Orthodox Christianity: An Overview

Global Christianity: The Big Picture

The Church of Christ the Savior
& the Kremlin Cathedrals

In December 2011, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study entitled “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”  I found the report to be fascinating and I was particularly interested in how the analysts compared current data with data from 100 years earlier, so the reader gets the sense of key trends in religion worldwide.

This comprehensive demographic study concludes that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages in 200 countries and this number represents nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion.  The number of Christians around the world has more than tripled in the last 100 years (from 600 million in 1910), but because the world’s overall population has also risen rapidly, Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32%) as they did 100 years ago (35%).

Christians are the largest religious group and Muslims are the second largest, making up a little less than a quarter of the world’s population.  Within Christianity, Catholics are the biggest group (50.1%), followed by Protestants (36.7%) and Orthodox (11.9%).

The report highlighted a “momentous shift” within world Christianity.  Unlike a century ago, Christianity today is “truly a global faith.”  Here are a few highlights that document these changes:

  • “Though Christianity began in the Middle East-North Africa, today that region has both the lowest concentration of Christians (about 4% of the region’s population) and the smallest number of Christians (about 13 million) of any major geographic region.”
  • “Nigeria now has more than twice as many Protestants . . .  as Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation.”
  • “Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics as Italy.”
  • “Although Christians comprise just under a third of the world’s people, they form a majority of the population in 158 countries and territories, about two-thirds of all countries and territories in the world.”
  • “About 90% of Christians live in countries where Christians are in the majority; only about 10% of Christians worldwide live as minorities.”

A startling set of statistics from the Pew Forum report about this “momentous shift” in global Christianity caught my eye: “A century ago, the Global North (commonly defined as North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) contained more than four times as many Christians as the Global South (the rest of the world).  Today . . .  more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South (61%), compared with about 860 million in the Global North (39%).”  

Orthodox Christianity in the Global Context

As noted above, Orthodox communions comprise 11.9% of the world’s Christians, an estimated 260,430,000 adherents (3.8% of the world’s population in 2010).  Thirty-nine percent of these Orthodox Christians reside in Russia, the country with the largest number of Orthodox.  I was surprised to discover that the second-largest number of Orthodox Christians (36 million) live in Ethiopia – more than three times as many Orthodox as in Greece!  Turkey, where the original seat of the Orthodox Patriarch was and is located, has a small Orthodox population (about 180,000).

After Russia and Ethiopia, the next three largest Orthodox populations are in Ukraine, Romania, and Greece.  These five countries comprise 74.4% of the world’s Orthodox population.  If you add the next five countries on this list, these ten countries hold 87.4% of the world Orthodox population.

Unlike other major components of the global Christian movement, Orthodox Christianity is heavily concentrated in Europe (which includes Russia in this study), where 77% of the Orthodox reside.  The other interesting finding is that most of the countries with large numbers of Orthodox Christians have an Orthodox majority, except for Ethiopia and Egypt.  Orthodox Christians make up a majority of the total population in 14 countries.

What Lies Ahead for Orthodoxy?

While I claim no expertise in Russian Orthodoxy, my experience over the last twenty years in that country leads me to anticipate the following trends in Russia, trends that are probably not applicable to other Orthodox countries:

  • After 70 years of severe persecution by the Communist Party in the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church is now free from government censorship and control.  Its leaders are now struggling with the issue of how the church should relate to the government – an issue in many different countries.
  • Its top leadership — Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion – has considerable expertise in ecumenical relations and their diplomacy will create new friends for the church worldwide, possibly stimulating the further spread of the Orthodox faith.
  • There are evidences of grassroots cooperation between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders and joint work is already underway in the area of child welfare and orphan care issues and this networking will continue, in many cases driven by local parish-based activists.