Lausanne Global Analysis

November 2012 - Volume 1 / Issue 1

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People and Their Religions on the Move

Challenge and opportunities of international migration


People all over the world are on the move, bringing with them unique languages, cultures, and worldviews. As more people cross international borders with relative ease, it becomes increasingly important to know who these migrants are and how their religious identities and practices influence the communities in which they settle. In some cases, migrants bring a new religion into a country or region; alternatively, they might import a new form of an existing religion.

In light of current migration trends, migrant groups likely will continue to transform the religious landscape of the world’s countries well into the twenty-first century.

Immigrants generally do not leave their faith behind; it travels with them and impacts their destinations.

Two analyses of the religious profiles of international migrants have been published recently: one by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (“the Center”) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA),1 and the other by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (“Pew”; Washington, DC).2 These reports are the first to consider all migrant groups worldwide and their religious affiliations.

Center for the Study of Global Christianity’s report

The Center’s report focuses on “religious diasporas”.3 It uses the taxonomies of religions and peoples found in the World Christian Database (WCD)4 and World Religion Database (WRD),5 and data from both religious communities themselves and censuses taken by governments. The WCD and WRD employ 18 categories6 for religion.

The study reports that, in mid-2010, 859 million people from 327 people groups were living in diaspora, or 12.5% of the global population (Table 1). Nearly half of these were Christians (47.4%), and a quarter were Muslims (25.4%). One of the key findings is that, together, Christians and Muslims make up 55.3% of the world’s population, but 72.8% of all people in diaspora.

Table 1: Religionists in diaspora, mid-2010


Mexico, Bangladesh, and Argentina are the top three “sending” countries of international migrants (Table 2). Mexico sent the most Christian migrants, the majority settling in the United States. Bangladesh is the leading sending country of both Hindus and Muslims, many of whom are found across India as migrants post-partition. Of the ten largest sending countries, three are in Latin America and five in Asia.

Table 2: Top 10 “sending” countries, ranked by size of diaspora outside of host country, mid-2010


The United States hosts the most total migrants (Table 3). India ranks second, hosting significantly more Muslims than the United States. Together these two nations host nearly a quarter of all diasporas worldwide. Of the ten largest host countries, four are in Asia and five in Latin America.

Table 3: Top 10 host countries of diasporas ranked by diaspora population, mid-2010


Pew Forum’s report

The Pew Forum’s Faith on the Move report defines an “international migrant” as “someone who has been living one year or longer in a country other than the one in which he or she was born”.7 Data for the report were generated from Pew’s Global Religion and Migration Database, which calculates total migrants as of 2010, including those who migrated decades ago.

This comprises the number of people who have moved from every home country to every destination country, classifying them according to seven religious categories.8

Data on religious affiliation were drawn from censuses and surveys of immigrants, which also included information about their country of birth.

Pew’s method enumerated 214 million international migrants as of 2010, or 3% of the global population (Table 4). Nearly half (49%) were Christians, and over a quarter (27%) were Muslims. Like that of the Center, the report notes that Christians are overrepresented among migrants (about 50%) compared to the general population (about 33%). This is the case for Muslims as well, but to a far lesser extent (27% compared to 23%). The opposite is true for Hindus, who make up 10–15% of the global population but only 5% of international migrants.

Among the seven religious groups, Jews have the highest overall level of international migration — nearly 25%, compared to only 5% of Christians, 4% of Muslims, 2% of Buddhists, and 1% of Hindus.

Table 4: Religious composition of international migrants, 2010


The Asia-Pacific region sends out 33% of the world’s 214 million international migrants (most of whom settle in North America and Europe), followed by Europe at around 28% (most of whom move from one European country to another).

Mexico is the largest country-level source of migrants (Table 5), followed closely by India and Russia.

Table 5: Top ten countries of origin for international migrants, 2010


While immigrants come from nearly every country in the world, they settle mainly in a few areas: Northern America, Europe, Australia, and the Gulf Arab states (Table 6). The United States is home to more than three times as many as any other country. Though attracting all religious groups, it is the top destination for both Christian and Buddhist migrants, as well as those with no particular religious affiliation. Despite the media attention on Muslim immigration to the European Union (EU), in fact the EU as a whole receives more Christian migrants than Muslims.

Table 6: Top ten destination countries for international migrants, 2010


Comparative analysis

Two methodological differences between the studies led to differing results in some cases:

  • Pew looked at “international migrants” (based on individuals who have been living for at least a year abroad), while the Center considered “religious diasporas” (based on both historical and current movement of people groups). This yielded disparate totals for settled diasporas versus current migrants: 859 million versus 214 million. The wider definition of “diaspora”(including historical migrants) by the Center produces a much larger figure.
  • The Center’s study used significantly more religious categories (18) than the Pew study (7).

Nevertheless, the findings are substantially similar. Both reports found that Christians and Muslims together represent a disproportionate percentage in diaspora (roughly two thirds) compared to their global population as a whole (around 55%). Both studies also reported that Christians constitute a greater share of migrants (one in two) than they do the general population (one in three).


These two reports are significant because, unlike most studies of migration, they highlight the movement not only of people but also of religion. Immigrants generally do not leave their faith behind; it travels with them and impacts their destinations. In the process, the faith of the migrants often undergoes changes in belief within their religion. Furthermore, migrant communities, with their rich traditions and deep-seated beliefs, also significantly alter the religious landscapes of the countries in which they settle.9

It is clearly important for existing religious communities—especially those in the majority—to welcome the migrants that arrive in their neighbourhoods every year with their religions. This changing religious landscape affects local politics, cultures, and societies in significant ways, and studying the religious affiliations of migrants will enable communities to make the necessary changes and offer support for migrants. This is not only a Biblical command but also key to community peace and cohesion.

Implications for Christian mission

The movement of peoples worldwide necessitates a new outlook on the global Christian mission enterprise. Members of the world’s religions—especially Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists—are increasingly the neighbours, colleagues, and friends of Christians around the world. The increase of religious diversity via migration means Christians (in the West in particular) are increasingly likely to have friends, and even family members, who are members of these religions.

This calls for a new, deeper level of engagement and assistance with these often vulnerable populations, including interacting with their religious beliefs.

In addition, those in diaspora often have particular physical and spiritual needs, as individuals faced with entirely new surroundings, cultures, and languages. This calls for a new, deeper level of engagement and assistance with these often vulnerable populations, including interacting with their religious beliefs.

Education and training

Fostering a different approach to Christian mission can begin with more thorough education and training in three key areas:

1. World religions, including their histories, texts, theologies, and practices

According to a 2010 Pew survey, white evangelicals in the United States are reasonably knowledgeable about Christianity and the Bible, answering correctly, on average, 7.3 questions out of 12. They are far less knowledgeable concerning world religions, however, answering correctly an average of only 4.8 questions out of 11. This contrasts with Jews, who averaged 7.9 correct answers about world religions, and atheists/agnostics, who averaged 7.5.10

2. Knowledge of the world’s most pressing human needs

Many of these needs are outside the experience of mainstream Western Christianity. Such issues include global poverty, slum settlements, trafficking and slavery, which are often the daily reality for those in religious diasporas worldwide.

Some starting points for learning about such global crises are the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).11 These goals include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, and reducing child mortality. In 2012, the UN reported that although marked progress had been made on each of the eight MDGs in the past ten years, further work remains to be done.12 The World Evangelical Alliance has taken the lead in this area with its Micah Challenge, whose affiliates strive to provide “a global voice on poverty for Christians,” serving as advocates for the MDGs.13 A new global outlook requires knowledge about more than just religious matters.

3. Christian hospitality

This involves fostering friendships with adherents of other religions. Recent research has shown that 86% of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists worldwide do not personally know a Christian.14 The responsibility for engaging these religionists is too large for the vocational missionary enterprise.

The whole church needs to work toward rekindling a love of hospitality, and, in doing so, to reach out to their religious (and nonreligious) neighbours. The data show that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists increasingly are found living in traditionally ‘Christian’ lands. From this perspective, it has never been easier to fulfill the Biblical commands to know and love our neighbours or to make disciples of all nations.


1 Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Bellofatto, “Immigration, Religious Diasporas, and Religious Diversity: A Global Survey,” Mission Studies 29 (2012): 1–20; Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Bellofatto, “Global Christianity and Global Diasporas,” in Global Diasporas and Mission, edited by Chandler H. Im and Amos Yong (Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series, forthcoming). Its findings were also presented as a case study in Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, The World’s Religionsin Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).

2 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Faith on the Move: The Religious Affi liation of International Migrants, 8 March 2012,

3 See Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 26, for a list of nine common features of a diaspora.

4 Todd M. Johnson, ed., World Christian Database (Leiden, Netherlands:Brill, 2007).

5 Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008).

6 These categories are agnostics, atheists, Baha’is, Buddhists, Chinese folk-religionists, Christians, Confucianists, Daoists, Ethnoreligionists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, New religionists, Shintoists, Sikhs, Spiritists, and Zoroastrians.

7 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Faith on the Move: Appendix B: Methodology and the Construction of the Global Religion and Migration Database (GRMD), This definition is according to the United Nations Population Division.

8 These seven categories are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, unaffiliated (comprises atheists, agnostics, and those with no particular religion), and all other religions.

9 For an excellent treatment of this subject in regard to the United States, see Peggy Levitt, God Has No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing Religious Landscape (New York: The New Press, 2007).

10 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, September 28, 2010, White evangelicals also knew less about the role of religion in public life in the United States than Jews and atheists/agnostics. Only Mormons scored higher than white evangelicals on questions concerning Christianity and the Bible (answering 7.9 questions correctly).

11 United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report: 2012 (New York: United Nations, 2012).

12 Statistics Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, Millennium Development Goals: 2012 Progress Chart, June 2012.

13 See or Marijke Hoek and Justin Thacker, eds., Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2008).

14 Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 318.

Gina Bellofatto is a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA), as well as a doctoral student at Boston University’s School of Theology. Her research interests include missiology, international religious demography, and interfaith dialogue.

28 Nov 2012

Lausanne Global Analysis


  • Regina Johnson

    This article is proof that intercultural mission work does not have to take place internationally. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. are all living in our communities. To take the Gospel to them, is sometimes as easy as organizing a community event or having a conversation with a co-worker during our lunch break. In addition, the increased movement of people from other lands gives us more information on the
    poverty and difficulties other nations are facing. Often times, the only reports we see of other nations come from broadcastings of organizations with a political agenda and those that are edited from the country of origin so that it maintains its own interest. Now, we are increasingly able to hear firsthand accounts of what is going on internationally and from people who are able to speak freely. This new knowledge should be used by mission organizations to best address the physical and spiritual needs of the people they are striving
    to serve.

  • Lauren Smith

    Perhaps the most important point you make is about Christian Hospitality. In the United States, there are often strong beliefs and misconceptions about those who migrate into the US. Instead of making assumptions about the religious beliefs or faith of newcomers, we should take the opportunity to listen. When we listen, according this study, we may find strong, existing religious beliefs and those beliefs may be similar to our own. We also have the opportunity to meet needs, just as Jesus did, of those who leave almost everything behind to relocate. In listening and developing relationships, we earn the platform to share the Gospel through both conversations and actions.

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