The Future of the Church in New Zealand

by Alan Jamieson

 

We must not underestimate the degree and depth of change that is occurring in our society. We must take seriously the mission challenge of the emerging culture and seek to plant new communities of faith that interact with the culture. If there is to be a relevant and culturally engaging church for our grandchildren we must work as hard and as sacrificially for it as previous generations of Christians before us.

Over the last few decades the Christian church in western nations, with the exception of the United Sates, has been in a sustained period of decline. This loss in the numbers of people attending church services is linked to a reduced sense of connection between church and the wider community which has led to an overall reduction in the significance of the Christian church.

For example, the number of people attending church in Britain has dropped from a high a hundred years ago, when nearly 50% of the population attended church, to a new low of 7.5% of the population at church each week. Dr Peter Brierley, who led the English Church Attendance Survey, extrapolates this trend1 in church involvement to project that by 2016 less than 1% of the British population will be at church.

While Brierley suggests this is a worst case scenario and one that he believes is unlikely to eventuate, he nevertheless says that their recent study "shows a haemorrhage akin to a burst artery. The country is littered with people who used to go to church but no longer do. We could well bleed to death. The tide is running out. At the present rate of change we [British churches] are one generation away from extinction".2

In New Zealand, where church attendance has never been particularly high, we too have moved a long way from the high point of the late 1950s and early 1960s when many denominations recorded their highest attendance figures. The strength of the church at that time was visibly illustrated by the Billy Graham crusade in 1959. During the 12 days of the crusade the combined attendances exceeded a quarter of the population and more than 17,000 people came forward to commit their lives to Christ.

 

Since the late 1950s consecutive census figures have shown a declining adherence to Christian denominations and the Christian faith. In fact the fastest growing religious adherence 'group' in recent years has been those people who have ticked the 'No Religion'3 box. During this time many denominational attendance graphs have shown steeper and steeper rates of decline as congregations get older and young people are not assimilated into the churches.

Despite this Alan Webster4 (Director of the New Zealand Values Study) and Gordon Miller5 (World Vision church consultant) both estimate weekly church attendances at around 380,000 people - approximately 10% of the population. Alan Webster in a recent article went on to state "the true number attending regularly, that is at least once a month, is about 20%".

Having watched the way attendance figures are gathered I suspect these predictions are optimistic. But even if there is ten percent of the population in church each week we need to look behind the totals to the underlying trends. We need to consider not just how many people are involved in churches but who they are, how they are connected to the church and what types of churches they are involved in. The important trends in terms of the future of the church are based on more than total numbers. Let's consider some important trends that will affect the shape of the church in New Zealand.

The growth of Pentecostal churches

Recent articles on the New Zealand and Australian church scene have pointed to the growth of Pentecostal churches. For instance Gordon Miller recently suggested that the Pentecostal church in New Zealand has the largest attendance figures of the Protestant churches. He estimates that 75,000 people attend Pentecostal churches.6 If this is correct it means that the combined Pentecostal churches have bigger attendances than the Anglicans and Methodists combined. Certainly the Pentecostals are growing. Their growth, however, comes at the expense of other churches. Studies from the Australian scene show that three out of four new attenders at Pentecostal churches have come from other churches.7

Older congregations

Another trend we need to hold in mind is the fact that church attenders are disproportionally older than the general population. As the New Zealand Church Life Survey (1997)8 showed, while 20% of the population are over 60 years of age 41% of church attenders are in this age group. At the other end of the scale, while 20% of the population are between 20 and 29 years of age, little more than 8% of those in church are from within this age group.

These age profiles will affect the future shape of the church, especially as members of the older generation who have been significant contributors and supporters within many churches are no longer able to fulfill these roles. As this generation of older people step back from key roles, who is there to take their place?

This is a particularly poignant question for those churches where older people predominate, eg the Methodist church where the Church Life Survey showed that 53% of attenders were over 60 years of age, or the Presbyterians and Anglicans where 49% of their congregations were over 60.9

If we combine these two trends - growing Pentecostal churches in which three quarters of new members are drawn from mainline traditional churches, and an aging church population especially within traditional mainline churches - we begin to see that the present growth of the Pentecostals may not be sustainable, as there are less and less younger disgruntled mainline traditional church attenders to head their way.

Ethnic churches

Another growth area in recent years has been the number of ethnic churches and ethnically based church groups. This is a trend which reflects increased immigration over recent decades. These increases in ethnically based churches to some extent hide the demise of church involvement in the Pakeha community. While these trends will affect the future shape of the church the next trend - increased fluidity in church involvement - is more significant still.

Increased fluidity

Fluidity in church attendance and involvement comes in a number of guises. Although people may be committed to a church, increased leisure, work and sporting options mean that for many their attendance is less frequent than that of previous generations of church goers. An Australian church consultant made the comment to me recently that people who attend once every three weeks are now considered regulars in her denomination.

The fluidity of attendance is also exhibited in the number of churches people are involved in both serially and simultaneously. While moving churches to meet changing personal needs is on the increase so, too, is belonging to a number of churches at the same time. This is particularly a growing trend among younger people who tend to have less singularly focused allegiances to institutions.

I remember being surprised by the response of a university student when I asked him what he considered was his home church. He listed four churches all from within the one city. He went to one for the morning service, another for the evening service, was a youth group leader in another and attended a home group from yet another church.

Another aspect of the fluidity of people's church involvement is this: for increasing numbers of people moving into and out of church involvements, church is something they may belong to for periods of their life.

In my own denomination - the Baptists - a recent analysis of figures has shown that in the last fifteen years more than 19,000 people had been baptised into Baptist churches, but the total membership has only grown by 269 people over the same period. While people may be involved in church for a period of time in their lives, this allegiance is often fluid.

My own research suggests that for many people church is a highly significant part of their lives particularly in early adulthood, but that many move out in midlife. This fluidity is often ignored by those in 'growing' churches who may find that they are more aware of who is coming in the front door than they are of who is leaving through the exits.

Societal change

Looking at the numbers of people coming to church and recent trends in their affiliations to churches is only half the picture. We cannot consider the future of the church without also considering the wider cultural and societal context. New Zealand society, like most of the world, is undergoing huge societal changes that are radically affecting all the major institutions of the previous century, including the church.

The significance of this societal change cannot be underrated! We are entering the 'postmodern age' which tells us little about the future, except that the modern world in which the church has existed is now rapidly changing at its most fundamental points.

So what of the future of the church?

It would be easy to be pessimistic and see our generation as facing some unique challenge that no other generation has faced before. At one level this is true - we are the first generation to face the challenge of taking the church into the 'postmodern age' - but at a more important level it is far from the truth.

Many generations of Christians, perhaps most, have faced real struggles and difficulties living out the gospel in their own culture and society. Times of persecution and disdain are the bread and butter of church history. Many previous Christians have feared for the future of the church, perhaps even felt that their generation would see the end of the church, and yet the church has survived. In fact the church has grown larger and more diversely spread through each successive period of history.

But - and it is a big but - we need to be careful that we are not complacent, that we do not simply believe God will look after the church so we can relax, because the church in New Zealand will be OK. As Mike Riddell10 points out, there are other regions of the world, for example North Africa, where the Christian faith was once strong but has since been all but eradicated. This could happen to us in New Zealand - perhaps it could even happen to the entire western world. Certainly the major growth - indeed the phenomenal growth of the church, is a long way from western nations at the moment.

While it would be an exaggeration to overstate the uniqueness of the challenge facing the Christian church in the 'postmodern era', we must not underestimate the degree and depth of change that is occurring in our society. We must take seriously the mission challenge of the emerging culture and seek to plant new communities of faith that interact with the culture. If there is to be a relevant and culturally engaging church for our grandchildren we must work as hard and as sacrificially for it as previous generations of Christians before us.

 

With these thoughts in mind we can begin to look ahead and make some predictions about the future of the church in New Zealand. I do this tentatively, knowing that trying to predict the future of the church is like trying to pick sharemarket winners five years from now. The odds are on getting it wrong. The following ideas are therefore presented as a stimulus to further thought, dialogue and debate.

Traditional churches

The traditional mainline forms of church will continue, although they will face major struggles bringing in new younger people and holding on to those young people who have grown up within their churches. These are major hurdles confronting the traditional churches.

Recent discussions with a denominational church minister highlighted again for me the large numbers of young people churches lose as they move to new cities to study or work and take the opportunity to either move out of church altogether or move to a more 'vibrant' style of church where there are more young people.

Because of these trends I suspect that the market share of the traditional churches will continue to decline particularly as their disproportionate number of older people are unable to be as actively involved. There will however continue to be congregations within the mainline denominations that grow in the face of these trends. These churches will be those which harness the best of their own traditions and reformulate them in ways that connect with those from the emerging culture. Overall, though, the traditional churches look set to grow smaller and older with a gender imbalance in favour of women.

Ethnic churches

The many ethnic churches which express the faith in their own traditional cultural form will also continue. In these churches faith and culture are intertwined and together provide an important sense of identity and community for their members in the wider pluralistic culture.

Mega-church

And there will no doubt be an increase in the size and number of churches, Pentecostal and evangelical, fashioned on the Mega-church model. With well in excess of 500 members, these large churches are able to provide programmes, facilities and a quality of services beyond the resources of smaller churches. Child care, large youth and young adult groups are often provided, along with small groups - for everything from aerobics to support for divorced and separated people - leisure and entertainment options and church based avenues for being involved in mission into the wider community.

Such churches are big enough to provide a sufficient range of opportunities for their people to ensure that they are the dominant institution in those people's lives. As such they effectively cushion people in a form of sub-culture which remains distinct from the wider culture. Such wider-culture-denying forms of church will no doubt also continue to be part of the landscape.

As the eminent sociologist Castells11 states, times of flux and change like that through which we are presently living are alway times when people attach themselves to churches like these for stability, certainty and answers in a world where flux, doubt and questions dominate. But, as Castells also points out, for many, such churches will be significant for only a relatively small part of their adult lives.

This can be seen within the Mega-church model as such churches tend to dwarf individual needs, faith maturation and long term discipleship. These churches will grow by adding people from other smaller churches unable to provide the range of options that the Mega-church can, by adding young people and by adding people who, through major personal crises, are looking for certainty, clear meaning and ways to live their lives in an ever changing and confusing world.

 

So far we've looked at the future as it affects four types of churches - traditional, ethnic, Pentecostal and the so-called Mega-churches. The future of the church will not, I suspect, be found in the dominance of one or other of these but through the continuation of each of them to differing degrees.

Traditional churches will continue although their overall market share will continue to decrease. Ethnic churches will be strong amongst their own communities and their strength will be connected to the relative proportions of their ethnic community wishing to maintain strong links with their cultural identity. The growing churches will be Pentecostal churches and churches built on the Mega-church model - those churches which grow, in large measure, at the expense of traditional mainline churches.

New worshipping communities

But there will also be another grouping of churches on the horizon. Churches principally made up of those who have moved beyond the Pentecostal and Mega-church forms and have chosen to set up new groups and worshipping communities that seek to interact and engage the wider post-modern culture. In the long term these are the churches that I suspect will provide the most innovative and exciting opportunities for reaching a new culture of people with the Christian message.

And there are growing signs that these new forms of church are emerging. Marg Gilling's study of nearly 60 faith groups in New Zealand points to some of these emerging forms. So, too, do church communities like 'Graceway' church in Auckland.

They are often small, experimental, informal, highly creative and participatory groups who no longer identify with other church forms. They are often groups begun and resourced by people on the margins. People who were once part of more institutionalised forms of church who have moved on from them to create new expressions of Christian faith where people can interact, worship, learn and support each other in ways more congruent with the wider culture.

Such groups and emerging worshipping communities are the 'early rumours'12 of new forms of church for a new culture. I suspect that the number of these new groups is going to increase markedly. Certainly I am receiving mail from more and more people who are moving out of other existing forms of church to set up new groupings of people of Christian faith.

We in the existing churches - and especially those who hold the power to legitimate and resource them - need to see these as substantial foundations for the church of the future. For these groups to continue to experiment and explore, grow, network, plan and build, we need to resource them.

These new churches will not be the only churches on the landscape of the future but they will be important contributors to the long term shape of the Christian church in a postmodern age. They are groups that may yet prove to be the early runners of new ways of doing and being church. As such they can be important contributors to the life of existing churches - that is, if we are willing to learn from them.

The degree to which the traditional, ethnic, Pentecostal and Mega-churches dialogue with and learn from these new forms of church will be crucial to their connection with the wider community - the other 80+% of New Zealanders who are not involved in a church.

 

As last year's Millennium celebrations demonstrated, we in New Zealand get to the future first. This is particularly true in terms of churches. We in New Zealand appear to be on the forefront of change. Because of this what we do here affects not only our own church and community but may well be prophetic for the future of churches in other countries.

 

NOTES

1 The study shows that over the last nine years the British churches have lost 2200 people a week every week. When the overall loss was divided into age groups the greatest grouping was among the young.

2 Brieley (2000) The Tide Is Running Out Christian Research; London, p236.

3 In the 1956 census 0.5% of New Zealanders categorized themselves as having 'No Religion' by 1991 this had grown to 23% of New Zealanders.

4 New Day Dawning: God's Not Dead - Just changing gear, in Grace May 2000 p 67.

5 The Evening Post -5 June 2000 p5.

6 The Evening Post - 5 June 2000. This is more than double the number of people who called themselves Pentecostals in the 1996 census (33,987). In comparison weekly Australian Pentecostal attendances are comparable to the census figures ( Attendance 183,000 cf Census adherence 174,720).

7 The Bulletin, April 11 2000 page 29.

8 Church Life Survey - New Zealand was conducted in May 1997 by 72 000 church attenders in 1250 congregations representing 13 denominations.

9 Lifting the Lid on the New Zealand Church - N. Brookes and S. Currow ; Church Life Survey -NZ 1997 Page A-2.

10 Riddell, M. 'Threshold of the Future'

11 Castells, M. (1997) 'The Power of Identity'. Oxford, Blackwell.

12 A term taken from 'The Prodigal Project' by Mike Riddell, Mark Pierson and Cathy Kirkpatrick.

Alan Jamieson has recently published a book on faith beyond church structures titled A churchless Faith. In 2001 he hopes to do a sociological study on faith groups beyond the church and would be interested in dialoguing with people involved in such groups. He is a member of the pastoral team at Wellington Central Baptist Church and can be contacted at [email protected].


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