How many christian denominations worldwide?

Church

This blog post at a glance …..

Many people quote the statistic that there are more than 30,000 christian denominations. It turns out this is mistaken. There are about 40,000 christian church organisations, three quarters of them independent churches, not denominations, in Africa. The number of denominations is way less, and the number of differences in belief less still.

Please read on to see how I worked all this out.

I was asked recently how many christian denominations there are worldwide. It’s hardly an important question, but some critics of christianity use the number of 30,000 to 40,000 to argue that a true God couldn’t be behind christianity because god would communicate better.

So I thought I’d check it out.

The estimates

Most references I could find end up quoting the same couple of sources:

  • World Christian Encyclopedia (David A. Barrett; Oxford University Press, 1982) apparently estimated almost 21,000 denominations, and the updated World Christian Encyclopedia (Barrett, Kurian, Johnson; Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) estimated at least 33,000. “Denomination” is defined as “an organised christian group within a country”.
  • The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimated 34,000 denominations in 2000, rising to an estimated 43,000 in 2012. These numbers have exploded from 1,600 in the year 1900.

These figures are fairly consistent where they can be compared.

What do these estimates mean?

  • These “denominations” are defined in terms of being separate organisations, not necessarily separate beliefs. This is a critical difference, not commonly noted by critics.
  • The largest component (something like two thirds to three quarters) of these totals are “independent” churches, mostly in Africa. These are not necessarily different in doctrine, but are simply independent organisations.
  • These estimates include national branches of the same denomination (e.g. the Lutheran Church of Germany and the Lutheran Church of Australia) as separate organisations in the count.
  • There are many churches among the independent churches which would have effectively the same teachings, just different locations, different leaders, etc.

It is thus incorrect to say that these figures indicate more than 40,000 different beliefs. It is impossible to tell how many differences in belief there would be, and probably impossible even to define. But it would certainly be far less than the 43,000 figure.

Differences in belief

  • The sources suggest christian denominations can be divided into “6 major ecclesiastico-cultural mega-blocs”: Independents, Protestants, “Marginals”, Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
  • Wikipedia lists about 40 major divisions, each of whom might have some variation in belief.
  • The degree of difference in belief is hard to describe. For example, most of these denominations would have similar beliefs about major christian doctrines such as God, creation, Jesus, salvation, Holy Spirit, forgiveness, etc, and the differences would mostly be on less essential matters. How much these differences matter is subjective.

Conclusions

The denominations measured in these two reports are not indicators of separate belief, and quoting them as such is a mis-statement of the data. Due to the large number of independent churches, it is impossible to know how much christian belief varies beyond that defined by the 40 or so groups listed in Wikipedia.

My personal view is that christians divide and give themselves denominational-type names too easily. Jesus said his followers should be “one”, and many of these separate organisations are the result of serious divisions. It would be better if we emphasised what we have in common more, and worried less about these divisions.

Nevertheless, critics of christianity have work to do before they can realistically define the degree of division.

Photo: MorgueFile

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481 thoughts on “How many christian denominations worldwide?

  1. rayana says:

    dear sir, masih yasu mein apki salamti chahti hoon .my name is rehana i belong to a village of pakistan. i have six children out of which three young daughters.i want to marry my daughters. but i have no resources.my husband is mentaly sick.i live in rented house. from two years i wrote about my situations to NGO,S of pakistan .but no one help me.i visit many institutions but no one listen to me .i am in too much trouble .i belongs to christian community.i request you please help me god kept you in asylum. contact number 03441589850

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I encourage everyone here to try and understand that what was agreed upon at the Council of nicaea in 313 ad and officially put into law in 321 ad starting with Sunday worship is not Christianity but is in fact Catholicism. Christianity is not a man-made religion it is those who follow Christ’s teachings and example Paul was a Christian as was the 12 disciples those who follow Christ are indeed Christian any doctrine that Strays from the teachings of the Bible is a man-made tradition. Throughout the years what many of us know as Christianity is really Catholicism AKA offspring of the prostitute Babylon the Great that sits on many Waters. It is the enemy’s plan to give the teachings of Christ a bad name through names and titles however if you follow the teachings of Christ which can be found in the Bible you are indeed a Christian and there’s nothing wrong with that. Christmas is not from the Bible nor is Sunday worship Nor’easter nor any other Pagan Customs for holidays those things stem from the Roman Catholic Church and all churches who keep these teachings are considered in the eyes of God Babylon. Only Zion will be saved in the last days the one true church according to the prophecies in the Bible Jesus Christ made clear how you can recognize the difference between Zion and all the Babylon churches in the last days through the parable of the weeds and the wheat. The time period representing when the truth was planted into the world is from 27AD-106AD from the time Jesus started his ministry so the death of the last Apostle John who wrote the Book of Revelation the last book of the Bible. If you would like to confirm this fact try and find any evidence of the current practices of today’s churches regardless of denomination in the Church of God before 106AD. Crosses Sunday worship pagan holidays none of it was practiced by the disciples nor the apostles. This is how you can identify the true church from The Falls churches in the last days in other words the wheat from the weeds but Christ warned us they would look very similar and would be separated in the last days. Brothers and sisters these are the last days and the separation has happened. The World Mission Society Church of God although slandered by many people stands on the words of God ONLY through the teachings of the Bible. If you know of this church or anyone in this church do not judge by what you read on the internet but give it a try yourself with just one Bible study and determine for yourself if what they teach Through the Bible is true. God bless you all.

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  3. unkleE says:

    Hi Bob, yes, I used that source dated 2012 in my analysis, so this is a three year later update. And yes, they define denomination as a separate organisation within a country. And when I checked, about three quarters were independent churches in Africa, which hardly constitute a separate denomination as most of us understand the term.

    But however it is defined, it is based on organisation rather than belief, so cannot be used to measure variation in belief (which in any case probably varies with each individual).

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  4. Doc says:

    Bob,
    I’ve been around and around with these folks and they’ll never admit it because it waters down their belief system.

    It’s not a big deal that there are 40-45,000 denominations in my opinion. Who cares?

    Every man made religion has many branches that wander off in different directions simply because they are man made and man taught and not blessed by God nor preferred by God.

    Outside of his chosen people, we are all just his children.

    I’ve almost been asked to leave and not continue to comment throughout the past just because I ask the hard questions.

    I’m a God guy. Don’t know what God is. Don’t know his name (no one does). Don’t know if he is a deity, spirit, extraterrestrial or ????????????

    I just know there is something somewhere after I leave this rock that is much greater than I or any other human being and that I will, with much happiness, be willing to meet him and wear his ears off by all the questions I have.

    Peace on you and all of those that just don’t like me because of my beliefs.

    Doc – Stephen

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  5. unkleE says:

    PS, Bob, I don’t know if you’ll be back to see this, but I visited your blog just to check it out and was going to make a friendly comment, but you use Disqus, and I have closed down my Disqus account because I found it quite invasive. But did you know there is a Disqus setting that allows guests to comment? You may have found that it doesn’t work for you, but perhaps it is worth considering. Thanks.

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  6. itsyahushua says:

    Sad but true. I feel like we must go back to the beginning and keep a Sabbath, keep the feast and eat clean. This is a great place to unite. You can find commands that state this is unlaw.
    Research why Saturday was changed to Sunday. Research Pagan Feast and pagan influence on the Church.
    You article was very nicely done.

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  7. unkleE says:

    Thanks for your positive comment.

    I have actually researched a little of what you suggest, and agree that there have been some pagan influences in christianity as it has been practiced down through the centuries to the present day. But as a Gentile Christian, I find the New Testament tells me that I don’t have to keep the Sabbath, or in fact, any of the Torah, and I certainly don’t want to take on such a burden.

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