Twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, the press provides handsome quantities of space for coverage of the Christian religion. Hard-pressed editors, aware that bad news is more exciting than good, commission pieces about declining congregations at home and the persecution of ancient churches in the Middle East.
This narrative of embattled decline has become embedded. Aggressive secularism and aggressive Islam are coming to get us: if extinction has not yet occurred, it is at least imminent. That is the received idea of Christianity in large parts of the media.
As someone of conservative temperament, I find this pessimism attractive. The politics of cultural despair, the sense that everything is getting worse and it is probably too late to avert disaster, exercises a seductive appeal.
Matthew Arnold conveyed the sense of Christianity in decline when he wrote Dover Beach, in the mid-19th century:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
A grim message. No one, perhaps, could approach the moral heroism of the poet’s father, Dr Thomas Arnold, creator of Christian gentlemen.
Yet if one takes a wider view, this pessimism becomes one-sided to the point of absurdity. In much of the world, Christianity is growing. Globalisation means access to information, which leads to conversions in places where one would not have expected them.
A few figures are needed. Let me admit, in a precautionary spirit, that the figures should not be treated as exact. They are unlikely, however, to be so wrong that the trends which they illustrate are mistaken.
According to the Pew Research Centre, there were 600 million Christians in 1910, 2.18 billion in 2010, and will be 2.9 billion in 2050. In a report published earlier this month, it confirmed that Christians are the world’s largest religious group, making up 31 per cent of the global population of 7.3 billion, and went on:
“Christians had the most births and deaths of any religious group in recent years, according to our demographic models. Between 2010 and 2015, an estimated 223 million babies were born to Christian mothers and roughly 107 million Christians died – a natural increase of 116 million.”
In Europe, numbers of Christians are falling. In many other places, they are growing. Between 1960 and 2000, evangelical Protestantism grew at three times the world’s population rate, and twice as fast as Islam.
Pew expects Muslims to catch up with Christians in total numbers in the coming decades. But fertility rates between the two religions are converging.
China, which before 1949 had four million Christians, in 2010 had 67 million, a number which is growing at seven per cent a year. Africa, which had 8.7 million Christians in 1900, now has 390 million, a number which is expected to grow to 633 million in 2025.
South Korea, which was two per cent Christian in 1945, is now 29.3 per cent Christian.
And sizeable numbers of conversions from Islam to Christianity have taken place in many countries, including Morocco, Nigeria and Indonesia.
The story is one of vitality, not of enfeeblement and petering out. Nigeria contains perhaps 19 million Roman Catholics and 18 million Anglicans. In Iran, there are now between 100,000 and 500,000 Christians, most of whom are evangelical Protestants. As The Guardian reported in 2014:
“Iran’s Christians have traditionally been ethnic Armenians and Assyrians who are able to practice their religion freely as long as they do not proselytise.
“In the last five to 10 years however, satellite television has ushered in a new era of Iranian Diasporan Christian pastors eager to spread their message of faith to listeners back home. Ethnic Armenians and Assyrians have also begun sharing Christianity with their Muslim neighbours and friends.
“The proselytising from Muslim-to-Christian converts in the Diaspora as well as Christian neighbours closer to home has led to the religion taking hold throughout Iran in numbers previously unseen.
“The underground nature of the Christian conversion movement has made numbers impossible to determine accurately.”
Here is something to set against the ferocious attacks on ancient Christian churches committed by Islamist terrorists. On Palm Sunday, Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about ten per cent of that country’s population, suffered two attacks, in which 45 of them were murdered.
A Coptic scholar living in America, Samuel Tadros, has written a piece about this atrocity for The Atlantic:
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, as Tertullian, the second-century theologian, proclaimed centuries ago. The years have taken their toll: Christianity was largely wiped out of North Africa; the places where Saint Augustine once walked no longer remember his name. Only in Egypt did it survive, the Church of Alexandria, the founding church of Copts, shining alone through Christianity’s early centuries. In Egypt’s deserts, monasticism was born at the hands of Saint Antony the Great, and it was Coptic Popes, from Athanasius to Cyril, who shaped the Christian creed and faith for the whole world.”
The Copts, who account for over half of all Christians in the Middle East, and whose cross adorns this article, are grievously threatened, but Tadros refuses to be downhearted:
“Such is the story of the Copts. While their Church faces tremendous challenges in Egypt, it is flourishing abroad. In 1970, there were two Coptic churches in the United States. Today there are 250. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than half a million Africans have joined the Church, which is untainted by the legacy of colonialism, and prides itself as an African Church. There is a future for the Copts.”
We remember today the crucifixion of Jesus. On Sunday, we shall remember His resurrection. Here is a story of pain and death, but also of rising again to joyful life. There is a future for Christianity.