Is The World Becoming Protestant?

Protestantism has an affinity with modernity, giving it considerable reach in today’s age.

Whatever one may say about Evangelical Protestantism, empirically it is a massive fact on the global religious landscape, likely to remain so, with significant consequences in every area of social life. How one relates to this fact will obviously depend on one’s religious and political positions….Staying within an empirical perspective (that is, without invoking divine providence), Evangelical Protestantism is one of the two biggest religious explosions in the contemporary world, along with resurgent Islam.


This past week I wrote a post latching on to the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, with the focus on the increasingly amicable relations between Catholics and Protestants. I had intended to conclude with a brief discussion of the arguably continuing consequences of the process that Martin Luther (inadvertently) started in 1517 by announcing a seminar on the bulletin board of the University of Wittenberg. That would have made for an overly long post. So I decided to return to the topic this week. Just to stave off a reader’s incipient yawns about all this Protestant stuff, I will sharpen the question: Is the world becoming Protestant?

The question is not crazy. To understand why it is not (though admittedly it is a bit exaggerated) one can usefully look back to what has happened in the world since 1910. In that year the World Missionary Conference met in Edinburgh, bringing together a large number of missionary organizations, mostly from the Protestant regions of Europe and North America. The meeting was in part a celebration of the growth of Protestant missions that had been going on throughout the 19th century. But in a triumphant mood the conference also looked to the future. There were two stated goals: To bring the Gospel to every non-Christian country in the world. And to promote greater unity of all Christians “so that the world may believe” (as, according to John 17:21, Jesus supposedly commanded his disciples). The Edinburgh conference was indeed one of the early manifestations of the burgeoning ecumenical movement, an important factor in the Protestant-Catholic rapprochement. But today world Christianity continues to be splintered into an increasing number of churches, some of them claiming to be the only true Church of Jesus Christ. So this goal can hardly be called a great success. The first goal, spreading the Gospel (as, mind you, understood by Protestants) to every country in the world, has been a success beyond the wildest dreams of Edinburgh.

For many reasons, religious statistics are to be looked at skeptically. I trust one source, because I know the authors and know how carefully (and indeed skeptically) they assess all available data: Todd Johnson and Brian Grim, The World’s Religions in Figures (Wiley, 2013). According to this source: Christians are indubitably the most numerous religionists in the world. Between 1910 and 2010 the global number of Christians has grown from 611,810,000 (34.8 percent of the world’s population) to 2,260,440,000 (32.8 percent). Muslims are far behind in second place, from 221,749,000 (12.6 percent) to 1,553,773,000 (22.55 percent). The good news for Muslims is the higher growth rate. The not so good news is that the growth has been mainly due to higher fertility (polygamy is a factor) of women in Muslim-majority populations; by contrast much of the Christian growth has occurred in countries where Christian have been a small minority or basically absent, and their number has grown as a result of conversions. What is more, the difference in fertility may not last; the most impressive growth of Christianity has happened in Africa, where people (irrespective of religion) have many children.

If one looks at the Christian side of the ledger, Protestants stick out. By and large, Catholics, like mainline Protestants, have been less aggressive in efforts to convert people; Evangelicals have been the most aggressive, most spectacularly the Pentecostals among them, who have probably experienced the most explosive growth of any religion in human history. (Most Pentecostals can be described as Evangelicals with two important additions—speaking in tongues and miraculous healing). Modern Pentecostalism is usually dated from the so-called Azusa Street Revival in 1906, when an African-American preacher named William Seymour started to preach in an abandoned stable in Los Angeles, gathered around him a wildly enthusiastic (and incidentally inter-racial) congregation, who exhibited all the Pentecostal addenda and sent out missionaries throughout the United States and then abroad. In 2016 the prestigious Pew Research Center estimated the worldwide number of Pentecostals as 600 million people. For a number of reasons, I think that this is probably an underestimate. Still, a rather impressive trajectory from Azusa Street! (Seymour must have been a remarkable man.)

Mind you: We are not talking about Protestants in general, but about Evangelicals (probably the majority of Protestants in Africa, Latin America, and Asia), and prominent among them Pentecostals. Can one explain this? Yes, I think that one can in empirical rather than theological terms (you can add theological angles if you will.)

My hypothesis: From its beginnings, long ago in Wittenberg, Protestantism has had an affinity with the spirit of modernity. The term “affinity” is used here in the sense given to it by Max Weber (1864-1920), arguably the father of the sociology of religion. It doesn’t mean that Protestantism caused modernity (any more than it caused capitalism). Rather, it means that religion is one causal factor among many—such as economics, politics, or intellectual movements. Religion always interacts with other forces that affect social change. (In this case, the desire of German princes to appropriate the vast monastic real- estate holdings.)

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