Author: Lausanne Global Analysis
Category: World Faiths, Media and Communications
Evangelicalism is a dynamic Christian force in the world today. From the onset of Evangelicalism in Great Britain in the 1730s to the United States in the nineteenth century and now as a global phenomenon, Evangelicals have had great influence in many spheres, most notably religion and politics. Throughout the twentieth century a series of gatherings and movements converged into the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance, arguably the two most active global bodies of Evangelicals today. All of this leads to two important questions: what exactly defines a Christian as an Evangelical, and how many are there in the world today? The issue is multifaceted, requiring much more than just a cursory tally of adherents. Our analysis will detail two working definitions of the term found in the World Christian Database and Operation World, and specify how these definitions result in differing estimates.
World Christian Database
The World Christian Database (WCD) is an online resource based on the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982, 2001) and World Christian Trends (2001). Data for the WCD are constantly gathered, analyzed, and updated by full-time staff at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
The WCD, building on the methodology of the World Christian Encyclopedia, uses a “structural” approach in defining evangelicals. The methodology is slightly complex, differentiating between the terms “evangelical” (lower-case “e”; also called Great Commission Christians) and “Evangelical” (capital “E”). Although the distinction may at first appear minor, these terms represent two distinct groups of Christians within what is broadly global Christianity. First, an evangelical (lower-case “e”) is any church member (therefore, on a church roll) who believes in or embraces seven key components:
As such, these “evangelicals” can be found in virtually any Christian tradition (Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Independent, Marginal). For the purpose of counting, evangelicals are evaluated at the level of people groups, where two variables are assessed: (1) the degree to which the churches are engaged in evangelism among non-Christians in their people group, and (2) the per-capita sending of missionaries from their people group to other countries. The complex formula is explained and analyzed in World Christian Trends.
Alternatively, Evangelicalism (capital “E”) is a movement within Protestantism (excluding Anglicanism) consisting of all affiliated church members self-identifying as Evangelicals. Christians are also considered Evangelicals when they are members of an Evangelical church, congregation, or denomination (the WCD is structured around denominational data). Characteristics of Evangelicals include personalized religion (being “born again”), dependence on the Bible as the word of God, and regular preaching and/or evangelism. In addition, both of these sub-groups typically adhere to a degree of conservatism in both values and theology.
For the purpose of counting, Evangelicals are located by assessing whether a particular denomination belongs to an Evangelical council (either national, regional, or global). Every denomination with such an affiliation is coded as “Evangelical,” and 100% of its adherents are considered to be Evangelicals. In the case where denominations are not identified as “Evangelical,” an estimate is made of the percentage (0–99%) that self-identify as Evangelical. This is assessed by contacting Evangelical groups in the denomination to see if they have made their own estimates of Evangelicals. If no such groups exist, then rough estimates are made based on published materials or other informants.
This structural approach leads the WCD to claim that there are 706 Evangelical denominations worldwide with a total of around 300 million adherents in mid-2010. The formula used for the broader term “evangelical” produces a total of approximately 700 million Great Commission Christians worldwide in mid-2010. A parallel assessment of Pentecostals and Charismatics results in about 600 million for the same year. These three categories—Evangelical, Great Commission Christian (or evangelical) and Pentecostal—are not mutually exclusive. For example, one can be a Pentecostal and an Evangelical but not a Great Commission Christian. Likewise, an individual can simultaneously be all of the above.
Since 1964 there have been seven editions of Operation World (OW), with the most recent edition released in October 2010. Begun by Patrick Johnstone and now continued by Jason Mandryk, Operation World was listed #43 in Christianity Today’s “Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals” in 2006. Operation World is an easy-to-read, accessible resource intended primarily for missionaries and missions-minded laypeople (that is to say, evangelicals). The editors clearly have a burden for prayer, with Operation World outlining specific prayer requests for particular denominations, para-church organizations, and challenging situations around the world.
Operation World’s philosophy of defining and counting “evangelicals” differs from that employed by the World Christian Database. The editors focus on the theology of evangelicalism in defining adherents, not so much the structure or experience of believers (as in the case of the WCD). In the most recent edition of the book, the authors define their usage of the term as “very close but not identical” to David Bebbington’s usage in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. The “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” as it is deemed, includes four characteristics: crucicentrism, conversionism, Biblicalism, and activism. Therefore, OW defines evangelicals as affiliated church members who adhere to the four qualities above. This generally means grounded belief in the crucified Christ, an experience of a personal conversion, theological foundation in the Bible as the word of God, and active missionary evangelism or preaching of the gospel.
Similar to the World Christian Database, the editors of OW calculate the number of evangelicals by assessing denominations. The editors look at each denomination and determine what percentage of that group is similar in theology and practice to their definition of “evangelical.” While many denominations would be considered 100% evangelical by both the WCD and OW, there are many that do not meet the stricter definition of the WCD but are theologically similar to Evangelicals. These would be assigned a higher Evangelical percentage by the editors of OW.
Using this method, Operation World states that there are about 550 million evangelicals worldwide in 2010. OW claims that North America is the most evangelical continent in the world, but Asia contains the most evangelicals (followed by Africa and North America). This parallels the shift of global Christianity to the south throughout the twentieth century. The Evangelical center of gravity has shifted from the North Atlantic Ocean in 1910 to Burkina Faso in 2010, which is even further south than the Christian center of gravity in Mali.
Comparing the numbers
The difference between the OW and WCD definitions lies largely in that OW uses a theological measuring stick when enumerating evangelicals. The WCD is rooted in similar denominational data but follows a stricter definition for Evangelicals (with a capital “E”), and a wider definition for evangelicals (with a lower-case “e”). The WCD defines particular Evangelical denominations, therefore making all members on the rolls of those denominations’ churches Evangelical Christians (these denominations are typically historical ones with ties to the Reformation). OW, on the other hand, uses a more customized approach that does not differentiate between “big E” and “little e” evangelicals.
OW’s theologically-based estimate of 550 million evangelicals is significantly higher than the WCD’s structural estimate of 300 million. However, other categories of the WCD must be taken into consideration, namely, 600 million Pentecostal/Charismatics and 700 million Great Commission Christians, all of whom may overlap with the Evangelical total. OW’s total falls between the WCD’s estimates for Great Commission Christians and Evangelicals.
These two authoritative sources illustrate that counting evangelical Christians results in a range of estimates. It can be difficult to compare the estimates since they are generated from different definitions, methodologies, and categories. Evangelicalism is not a monochromatic phenomenon, despite many similarities in theology and experience. Nonetheless, it can likely be generally agreed that there are approximately 500 million Evangelicals in the world today. Evangelicalism, akin to global Christianity as a whole, is a diverse and transformative group that is making headway for the gospel of Christ throughout the world.
This article is a part of a pilot version of the Lausanne Global Analysis. A planning team has begun working on the production of the new Lausanne Global Analysis. The Analysiswill provide multi-lingual analysis of issues facing the church and wordwide evangelization from a global network of regional leaders, researchers and writers. The launch as a monthly publication is tentatively scheduled for April 2012. (Learn more)
. The term “Great Commission Christians” (GCC) takes center stage in the conversation about global evangelicalism in the Atlas of Global Christianity (Johnson & Ross, eds, 2009), 290–3. GCCs are defined as “believers in Jesus Christ who are aware of the implications of his Great Commission, have accepted its personal challenge in their lives and ministries, and are seeking to influence the Body of Christ to implement it.”