Gina Zurlo | Why Christianity’s future is female – and African

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In early 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.”

They explained:

There are huge gaps in global data on women and girls.

My curiosity was piqued, not only as a demographer, but also as a woman and mother of daughters.

I research women in global Christianity and am often 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 larger part of Christianity than this number suggests.

The purpose of my research is to shed light on the contributions of Christian women to church and society, and to fill in the gaps in our data. Headlines about religion may focus on the words and actions of Western male leaders, but the reality of the global church is quite different. More and more Christians live outside of Europe and North America, especially in Africa – and women are at the heart of this story.

Social scientists have shown for decades that women are more religious than men by a variety of measures – from frequency of private prayer to attendance at worship. Christianity, the largest religion in the world, is no exception.

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Data from the Pew Research Center shows that, compared to Christian men, Christian women are more likely to attend weekly church services (53% vs. 46%), pray daily (61% vs. 51%) and say that 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’ cross, the first at his tomb. Research has shown them to be essential to the growth of the early church, being more likely to convert to Christianity than men, and most early Christian communities were overwhelmingly female.

Throughout history, women have been exemplars of the faith as mystics and martyrs, and founders of denominations and churches that are now all over the world; and royal wives converted their husbands and supported convents. Women constitute the majority of Christians today.

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

“Women, as an old black church saying goes, are the backbone of the church,” notes religion and gender scholar Ann Braude. “The double meaning of this saying is that while churches would crumble without women, their place is secondary,” behind male leaders.

But there’s not a lot of real data, and without good data it’s harder to make good decisions.

My current research illustrates that women are in the majority in a church almost anywhere in the world and its future is about to be shaped by African women in particular.

Christianity continues its demographic shift to the global south. In 1900, 18% of Christians lived in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania, according to my research. Today, that figure is 67%, and by 2050 it is expected to be 77%.

Africa is home to 27% of Christians, the largest share in the world, and by 2050 that figure is likely to 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. Additionally, the median age of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is not than 19 years old.

One of the most common refrains about the church in Africa is that its adherents are predominantly women.

Kenyan theologian Philomena Mwaura writes:

“The church in Africa has a female face and owes much of its tremendous growth to the agency of women.

Or, as a Nigerian Anglican bishop recently told me, “If someone tells you that a church in Nigeria is predominantly male, they are lying.”

It is clear that women played a crucial role in the seismic shift of Christianity south. For example, consider Catholic sisters, who outnumber priests and religious brothers in Africa – and on every continent, in fact. Mothers’ Union, an Anglican non-profit organization that aims to support marriages and families, has 30 branches in Africa, including at least 60,000 members in Nigeria alone.

In the Congo, women have advocated for peace building, including through groups like the National Federation of Protestant Women. Next door in the Republic of Congo, Catholic sisters were at the forefront of providing shelter, education and aid in post-war reconstruction efforts.

Yet here, too, more precise data on the religious contributions and identities of African women are lacking. And beyond quantitative data, the stories of African women have often been ignored, to the detriment of public understanding. As African theologians Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Rachel Angogo Kanyoro have stated:

African female theologians have come to realize that as long as foreign men and scholars 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 history – and will continue to do so as healers, evangelists, mothers and the heartbeat of their churches.

Zurlo is co-director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the United States.

This article first appeared in The conversation


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