification; Christians: 2.1 billion (includes Jehovah’s Witnesses 15.6 million & Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 12.3 million) ; Islam: 1.3 billion; Secular: 1.1 billion; Hinduism: 900 million; Chineses traditional: 394 million; Buddhism: 376 million; primal-indigenous: 300 million; Africian Traditional: 100 million; Sikhis; 23 million: Juche; 19 million; Spiritism: 15 million: Judaism: 14 million; Baha’i: 7 million (* see References).

The other issue to do with numbers that has recently surfaced in the press is the emergence of the African influence on the Anglican Communion; especially in regard to the former’s criticism of the new American Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s position on homosexuality. Writers like Phil Jenkin (Reference B.), back in 2002, have drawn attention to the fact that there is a shrinking population of Christians in the liberal West and a growing majority in Asia, Latin America and Africa. This trend has been evident for the last twenty years and given the population growth rates for the respective areas is likely to continue (currently reduced by the ravages of AIDS) into the future. We may soon have African or Chinease missionaries on tour in the liberal West preaching the Good News – who would have ever thought?

A stroll through the tables in www.adherents.com, will also take you to information on church attendance. This is of interest because it provides a guide to the number of people who profess a belief but don’t pracrice it in a ‘traditional’ way. True, there are many good reasons why some people may not be able to attend a church, therefore the figures must be treated with an element of caution. In summary, my view is this: if you can attend a church(a church can be a home group), then you should attend. The Christian faith is naturally community based – because that’s where you care for those who are hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison. There are many verses in the Bible which lend support to this view. Currently, there could be two billion people who self-identify as Christians, and depending on denomination/group, attendance could be anywhere from 20 to 70%; many of these people will not be living a Christian life, as described by Jesus. It’s these people who make it hard for Christians, as a group, to shine their light in this world.

Reference – A. Figures: 1. www.adherents.com; 2. Crises in Communion, Jeremy Halcrow, July 2006, Southern Cross (www.sydneyanglicans.net, ); 3. Patrick Johnstone, Operation World (book and website), www.gmi.org/ow/, ; Other Web sites: Wikipedia – World Religions ; and this site on religious tolerance. B. Authors: Philip Jenkins is professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of interest involve global Christianity, and new religious movements. He has published nineteen books, including; The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002); The New Anti-Catholicism (2003) and Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality (2004), all from Oxford University Press.

Commentary on above Article by Richard Wright

From a church’s position the numbers seem to me to be meaningless. If the aim of the church (or one of its aims) is evangelism or mission, then the numbers are useless. They say nothing about who needs to be saved. Self identification, as you describe it, says nothing about a person’s salvation, and I think that is the definition of a Christian. This becomes even more difficult when you have people who are adherents of main stream churches, they attend regularly but do not believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

And in some – is that many – cases the church doesn’t teach a biblical view of salvation.So amongst those who identify themselves as Christian we have three groups, those who are saved according to scrpture, those who are members of a church but hold a distorted view of chrisianity, and those who claim to be Christian for social or cultural reasons. Counting attendance at churches will remove the last group but not differentiate between the first two.

The other point is that these figures are often compiled using a demographic methodology. And a demographer’s definition of Christian is very different from a theologian’s definition. And that is reasonable, provided that the demographer defines what he means by the term ‘Christian’. I would assume that in any scholarly work that would be done, but when the findings are presented by mainstream media much of the work must be summarised and so definitions are excluded.

And even though from a Christian or church perspective, the figures may have little meaning, from a demographic view they are probably important. In some countries they help explain the animosity between various groups or tribes which leads to wars, as you mentioned in relation to the Crusades.

In other cases, as in Australia, there have been examples of communities who identify as being Christian not wishing other religions to set up shop in their neighbourhood. In the Hills district of Sydney a few years ago a community objected to the building of an Islamic Mosque. Most of the objectors were ‘Christian’ but a small number were church attenders.

More recently here in the Shoalhaven there has been objection to the Buddhist temple, mainly from church attending Christians. But others, who claim to be Christian, are strong advocates, and suggest that it is a christian trait to be tolerant and accommodating of others.

If numbers are to have any meaning from a church perspective I think that they need to be counts of attendees. Within the group called Christian these need to be further broken down depending upon each person’s beliefs. A very difficult thing to do.

A further complication is that those who report the numbers may find it in their best interests to overstate the numbers to try to increase the perception of their influence or importance. In other cases the numbers may be understated to protect the safety of their members.

I think it would be possible to come up with reasonably accurate numbers by conducting surveys of what people believe, but the practicalities and costs would make it prohibitive.

And in the long run, does it matter. God has a pretty good idea of the right numbers.