SOWETO, South Africa -- Researchers have discovered the most religious place on earth: The area between the Sahara Desert and the southern tip of Africa.
Here Christianity, and to a lesser extent Islam, are attracting followers in numbers not seen in more than 100 years.
Soweto. Most people will remember this place for the role it played in the struggle against racial segregation. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, inside South Africa's biggest black township, another image is emerging.
Soweto is on fire for God.
"People come here and they really sense that they've had an encounter with God," said Pastor Mosa Sono of Grace Bible Church in Soweto.
'Hungry for God'
Grace Bible Church is where it's happening. The church began in 1983 with a handful of people. It now has more than 15,000 members and 11 satellite churches across South Africa.
It is by far the largest church in Soweto.
"God said if you seek me you will find me, if you long for me, if you seek me with all you heart," Sono said. "I think Africa is very hungry for God."
Africa -- Most Religious Place on Earth
The proof is in the numbers. For four months, researchers crisscrossed South Africa and 18 sub-Saharan African nations. They interviewed more than 25,000 people face to face in 60 different languages.
What did they discover?
"Well, clearly the most religious place on earth," Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said.
Lugo's team found that people who live south of the Sahara Desert and stretching to the tip of Africa are seeking after God unlike in any other region of the world, including Europe and the United States.
Religion is Very Important
The overwhelming majority of those here said religion is very important to them. Most people believe in one God and in heaven and hell. They say the Bible is the literal Word of God. A vast number believe Jesus will return in their lifetime.
"From the importance of religion in people's lives, to attendance at religious services, to belief in God, to prayer, you name it, one after another Africa ranks at the highest level in terms of global comparisons," Lugo said.
Growth of Christianity, Islam
Lugo said Christianity, in particular, is exploding. In 1900 there were 7 million Christians in sub-Saharan Africa. That number is up 70 times today to a staggering 470 million. Christians now account for 60 percent of the population.
That growth by any global comparison or historical comparison has to be one of the most rapid religious transformations in the history of Christianity in the last 2,000 years.
Muslims have also seen a big rise in their numbers - from 11 million in 1900 to some 234 million in 2010.
Traditional Beliefs Still Strong
But that is not to say that the indigenous African beliefs are not being practiced today on the continent. In fact, the survey found that half of the people questioned in South Africa believed that sacrifices to the ancestors, and even spirits, can protect people from harm.
The Pew survey also shows that despite the dominance of Christianity and Islam, traditional African religious beliefs haven't diminished.
CBN News came across a group of traditional faith healers preparing for a ceremony.
"We believe that God can talk to us through our ancestors," one village witch doctor said. "There are many people, especially in the rural villages, who hold fast to these and other practices."
Fruits of Mission Work
Nonetheless, missionary Jacques Vernaud could never have imagined today's phenomenal growth of Christianity.
Born in the central African nation of Gabon to Swiss parents, Vernaud said he was 20-years-old when he first felt a calling from God to be a missionary to Africa.
"And I spent many years traveling by foot hundreds of miles through the big jungles, the rain forest, to reach some remote villages, small villages, 20 people and 30 people," Vernaud recalled. "In those days I never preached before big congregations."
Fifty-seven years later, he leads one of the largest churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has 60 other churches around the country.
"We are not saved through religion; we are saved through a person, Jesus Christ the Savior, and in obeying the Word of God," he said.
Vernaud pastors La Bourne Church in the capital city of Kinshasa. Like his fellow pastor in Soweto, Vernaud said he bears witness to the power of God in people's lives.
"God is doing something special for Africa in our days," he said.0
Africans Most Optimistic
Despite the crushing poverty, hunger, disease and famine that millions of Africans face each day, researchers discovered that the people living in this region rank the highest in the world in terms of their optimistic outlook.
"Africans sometimes have been described as incurably religious. One can also say they are incurably optimistic," Lugo said.
Key Survey Findings
- Large numbers of people have witnessed or experienced a divine healing.
- Many speak in tongues and have received divine prophecies.
- A majority of Christians want the Bible as the official law of the land.
- And they are equally committed to seeing their political leaders reflect those Biblical values.
Back in Soweto, Pastor Mosa Sono is thrilled that Africa is on the leading edge of Christianity's growth worldwide. For years, he's been calling on the men and women of his church to take up the mantle of carrying the banner of Christ to the ends of the earth.
"We come from a history where things were done for us," Sono said. "People came to us, to tell us about Christ. We were their so-called 'dark continent.' But we realize history changes and so we intentionally and proactively talk about taking the Gospel to other parts of the world."
That zeal is yet another sign, researchers say, of Africa's dynamism and spiritual vitality.
*Original broadcast November 5, 2010.