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Ten Global Trends in Religion
by Jay Gary, Jul. 17, 1997
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This address was given on July 17, 1997 by Jay Gary upon receiving the Earl Award at the World Future Society. Gary is the author of The Star of 2000, and at the time, president of Celebration 2000, a consulting group that specialized in turn of the millennium events.

Only as we understand the present, can we speculate on the possibilities of the future. Here are ten global trends in religion I see at work among world religions.

1. The persistence of Religious Persecution.

Religious faith and freedom in this century has trod through the valley of the shadow of death, surviving the Soviet gulags, the Nazi death camps and Cambodian killing fields. With the end of the "Cold War" many have thought this persecution, or to be specific, martyrdom, was a thing of the past. But that is not so. Although it has dropped from its yearly rate of 330,000 at the height of the Soviet state, it still averages 160,000 martyrs a year. You can add to that figure of premature death, a ten-fold number of religious people who are harassed, arrested, tortured, imprisoned for their faith each year.

Many of those killed fall under the definition of martyrdom, that is people whose lives are prematurely taken due to their religious faith. Religious persecution, in Africa or Asia is by no means directly solely against Christians (as in the statistics above). Muslims suffer persecution in Algeria, Bahais lose their lives in Iran. And Shik violence against Hindus continues in Northern India.

Recently, the U.S. Congress has brought the country of Sudan under close scrutiny for the religious persecution it propogates. The government's professed goal of re-Islamization of the country has led to a state of civil war with the mostly Christian or animistic southern regions. The atrocities are numerous, and include aerial bombardment, massacres, slavery, and even reports of crucifixions.

2. The attraction of Militant Fundamentalism.

As Martin Marty and Scott Applebee note in their five volume Fundamentalism Project, religious fundamentalism is on the rise, not just within Islam or Christianity, but is also being felt among Buddhism and Judaism.

Religious/racial-based states did not pass away with the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The May '96 elections in Israel showed that religious nationalism is alive and well among Judaism and capable of becoming a "monster double" of Hamas Islamic fundamentalism. For a fascinating look at this trend, I recommend The Revenge of God, by French author Gilles Kepel. He profiles the resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the modern world from the mid '70s till now.

3. A rising growth rate of Islam.

The third trend which frames out our century-end context is Islam. Among world religions, Islam ranks as the fastest growing faith. This is demographically driven by higher birth rates in the third world rather than by an increase in conversion growth. Worldwide, the number of Muslims has doubled since 1970 to 1.2 billion adherents.

Religious researchers project the growth of Islam to roughly 2 billion adherents by 2025, Christianity to 3 billion. That is out of a projected world population of 8 billion. It is less likely that Islam will overtake Christianity in sheer numbers in the mid-range future. Yet in long-range statistical scenarios reaching out to the year 2200 and beyond, it is possible that Islam will surpass Christianity in absolute number of adherents.

4. A shift to non-white Christianity.

This century has witnessed the shift of Christianity from a white to a majority position of non-white followers. Today more than 60% of all Christians come from non-white races outside Europe and America.

This shift in the center of Christian gravity southward into the Third World has come about from evangelical Protestant church growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This produces all kinds of interesting facts, such as the largest Presbyterian church in the world is not found in Scotland, but in Seoul, Korea, or the statistical mean follower of Christ today is under 20 years old, living in Asia, with a per capita income of less than $600 a year.

5. The growth of Pentecostal and non-denominational Christianity.

While much has been said about the decline of the mainline in the U.S., the resurgence of Pentecostal Christianity has more than made up for it. Estimates put the number of new non-denominational churches in this country at 100,000 since 1980.

The 20th century will no doubt be remembered as a Pentecostal century, given the birth of the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic movement and its dramatic growth. In less than three generations, this movement in the West, Africa and Asia has grown to an amazing 520 million making it the second largest expression of faith within the Christian movement, second only to Roman Catholics.

Harvey Cox chronicles how Pentecostal spirituality will reshape religious experience in the new century in his 1995 book, Fire from Heaven.

6. A decline of Tribal Religions

By 2000, the tribal religions will have shrunk from 6.5% in 1900 to 1.6% of world population. There are still some 5,000 ethno, folk or tribal religions among indigenous people of Africa and Asia number. By mid-century many western religionists thought that these ethno-religionists would disappear by 2000. And despite large numbers converting to Islam or Christianity in Africa, the world's ethno-religions remain stable at about 100 million. But in terms of keeping pace with world population, they have shrunk from 6.5% to 1.6% of world population.

7. A level growth of Nonreligious Persons.

While the growth rate of Islam is increasing, the worldwide growth of persons professing no religion, whether agnostics, freethinkers, atheists or non-religious humanists appears to have plateaued since the collapse of communism. Statistically speaking, the non-religious population of the world is holding its own at 15% of the world's population, and will continue so as we enter the 21st century.

8. An increase of Pluralism in society.

Another century-end trend which religionists encounter is growing pluralism. This is particularly so within the West. Driven by multi-culturalism and internationalization of the West, increasing diversity in society is both an opportunity and a challenge for religions. Increasing cultural diversity and interfaith contact can offer opportunities for mutual understanding, growth and dialogue. On the other hand, the challenge of modernity, with its relativism and individualism continues to undermine traditional beliefs that once informed shaped various common creeds, producing culture wars between traditionalists and progressives.

9. An increase of Women in pastoral roles.

At the turn of the century, except for sectarian groups such as the Salvation Army and various Pentecostal and Holiness groups, women preachers were not common. Barriers to women's ordination in major U.S. denominations began falling in the fifties and sixties.

As a result, we have seen the emergence of women in pastoral roles, from 1% at the turn of the century to more than 5% of all clergy worldwide. In the U.S., women comprise 10% of all clergy. And for every woman in the pastorate, there are 30 others working in ministry roles, whether in religious education or outreach.

Although there is still resistance to women in pastoral roles, the basic trend of women in church and pastoral leadership continues to grow and appears irreversible. Some suggest the impact of increasing numbers of women in the pastorate will bring more emphasis on nurture and growth, with more holistic models of communities and congregations.

10. The anticipation of a New Millennium.

This tenth trend has been in the making for 30 years, but is intensifying as each month passes. Reaching far beyond human understanding, the attraction of the year 2000 has crossed all fields, from commerce to government, from humanitarian causes to religious work.

From a cultural perspective, the year 2000 or C.E. 2000 is the bimillennium of our global civic calendar. For a religious perspective, A.D. 2000 is the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus. As we approach the millennial years, 1999 to 2001, a whole constellation of congresses and commemorations are being planned to mark the advent of the third millennium.

Australia is sponsoring the year 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Ten years after reunification, Germany is hosting a World's Fair under the theme, "Humanity, Technology and Nature" for 40 million visitors. England is spending close to 700 million pounds to stage a Millennium Exhibition on Time at Greenwich. Rome is expecting some 25 million visitors for the Holy Year 2000. And the Holy Land is expecting an increase in tourists for the bimillennium.

Never has humanity had such an opportunity to prepare itself for a more peaceful and spiritual new millennium.

Jay Gary, author, columnist and speaker is the director of the Christian Futures Network in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

URL: http://www.wnrf.org/cms/tentrends.shtml

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