Buddhism is the official religion of two Asian countries (Bhutan and Cambodia), accorded special status in another four, and is a significant minority in 10 others. In most places, followers actually mix Buddhism with Chinese religions, Daoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. After Communism lost strong influence in Asia, Buddhism began to grow again. The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made Buddhism more popular in Western countries. Only a small minority from Buddhist backgrounds have come to Jesus. The worldviews of Buddhists and Christians have great differences, and many Buddhists struggle to understand the gospel message in the ways Christians have tried to communicate it. Pray for a breakthrough.
The revitalization of the world religions. Contrary to the expectations of the secular agenda, religion has not faded into an irrelevant historical footnote. Perhaps as a reaction against globalization, perhaps as a reaction against secular arrogance and emptiness, perhaps as a demonstration of the deeply spiritual nature of humanity, religion is alive and well in the 21st Century.
The rise of fundamentalism in the majority of the world's faith systems. Most people would associate the term "fundamentalist" with Muslim terrorists or strident Christian conservatives, but today some groups of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, ethnoreligionists and, increasingly, atheists fit such a term quite adequately. Recently, secularism as a social construct and atheism as a belief system in the West have, in some circles, become particularly aggressive and assertive, seeking to eradicate religion from the public sphere and humiliate those of religious - or at least Christian - persuasion.
The unfolding of future global faith. Cultural influence, proselytism and birthrates would indicate that global religious dominance will be contested by three main forces - Christianity, Islam and non-religion. All other faiths are limited to a specific region and/or are not growing. Non-religious people tend to have the lowest birthrates, but the trend toward secularization in many parts of the world has sustained and even swelled their numbers. Proportionately, few convert to Islam, but high birthrates and low apostasy rates have propelled Islam to 22.9% of the human population. Christianity has declined slightly from 34.5% in 1900 to 32.3% in 2010. The precipitous decline of the past 30 years in Europe has been offset by growth in Asia and Africa. Where it does occur, Christian growth has been from both conversion and natural birthrates.
Christianity has become the most global of religions. There is no country without a Christian witness or fellowship of indigenous believers (although in a very few cases, they must remain secretive). There are 14 countries with a resident Christian population of less than 1%, and a further 23 with less than 5%.
- Nominalism is a major issue, and not just in the West. In many Christianized countries, most of the population need to be re-evangelized; living in the afterglow of a Christian heritage does not confer eternal salvation. Many traditionally Christian populations know nothing of a personal faith, true repentance from sin and working out their salvation in relationship with the living God. Many others rely on good works to earn salvation rather than trusting in and living out of God's free gift of grace. The majority of those who identify themselves as Christian do not actively practice their faith.
- Christo-pagans, while statistically counted as Christians, are practicing occultists, shamanists, fetishists and others under a veneer of Christianity. This is particularly prevalent in Latin America among the Amerindians and Mestizo. It is also widespread in Africa, where many indigenous groups are more influenced by ethnic religions than by the gospel. Europe and Asia, too, have millions of professing Christians who are just as syncretistic. Evangelizing such people and making them into disciples of the Lord Jesus are just as necessary as winning those of other religions, but the strategy required to do so effectively needs to be radically different.
- "Christian" cults and marginal groups. There are millions who define their own church or group as the sole possessors of Truth - some such are the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and many smaller groups. Although the Bible is present and Jesus highly regarded, they add to or take away from the Words of Life. They need to be freed from the teachings that ensnare them.
Muslims live largely in the great arc of territory stretching from West Africa through the Middle East, Central Asia, to Indonesia. Their growth in the past 100 years has been rapid - from 12.3% in 1900 to 22.9% in 2010. Most numerical growth is through higher birth rates. Conversion growth is greatest in West Africa, Indonesia and the USA. In the past decade, Islam itself has been shaken significantly by internal crises. Pray for:
- The eyes and hearts of Muslim individuals and families to be opened to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The essential framework of Islamic belief contradicts fundamental biblical truths about the nature and person of Jesus. This, combined with the traditionally hostile history between Christianity and Islam, means that barriers to faith are so numerous that a deep working of the Holy Spirit is required, often through supernatural revelations or miracles.
- The opening up of the Muslim world on a macro level. Recently, major cracks have been appearing in the Islamic world; it is not the monolithic entity many claim it to be. The murderous extremes and terror tactics of radical Islamism horrify the world, including many moderate, peace-loving Muslims. Divisions and factions within Islam see extremists turn their guns and bombs upon one another. The reaction is often disillusion and disgust. There are growing numbers of ex-Muslims, people who leave Islam mostly for atheism, agnosticism or Christianity. Many anticipate a coming harvest of millions into the Kingdom of God from among the Muslim world.
- Muslim background believers in Christ, whose numbers are beginning to multiply much more quickly. The few isolated pockets of such growth are becoming wider regions, such that, in most of the Muslim world, movements of people to Jesus are occurring. There are, however, a few exceptions: much of North Africa, Somalia, the Levant, Turkey, Pakistan and North India and among the Malay peoples of Southeast Asia. Believers from Muslim backgrounds often face severe pressures and even death, even in countries where this trickle of salvations is now a rushing stream.
- Christian ministries to Muslims. The past 20 years have seen a rapid (and overdue) increase of outreach to Muslims. Geography, culture, ignorance, inexperience, prejudice and fear have all contributed to limit outreach to the Islamic world. Sensitive and sensible ministry proves that Muslims can be very responsive to the good news. Exact numbers are impossible to obtain, but only a mere estimated 10% of foreign missionaries work among Muslims - although Muslims consist of around 37% of all non-Christians in the world. Pray for more to be called, equipped and led into fruitful ministry to Muslims.
The non-religious, or secular, bloc has shown the most massive growth in the past century, from a tiny 0.2% of the world's population in 1900, peaking in 1980, but in 2010 representing 13.6% - mainly Europeans and Chinese. The collapse of European Communism (and the continued weakening of Communism everywhere) sees a notable rise in religious populations in these lands, but likewise countless millions of Christians are non-religious in everything but name. Christians have generally proven singularly ineffective in communicating the gospel to secular, postmodern culture. But secularism is very effective at undermining Christianity - at least where the Christian faith has been lightly held. Pray that effective ways might be found to guard against and reach out to this "faith". Pray that the ultimate emptiness of this worldview might be exposed and the tide of secular materialism reversed.
Hinduism has made notable missionary inroads in the West through the wide acceptance of transcendental meditation, yoga, New Age thinking, sects such as Hare Krishna, and Indian gurus. It has also become more militant and repressive of Christians in its heartlands of India and Nepal, reacting against the evangelism and growth of the Church.
- The Indian sub-continent has the largest concentration and variety of least-reached peoples and people groups on earth. The gospel has spread most to the poor and marginalized, while the main body of caste Hindus remains unevangelized.
- Reaching out to caste Hindus and the burgeoning middle class of India is a great need. Pray for Indian Christians and others to be called and enabled to reach them. Christians are generally regarded as both coming from the lowest castes and preying upon the same, and effective witness to other strata of Hindu society will require a new approach than what has been effective at reaching Dalits and tribals.
- Contextualized, culturally appropriate patterns of Christian life, worship and community are needed. Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring the light of the gospel to influential Hindus.
Buddhism is the state religion of four nations in Asia, the majority in a further three and a significant minority in yet another nine. The majority of this total is actually a mixture of Buddhism with Chinese religions, Daoism, Confucianism and Shinto. The various religious systems are so intermingled that a clear differentiation is hard to make. If observers of all these religions are added together, the total virtually doubles the population of the Buddhist world. There are also new religions that are offshoots of Buddhism - Cao Dai in Vietnam, Falun Gong in China, Sokka Gokkai in Japan. Buddhism has actually enjoyed a measure of resurgence in East and Southeast Asia in the post-Communist era. The Dalai Lama of Tibet has popularized Buddhism in the West. The proportion of Buddhists who have come to Christ is minute - two radically different worldviews make effectively communicating the gospel a difficult and painstaking task. Pray for a breakthrough in the Buddhist world; thus far, the only major movements to Christ have been in places where Communism or foreign oppression first shattered the grip of Buddhism.
Ethnic religions and animism actually see a resurgence throughout much of the world. In traditional cultures, such religions might be in relative decline, but they continue to deeply influence and underlie the four major world religions that have supplanted them. Many followers of world religions remain, in practice, shamanists, idolaters, spiritists, ancestor worshippers, fetishists, wiccan and others. In the Western world, widespread fascination with the occult, mysticism and new religious movements is an indication of the fierceness of the spiritual conflict in which we are engaged.
Sikhism, originating in northwest India, is one of the more recent world religions. Many Sikhs have migrated to other countries - Canada, East Africa, the UK, Southeast Asia. Few Christians have ever sought to understand their religion to find ways of sharing the gospel. Christians from a Sikh background remain relatively few, but this is beginning to change as believers start to reach out to Sikhs both in India and in the Sikh diaspora.
Jews are declining in number in most countries - through low birthrates, secularization, conversions to Christ and emigration to Israel. Nearly 37% of all Jews now live in Israel. Of the world's 14.8 million Jews, some estimate that there may be about 150,000 Messianic Jews, the majority in the USA. That Jews should find salvation in Messiah Yeshua remains a key concern for Christians.
Numerous other religious groups remain challenges for Christian witness - Baha'i, Jains, Parsees. Very few Jains or Parsees have ever come to faith in Christ.
- Get all of this content and daily notifications in our free mobile app. Download here ›
- Sign up for a daily e-mail that gets you the featured prayer point of the day straight to your inbox.
- This content is a curated selection of points from our book, Operation World. Find out more about it and all the rest of Our Publications ›
Content taken or adapted from Operation World, 7th Edition (2010) and Pray for the World (2015). Both books are published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.