Rugby and Church: Worlds in conflict?


Thirty years ago when I was a young Christian I had two major passions in life: the church and rugby. They seemed to occupy very different worlds and as I became more and more involved in the world of rugby - playing at senior club level, coaching a 1st XV and being on the local Union - it was often difficult to reconcile the two, and for a period the world of rugby won out.

My difficulties did not just relate to the issue of playing and practising on Sunday (although that was an issue), rather it was that rugby and church seemed to represent two very different cultural worlds. I have come to see, however, that in fact they have much more in common than I ever imagined back then, and that today they are struggling to come to grips with similar issues.


Reliable statistics on church involvement in New Zealand are difficult to come by, making research on what has been happening in the church in New Zealand as much 'art' as 'science'. From what I can cull from the available data it seems that about 20% of New Zealanders were in church on a Sunday in 1960, a figure not markedly dissimilar to what it had been for most of the previous one hundred years. Those who attended at least once a month may have made up 40% of the population. By 2000 those figures had halved to 10% and 20% respectively, although I suspect the real figure for individuals in church may be nearer the British figure of 8%, as the 10% figure is simply the cumulative total from church returns, which does not take into account those attending twice, often at different churches.

For many years the favoured explanation of this decline was what became known as 'the secularisation thesis'. This argued that as modern knowledge advanced so people would give up believing in religion, because the world and how it operated could be explained without recourse to God or religion. This explanation has now been almost completely abandoned by sociologists, as religious believing has proved remarkably resilient - indeed the signs indicate it may have increased over the past two decades.

In Britain, research through Cambridge University by David Hay on the spirituality of non-church goers found in 1987 that 48% admitted to a form of religious spiritual experience.1 In 2000 his Soul of Britain Survey found that number had increased to 76%. A powerful indicator of the return of the religious can be seen in the world of movies, perhaps the most powerful medium in our culture. Powerful spiritual themes can be found in movies such as Contact, Matrix, Keeping the Faith, Sixth Sense, Stigmata and of course Harry Potter.

If spirituality is still important to people, and perhaps becoming more so, why is the church continuing to decline? Why does 'religious believing' no longer produce strong links with 'religious belonging'?2


One helpful way of looking at this is to consider what is happening in other forms of organisation in our society. One British researcher writes:

The important observation that religious believing seems to have become detached from religious belonging should be understood in relation to the parallel observation that virtually all voluntary associations have been finding it difficult in the last few decades to attract and retain members. In other words 'belonging' has been simultaneously losing its popularity in religion and in other fields as well. The split between believing and belonging is therefore part of a broader pattern of change which happens to affect religious organisations amongst others. It is not a problem unique to religion and does not necessarily arise from the inner dynamics of religious organisations alone.3

I recently heard an address by that great populist Tim Shadbolt, who has a remarkably keen insight into New Zealand culture. He was speaking on the topic of social changes in New Zealand over the past 30 years, and observed, with a number of illustrations, the marked decline in the numbers of people wanting to be involved in voluntary organisations, whether it was Rotary, the squash club, political parties or ratepayers' associations (at one of which he was speaking). An article in Metro magazine in March 2001 outlined the decline in all kinds of voluntary organisations in New Zealand. Rowan Brassey reported that two thirds of Auckland's bowling clubs will need to close in the next five years.

One of the most interesting and significant studies in this area of change is Bowling Alone4 - by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam - which examines the decline in people's commitment to organised social structures. The title relates to Putnam's use of ten-pin bowling to illustrate his argument. In the United States more people are bowling than ever before, but the numbers in organised bowling leagues have plummeted to their lowest level ever. There is all kinds of evidence that sport remains a significant - perhaps even an increasing - value in our society, but across the board organised team sports clubs and organisations are in decline and struggling for survival.


Because it has been so central in New Zealand's culture and life, rugby is an interesting area of study. While the decline of church 'belonging' can cause great despair among churchgoers, the figures quoted above look pretty good alongside those for rugby. Although no annual figures were kept, the number of those playing in the 1970s are estimated at 400,000. This number had plummeted to below 100,000 in the early 1990s. The decline was arrested and the figure now sits at about 125,000, with the last two years showing a slight decline again.5 Needless to say, this massive decline has led to many clubs closing and others merging in order to survive.

While over this period of time the involvement of people watching the game held up reasonably well, signs of a decline in even this level of involvement have been indicated over the past few years. Super 12 crowds were down on average in 2001,6 and while we hear a lot about the great absence of spectators at Eden Park, even in Canterbury - that last remaining citadel of rugby culture in New Zealand - the Union expressed considerable concern at the small crowds for the end-of-season Ranfurly Shield games, with even a partially demolished stadium being only half full.

A number of reports have consistently indicated that the number of people watching games on television has begun to decline,7 leading to television companies being unwilling to chase high figures to gain contracts. Of particular concern on the playing field is the huge fall off in those playing rugby between the ages of 15 and 19. While there is concern that soccer is already the most popular sport for children between 5 and 17 (114,000 compared with 98,000) there is particular concern that 60% of those playing rugby at 15 have stopped playing at 19.8


I recently spent some time talking with a researcher who had been employed by the Canterbury Rugby Union to try and find out why this is happening (yes they are worried even in heartland New Zealand). This conversation plus my own anecdotal research and general reading of cultural changes, indicate a combination of factors: the authoritarian and controlling environment of clubs; the hierarchical structure and organisation; rigid codes of protocol, dress and obligation; a very conformist and highly structured culture; high institutional costs; high demands on time over which the individual has no say; lack of choices over who you play with or even which position you play in; lack of choice about when you play or practice; a culture that demands loyalty instead of individual freedom; a repression of individual expression for the good of the team.

While these values are seen as good things for children to learn -and hence children are encouraged into team sports like rugby by parents and educators - they are increasingly at odds with the more permissive, individualistic, personal choice orientation of the wider culture. So as soon as children get to the age of personal choice (15 and older), if they wish to remain involved in sport they do so through more individualistic sports. With an increasingly wide variety of other options available to spend leisure time on, rugby participation is becoming a less desired choice.

Interestingly, when I talked about these trends with a small group of American and Australian researchers, they said that this description fitted what was happening in team sports (such as basketball and football) in their countries too.


I suspect that it is for reasons similar to these that increasing numbers of younger generations of New Zealanders are turning off church. They see it as hierarchical, authoritarian, controlling, conformist, demanding of time, lacking in variety and choices and demanding of exclusive loyalty.

There are other parallels between the worlds of rugby and church. While a lot of parents encourage their children into church, Sunday School and youth group, as being places where they can learn good values and make good friends, the drop-out rate when they get to make their own choices (15 and up) is, I suspect, similar to that in rugby circles. While the general population's involvement in formally organised religion is probably somewhere between 10 and 15%, a recent survey amongst Dunedin students indicated only 3.2% were involved in formally organised religious groups of any kind.

And there is an even more remarkable similarity. Several reports recently have talked about a 'white flight' from rugby. In Auckland, of 445 senior rugby players only 30 are of European descent. The 2001 Auckland rugby team had only two white players: Australian Steve Devine and Frenchman Christian Califano.

If you look at the make up of representative sides outside of Canterbury and Otago the percentage of Maori and Polynesian players is out of all proportion to their numbers in the general population. Many High School 1st XVs are almost completely dominated by players from those ethnic groups, even in communities where they are not an especially high percentage of the population. If it were not for the continuing attraction of rugby in those groupings then the situation in the rugby kingdom would certainly be even more alarming than it already is.

If we dig below the surface in New Zealand church figures a similar picture exists. If it were not for the large number of new Polynesian congregations (and increasingly over recent years, Asian as well) then the figures for those churches would be even more concerning than they already are.

This applies, for instance, to the Roman Catholic church, the Presbyterian church and also the Assemblies of God (and I suspect some other Pentecostal groupings as well) particularly in Auckland. But it also applies to my own church, the Baptists, who feel rather self-satisfied that in the latter half of the 1990s we have staved off the decline of previous years, and even shown a slight increase. However, if you take out the figures for new ethnic congregations (let alone ethnics who have come into mainly pakeha congregations) then our figures would show an overall decline.

The common factor in the attraction these cultures have to rugby and to the church, is that they still value those qualities mentioned above: hierarchical organisation, authoritarian leadership, conformity, group loyalty above individual freedoms, structured environments, personal identity coming out of group involvement. A similar pattern is found in Britain, where Peter Brierley, the key researcher on the church there, told me that if I wanted to know where the church was growing he could answer in one sentence: "among the black communities".

Before we take too much comfort from this and hope, as some do, that from these communities the pakeha sector will again discover the importance of church for their own lives, the research among blacks in Britain provides a caution. It indicates that among third generation blacks - who have grown up entirely in Britain exposed to the dominant western cultural values around them - there is considerable decline in church going.

Some initial studies done among Polynesians in Auckland indicate similar trends. It seems that both the traditional game of rugby and its organisation, as well as the traditional approach to church life and its organisation, lack much appeal for the under 35s in mainstream pakeha Kiwi culture.


Returning to Robert Putnam's work: his basic thesis is that traditional structures that depend on broad-based, long term and exclusive loyalties are giving way to single stranded, less formal, smaller groups that engage only part of a person's life and are easy to come and go from. As an illustration of this, let's consider touch rugby alongside rugby. Touch only began in an organised sense in 1990, but by 2000 it had 272,000 registered participants. This represents an increase that is quite phenomenal, especially alongside the decline in rugby. Among 18-24 year olds it is the most popular form of sporting involvement, and among 25-34 year olds it is second most popular.9 What are the contrasting qualities that make it so attractive?

These are fairly self-evident. The game is minimalist in terms of structure and cost. It is gender inclusive. Individuals choose their own teams and with whom they will play. Teams choose their own name and uniforms as well as the competition they will play in.

The time commitment is limited and for a period only, after which it is evaluated. Individuals can be involved in multiple teams and competition. There is usually a high value placed on socialising and fun. No one minds too much if a player misses a game or two.

There is often a close connection between work place and involvement in the game - with teams frequently being fellow employees, although open to others being included. Commitment is much looser than that expected by rugby teams. In other words, touch is not just another form of rugby - a repackaging of the same product. Although some of the same skills are involved, it is a very different game that has evolved.

One final observation on the way rugby has developed concerns the way those who are not playing participate. In a previous age, people used to go to watch the game - usually as individuals, or with a mate or family member - either at the local club or at the stadium where they merged indistinguishably into the mass crowd. Now very few people are at club games and numbers at representative games seem to be declining all around the country. (This is not a phenomenon unique to New Zealand rugby. Grace Davie notes: "the fall in attendance at professional football matches in Britain . . . more or less mirrors the decline in religious practice."10)

Most people watch games in small groups - with friends, either in the comfort of their lounge, or in a bar somewhere. Occasionally they might go along to the big game, but when they do (and this is especially true of those under 35) they tend to go as a group: often costumed and painted up to indicate their group identity. In other words - the small group is primary, the mass crowd is secondary.


The implications for the church in this comparison are both interesting and significant. It is not that people are no longer interested in sport. But the way they want to participate in that with others in an organised form has significantly changed. Likewise, it is not that people are no longer interested in spirituality or religion, but the way they want to participate with others in an organised form of it has markedly changed.

If the church continues to function with forms that are marked by the cultural values of a world increasingly disconnected from that in which most people live, then as is the case with rugby, one can only foresee a continuing pattern of declining participation.

A few years ago an article appeared in a New Zealand Christian magazine pointing out "what the church can learn from the sporting revolution" (in particular rugby, then riding on a high in the media).11 Time has shown, however, that the revolution in rugby was not a real revolution, but merely a repackaging that pumped new life into the upper levels of the game for a few years without ever dealing with the deeper issues impinging on the game at grassroots level.

Likewise, most apparent change in the church over the past few years has merely been a repackaging of the product rather than dealing with the deeper issues impacting it at grassroots level. Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller, claims that "the popular models of church today . . . are only tactical attempts to breathe new life into old structures".12


One of the great points of hope for the church is that sociologists suggest we are moving away from an era of rampant individualism into a new communitarian era. However, it will be a very different form of communitarianism to that which existed in a previous era (where it was marked by conformity, control and hierarchies). Rather, it will be one into which people bring a strong sense of individuality and will therefore be marked by a high degree of diversity and variety.

We urgently need to find forms of church life that resemble a community of touch teams much more than they resemble the local rugby club. This will mean a community which is much less tightly controlled, more eclectic and varied in the ways it expresses itself, and much less of a centralised organisational structure. A community that offers more choices, is run at much lower cost, and is less demanding of people's loyalty and time and more connected to their places of work.

It will mean that the small group is the primary form of Christian belonging and the large gathering - whether on Sunday morning/evening or at another time - is secondary, and for many, occasional.

If we are willing not only to give the freedom for this kind of evolution to occur, but also to provide resources to foster it, we may find not only a form of church life that actually engages with and incarnates the gospel into the culture in which we are placed, but also, surprisingly, one that more resembles in essence the church we find in the pages of the New Testament.



1 David Hay, Religious Experience Today, London: Mowbray, 1990.

2 For further explanation of this terminology see my article "Believing without Belonging" in Reality 43, Feb/Mar 2001, pp 19-24.

3 J Beckworth quoted in G Davies, Religion in Postwar Britain, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994, p 19.

4 R Putnam, Bowling Alone New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

5 "State of the Union: Part 2", NZ Herald, 19/05/01.

6 "State of the Union: Part 3", NZ Herald, 19/05/01.

7 "Game Over", Listener, Feb 3 2001, p 24.

8 "A Man for a Crisis", NZ Rugby World, Feb 2001, p 98.


10 G Davie, Religion in Modern Europe, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p 112. She also notes interestingly that "in both activities what might be called the top divisions continue to flourish; the lower divisions (or average parish church) very much less so."

11 M Hawke, "What the church can learn from the current sports' revolution in New Zealand", Affirm Vol. 5, No. 2, 1997.

12 E Gibbs and I Coffey, Church Next: quantum changes in Christian ministry, Leicester: IVP, 2000, pp 168-9.



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