Ready or Not

Of the world’s estimated 2.1 billion Christians, only about one-quarter are part of those churches making up the World Council of Churches. By and large, those churches that have formed the foundation of present ecumenical structures are in decline, and those outside of such fellowship are more often the same churches whose dramatic growth is shaping the future of Christianity.

The stunning shift in the balance of Christian populations from the North to the South further intensifies this picture. Whereas a few decades ago 70 percent of all evangelicals were in the “North,” primarily in the United States, today 70 percent are in the churches of the global South. The Catholic Church, which is projected to lose 20 million members in Europe in the first quarter of this century, will gain 100 million members in Africa, 50 million in Asia, and 140 million in Latin America. At the beginning of the 20th century, 81 percent of Christians were white. By the century’s end, the number was 45 percent.

Our ecumenical institutions today spend considerable effort analyzing the global trends shaping political and economic life, but virtually no time analyzing how the life of the churches themselves are changing. But the picture can be summarized simply: The churches around the world that are growing the fastest, with the most vitality, are not connected to the institutional or relational fabric of the ecumenical movement.

The modern pentecostal movement, for instance, which is only about one century old, now accounts for nearly one-quarter of the global Christian community—542 million people. Plus, an estimated 19 million pentecostals are added each year. This astonishing growth is one of the most dramatic stories of modern Christianity. For example, in Rio de Janeiro, 40 new pentecostal congregations are started every week, and at least two Latin American countries have a virtual pentecostal political majority.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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