One out of five non-Christians in North America doesn't know any Christians.
That's not in the fake-Gandhi-quote "I would become a Christian, if I ever met one" sense.
It's new research in Gordon-Conwell's Center for the Study of Global Christianity's Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020. Missiologist Todd M. Johnson and his team found that 20 percent of non-Christians in North America really do not "personally know" any Christians.
That's 13,447,000 people—about the population of metropolitan Los Angeles or Istanbul—most of them in the United States.
And that number includes atheists and agnostics, many of whom are former Christians themselves and more likely to have close Christian contacts. Without that group, 60 percent of the non-Christian population has no relationships with Christians.
Worldwide, the numbers are much worse: more than 8 in 10 non-Christians do not personally know a Christian. But Christians only make up a third of the world's population. The United States, meanwhile, ranks in the top 10 Christian countries, with 80 percent of the population identifying as Christians.
The biggest factor in explaining why so many North American non-Christians don't know Christians is immigration, Johnson said. The U.S. attracts more Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic immigrants than any other country in the world. It ranks second for Hindu and Jewish immigrants, and seventh for Muslim immigrants.
But immigrants are also keeping the percentage of those who don't know a Christian from going higher. That's because the U.S. also attracts more Christian immigrants than any other country. And the region that sends the most immigrants to the U.S. is (by far) Latin America, where 90 percent of non-Christians know Christians. (In the CSGC study, Mexico was categorized as Latin America, not North America. As per U.N. categorization, North American countries included Greenland, Bermuda, Saint Pierre & Miquelon, Canada, and the U.S.)
Migrants move into enclaves and don't venture out. But even Christians who live close to Chinatowns and Little Italys don't often venture in, Johnson said.
Separation between religious groups isn't limited to the United States and Canada. But North America has a unique opportunity to connect across religious lines, he said.
"The United States is a very strategic place for people to interact," he said. "It's ironic in a place with all the freedoms to interact that people don't do it. In light of the deficit of contact, what better thing could happen than to have a bunch of people move into your neighborhood and build houses of worship?"
CSGC research associate Gina Bellofatto said identifying contact between Christians and non-Christians based on location, age, and gender is "on her list" for further research. In the meantime, she notes that burgeoning movements have arisen to initiate purposeful interreligious dialogue and community service projects. They're still rare compared to the apparent apathy among Christians about befriending non-Christians, especially if it means reaching across neighborhoods and towns into more ethnic enclaves. "I don't know how many more million Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews need to come to this country before it becomes a priority," she said.
Jeff Christopherson, vice president for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Missions Board, agrees. "We hide in our own evangelical ghetto," he said. "We send our kids to Christian schools, we go to churches that would only be welcoming to people that think like us." While NAMB focuses on church planting, he said fledgling churches best connect with immigrants who don't know any Christians through community service programs.
"People who have never been attracted to a worship service are attracted to a mission," he said.
Johnson thinks America is suffering from a serious deficit of hospitality. It's contributing to isolated enclaves of believers and non-believers, he said, but it feeds on Christian attitudes that see interreligious friendships merely as a vehicle for soul-winning.
Johnson's family has found that relatively small gestures, such as inviting international students into their home for Thanksgiving, can provide a better basis for meaningful interaction than huge mission campaigns. "You should really have lifelong friendships with Hindus, Buddhists, and so on," he said. "It's so simple, and yet it means a great deal."