by Gina A. Zurlo, Ph.D. – Co-Director – Center for the Study of Global Christianity
This post is part of The Occasional’s “Numbers and Trends” series, dedicated to sharing work, analysis, and perspectives from our friends and partners at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity based at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
This October, my latest book will be released, Women in World Christianity: Building and Sustaining a Global Movement (you can pre-order now!). Women are the majority of the world’s 2.5 billion Christians today, yet the centrality of women’s contributions to the development of Christianity worldwide have not always been recognized. Only since the 1970s have there been concerted efforts to uncover Christian women of the past and more seriously acknowledge women’s activities as central, not marginal, to Christian life. Christian women today are increasingly breaking cultural barriers, becoming public figures, and participating in human flourishing. For example, consider Catholic sisters, who outnumber male priests and professed religious men on every continent. Consider the many women who persist despite indignities and threats of violence, notably sexual violence. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (95% Christian) – once pronounced the “rape capital of the world” – women keenly realize that peacebuilding is part and parcel to Christian witness and must involve all spheres of life: social, political, and religious. Consider the many women who were the first at something previously unattainable for their sex: Lucia Okuthe was the first woman ordained an Anglican priest in Kenya (1983), Anne Burghardt was the first woman general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (2021), and the first collection of writings from female theologians in the Pacific Islands was released in this century, Weavings: Women Doing Theology in Oceania (Johnson and Filemoni-Tofaeono 2003).
The Women in World Christianity Project (funded by the Louisville Institute and the Religious Research Association from 2019–2021) produced a dataset, for the first time, of the gender makeup of every Christian denomination in every country of the world. The project revealed that global church membership is 52% female, and that Mongolia reports the highest share of Christian women (63%). This study had severe limitations based on data availability, which is a major theme of the book. Many churches, denominations, and Christian networks that collect data on their members and affiliates either do not collect data on gender, or they do not publicly report it. The chronic lack of data related to women in World Christianity makes producing a global gender analysis of World Christianity extremely difficult. For example, significant discrepancies exist between data obtained from government censuses – the primary source for gender statistics that appear in the book – and data from religious communities themselves. While a census might report that Baptists are 52% female, data from the Baptists themselves (if available) are typically much higher, perhaps upward of 75%. A further discrepancy exists between membership versus attendance, where the former is typically equal between men and women, but the latter is dominated by women. My fellowship at Harvard Divinity School in 2023–2024 will focus on nuancing that gendered gap between membership and participation.
By focusing on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Women in World Christianity highlights women’s roles as Christianity continues its shift from a global North religion (Europe, North America) to a global South one (Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Oceania). This book is part history in describing Christian women from the past, but also part social science as it engages with what Christian women are doing around the world today. Furthermore, the continental and ecclesiological chapters introduce readers to female theologians who produce scholarship that is largely marginalized in Western theological education. As a result, this book is highly interdisciplinary, crossing history, social science, and theology – much like the academic discipline of World Christianity itself. The final part of the book includes chapters on:
- Gender-based violence, because nowhere in the world do women have complete physical safety, not even in churches. Compared to men, women are at a distinct disadvantage simply by nature of their sex.
- Ecological activism, because the climate crisis has been identified as one of – if not the – most pressing global issue of the twenty-first century. Women around the world are heavily involved in faith-based ecological activism yet are consistently left out of discussions related to combatting climate change.
- Theological education, because formal Christian theological education is still largely reserved for men, especially in the global South. Most global South women have little hope of receiving formal theological education due to cultural, theological, and ideological barriers.
- Peacebuilding, because it is a major effort of women in World Christianity today. While many Christian organizations consider peacebuilding to be core to their mission and identity, this topic is rarely even considered by many American mission organizations.
This book aims to directly answer Dana Robert’s question from 2006: “What would the study of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America look like if scholars put women into the center of their research?” (Robert 2006). It would look something like this book, and it would show that, indeed, World Christianity is a women’s movement.
- Johnson, Lydia and Filemoni-Tofaeono, Joan A. (2003). Weavings: Women Doing Theology in Oceania. Suva, Fiji: Weavers, South Pacific Association of Theological Schools and Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.
- Robert, Dana L. (2006). World Christianity as a Women’s Movement. International Bulletin of Missionary Research 30(4), 180–188.
- Zurlo, Gina A. (2023). Women in World Christianity: Building and Sustaining a Global Movement. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2023.