Why the future of the world’s largest religion is female – and African

Why the future of the world’s largest religion is female – and African

Nigerian women greet each other at St. Charles Catholic Church in Ngurore, Nigeria, on Feb. 17, 2019. AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
Gina Zurlo, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

At the start of 2019, Bill and Melinda Gates released a list of facts that had surprised them the previous year. Number four on their list: “Data can be sexist.”

“There are huge gaps in the global data about women and girls,” they explained.

My interest was piqued – not only as a demographer, but as a woman and mother of girls.

I research women in global Christianity and am frequently asked what percentage of the religion is female. The short answer is 52%. But the long answer is more complicated – women make up a much more substantial part of Christianity than that number makes it seem.

The goal of my research is to put the spotlight on Christian women’s contributions to church and society and fill in gaps in our data. Headlines about religion may be focused on the words and actions of Western male leaders, but the reality of the worldwide church is quite different. More and more Christians live outside Europe and North America, especially in Africa – and women are central to that story.

Measuring faith

Social scientists have shown for decades that women are more religious than men by a variety of measures – everything from frequency of private prayer to worship service attendance. Christianity, the world’s largest religion, is no exception. Data from the Pew Research Center show that, compared to Christian men, Christian women are more likely to attend weekly church services (53% versus 46%), pray daily (61% versus 51%), and say religion is important in their lives (68% versus 61%).

It’s not a new trend. In the Gospels, women were the last at the foot of Jesus’s cross, the first at his tomb. Research has shown they were critical to the growth of the early church, being more likely to convert to Christianity than men, and most of the early Christian communities were majority female. Throughout history, women were exemplars of the faith as mystics and martyrs, royal women converting their husbands and supporting convents, and founders of denominations and churches that are now all over the world. Women make up the majority of Christians today.

What researchers don’t have is comprehensive data on women’s activities in churches, their influence, their leadership or their service. Nor are there comprehensive analyses of Christians’ attitudes around the world about women’s and men’s roles in churches.

“Women, according to an old saying in the Black church, are the backbone of the church,” notes religion and gender scholar Ann Braude. “The double meaning of this saying is that while the churches would collapse without women, their place is in the background,” behind male leaders.

But there’s not much actual data, and without good data, it’s harder to make good decisions.

Two women wearing head coverings pray inside a church.
Christian women pray during a Christmas Mass in Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

At the center of the story

My current research is illustrating that women are the majority of the church nearly everywhere in the world, and that its future is poised to be shaped by African women, in particular.

Christianity continues its demographic shift to the global south. In 1900, 18% of the world’s Christians lived in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania, according to my research. Today that figure is 67%, and by 2050, it is projected to be 77%. Africa is home to 27% of the world’s Christians, the largest share in the world, and by 2050, that figure will likely be 39%. For comparison, the United States and Canada were home to just 11% of all Christians in the world in 2020 and will likely drop to 8% by 2050. Furthermore, the median age of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is just 19.

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One of the most common refrains about the church in Africa is that it is majority female. “The church in Africa has a feminine face and owes much of its tremendous growth to the agency of women,” writes Kenyan theologian Philomena Mwaura.

Or as a Nigerian Anglican bishop recently told me, “If anyone tells you a church in Nigeria is majority male, he’s lying.”

It’s clear that women have been a crucial part of Christianity’s seismic shift south. For example, consider Catholic sisters, who outnumber priests and religious brothers in Africa – and on every continent, in fact. Mothers’ Union, an Anglican nonprofit that aims to support marriages and families, has 30 branches in Africa, including at least 60,000 members in Nigeria alone. In Congo, women have advocated for peacebuilding, including through groups like the National Federation of Protestant Women. Next door, in the Republic of the Congo, Catholic sisters were at the forefront of providing shelter, education and aid in postwar recovery efforts.

Yet here, too, more precise data about African women’s contributions and religious identities is lacking. And beyond quantitative data, African women’s narratives have often been ignored, to the detriment of public understanding. As African theologians Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Rachel Angogo Kanyoro have stated, “African women theologians have come to realize that as long as men and foreign researchers remain the authorities on culture, rituals, and religion, African women will continue to be spoken of as if they were dead.”

Far from dead, African women live at the center of the story – and will continue to do so as healers, evangelists, mothers and the heartbeat of their churches.

The Conversation

Gina Zurlo, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Lent and the Least of These

Lent and the Least of These

During Lent, we commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. As if it were New Year’s Eve, most Christians make a Lenten resolution, consecrate it with prayer, and stick it out until Easter. Our concern for particularity in this moment, while laudable, can prevent us from grasping — and being grasped by — a broader sense of mission. The immediacy of figuring out, “What am I going to give up?” can prevent us from asking, “What sort of person is God calling me to be within the church and the world?” The first question pivots around our personal aspirations; the second one opens up a vista of service and mission. Developing the latter theme, we might approach Lent as an opportunity to embrace the care of Christ and emulate his ministry of coming alongside and caring for the least of these.

Embracing the care of Christ can be painful, for it often requires a prior admission that we are wounded. Many recent college graduates work hard to secure employment and repay loans, only to experience job loss, a reduction of responsibility, or another economic shift causing them to move back in with their parents. They are wounded. Some 222,000 veterans have returned from Iraq to a jobless recovery, a gridlocked Congress, and employers who cannot grasp the relevance of leadership skills honed in a military context. They, too, are wounded.

Our individual ailments differ, but we share an Augustinian solidarity. The bishop of Hippo suggests that we are Good Samaritans, called to love across differences of race, class, religion, and other social realities. Yet we are also recipients of God’s boundary-bursting, Samaritan love — Jesus found us by the side of the road, bandaged our wounds, and nursed us into wholeness by the power of his Holy Spirit.

As a community whose health has been and is being restored, Christ calls us to tend to the social ills of his people and all people. Matthew 25:31-46, in particular, underscores the importance of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are in prison, and welcoming the stranger.

By caring with and for society’s most vulnerable members — Jesus calls them “the least of these” — we bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Christ. We embody his love by performing acts that immediately address the maladies of drug addiction, domestic violence, and chronic sickness. Moreover, our engagement in intermediate, systems-transforming work on behalf of the least of these — inmates, immigrants, gay and lesbian military personnel, and so on — testifies to the restorative justice of God’s kingdom in Christ.

Such care, whether personal or structural, does not itself build or establish God’s kingdom. To claim that it does collapses human initiative into divine work (making devils out of those who may oppose it for well-argued reasons) and, more dangerously, runs the risk of idolizing the stratification of power that enables such change (e.g., relief and development arms of denominations or national governments become sacrosanct instruments beyond critique). Our individual and collective care for “the least of these” represent necessary and yet feeble attempts to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who prioritized the marginalized in his ministry. Our call is not about politics, not about ideology, but about modeling the love and justice of Christ. Cornel West has famously remarked that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What does our Christian faith look like out on the street?

Lent reminds us that the church’s social service and justice-making efforts fall short of God’s glory, that our best attempts to repair the world are still broken, leading us to depend anew on the care of Christ. We are weak, but the consolations of our Lord are strong; through him we discover the strength to love, the power to carry on.

Quitting online church is abandoning the one for the 99

Quitting online church is abandoning the one for the 99

(RNS) — “I agree online church is an intriguing idea to include families and individuals affected by disability,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “But I don’t think it can work.”

I spoke those words in 2009, in a casual conversation with other inclusive ministry leaders about what it might look like for churches to be truly accessible to disabled people. I wasn’t opposed to online church at the time. I simply couldn’t imagine how to make it work.

The ideal model, we were convinced, would be hybrid church, building online communities linked with traditional in-person churches, so attendance could be fluid and connections built in ways that included people of all ages, abilities and availability to be present in the same space as the church building. Well-equipped megachurches with large budgets already had the technical abilities to stream services and host online discussion groups. Most churches were and still are small and faithful, though, with resources more limited.

To implement a hybrid model, we knew we would need a system of training, funding and support. We lacked all three. But even if we had the money, time and expertise to do it all, we would need buy-in. We needed leaders to believe disabled people deserved to be fully included in the church, as people like anyone else rather than as service projects to pity, perpetual children to patronize, or pets to pat on the head.

At that time, every American church with a robust inclusive ministry had one thing in common: The pastor had a child or a grandchild diagnosed with a disability. Churches didn’t change to become welcoming unless leaders loved one specific disabled person first. I didn’t know what it would take for more churches to say yes to even considering inclusive online services.

A decade later, COVID-19 proved to be the catalyst for such change. Churches began shifting to online models en masse, to keep people safe from a deadly virus. As weeks passed and we could see that this new normal wasn’t leaving anytime soon, church leaders began moving their faith communities online.

Disabled people who had begged for more accessible models of ministry, who had been told online church wasn’t possible, watched as their requested accommodations became realities. While we were excited to finally be able to engage with our churches through new programs, our pain was undeniable.

Jesus tells a parable, recorded in Luke 15 and Matthew 18, known as the parable of the lost sheep. In it, a shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes missing. The good shepherd goes after the one lost sheep and brings it back to the other 99 with a spirit of joy and celebration. But is that a cute story we read like pure fiction, or do we believe it?

Consider, for a moment, that the story is one disabled person and 99 abled people, and instead of a field, the setting is a church. When one needed to be able to participate in the community of believers from home or a hospital using technology, we in the church stuck with the 99. Those virtual church options that were called impossible for the one became possible when COVID-19 safety measures, like not meeting in person, were necessary for the remaining 99 as well. The accommodation was never impossible for the one. We made a choice that the 99 abled people were worthy of such an option becoming available, which revealed what we believed about the one disabled person: They alone were not worthy, not in how church worked prior to the pandemic.

Now, as churches reopen their in-person services, the inclusive hybrid model can finally work, right?

Yes, but some people don’t want it that way. This past weekend Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the conservative sect of Anglican churches and an opinion writer for The New York Times, argued for the end of online church, even though she acknowledged the practice would re-marginalize some members who have been included by online worship connection.

As for whether or not online church should be an option, it already is and it’s not going away. The logistics of Communion practices, for example, are worthy of consideration and planning, but let’s consider and plan those. Should online church happen? No matter your answer, it is happening.

This debate extends to how we classify relationships as well; is a person you only know online a friend, or does friendship require physical proximity? Communal embodied experiences within friendships or worship don’t require physical proximity. Conversely, I have been physically present in church services without anything being embodied beyond the most superficial appearance.

My personal preference will always include in-person engagement with the people I call my church, usually in the building we also call church. I understand other people have their own preferences, and I see no benefit in weighing whose disabilities or circumstances justify each choice. As with other accommodations for disabled people, abled people will benefit as well: Shift workers and single parents and displaced individuals, be it by choice or necessity, can all benefit from worship models including online possibilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of adults are disabled. One in 10 adults age 18 and older — and double that for those 65 and older — have a disability that impacts one or more areas of functioning enough to require support from others. We know COVID-19 disproportionately harms people with medical vulnerabilities, and some people who need to stay home to avoid COVID also stay home for part or all of flu season, in addition to hospitalizations, surgeries, sleep disorders and other circumstances preventing church attendance.

The most important fact we keep overlooking in these debates, though, is that disabled people are more likely to have those conditions that make COVID-19 the riskiest: three times more likely to have heart disease, twice as likely to have diabetes and the most likely to be immunodeficient by nature or due to medications. Relatedly, disabled people experience higher rates of poverty, less stable employment and lower rates of both driving and having access to a vehicle to drive than abled people do — all of which hinder church attendance as well.

Given those statistics, we aren’t talking about one lost sheep but more like 10 or 20 lost out of every 100. With online church, disabled people — including me and my family — were welcomed to church in more ways and more often than ever before. Let’s keep that up rather than shouting, “Hey, Jesus, we’re gonna take that one you brought back and throw them to the elements and predators! We’re going back to the way it was.”

We have the framework in place to continue to welcome disabled people who worship from home, even as in-person services become safer. The choice is easy. Keep welcoming us.

(Shannon Dingle is a Christian writer and activist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

At Milwaukee church, refugees find welcome from a less suspicious time

At Milwaukee church, refugees find welcome from a less suspicious time

MILWAUKEE (RNS) — Asher Imtiaz is the kind of person who always seems to be wandering into a great story.

Like the time in 2017, when the Pakistani American computer scientist and documentary photographer walked into a Target in Nebraska and ended up being invited to a wedding thrown by Yazidi refugees from the Middle East.

Imtiaz had gone to Nebraska to shoot pictures of life in small-town America in the age of Trump, far from the country’s urban centers. Among his portfolio from the time is another Yazidi family, dressed in patriotic garb and heading to a Fourth of July picnic.

“I went to see America and found these new Americans,” said Imtiaz at a coffee shop on the north side of Milwaukee last year.

Imtiaz fits right in at Eastbrook Church, a multi-ethnic congregation where he serves as a volunteer leader at an outreach ministry for international students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus nearby.

Eastbrook is a bit of an outlier these days, a place where refugees, immigrants and international students are welcome at a time when American evangelicals are increasingly suspicious of newcomers to the United States.

According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute’s Immigration Policies Survey, nearly 6-in-10 (59%) white Evangelical Protestants agreed with the statement “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” By contrast, only 31% of Americans overall agreed with that statement.

At an outdoor service at Eastbrook in August, Imtiaz wandered through the congregation greeting friends and exchanging hugs as a diverse worship team led the congregation through a mix of traditional and contemporary songs. The service started with the singing of the traditional Doxology, which begins, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” followed by songs like “You Are Good” and “Way Maker,” by Nigerian gospel singer Sinach.

That was followed by a reading of Psalm 23 in English, Spanish and Yoruba.

The church was founded in 1979 by members of Elmbrook Church, a megachurch about 20 miles to the west. Elmbrook’s then pastor was hoping to get church members more involved in the communities where they lived. Dubbed Eastbrook, it was led for three decades by former missionaries Marc and Nancy Erickson. For the past 11 years the pastor has been Matt Erickson (no relation).

The proximity of the university campus led to an intentional outreach to college students, especially those from overseas, which continues four decades later.

Every fall, church members give tours of Milwaukee to newly arrived international students, who are then invited to have dinner at the homes of church members. Many of those students come from Christian backgrounds and are seeking to connect with a church, said Imtiaz, who was raised as an Anglican in Pakistan, a country where only about 2% of the population is Christian.

Those students are also looking for friendship. Imtiaz pointed to a 2012 study of international students in the South and Northeast, which found that 40% of those students had no close friendships with Americans. Through the outreach at Eastbrook, their students often make friends in their first days in the country. Many of them end up spending holidays with church members and making longtime friendships.

“It’s basically providing a home away from home,” he said.

The church also operates an International Community Center on the south side of the city, where a number of recent refugees and other immigrants have settled. The center teaches English as a Second Language classes and provides support with issues like housing and education. About 30 people will end up dropping by the center most days, Dan Ryan, senior director of mission at the church, said in an interview in early January 2022.

Ryan said the church is helping resettle some recent refugees from Afghanistan. He understands that some of his fellow evangelicals around the country are resistant to the idea of resettling refugees. Since refugees are here in the States, he said, churches need to reach out in love.

“Yes, have your political ideas,” he said. “But don’t lose sight of the people involved.”

Ryan said that the church and the center are very open about the Christian motivations for their outreach efforts. But they also steer clear of proselytizing. Their main goal, Ryan said, is to show love and welcome to their new neighbors, a point echoed by Matt Erickson.

“It’s a ministry of care and concern and tangible ways of loving people welcoming people,” he said.

“These folks are treasured by God and valuable in his sight,” said Erickson, who spent several years on the staff of World Relief, a Christian organization that helps resettle refugees in the United States.

While he’s not shy about talking about faith, Imtiaz doesn’t see himself as a “Christian photographer.” He said that Christians in the United States sometimes see their neighbors as “projects” or prospective converts, rather than seeing them as people first. He takes a slower approach, trying to befriend people and see them as a neighbor who is valuable in God’s sight.

As a photographer, Imtiaz practices something he calls “God at ‘I’ level” — trying to connect with the people he photographs as human beings, long before taking their picture.

Like many churches in the United States, Eastbrook has felt the pressure of the country’s political polarization inside the church. Erickson said that Eastbrook has always tried to bring together people from different backgrounds, as task made more difficult by the broader conflicts in American public life over race, politics and increasingly, COVID-19.

He often turns to a verse from the New Testament Book of Galatians, in which the apostle Paul urges his readers to “bear one another’s burdens.”

“The last couple of years have given us lots of opportunities to live that out,” he said. “Sometimes we are doing it well and sometimes we are not. Part of being a body is that we have to learn to talk with each other, and we have to learn how to understand each other.”

During his sermon at the outdoor service in August, Erickson urged church members to ground their lives in the Bible and its message of love, rather than on the noise of the outside world. Without that solid foundation, he said, their lives won’t reflect the kind of love God wants them to share.

“Brothers and sisters, I just want to ask us today, are we giving more time to the news, are we giving more time to social media than we are to the Word of God and letting it sink into our lives?” he said. “I’m not trying to be legalistic. I’m just sick of us being brainwashed and want us to stand in the kingdom.”.

Among the people at Eastbrook that Sunday were Mahitha Voola and Manna Konduri, both originally from India, who came to Eastbrook through the church’s outreach to international students and ended up staying after graduation.

From the beginning, people at the church made them feel at home.

“They say, ‘Oh, taste and see the Lord is good,’” Voola said, quoting a verse from the Psalms. “I’ve tasted that love of God through these people and through the church. I feel very blessed to be part of it.”

The two said they hope to pass on the welcome they have received.

“Today we are the recipients of this love,” Konduri said. “Tomorrow, maybe we will be the ones to show that to someone else.”

Eastbrook’s ethic of welcome, Imtiaz said, has been as much a boon for him as it is for the newcomers.

He’s particularly interested in documenting the story of immigrants and refugees, whom he likes to refer to as “new Americans.” For several years he lived in an apartment complex where newly resettled refugees were living so that he could get to know them. He ended up photographing a number of neighbors after building friendships. When he got COVID-19 — a mild case — one of his former neighbors, a woman from Iraq, would send him soup.

Imtiaz hopes that his photographs and work at the church will inspire people to get to know their neighbors, no matter where they come from.

“If I can go to Nebraska and go to Target and meet 400 Yazidis, anybody else can,” he said.

Talking About Race: An Interview with Bishop Kenneth Ulmer

Talking About Race: An Interview with Bishop Kenneth Ulmer

Bishop Kenneth Ulmer has been pastoring for decades in Inglewood, CA. He has seen more than his fair share of racism on the streets and on stages across the country. But he has recently launched a campaign to work toward racial understanding and reconciliation that has captured the attention of Christians across racial lines. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with him to discuss his work to confront racism and bring people together. The below interview is edited for length and clarity.

 

Maina

You’ve been around for a long time, you’ve seen the ups and downs when it comes to race? Why did you decide to get involved with such an event like this, for people to come together and talk about this important topic?

Bishop Ulmer

I think you just answered it, it is the the importance of coming together. And talking about it, you know, the Bible does a passage where the Bible says, Come, come, let us reason together. And our efforts is simply first of all, to start with coming together, which, especially in these days of division, and schisms, and “isms” that should be “was-ims” all the divisions in the body of Christ, just coming together is an achievement. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while…and I don’t think I have ever in my life or ministry seen a season and a time where the world is as divided. But more importantly, and more grievously more painful, is that the church is likewise significantly divided. And I think what bothers me is that many don’t know, don’t realize it, or didn’t get the memo, or whatever. And we’re kind of going on in business as usual.

But it is not, as usual, but in many cases, in terms of COVID, and everything, will never be the same. The issue is, what are we going to look like on the other side of this, and the exhortation is, don’t come out of this empty handed. Don’t come out of this, having learned nothing, haven’t having achieved anything, having made no progress. Look around, reach around, grab around for what God is saying to you. I would say, What is God saying to the church? You know, the exhortation of, of John, he did have ears. Here, listen, get it, catch it, what the Spirit is saying to the church, what he is saying, you know, the Prophet said, God is doing a new thing. And I love that verse. And I think it’s Isaiah 43, where it says…don’t miss this…don’t you see that God is doing a new thing? And so I think, ultimately, our gathering is to come together, to reason to wrestle to dialogue, even to dispute and debate. You know, what are you hearing God’s saying, what is God saying, now? What are the words of the marching orders for the body of Christ, when we come through this thing, and of course, all of us would admit that we didn’t know we, we did, none of us knew we would still be in it this long.

And, I gotta tell you, I’m not a prophet, not a son of a prophet, but I think things may get worse before they get better. And by that, I mean, this is not going to be a quick fix. It’s a major cultural shift. And there’s a major cultural shift as relates to the body of Christ as relates to the mandate the commission of the church.

Maina:

Why do you enjoy talking about race? Like you don’t mind embracing it. Like you don’t mind stepping into it. When a lot of people are going, I think I’ll avoid that conversation. What do you enjoy about it?

 

Bishop Ulmer

I think it’s the new frontier. I say we’re in the desert. I think it’s the new battlefield. And I think it’s a battlefield where God can God desires. And I declared God will get glory. But it’s a battle we cannot avoid. It’s a battle we cannot did not it’s a reality that we cannot deny. But I think I think it is it’s one of those desert lands, is one of those wilderness lands, is one of those battles that God is going to bring us through. But the idea is you got to… I love that passage where in Second Chronicles, where God says to the Prophet Joshua, “Look, the battle is mine. The battle is not yours. I got this.” But then he says, “but tomorrow, you got to go to the battlefield.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, if the battle is yours, Lord, why can’t I watch you take it now? I’ll just be the cheerleader on assignment. God said No, no, no, it’s my battle. When I win through you.

And I think it’s a season where it’s those of us who are willing to take the risk of going into the battle that is in fact God’s, and that God will win. I have some white friends who admit, and I love them for admitting, “Man, I can’t even afford this.” Like I know a couple of white friends of mine who said some public stuff [that cost them]. [A friend and I] did a video about George Floyd and everything. And I have I noticed friends of mine who stood up and talked about the oneness in the body of Christ and racism and stuff. And that friend had a back door revival. He had members of families, some of them longtime families who left his church just for admitting just for mentioning it. And so, I think there’s a price to it, and I have some friends who are not willing to pay that price. But my only excitement is [that] I think it is the new battlefield where God will get glory. But he needs soldiers like us to take the battlefield.