Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow

Recently, an American football player planned to move from one team to another and had to pass a physical examination. For this receiver, however, the formality became an unexpected reality of sobering gravity – the routine physical revealed that he had cancer.

The player’s concerns about contracts and negotiations suddenly evaporated under the weight of strategizing for his survival.

Christians in Nigeria may consider watching the formalities of transitioning to a new president with a similar sense of concern for the possibility of an undiagnosed disease.

As President Tinubu takes office in Nigeria, rival parties may investigate weaknesses to exploit. Obvious concerns such as violence in the northern states (including the imposition of blasphemy laws) will provide an arena for press conferences, unlocking opportunities to score political points. In the back-and-forth political games, Christians should work to stay focused on substantial, even eternal, priorities.

What are Christian priorities? Christians may need to ask, “Are there unnoticed concerns we need to be addressing?” A recent study from Andrew McKinnon at the University of Aberdeen suggests an affirmative reply; Christians in Nigeria have a long-term challenge to address. If the demographic trends of the past two decades are true indicators of the next few decades, Christians are in danger of falling to minority status in a Muslim-dominated Nigeria. Here is McKinnon’s prognosis:

“Trends presented suggest that the Muslim-identified population is likely on track to have become an absolute majority of Nigerian adults, possibly within a decade with widespread implications, including for electoral politics.”

Dire warnings of demographic demise are not new for Nigerian Christians. Many demographic studies have been produced, debated, kicked around between pundits and political advisors for years. McKinnon’s work is unique in that it aggregates 11 major studies between 1998 and 2018, including four waves of the World Value Survey and five waves of the Afrobarometer survey.

According to his research, the era of Christian growth in Nigeria has ended:

“While Christian identities increased between 1990 and 1995, mirrored by the decline in traditional worship, this is the tail end of proportional growth of Christian identities before the trend starts reversing itself, not because of losses through conversion, but rather because the Muslim-identified population is growing faster. Those who identify as Muslim are growing towards 50% of the population, and those who identify as Christian are shrinking proportionately, towards 50% of the population.”

Given the recent transition to the all-Muslim team of Bola Tinubu and Kashim Shettima, Christians will immediately feel the weight of the implications of such population trends. McKinnon states the obvious conclusion bluntly: “Christians seem unlikely to maintain their place as the largest religious group in Nigeria for long. The change is demographic, rather than the product of conversions and defections….”

One may certainly question the veracity of McKinnon’s demographic outlook. As noted, demographic studies have been used and abused in Nigeria’s recent history. Accurate data are difficult to discern. As McKinnon notes, the trend of shrinking proportions is not always evident in demographic studies. The primary reason the shrinking goes unnoticed is the propensity of surveys to count only adults (over age 18). McKinnon suggests as much as a 5% overall increase for the population of Muslims if children are included in the total population. For instance, surveys from 2010 may show Muslims at 42% of the population. Today, however, many of the children who were not counted in 2010 would be over 18.

Taking the number of children into account, the actual percentage of Muslims in Nigeria would be 47%—with the percentage of Christians shrinking proportionately. Muslims are having more children than Christians—especially in the northern states which enforce Shariah law. Nothing in the political climate or recent events indicates that these states will be more open to western birth control techniques. Birthing trends favor Muslims.

Finally, McKinnon asserts multiple times that proselytizing has had zero net effect in either direction. Nigeria is a polarized nation of Christians and Muslims who seem disinterested in switching teams. Throughout the 20th century, massive numbers of religionists abandoned their traditional religions and joined Muslims—or even more frequently—Christians. That trend seems to have run its course. The small proportion of traditional religionists will play no part in the demographic battle of the coming decades. Muslims are likely to remain Muslims. And Christians will remain Christians.

McKinnon insists that evangelism will not impact the composition of the religious populations:

“We can be sure that neither Muslim nor Christian identities have been making substantial gains over the past 20 years by converting from among those who hold other religious identities or none. There are very few remaining (in proportional terms) others who could be won over to identify with either monotheistic tradition.”

Again, with documentation, McKinnon sees these two religions in an existential conflict for majority control of Nigeria, with the population momentum on the Muslim side:

“The change is demographic, rather than the product of conversions and defections, as the literature provides clear evidence that switching between Christianity and Islam is not a substantial factor in the changing religious composition of Nigeria (Lugo and Cooperman 2010; Stonawski et al 2016; see also Zurlo 2017).”

How might Christians respond to this shift of momentum toward Islam? The same way the American football player responded to his dire prognosis. Re-focus on issues of first importance: Life, love for God, love for others. Christians can handle facts with gravity and sobriety rather than succumbing to a somber despair. Christians also need not retreat to regional, religious, or political tribalism. Christians can maintain both hope and confidence in God’s Great Commission.

From the creation of humankind, God gave believers the mandate to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. This mandate obviously includes more than bearing children, but not less. Christians in Nigeria should remain focused on building strong families. Strong families can revitalize and replenish healthy churches, which, in turn, will contribute to the well-being of thriving communities.

Christians would be helped, too, by remembering where the first commission failed in the Genesis account. The original human pair were to bring forth new humans who would spread the knowledge of God to the ends of the earth. Instead, they stopped thinking of the spread of God’s fame and looked upward in a fit of self-exaltation—reaching up for more power, which was never theirs to possess. When believers look up to exalt self and increase God-like power, they lose sight of the God-empowered Great Commission to fill the earth with the knowledge of God.

Regardless of demographic trends, the Great Commission calls Christians outward to the task of evangelism and discipleship of all nations. This prognosis is nothing more than a reminder of the need to confidently and lovingly embrace the Great Commission to make disciples in Nigeria and to the ends of the earth.

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