Posted by: Titus Presler | July 1, 2021

Comprehensive and illuminating 3rd edition of World Christian Encyclopedia is vital resource for mission

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It has been a pleasure to read into the third edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, compiled by Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo and published in 2020 by Edinburgh University Press.  I’ve been an enthusiast for this enterprise in religious demography through the first and second editions, published in 1982 and 2001, and the Atlas of World Christianity, published in 2010, and I offer congratulation and support for the team’s new achievement, which is comprehensive, illuminating and inspiring.

The World Christian Encyclopedia is a vital resource for understanding the state of Christianity in the world today in relation to other religions and multiple demographic trends.  I strongly recommend it to all global mission activists and mission organizations.  The work is a fruit of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, north of Boston.  Options for purchasing the physical volume, the online version, and various portions of the encyclopedia are outlined on the center’s website.

I say I’ve read into the 979-page WCE, for reading all the country analyses – Afghanistan to Zimbabwe – would be a formidable task.  I’ve read all the introductory material, all the back material, and a number of country analyses, especially those where I have experience and special interest.

One major difference between the previous editions and this one is that the missional dimension of Christian presence in the world was more prominent earlier, especially in terms of evangelization.  As a missiologist with an interest in evangelization, I appreciated that stress.  However, in looking again at the introductory pages of the 2nd edition I have been bewildered yet again by the complexity of analysis among so-called Worlds A, B and C, representing the unevangelized non-Christian, the evangelized non-Christian, and the Christian worlds, complexified by estimates of so-called Great Commission Christians and accompanied by intricate diagrams and by an abundance of jargon-sounding terms, a number of which were neologisms.  While interesting, I never ended up actually using that material in mission teaching.

In my view, the 3rd edition analyzes very adequately the missional dimension of Christian life and work through an introductory section on mission, through tables related to missionaries and Bible translation and distribution, the prose descriptions of each country and, of course, the extensive tables of Christian growth or decline throughout the volume.  Edition 3 does all this without appearing theologically tendentious in ways that might have made non-Christian scholars and even non-mission-oriented Christian scholars a bit suspicious of the 1st and 2nd editions.  I believe the 3rd edition will therefore have a better chance of being used more widely in academia.  The authors thereby have strengthened their credibility and that of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell as the leading source of demographic information about Christianity and religion in general in the contemporary world.

As an Anglican, I couldn’t help notice that Anglicans have lost their place among the Christian families that they had in editions 1 and 2 alongside Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Independents.  I liked being able to quickly see how many of us there were and where!  But I always recognized that Anglicans being distinguished that way was an anomaly that probably reflected the Anglican identity of David Barrett, who authored the 1st edition and co-authored the 2nd, and of course it makes sense to fold Anglicans into Protestants.

Likewise it makes sense that the 3rd edition eliminates the theologically tendentious category of Marginal Christians, which in earlier editions included the Latter-Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but who are now included in the well-explained larger family of Independents who do not align as Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.  So the four-family typology of edition 3 is a good foundation for the analysis of World Christianity.  Setting up Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians and Evangelical Christians as two additional categories that overlap with the four families is methodologically sound, though I wonder to what extent Evangelicals overlap with Pentecostals/Charismatics.

And just by the way, in case you’re wondering how WCE defines Christian, self-identification is the key: If someone says they’re Christian, then they’re Christian from a demographic standpoint.  And so also with Muslims, Hindus and so on.  This is obviously the right approach to take in religious demography.

The major theme of the World Christian Encyclopedia is the by now well-known fact of Christianity’s shift to the Global South, where 67% of the world’s Christians now live, and edition 3 helpfully spells out many ramifications of that.  For instance, Spanish is, after Chinese, the 2nd-most spoken language in the world, at 413 million, and the one with the most Christians, followed by English, then Portuguese, Russian and Chinese.  WCE stresses the importance of the accessibility of theology in Global South languages as they move up the list of most-spoken languages and as Global North languages move down the list.  WCE similarly points out that the ethnic family with the most Christians now is the Bantu in Africa, at 374 million.  The fact that all 10 of the world’s most populous cities are majority-Christian, and 8 out of those 10 are in the Global South, has important implications for Christian mission.

A new introductory section on women is very welcome, with its notation that World Christianity is largely a women’s movement and the estimate that the worldwide missionary movement is at least two-thirds female.

I affirm the 3rd edition’s capitalization of skin-color categories such as Black, White and Brown (though I’m not sure that Brown appears anywhere).  Given that the text was prepared in 2019, the capitalization decision was prescient in the contentious current climate of race discussions around the world, for it was only in 2020 that the New York Times began capitalizing Black (though not White, Brown or People of Color), and The Christian Century wisely moved to capitalize all skin-color racial categories.  In general, WCE uses racial categories sparingly and appropriately focuses on ethnolinguistic peoples and ethnic families.

As I turn now to aspects of the encyclopedia that I wish were a little different, I stress that I do so amid an overwhelmingly positive assessment of what I believe is a vitally important resource for religious research and missiological reflection.

The influence of Andrew Walls and the late Lamin Sanneh is evident in WCE’s emphasis on language and the translatability of Christianity, which highlights how every people, language and culture has a unique contribution to make to World Christianity.  But I wish WCE would make the converse point more strongly, that, contrary to common assumptions not only in the Global North but elsewhere as well, no particular cultural Christian expression can claim unique normativity over others.

WCE carefully and helpfully defines many terms, for instance, religion, persecution, martyr, the four families of Christians, the three types of Pentecostals/Charismatics, and the like.  In the area of mission, though, WCE offers a diffuse paragraph about Christian mission that strikes some of the right notes such as crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries and combining proclamation and social action, but dubiously uses the term ‘Christian expansion.’  I suggest that the discussion be tightened up with a concise definition comparable to other definitions in the volume, and I would advocate that reaching out to difference be central in that definition.

On the understanding of missionary, edition 3 notes accurately that the concept of who is a missionary has evolved over the last 100 years, but I’m troubled by the limitation of the term missionary to those who serve across national boundaries, in particular, for at least two years.  Those serving with the Indian Missionary Society and the Friends Missionary Prayer Band, for instance, serve entirely within India, but their obviously cross-cultural and cross-linguistic work fully qualifies them as missionaries, rather than simply as so-called national workers, lumped together with pastors and educators serving in their own communities.

WCE rightly acknowledges that, ‘while Christian missionaries had a crucial role in the spread of Christianity, it was and continues to be indigenous workers who did the bulk of the work in evangelism and social justice.’  But this fact deserved a bit more elaboration in terms of evangelists, catechists, Bible women and the like in various parts of the world.

WCE mentions the explosive proliferation of short-term mission teams, but only in passing, and therefore fails to adequately address what is now the main form of cross-cultural mission in many churches.  Like others, I have reservations about this movement, but I believe WCE needs to take fuller account of its numbers, finance and impacts.  The well-known research of Robert Priest and Robert Wuthnow would be good starting places for this.

In a few places, WCE uses the terminology of so-called ‘development’ to characterize different parts of the world, as in ‘the developing world’ and ‘more-developed countries.’  This disappointed me because unqualified use of the term ‘development’ begs the question, ‘Development toward what?’  The assumed answer is development toward the social and economic patterns and institutional infrastructures of societies in Europe and North America.  Unfortunately, this stance is similar to earlier mission and colonial emphases on so-called ‘civilization,’ an emphasis that virtually all of us in mission rightly and reflexively criticize now.  The intensifying economic, environmental and cultural costs of patterns in the industrialized world should prompt a radical reevaluation of what has become known as ‘development.’  The term ‘advanced’ that the International Monetary Fund uses for the G7 countries is as suspect as the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing.’  There is no easy solution to the terminological problem, but I suggest that in future WCE use the purely economic designations of ‘richer’ nations and ‘poorer’ nations, which avoid further invidious characterizations.

Specialists will doubtless quibble about countries where they have research experience, and I’m an example of that with Zimbabwe.  I was delighted to see included two African-Instituted Churches that I was the first to research, but sorry not to see St. Luca’s Apostolic Ejuwel Jekenishen Church.  More important, the religious dynamics of Zimbabwe’s Liberation War receive scant attention and the post-war Christian revival none at all.  Readers might have been interested to know of the nocturnal firewalking that is routine in the African Apostolic Church of Johane Marange – a startling and close-to-unique phenomenon in World Christianity.

There are anomalies in the amount of information on some countries, relative to their place in the roster of national populations.  1st-place China has 7 pages, 2nd-place India has 11 pages, 3rd-place USA has 16, 4th-place Indonesia has 6 pages.  In fifth place, Brazil has 8 pages devoted to it, and 7th-place Nigeria has 7 pages, as does 9th-place Russia.  Well and good.  But just 3 ½ pages each are devoted to 8th-place Bangladesh and 6th-place Pakistan, and actually the United Nations’ 2021 statistics now put Pakistan in 5th place, at 220 million, thus now more populous than Brazil.  Less religious diversity in some countries, especially majority-Muslim nations where religious research may be constrained by government restrictions, may help account for such anomalies.  Yet nearby Afghanistan, equally Muslim and equally difficult to research, has just a half-page less than Pakistan and Bangladesh even though it has a fraction of the population of its much larger Muslim South Asian neighbors.

My reservations and suggestions about the 3rd edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia are minor, however, in the context of the tremendous achievement that this publication represents.  Congratulations to Todd, Gina and their many contributors and collaborators.  May the work of the center at Gordon-Conwell continue to flourish and grow.

This review is based on my presentation on a panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Missiology, held online,. 18 June 2021.


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