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Religious Bodies of the World with at Least 1 Million Adherents
Skip to world's largest international religious bodies
Researchers referring to this list may be reminded that divisions into separate religious bodies do not always indicate theological distinctions, but may be primarily geographical and administrative in purpose. Conversely, individuals and congregations within a single religious body exhibit varying degrees of variation with regards to belief, practice, etc. Although religious bodies are not always the primary vehicle of doctrinal distinctiveness, they are usually the primary focus of other resources of a religious group, such as finances, legal status, property, educational facilities, leadership, and membership.
This list includes all truly international religious bodies with at least 1 million adherents. All known regional and national independent religious bodies (those which are organized in only one or two countries, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland or Church of South India) are also included if they have at least 1 million adherents. Possibly a few independent national bodies have been omitted if we are not aware of them.
This list is only an attempt to list religious bodies, that is, organizations which have a recognized, central leadership or convention, and a body of individual members or adherents. With a few possible exceptions explained below, this list does not include communions or associations which are themselves comprised of clearly independent, distinct religious bodies, such as the Baptist World Alliance, World Methodist Council, Council for World Mission, Lutheran World Federation, or the World Council of Churches. (Of course, constituent member bodies of these associations are included on this list of religious bodies, if they have over 1 million members, which many do.)
Religious bodies are often called "denominations," but sometimes the term "denomination" is also applied to denominational families, which is why we do not use it. Some people may wish to think of this as a list of the world's largest "churches." But the term "church" has so many different meanings that we have avoided its use here. Clearly many people use the term "church" to indicate a broader, more doctrinally-oriented grouping than is meant by the organizationally-oriented term "religious body."
Also, this is not a list of world religions or branches of religions. (Those lists are available elsewhere on this web site.) A religious body is a subset of a denominational family, which is a subset of a branch, which is a subset of a religion, as explained in the Taxonomic Levels of Classification of Faith Groups document.
At the bottom of this page there are some Interesting Facts based on this list.
Many of the figures here are estimates. Different methods have been used to collect these figures. Where possible, the figures shown here are for adherents, a larger and more inclusive figure than members. Details may be found in the detailed source notes for each group found in the main Adherents.com listing, although currently a few of the religious bodies on this list are not yet incorporated into the main, online Adherents.com database. (At the end of this document is a list of the world's largest international religious bodies, shown in bold in the main list.)
** Catholic Church: Includes non-Latin Rites in communion with Rome, such as Ukrainian Catholics, Coptic Catholics, etc.
** Jehovah's Witnesses: This 16+ million figure is the approximate number of adherents -- intended to reflect all those who consider Jehovah's Witnesses their preferred faith, regardless of current activity status. Figure is based on reported once-a-year memorial attendance (adjusted). Actual number of publishers was 6 million worldwide in 1999. Worldwide, the number of practicing Jehovah's Witnesses may actually be higher than the number of practicing Anglicans.
As stated above, it should be noted that the divisions between many religious bodies are primarily geographical and are not sociologically or religiously significant. Other religious bodies are still clearly within a larger branch or religion, yet exhibit doctrines, history or practices unique to their group, such as the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Salvation Army or Tariqa Tijaniyya Muslims. Some religious bodies constitute entirely unique, distinct religions, such as Cao Dai and Tenrikyo.
Religious bodies may generally be classified as either global or regional. Global religious bodies are formed by a single church or religious body to which all members in the world belong. Examples include the Catholic Church, Assemblies of God, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Soka Gakkai, Ahmadiyya, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Regional religious bodies are often national manifestations of a larger religious movement or denominational family. Examples include the Lutherans, which have completely autonomous churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, the Church of Sweden, etc. Such churches are generally united in a communion, for example, the Lutheran World Federation. In real terms, the difference between a communion of regional churches, such as the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, and a global religious body may be insignificant. Some groups (such as these examples) are "borderline" cases which could easily be classified either way. But in general, one finds higher levels of local autonomy among the regional religious bodies which belong to a communion and higher levels of unity in teachings and practice among global religious bodies.
Some religious bodies are mostly regional but are not part of a broader formal global communion representing their movement precisely: the great majority of their branches are located in a limited region, and there are no separate "sister churches" in other parts of the world. The Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, is the church of the Coptic Christians all over the world, but almost all of the congregations are in northeastern Africa. The limited geographical spread of most regional churches of this type is primarily through the emigration of its members, not through the conversion of indigenous populations. The Kimbanguist Church (primarily in central Africa), Balinese Hinduism (primarily in Bali, Indonesia), Lingayats (primarily in southern India), Tenrikyo (primarily in Japan), Druze (primarily in Lebanon, Israel and Syria) and the Anglipayan Church (primarily in the Philippines) are other examples of this type.
As religious movements grow in size and geographical spread, doctrinal issues of authority and succession often play a role in determining whether or not a religious movement breaks into separate regional religious bodies. Divisions may be caused by doctrinal schism, voluntary re-organization along geographical lines, or external pressures such as war and government intervention. But such divisions are less likely in religious bodies with clear doctrinal ties to the organization or its leadership. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Latter-day Saints, Baha'is and various Shiite groups are examples of religious bodies in which, for doctrinal reasons, the vast majority of adherents remain united as a single organizational unit.
It should be noted that the formation of distinct religious organizations known as religious bodies (denominations) is very characteristic of the Western world and of Christianity. Many eastern religionists and many non-Christian religions do not necessarily follow this pattern. Classification into various "schools" or branches and formal affiliation with a single temple or mosque is more appropriate for most Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Furthermore, many religionists may have no formal organizational membership or denominational identity other than as a resident of the culture, tribe or country into which they were born. The majority of Hindus and Buddhists are adherents of those religions individually (or by birth into a culture) and are do not have formal affiliation with a membership organization representing their religion. Thus, while most Hindus and Buddhists are counted by national censuses and are included in statistics for major religions and major branches of religions, most do not show up in this listing of the world's largest religious bodies.
In the United States, sources of religious membership statistics which are based on organizational reporting, such as the influential county-by-county Glenmary studies and the annual Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, which rely on organizational reporting, have a wealth of information regarding affiliated Jews and Christians, but very little information on Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. Partially this is because Christianity and Judaism are the larger, longer-established religions in America. But also, most Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus simply aren't members of religious bodies of the type that these sources report on, although they may be very active in local, independent temples or mosques.
Finally, although this list does include some Hindu and Buddhist religious bodies, there may be other large religious bodies among Buddhists, Hindus and others which have not been identified by our research. For these reasons, there may be religious bodies (or discreet religious groups functionally similar to religious bodies) among the following groups which are not on this list, although they have more than one million members:
Notes about the validity of classifying certain groups as "Religious Bodies"* Most of the groups in this list are very clearly religious bodies, that is, they have a recognized, central leadership and a single membership body. But a few groups listed here might not be considered religious bodies in a strict sense:
The Eastern Orthodox Church is listed here because the autonomous national churches which form the Eastern Orthodox ecumenical communion (such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Church of America, Greek Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, etc.) all recognize each other as being part of the same Church, whose current practical and pastoral center is the Patriarchate at Constantinople. Other names of the Eastern Orthodox Church include the Oriental Church, the Christian Church of the East, the Orthodox Catholic Church, or the Graeco-Russian Church. In many practical and cultural ways, the constituent national bodies are more comparable to distinct religious bodies. They display differences in various customs and imagery. But the different regional churches certainly form a single church in a doctrinal sense. Although the church at Constantinople is called the "first among equals," in a very real sense it is the highest seat of leadership for the entire Orthodox Church, and the archbishop there is the spiritual head of this worldwide organization. (Note: Keep in mind that not all Orthodox churches are part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. What is referred to here as the Eastern Orthodox Church does not include independent religious bodies which may be Orthodox in practice and doctrine, but which are independent and not in communion with the Patriarchate. Nor does the "Eastern Orthodox Church" include "Lesser Oriental" Monophysite bodies such as the Coptic or Ethiopian Orthodox churches.)
Estimates of the size of the Eastern Orthodox Church vary widely.
Jinja Honcho, or "Association of Shinto Shrines": Of all the religious bodies on this list, this one probably has the largest proportion of members who don't even know they are members. Jinja Honcho is formally recognized as a religious body by the Japanese government, and for historical reasons it really can count nearly 70% of Japanese citizens as "members." Although many Japanese do participate in numerous "life-cycle" ceremonies and yearly festivals at the Shinto shrines, less than 4% of Japanese claim Shinto as their religious preference (most claim Buddhism or no religion). But based on locality or family ties most Japanese can be claimed by a shrine district. The situation is similar to highly-secular European nations in which nearly all citizens are officially members of a state Protestant church or the Catholic church, regardless of their level of participation. From a practical standpoint, most Japanese participate in Shinto ceremonies and celebrations on an ethnic/cultural level, but are neither familiar with nor feel any loyalty toward Jinja Honcho. For the most part, the only people who would even know if their local community shrine belongs to Jinja Honcho (or is independent or is affiliated with a smaller, minor shrine network) are the organization's 20,000+ clergy. (Most of the clergy have inherited their position. 75% of them serve in the capacity only part-time.) An article by John K. Nelson (University of Texas, Austin) is one source of contemporary information on Jinja Honcho.
The Assemblies of God, on a worldwide level, form a religious body, but a somewhat loose one, as the national bodies seem to have a fairly high degree of national autonomy. The leadership describes AoG as an organization which offers both congregational autonomy and a worldwide network. Sociologists have recognized an emerging level of distinctiveness and identity among Assemblies members.
Technically, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland might be considered an alliance of separate, autonomous regional religious bodies ("churches"). But it is worth noting that in the detailed yearly statistical tables from REMID, the EKD is listed as a single unit. The home page of the EKD states:
"The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) is the institutional form chosen by a community of 24 Lutheran, Reformed and United regional churches. German Protestant church structures are based on federal principles at all levels. The EKU (Evangelical Church of the Union) belongs as the 25th Member Church to the EKD. Each local congregation is responsible for Christian life in its own area, while each regional church has its own special characteristics and retains its independence. Without in any way diminishing this autonomy, the EKD carries out joint tasks with which its members have entrusted it."
Likewise, Sunni Islam is not a religious body in the traditional organizational sense, but it is highly cohesive in doctrine and core practice (the hajj, especially, has a powerful unifying effect). There is an Islamic Conference which "represents" one billion Muslims worldwide. The Islamic Conference is not really a religious body, however, but a forum for consultation and discussion by national Muslim leaders.
Including Sunni Islam as a single block makes more sense and is far simpler than trying to list large national Muslim bodies, because most Muslims live in Muslim states, where, unless they register otherwise, they are Muslim by nationality. As individuals, most Muslims do not belong to churches or religious bodies in the sense that most Christians do.
It should be noted that during the past twenty years the rift between Shiite and Sunni Muslims has been mended to a large degree. The Islamic University of Cairo, one of the leading academic voices in the world of Islam, has stated that Shiites form a "fifth school" of Islam and are part of the same communion. Nevertheless, given the profound cultural and some doctrinal differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, these two branches of Islam, taken together, can not be compared to a "religious body." Where Shiites and Sunnis coexist in the same geographical regions they usually form their own, separate mosques.
Shi'ite Islam: As with Sunni Islam, Shi'ite (or Shia) Islam is NOT a single religious body, but is the second major branch of Islam. See Major Branches of Major World Religions. Shi'ite Muslims number approximately 125 million worldwide and live primarily in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Indian subcontinent. Possibly, if Sunnis are listed on this page, then Shi'ite Muslims should be as well. But Shi'ite Islam, as a whole, appears to act as a single "religious body" to a lesser degree than worldwide Sunni Islam.
Southern Baptist Convention: Previously a detailed discussion was posted here about the degree to which the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is really a single religious body, considering the autonomy of its congregations and more importantly the divisive schism between its moderate and fundamentalist branches. Since the late 1990s the importance of this division has diminished as many moderate state conventions and individual congregations have left the SBC. Although differing factions remain within the SBC, but the Convention is certainly a single religious body and is relatively cohesive with regards to teaching and practice compared to how it was in the 1980s and 90s. This discussion has been moved here.
Organizationally, the United Methodist Church is definitely a single religious body. It is the third largest religious body in the U.S. It has earned longstanding respect from nearly all quarters. Currently there are some frequently reported disagreements within the UMC between two main factions - conservative and liberal. The primary focus of this internal division is the issue of homosexuality. The Confessing Movement is the focal point of conservative United Methodists. Affirmation is the focal point of liberal United Methodists. In some practical ways the UMC currently operates as two different denominations. Formal schism was discussed at the General Conference in 2000. But most observers believe that the complicated and difficult steps involved in dividing the properties, retirement plans, and other administrative resources will preclude a formal organizational at the present time. According to the Dallas Morning News (Jeffrey Weis, "Methodists face renewed debate of gay marriage," 2 May 2000):
People on both sides say the debate already has created two mini-denominations within the larger church structure. And even if legal issues make it difficult for the sides to split formally, those who feel most strongly about the issue may be destined to drift further apart.Despite this current controversy, United Methodists have a strong sense of unity among themselves.
Note that the total world membership figure given in the table above (11,708,887) is the latest available figure (1998) and includes all members, prepratory members, and ordained UMC clergy, both in and out of the United States.
The worldwide Anglican Church does not exist, at least not in the form that one might think. There are millions of Anglicans, many thousands of parishes, and hundreds of dioceses. There are nearly 40 independent Anglican churches, none of which has authority over any other. But there is no central administration: no Pope, no Patriarch, no overall director. There is no Parliament or Congress. There is certainly a Church of England. But there is also The Church in Wales, and the Church of Ireland, and the Scottish Episcopal Church, none of which is governed by the Church of England.The Communion could be said to have "governing bodies:" the Lambeth Conference, Primates' Conference, and the Anglican Consultive Council. But all of these bodies are very limited in power or authority. The position of Archbishop of Canterbury and the existence of these Communion-wide bodies lends credence to the notion of the Anglican Communion as a single religious body, but these things in no way constitute a purely vertical power structure or unified set of practices and teachings which are the same worldwide.
According to our data, there are 9 national churches within the Anglican Communion which have one million or more adherents. For most practical and administrative purposes, these churches comprise religious bodies more comparable to others listed on this page than the Anglican Communion as a whole:
Interesting Facts about the World's Largest Religious BodiesThe two largest religious bodies on this list (Catholics and Sunni Muslims) account for about 33% of the world's population.
The sum membership of only these, the "world's largest religious bodies" (over 120 bodies are on this list) account for about 47.4% of the world's population. This means that nearly half of the world's population can be counted as members of a relatively small number of essentially organized religious bodies (if one counts Sunni Islam as a single organization).
Most of the other half of the world's population are adherents of various religions, but are not members of the religious bodies on the list on this page. (Adherents.com lists over 4,000 different religious/faith/tribal groups -- most of which are either not larger than 1 million or are not classified as "religious bodies", the two criteria for this list.)
The sum membership of all of these religious bodies minus the largest five -- i.e. all the religious bodies with one million or more but less than 50 million members) adds up to about 8.5% of the world's population.
The very large church (religious body) that you probably hear the least about (least fame per capita) is perhaps the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Although political and social instability in Ethiopia make accurately estimating the size of this church difficult, it is nevertheless probably one of the world's largest churches. But because it is so regionally concentrated, and because its members are so poor and have little access to media and the Internet, they are relatively unknown. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is also one of the oldest religious bodies on this list.
Until the 1960s, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was in full communion with the Coptic Church in Egypt, and together the two factions were known as one Coptic Church.
Most Ubiquitous Religious Bodies: The religious bodies on this list which are most likely to have a church, mosque, or congregation near you (in most countries in the world) are:
Regarding ubiquity: There are many large religious groups which are not especially ubiquitous, although they may seem widespread. This is the case with groups whose membership comes primarily from one country or a limited region, yet is also organized in a large number of countries. The group may only have a small or token presence in most of the countries in which it is organized, or it is only organized in the major cities of the foreign countries, often primarily among expatriates. Groups which are "widespread but not ubiquitous" like this include Sikhs, Eastern Orthodox, Soka Gakkai, Ahmadiyya, International Church of Christ, Church of Scientology, Church of the Nazarene, and the Churches of Christ. Protestant Christianity taken as a whole is, of course, quite ubiquitous, but most individual Protestant religious bodies do not currently have a sense of doctrinal exclusivity on the denominational level sufficient to attempt establishing a presence worldwide.
In terms of practicing adherents, there are more Sunni Muslims than there are Catholics.
The largest religious bodies based in the United States (in terms of worldwide membership) are the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Seventh-day Adventists.
One million people is a lot of people, so for an organization to be included on this list is no small thing. Of the world's 201 sovereign countries, 48 of them (one-fourth) have less than one million residents. (View population of countries table for details.)
If one were to compare religious bodies to the national populations of countries, the world's largest organization would be China, with about 1.2 billion residents. But after that would be the Catholic Church, with over one billion members. Third would be India, followed by Sunni Islam, the United States, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Along these same lines, there are about as many members of the Assemblies of God as there are residents of Australia. The membership of the United Methodist Church is roughly the same as the population of Ecuador.
Interestingly enough, the world's largest religious body, the Catholic Church, is outlawed in the world's most populous country, China. Although there are millions of Catholics in China, the only legal Catholic church in the country is the Catholic Patriotic Church, the government-sponsored body which is not in communion with Rome.
The largest voluntary high-participation organizations in the world are religious bodies. Many political parties in the world's more populous countries have memberships in excess of one million. But political parties usually involve much lower levels of member participation on the part of most members. One exception to this was the Soviet-era Communist Party, which was highly participatory and was quasi-religious in its influence and sociological impact.
Even the world's largest private companies do not rival the size of the largest religious bodies. There are a small handful of national governments which employ more than one million individuals, but none of the largest private employers do. The largest private employers and their numbers of employees are:
Even if you include the immediate families of the employees of these companies, only a few of the world's largest companies would have "memberships" in excess of one million people.
[Figures for 1988. Source: Web site "Global Statistics"; section: "Charts"; web page: "Companies". (click on Economics, then on Employees.]
UPDATE: B.B. wrote to us (23 September 2000) to inform us about a recent Wal-Mart press release which states the current number of Wal-Mart employees is 1.1 million.
Frequently, there is considerable overlap between linguistic, cultural and religious identity. There are 80 languages which have more than 10 million speakers, and hundreds more which have at least one million speakers. (This is out of a total of 6,703 living languages in the world.)
The top 10 (native) languages in the world are:
[Source: Ethnologue, 1996.]
World CommunionsSome major "world communions", which are international organizations of churches of the same tradition or confession, but which are not here classified as a single religious body, include:
Top 10 Largest Highly International Religious BodiesThese are religious bodies in which at least 30% of their world membership live outside the "core country" (country with the largest number of members).
Note: As used here, "religious body" is a technical term used in the classification of religious groups. It is based on organization, not theology. Many important worldwide religious groupings have many adherents, but are not organized into a single organization classified as a "religious body" (e.g., Evangelicals, Lutherans, etc.).
One organization not listed here is the Baptist World Alliance (formed in 1905), because it an alliance more than a single religious body. Nevertheless, this alliance of many Baptist religious bodies (some listed on this page) does exhibits a considerable degree of doctrinal uniformity. The Southern Baptist, which is the largest Baptist religious body/denomination in the world, was previously a member of the World Baptist Alliance, but withdrew from the Alliance in 2004. Convention According to official BWA statistics, the alliance has 43,628,563 members in its 196 conventions and unions (distinct religious bodies), although this was a figure from before the withdrawl of the Southern Baptist Convention.
* Ahmadiyya: Estimates vary widely regarding the total number of Ahmadiyyans worldwide. Some sources report 170 million to 200 million worldwide, but we believe the only original source for these figures is representatives of the movement. We are unaware of any independent corroboration for these estimates.
Please feel free to send corrections, questions, adherent statistics, etc. to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're especially interested in hearing about any religious bodies not included on this list which have at least one million adherents.
This document created 2 June 1999. Last modified 18 May 2007.
Copyright © 2006 by Adherents.com. All rights reserved. The lists in this document may not be duplicated without permission (which is easily obtainable).