The future of the global church
Predicting the future is dangerous. Past and present trends hint at what might be. How should these mould Christian ministry in obedience to the Great Commission? Population growth is one of nine factors that will impact our world.
The population disparities are huge. Two-thirds of the world’s population live within 500 km of a coast. This has benefits for wealth generation and trade, but there are dangers in more low-lying areas if climate change causes a significant rise in sea levels.
Often, the threat to the world’s more populous, fertile and civilised regions has come from its apparent wildernesses. Great empires have been overthrown by invaders such as the Medes, Goths, Huns, Mongols, Arabs and Turks. Is it from the ‘wastes’ of North Africa and Central Asia that destruction might come in the 21st century?
Future projections of population are based on many assumptions. The UN population database is my primary source. I have used the 2004 database median projections, but adjusted a few national statistics where there were significant changes in 2006 and 2008. I have also drawn upon other UN databases for longer-range projections for country and city populations. The UN also gives high and low projections. The peaking of the world’s population at around nine billion in 2050 will place huge demands on global resources and ecosystems. The dire predictions of unrestricted population growth are therefore unlikely to be fully realised.
The growth of world population can be broken down into that for each of the six inhabited continents. The smallest is the Pacific, which includes Australia and nearly all the Pacific island territories. Statistics are available to cover the 20th century, with projections to the middle of the 21st.
The minimal growth in Europe is a contrast to every other continent. The populations of the Americas and the Pacific are growing as a result of both birth rate and considerable immigration. Africa and Asia’s huge growth is almost entirely down to birth rate.
1900Ð2050 has seen the most dramatic growth in population in the history of the world. In this, the 20th century is likely to prove unique in terms of both population growth and mass migrations across continents. By 2050 we shall probably be nearing an equilibrium, but massive population movements will continue.
History of population
1900: There were two major concentrations of population: Europe, and East and South Asia. Europe then had 25% of the global population, but people of European origin dominated 95% of the world’s land mass, most of its industrial power and a huge proportion of its wealth and trade. Europe’s growth spurt came with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. In 1900, Europe and Asia accounted for 84% of the world’s total population, while the Pacific, the Americas and Africa had just 16% between them.
1950: The population began to explode in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where urbanisation became a major factor. Population growth peaked in Latin America and East Asia in the 1990s, but accelerated into the 21st century in sub-Saharan Africa and in Muslim and Hindu Asia — the very areas that can least sustain larger populations — having poor governance and inadequate infrastructure. Poverty and lack of education for women lead to population growth rate increases even as infant mortality increases.
2000: The highest population densities were then in three major areas: South and East Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and Central America. Unsustainably large increases in the Muslim Middle East and South and South West Asia are likely to affect global stability.
2050: The rapid growth will be mainly in East and West Africa wherever AIDS does not decimate populations (as it will in the south and centre of the continent). Generally speaking, Africa has seen the lowest economic development despite being resource-rich. Corruption, tribalism, the distorting effects of aid dependence and lack of investment in education and infrastructure are to blame. The future is bleak without political, social and economic improvements. In 2050, Europe’s population will have dropped to a mere 7% (and the West’s to 12.6%) of the world’s population.
The population of the more developed world peaked with the post-WWII baby boom around 1960. Globally, there is likely to be a peak in births around 2015, and an adult population peak around 2040-60.
How will things develop in the 21st century for the world’s most populous countries?
In 1950, it was mainly industrialised, developed countries that topped the list. This changed in the second half of the 20th century as birth rates plummeted in developed countries while those of the developing world peaked in the 1990s.
By 2000, the two most populous countries, India and China, were nearly equal in population and countries in the developing world began to dominate the list. Only five developed countries remained on the list. Generally the fastest biological growth (i.e. birth rate minus death rate) was Muslim.
In 2050, growth will be mainly in populations that are Muslim or African or both. Of the original developed countries, only two will remain on the list; but Mexico and Brazil will by then be joining the more developed countries.
By 2100, population growth will be highest in Muslim countries in Africa and Asia. It is likely that many of them will suffer severe shortages of food, water and resources and their impoverished millions will be forced to migrate to a Europe whose own population is shrinking.
Disparities and tensions
The next 60 years will be ones of huge disparities between those parts of the world where population is already declining and those where it continues to grow. Only after this period is the global population likely to plateau. These disparities will create tensions within countries, as much of the growth will occur in places afflicted by corruption, inequality, lack of healthy development and generally inadequate education, infrastructure or resources. The deprived poor will either fight to take their share or migrate to earn it.
Growing population and poverty are linked. In poorer countries, people see having children as the best insurance for the future. Little of the financial aid that is given to less developed countries addresses the root problems or leads to sustainable changes. How should aid best be administered to achieve these things? Global stability may depend on how we help the poorer nations to secure a viable, hopeful future.
This article is an edited extract from The Future of the Global Church by Patrick Johnstone, published by Authentic Media (ISBN 978 1 850 789 666, £24.99), and is used with permission.