Believing without Belonging
Church in the aftermath of the 60s

by Kevin Ward


What has been the impact on our churches of the social and cultural changes that have taken place since the sixties? Kevin Ward investigates.

Over the past three years I have taken funerals for three of my uncles and aunties and in the process indulged in a considerable amount of discussion with a fairly wide range of cousins with whom I grew up, some of whom I had not seen for a number of years.

On a number of occasions discussion inevitably turned to the subject of church. My mother's side of the family were deeply religious Brethren, my father's have been significantly involved in the Anglican church. Within the family my parents' generation have stayed significantly involved in their respective streams of the church for a whole lifetime. What of my generation?

Of the eight cousins brought up within the Anglican church, most of whom married members of other mainline churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic) none have remained involved in church since student days. Of the ten cousins brought up in conservative evangelical churches (many of whom married outside that stream) three have remained involved since young adulthood. In other words the drop out rate in the 60s and early 70s was 83%.

While the statistics may vary, that family story represents a picture of our generation, for whom, in the words of Kris Kristofferson, the things that remind them of religion (church bells, a Sunday School class, a choir singing) "take them back to something they lost sometime, somewhere along the way". In 1960 40% of the primary school roll in New Zealand were on the rolls of Sunday Schools in New Zealand and by 1975 this had dropped to 15%. As a consequence of this we have dropped from about 20% of the population being in church on a Sunday in 1960, to about 10% today - with nearly half of these being pre-boomers (born in 1946 or earlier).

This is a pattern that has occurred in all western countries. As one Australian researcher put it: "Alienated from the religion of their parents, almost an entire generation of teenagers and young adults seems to have dropped out of Protestant churches. The socialisation process by which religious affiliation was transmitted from parents to the next generation broke down . . . the relative absence of young adults of child rearing age has affected church membership figures ever since."1


A consequence of this is that while for baby boomers Christianity may be a mem-ory in their past, for their children - known as Generation X - it is not even a memory. They never even had the chance to get to the Sunday School stage (by 1980 attendance was 11%).

This really struck me when, in the late 1980s, I went back secondary school teaching - teaching English literature, a lot of which has religious themes or backgrounds. I found the vast majority of students had no understanding of the church, or of even the basics of the Christian faith. This was confirmed by a survey of first year students at Otago University which showed over 40% had never even heard of Adam and Eve.

In the late 80s and early 90s there was hope, and numerous reports, that baby boomers were returning to church. It never eventuated. In fact what became clear as the 90s ended was that many of those who had stayed in church over the previous three decades were in fact now dropping out in mid-life.

Peter Brierley found in his research (in England) that for the first time the largest age group of dropouts was no longer the traditional young adults, but those aged 30 to 45.2 One consequence of this is that the second largest group of dropouts was children. Anecdotal evidence in New Zealand indicates similar trends, although we do not have the same survey data to verify this. The seriousness of these trends has been disguised by the profile of some large growing churches (many having grown as a result of transfer growth) and growth among ethnic communities.


What factors have led to this serious decline of the church in western countries like New Zealand? For a long time the major explanation given by academics was the 'secularisation thesis'. Under the influence of leading sociologists this declared that as society became increasingly modernised, religion would eventually disappear. Perhaps the most famous expression of this was the cover of Time Magazine3 in the mid 60s which asked "Is God Dead?" and claimed that for modern individuals traditional religion was no longer plausible.

This thesis, however, has had a hard time of it over the past 20 years, and Peter Berger, one of the leading proponents, declared that "by the late 1970s it had been falsified with a vengeance".4 It is now hard to find sociologists who still hold to the secularisation thesis in the sense of the ultimate demise of religion. We must look elsewhere if we are to explain the decline of the church rather than at the convenient scapegoat of secularism so often wheeled out by church leaders.


What has emerged in more recent research done in countries like New Zealand is that despite the fact that the church has been experiencing serious decline, people have continued to remain overwhelmingly religious. An article in the American Demographics magazine on religion concludes that "Amid the crumbling foundations of organised religion, the spiritual supermarket is on the rise . . . . Numerous surveys show that Americans are as religious as ever - perhaps even more than ever."5

Similarly in Canada, where church attendance is at levels much closer to that in New Zealand than in the US, the leading researcher of religious trends declares that "Belief in a supernatural dimension of reality is widespread . . . and shows no sign of abating."6 Australian researchers state that "the myth of 'Australia the secular society' needs to be put aside" when 85% believe in God and two thirds say they pray - half of them once a week or more.7

It is much more difficult to make the same kind of absolute statements about New Zealand because there is much less research data available here. The most helpful - the Massey ISSP Survey8 carried out in 1991 and 1998 - indicates if anything, a slight increase in religious believing. For instance, certain belief in God was indicated by 31% of people, up from 29%; belief in life after death was up from 57% to 60%; and 30% of people indicated they prayed several times a week, up from 22%. There is no identical survey to go back further, but Webster and Perry's study done in 19859 would seem to support the view that religious believing has at least held its own. Different questions were asked so it is difficult to make exact comparisons, but there seems to have been little if any decline.


What all this means then is that in New Zealand, as in all western countries, we have not seen the gradual extinction of religious believing as the twentieth century ran to its conclusion. Instead, many of the generation who left the institutional church in droves in the 60s and 70s, rather than becoming unbelieving secularists, have continued on a spiritual journey.

The great tragedy for the Christian church is that even though this searching continues to be shaped significantly by the Christian tradition, most of it has been occurring outside the church. This has created the paradox of a highly spiritual culture yet declining involvement in organised religion. In other words it appears that people who are seeking spiritual experience and meaning in their lives are not finding it presented in a form that meets their values and aspirations in what the church has continued to offer.

My personal view is that this is because while the values, attitudes and styles of the surrounding culture underwent a profound change beginning with the counter culture of the 60s and coming home to roost with a vengeance in the 90s,10 the church has continued to be shaped by a set of values, attitudes and styles that belonged to a previous era. As a consequence, whenever it has knocked on the door of the vast majority of the under 50s they have responded, "No thanks I'm shopping elsewhere."

Of the various trends that have developed, five in particular seem to have significantly impacted the church.


Many studies have indicated that since the 60s western societies have seen rising levels of self-centred individualism. As a result increasing numbers have come to believe that church going and church authority are optional and no longer necessary to sustain spirituality and faith, or to be a good Christian.

A common theme in the emerging literature on the religiosity of the baby boom generation is a distinction between personal spirituality (which is viewed positively) and organised religion (which is viewed negatively). Wade Clark Roof, who has been studying the religious journey of baby boomers11 since the mid 1980s, describes this changing perspective on religion as a radical shift from an ethic of self denial to an ethic of self-fulfilment. It results in a religion "functionally and spatially located in the self . . . individuals are free to create their own religious faith and consecrate their own sacred space . . . . This kind of religious individualist neither wants, nor feels the need for, formal religious institutions".12


A term used to describe the way in which people live their lives less in public and more in private or within the family. Individuals in modern society have to move among a host of different institutions that no longer form parts of an integrated whole. Each has its own values and beliefs, so integration can now only be achieved on an individual level.

As a consequence, instead of religion being a central and integrating force for all of life, it is banished to the private sphere of life. It becomes "more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more private than public."13 And so rather than being committed to the church for the sake of the church itself to which one owes something, people are involved to the extent that, and as long as, it benefits their own private lives. Certainly this a complaint I frequently hear from pastors today.


Members of the post-war generation were exposed to pluralism of all kinds. This is much more than just the arrival of a few more religious options, such as the Hare Krishna, Muslims or New Age spiritualities. Even more important is the changing mix of peoples and cultures in most western countries, including New Zealand, that began to emerge in the 1960s and has accelerated in the past two decades.

The rapid globalisation of this period has brought many differing people, cultures and lifestyles into the same space, particularly in the cities where people have increasingly chosen to live.14 Rather than living in small communities where similar beliefs and values are held by the vast majority, people now live next to, work alongside and play with people who may hold a wide diversity of view points.

Obviously the more varied, or plural, the beliefs held in a community or society, the weaker the reinforcement is for any one particular set of beliefs. They can no longer be taken for granted as 'just the way things are'. Consequently when individuals are faced with making choices in life about all kinds of things, they are faced with a multiplicity of options that were simply not available to previous generations. There is no longer only one way.

In addition, the social cost that previously went with choosing an alternative set of beliefs, values or lifestyle is greatly diminished because of the next factor.


If pluralism describes a social and cultural reality, relativism is an attitude that allows one to live comfortably and at peace in such a diverse setting. It is an attitude that casts doubt on the whole concept of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and bad. In an increasingly pluralistic society how do you live alongside those who hold different religious beliefs, moral standards or gender and sexual preferences? A belief that you are right and they are wrong becomes increasingly difficult to hold. So tolerance becomes the great virtue of contemporary society, as it is the only way a diverse mix of often diametrically opposed cultures, lifestyles and beliefs can coexist together.

In this context a Christianity that claims to be the only way, to know the only truth, becomes highly problematical. How can Buddhists be so completely wrong and damned forever when they are your very pleasant, caring, moral neighbours with whom your children play?


In the previous era church going was an expression of belonging and civic responsibility. However in the 60s and 70s many young people experienced widespread alienation from many institutions of society. It was the era of Vietnam, and Watergate; in New Zealand of Bastion Point and Muldoon. Many developed a deep cynicism toward public institutions as well as an inclination to make autonomous decisions irrespective of conventional mores or traditions.

One legacy of the era has been a heightened sense of the view that institutions should serve individuals and not vice versa. So when the institution is no longer doing this, people no longer feel a need to belong or contribute. Many boomers and Gen Xers have come to view the church as demanding they serve it, rather than feeling it serves them.

While this attitude has affected the church it has also affected a wide range of institutions in our society, with voluntary organisations of all kinds finding it difficult to recruit members. For example, sport has become increasingly highly valued in our society, and yet sport at an organised level for adults is really struggling in almost every code. In an article called "Bowling Alone" one American researcher points out that while the numbers of people bowling has reached an all time high, numbers in organised bowling leagues are at an all time low.

It is not then that the post-war generations have been less interested in the religious dimension of life, but their distrust of institutions means that increasing numbers of them believe that religious organisations are more likely to hinder than help them in their search for a satisfying spirituality.


The consequences of these changes are that organised religion has been having a rather hard time of it over the past four decades. It means that an increasing gap has grown between religious believing and belonging. While people are apparently increasingly concerned to nurture the spiritual dimension of life, find answers to questions of meaning in life, prepare for whatever happens at the end of physical life, they see organised religion in the form of the institutional church as being increasingly irrelevant to those issues. Increasing numbers are "believing without belonging".15

Wade Clark Roof in his most recent book writes that "A decade ago these questions were raised by Boomers who felt at odds with the religious culture of the churches; today these same concerns are most likely raised by those younger, the Generation Xers. In either instance, it is less a protest of religion in the deepest sense . . . than a response to institutional styles that are unfamiliar or seemingly at odds with life experiences as these people know them."16 Roof describes the world of these generations as a 'quest culture' in which spiritual ferment is readily apparent.

Robert Wuthnow in his exploration of American spirituality since the 1950s likewise tracks an escalating fascination with spirituality, as the culture has moved from what he calls a "spirituality of dwelling" where God is identified with particular places, such as church, to a "spirituality of seeking" in which individuals seek to negotiate their own way through an increasingly complex maze.17

In similar fashion the movie and television industries indicate the intensity of spiritual searching in our culture with movies such as The Matrix, Keeping the Faith, Sixth Sense, End of Days and Stigmata among a host of others and television programmes such as Touched by an Angel, The X Files, Promised Land and the increasingly spiritual dimension of Star Trek. Clearly they are still singing the song with which U2 began the 90s, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for".

If this is the market, why is it that the church is struggling so much in countries like New Zealand? Is this current quest a false one? Is it a case of 'until their eyes are opened to the truth we hold, they will not find it'? Or could it just be that while we know the God they are seeking, the containers in which we present that knowledge are hide bound by values, attitudes and styles, by forms and demands that are anathema to so many of our contemporaries? To adapt Paul's analogy from 2 Corinthians 4, the containers are so warped and cracked that people cannot imagine they might contain the treasure of Christ.


The reality of this was brought home to me on a recent flight from Auckland to Wellington. I sat in my seat pleased to have the chance to catch up on some reading. I had a book titled The Postwar Generation and Establishment Religion.

Two women about my age came and sat next to me They were off to a self defence conference for the weekend. I saw the woman next to me glance at my book, and after about ten minutes she said "I just have to ask you, what is the book you are reading about? I'm incredibly interested in that."

And that was the end of my reading for the rest of the flight. She told me she had a new flat mate, a born again Christian who went to a large Pentecostal church. But it was terrible, all so judgmental, demanding and controlling. Just weird fanatics. That's not what it's about surely? she asked.

A bit further on she told me her parents in Taupo were church goers, good Anglicans, and when she went to see them she went to church - but that had been her lot since she was a teen as far as church was concerned. Last year was absolutely terrible for her (including a nasty marriage breakup) and when she was in church at the end of the year she prayed really hard and told God if he got her through this she would go to church every week.

So when she got back home off she went to an Anglican church. The large building she entered was occupied by only a few scattered people, nearly all of them over 60. In addition it was so boring and irrelevant. She hasn't been again since.

So what should she do? Earnestly seeking God, spiritual resources and meaning for her life, but faced seemingly with the choice between an irrelevant "museum piece" (to use her words) and a bunch of judgmental, controlling, demanding, weird fanatics. Are there not any other options?


In two future articles I will explore some of the factors and issues which I believe need to shape our church life as it seeks to connect with the spiritual seeking that is going on in our unchurched, dechurched and postchurched culture.



1 D. Hillard, "The Religious Crisis of the 1960s; The Experience of the Australian Churches." The Journal of Religious History Vol 21., No. 2, June 1997, 212.

2 P. Brierley. The Tide is Running Out; What the English Church Attendance Survey Reveals (London: Christian Research, 2000)

3 Time Magazine April 8 1966.

4 P.L. Berger, "Sociology: A Disinvitation." Society Vol. 30, No 1 Nov?Dec 1992, 15. In 1998 Berger wrote that this was the "one big mistake" he made in his career as a sociologist.

5 D. Climmo and D. Lattin, "Choosing My Religion", American Demogrpahics, April 1999.

6 R. Bibby, "Religion in the Canadian 1990s" in Church and Denominational Growth, D. Roozen and C.K. Hadaway (eds) (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993) 288.

7 G. Bouma and B. Dixon, The Religious Factor in Australian Llife (Melbourne: MARC Australia, 1986) 167.

8 International Social Science Survey Programme, Department of Marketing, Massey University, 1991, 1998.

9 A.C. Webster and P.E. Perry, The Religious Factor In New Zealand Life (Palmerston North: Alpha Publications, 1989)

10 "At the centre was a rebellion by the young against the values, conventions and authorities of the older generation and the emergence of a new cultural style ­ the 'expressive revolution' ­ based on individual self-exploration and self transformation, informality, spontaneity and immediate experience." D. Hilliard, "The Religious Crisis of the 1960s: The Experience of the Australian Churches" 210.

11 Roof, W.C. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.

12 Roozen and Hadaway, Church & Denominational Growth, 265.

13 Roof, W.C. "God is in the Details: Reflections on Religion's Public Presence in the United States in the Mid-1990s." Sociology of Religion 1996, 57:2, 153.

14 Despite our rural mythic images over 85% of New Zealanders live in cities.

15 This is the subtitle of Grace Davies' book Religion in Britain Since 1945 (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994)

16 W.C. Roof, Spiritual Marketplace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) 56.

17 R. Wuthnow, After Heaven (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999)


After graduating from university Kevin spent time both secondary teaching and pastoring Baptist churches. Since 1990 he has been lecturing at BCNZ Christchurch, as well as being involved with Spreydon Baptist Church as a part time staff member for the past five years. He is currently doing a PhD through Otago University looking at the impact of social and cultural changes on the church in New Zealand over the past 40 years. Kevin is married to Sheri and they have three children, all now young adults.

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