Good Run

Does Christianity Have a Future?

A new study shows Christianity on the decline in the wealthy West, with Islam surging. What Would Jesus Say? It’s not what you think.

04.12.15 6:45 AM ET

A study released by the Pew Forum last week demonstrates that the future of the religious world is rapidly and dramatically changing. Differences in fertility rates and the high incidence of conversion make Islam the world’s fastest-growing religion. And, if current rates continue, by 2070 Islam could be the world’s largest.

Between now and 2050 the number of Muslims is projected to rise to 2.8 billion, a 35 percent increase. While India will continue to be predominantly Hindu, it will also be home to the world’s largest Muslim population. And, by 2050, Muslims are slated to make up 10 percent of Europe’s population and be the largest non-Christian religion in the U.S.

There is good news for Hindu and Jewish populations, too, which will continue to grow, and the global population of Buddhists should hold steady.

Changes are coming, though, for Christianity. The trend of southward expansion will continue. By 2050, 4 out of every 10 Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity will grow, but not in wealthier countries. In the U.S., the Christian majority will slip from roughly three-quarters of the population to a still-healthy two-thirds.

We should take the findings with a pinch of salt. As a study, it is grounded in the assumption that people will continue to act in the future as they have in the recent past. In other words, the study assumes that economics, education levels, migration patterns, technological and health-care advances, military conflicts, and politics will not impact fertility and conversion rates in the decades to come. That seems unlikely to be the case.

The findings of the study have right-wing pundits in a tizzy. But it’s not the fear of imperiled souls that seems to have commentators worried. It’s not the idea that Christianity is losing the battle for hearts and minds that is the problem. Rather, it’s the sense that Muslims will outnumber Christians in the future.

Growing populations of Muslim immigrants in Europe and the U.S. have already been labeled causes of terrorism. And if many U.S. pundits claim Christians are a persecuted group while maintaining a majority of 78 percent, it’s difficult to imagine how shrill the militarized language of attack will be when Christians are holding on by a two-thirds-of-the-population thread. The feeling that Christians are already under attack and shortly will be outnumbered in a hypothetical Holy War is what is at issue here.

If this should really be understood as a kind of spiritual arms race, then Christianity is “losing” because Christians, to quote Pope Francis, no longer feel the need to “breed like rabbits.” Christianity is still on the rise, but its growth is slowed by low fertility rates, especially in wealthier countries.

To the environmentally minded, this is probably not a bad thing. The Earth can’t sustain a population explosion of consumption-heavy Westerners. Who cares if Christians match Muslims in numbers if there isn’t a planet to inhabit?

More important, it’s unclear if, historically and Biblically speaking, followers of Jesus are even supposed to increase their numbers via reproduction.

To be sure, there is the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” issued when the world population was two. And the God of the Hebrew Bible promises Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars. But Jesus and his followers do not seem to have been focused on procreation as evangelization.

On the contrary, the Christian family is the community of believers, and the call to follow Jesus sometimes involves abandoning one’s legal and biological relatives (Mark 10:29-30). Instead of asking his followers to marry and replenish the Earth, he asks them to spread the good news.

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The Apostle Paul agrees that the “unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord…[while the] married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Jesus and Paul would like to see their followers focused on God and spreading the word. Missionary activity, not marital productivity, is the order of the day.

Many of the first generations of Christian missionaries eschewed marriage and child-rearing altogether, and focused instead on evangelization. As part of their missionary activity they promoted sexual continence and chastity. It wasn’t just that there were celibate leaders like Paul; a number of converts committed themselves to sexual abstinence. And yet, under the leadership of charismatic teachers and despite periods of hostility and persecution, Christianity flourished and grew.

The Pew study projects a steady decline in the global population. Perhaps those concerned about the future of Christianity should go back to their roots. The future of Christianity has always rested on persuasion, not procreation.