The Making of the Atlas of Global Christianity

By Johnson, Todd M.; Ross, Kenneth R. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 2010 | Go to article overview

The Making of the Atlas of Global Christianity


Johnson, Todd M., Ross, Kenneth R., International Bulletin of Mission Research


The centenary of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary conference has proved to be an evocative moment for many who are concerned with Christian mission. (1) Today the limitations and shortcomings of the conference are readily demonstrable, yet still it stands as a highly significant landmark in the history of the Christian faith. Above all, it has proved to be emblematic of the transition, achieved through the missionary movement, by which Christianity became a truly worldwide faith.

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Among many features of the 1910 conference that command attention is the atlas it produced that mapped the progress that had been made by Christian missionary effort at that time. Preparation for the conference was undertaken by eight commissions. The first commission, "Carrying the Gospel to Ali the Non-Christian World," was something of a flagship for the conference. It was this commission, headed by the conference chairman John R. Mott, that engaged James Dennis and his colleagues to produce the atlas. (2)

An important question being asked today by those with Christian mission at heart is, Where are we 100 years after Edinburgh? One way of addressing this question is to create, once more, an atlas mapping the status of Christianity in the world today and tracking the key developments that have occurred in the hundred years since 1910.

Marking the centenary has prompted, among those who cherish the memory of Edinburgh 1910, a note of celebration. Yet this is tempered by a note of repentance, recognizing that much has been learned in the course of 100 years and that different approaches to the missionary task are required today. An atlas inspired by the centenary would have to take account of this perspective. (3) For example, Edinburgh 1910 was guided by an expectation that other world religions would wither and die in the face of the triumphant worldwide spread of Christianity. Today we may rejoice that Christianity has indeed spread worldwide, yet it is clear that other world religions have not only survived but have undergone significant growth and renewal. Any atlas published in 2010 claiming to portray global Christianity must take account of this reality.

Mapping a Demographic Shift

Although some of the leading expectations of Edinburgh 1910 proved to be ill-founded, what stands out to anyone making an objective appraisal of Christianity in the world of the early twenty-first century is the extent to which it has achieved the worldwide geographic spread of which the delegates at Edinburgh dreamed in 1910. A religion that at that time was concentrated in Europe and North America, with isolated outposts in the rest of the world, has undergone an unprecedented demographic shift that has resulted in its strength increasingly being found in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia--often in areas where it was little known a century ago. (4) The task of an atlas for 2010 is to map the extraordinary transformation that has taken place.

The worldwide spread of the Christian faith has been accompanied by a growing diversity in the forms in which the faith finds expression. This has even led some scholars to begin speaking of "Christianities" rather than considering the religion as monolithic. (5) Yet there is an unmistakable commonality evident in such features as taking the Bible as the foundational text for faith, finding in Jesus Christ the indispensable clue to understanding God and the human destiny, and sharing bread and wine in worship to express one's intimate relationship to Jesus Christ and a sense of the ultimate significance of his death. Present in a bewildering variety of circumstances and in a dazzling diversity of cultural forms, Christian faith is nonetheless marked by an irreducible unity and coherence that demands that we consider a global Christianity. What we have therefore attempted for the first time in the Atlas of Global Christianity is to take a fully ecumenical approach in mapping and describing the worldwide Christian faith. …

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