Global North vs Global South

26 May 2023

Christianity as a percentage of the world has been stagnant at between 32 and 34% from 1900 to today, and will likely remain so from now at least through 2050. But underneath that global top-line number, a seismic shift has been under way.

Given global population growth, a stable percentage indicates a growing number of Christians, and that’s the case: rising from half a billion believers in 1900 to just shy of 2.4 billion today (doubling twice), and likely to 3.2 billion by 2050 and (if the percentage remains the same) 3.5 billion by 2100 (which shows just how much the population growth of the world will stabilize in the latter half of the century, if current projections hold true).

The makeup of these 3 billion Christians, however, has changed and will change fairly dramatically over these two centuries.

In 1900, 80% of Christians were in the “Global North”—Europe and North America—and 20% were in the “South” (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania). By 1970, these numbers had reached “parity”—57% in the north, 43% in the south. By 2000, they had flipped—41% north, 59% south. Today only a third of all Christians are in the north, while two-thirds are in the south. By 2050, it’s likely to be a 20/80 split, leaving us with an exact mirror image of where this chronology began in 1900, but with vastly more numbers involved. At that point, the global north would be home to about 750 million believers (just 256 million in North America), while the global south would have 2.59 billion—over half in Africa.

We’re not talking about something that is far in the future—like 2100 or beyond—and subject to a lot of “what ifs.” The flip has already happened, and is growing more pronounced. Reaching a world where 80% of Christians are in the Global South is just one generation away. Demographics alone make this transition practically inevitable. The only thing that might prevent it would be a major wildcard—like a 90% fatal plague, an asteroid strike, a nuclear war, or something of that nature.

This transition will inevitably lead to flips in other things. The most obvious: right now it “feels” as if global power dynamics in Christendom have the global north “on top”, determining what conversations are important and how things should be done. I think this feeling, however, is largely false, and determined by the echo chamber that North America lives in. What is discussed amongst believers in Asia and Africa is occasionally influenced by what is thought important in the Global North—but not always, and perhaps not even often. I suspect this will become more pronounced in the days to come.

I have to grimace when someone in North America, for example, feels they should require something of the global south (in my line of work, usually “verification of reports”). The Global South is taking moral leadership on some issues in conservative circles (although they may have an even more conservative stance than some in the North would feel comfortable with). The church networks and denominations in the Global South are far larger than most in the Global North, and growing faster (even apart from what is reported amongst movements). In the past, the Global North has felt no need to provide “verification” of the size of the church in the north to the church in the south. Today, leaders in the Global South feel very little need or desire to “report” anything to the Global North. How soon will it be before they feel no need at all?

The elephant in the room is fundraising and finances flowing from the Global North to the Global South. It is on the basis of this that reports are largely requested. But fundraising has already begun to change. With fewer Christians interested in mission in the Global North, less funding is becoming available, and certainly one wants to “eliminate dependency.” A report linked in this week’s issue (State of Church giving in the USA) highlights the fall of mission giving.

Many of the movements I talk to would like to be independent of funds from the North. Many have been experimenting for several years with locally owned businesses that are sustainable and provide funds for their workers. Several have developed models which are working well in their contexts, and already expanding. Although they still raise money for certain projects, all intentionally limit raised funds for “capitalization” efforts—getting a business started, for example, or completing a Bible translation—rather than anything that is ongoing.

Eventually, it seems obvious more funds will flow from groups in the south to other groups in the south—and far less money from the North will flow in. I suspect that day, like the 80/20 flip, is not many years away. Rather than waiting for it to happen and dealing with it then, the wise leader may want to begin acting as if it already had happened, and consider how we Global North believers can become what we truly should be–one who seeks to serve our brothers and sisters.