As an enthusiast of religious history and architecture I have visited many churches over the years. Many many churches. Churches of all ages and denominations. I estimate that over time I have probably made pilgrimages to hundreds of churches, perhaps more than five hundred. I have honestly lost count.
I was recently asked how many churches I have visited, and how many I intend to visit. And then a speculative question arose:
Exactly how many churches are there in the world?
To be clear, this was a reference to the number of church buildings, not the number of denominations or congregations. And honestly I had no real idea. There are currently between 2.3 and 2.5 billion Christians in the world, about a third of the total global population. While this includes many semi- and minimally active members, it begs the question, exactly how many church buildings would be needed to accommodate this entire number? I did the math, and estimating that a typical church could accommodate an average of around three hundred people at a time, that would mean there were around eight million church buildings on Earth.
I Googled the question “how many churches are there in the world” to see if I was close. It turns out, I wasn’t.
According to quora.com, the estimated number of church buildings accommodating Christian congregations is approximately 37 million. That’s one for every 65 people. The same website indicates that there are 34,000 Christian denominations in the world (we’ll get back to that in a bit).
Seems a bit high, but hey, who am I to question the World Wide Web?
The number in the United States, according to The Christian Post, is a more realistic 300,000. With an estimated 228.1 million Christians in the United States (including non-actives), that’s an average of 760 members per congregation. If this ratio is projected to the whole world, that gives us a much more down to earth figure of 3.1 million church buildings.
However, the United States is famous for its very large congregations, which could skew the numbers. This is especially true where megachurches are concerned, as these routinely have regularly attending congregations in the thousands.
Based on the above very rough analysis, I estimate that there are probably between eight and sixteen million church buildings in the world.
Which brings us to a logical follow-up question: How many denominations of Christianity are there in the world?
Google did not yield much in the way of specific numbers for the entire globe, but according to the World Christian Encyclopedia there are at least 33,000 Christian denominations in the United States. Going out on a limb and assuming that there is at least one person from every Christian denomination in the world living in America (not unreasonable), then we can assume that there are 33,000 Christian denominations around the world. But maybe there’s a lot more independent churches out there. Its really difficult to tell.
The fact that there are 33,000 Christian Denominations is quoted on many websites, frequently with the tone that this is a good thing. Personally I think that it suggests that Christianity is hopelessly fractured along more dogmatic fault lines than can be reasonably allowed for in a single faith. But that’s just my opinion.
In any event, a deeper look at the numbers shows that Christianity is not nearly so divided as the number 33,000 might indicate. For one thing, it includes that there are multiple denominations for many churches based on how many countries that church is present in. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, which is a single entity under the authority of the Vatican, counts 242 independent denominations, which is, of course, not really factual.
Not surprisingly, Protestant Christianity makes up the bulk of different denominations, counting 9,000 mainstream and 22,000 independent for a total of 31,000. The vast majority of these ‘denominations’ are in fact stand alone congregations, many of which share essentially common beliefs but with no mutual association with one another.
For true denominations involving multiple churches under common leadership, the number is almost certainly less than two thousand. Major ones, with over a million members, probably less than five hundred.
So, in conclusion, The Complete Pilgrim will almost certainly not be visiting every church on Earth; but I hope there are at least another five hundred in our future.