On the Growth of Christianity in Africa

The Last Supper by Hannah Varghese

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has just released a new report: Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission. The report covers major demographic trends in global Christianity, world religions, and mission over the past 40 years, while tracking potential trends for the next 10 years. 

The statistics for Africa indicate a growth of the total Christian population on the continent from 38.7% (1970) to 49.3% (2020) – a growth parallel to a decrease of ‘ethnoreligionists’ (adherents to African traditional/indigenous religions) from 20.5% to 8.7% over the same period, and a slight increase of Muslims (from 40.0 to 41.7%).

I am not sure whether the statistics are really helpful to further understand the growth of Christianity on the continent. The report is based on the World Christian Database, which divides Christianity in six traditions (Anglicans, Independents, Marginals, Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics) but does not look at Pentecostal Christianity as a separate category. Thus, even though the report states that ‘renewalist Christians’ in Africa will have grown from 18.8 million (1970) to 226.2 million by 2020, in the report’s section on Africa itself these Christians and their dramatic growth are not mentioned at all. Instead we read that Catholics remain the largest block and that Anglicans have seen the fastest growth. This may partly be explained with a reference to the Charismatic renewalist movements within these denominations. But what about Pentecostal Christians outside the six established categories counted by the WCD, such as those in the neo-Pentecostal mega-churches that are booming, particularly in West Africa? By sticking to the six WCD categories, the report thus runs the risk of ignoring a major development in African Christianity.

At the same time, the report’s statistics on Catholics and Anglicans show that the “mainline” denominations represent a significant part of Christianity in Africa and continue to be vital Christian traditions – something that tends to be overlooked in recent scholarship on African Christianity with its one-sided focus on (neo-)Pentecostal Christianity.

The sections of the report discussing the different regions of the continent (Eastern, Western, Northern, Middle, Southern Africa) provide a basis for comparative analysis and call for further study of the different trends and developments taking place in an enormously vital African Christianity.

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