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Christianity shrinking or growing?

Catholics in Auckland 2012With much fanfare the New Zealand Herald announced Christian faiths losing out to other religions: “In the battle for believers, Christianity is losing out to religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.

A Massey University study, Changing Patterns of Auckland Religion, has found that with the exception of Catholicism, membership of all mainstream Christian denominations has fallen to historic lows.

The Anglican Church, which has traditionally been New Zealand’s dominant religion, has dropped from 47 per cent in Auckland identifying with the church in the 1926 census to slightly over 10 per cent in 2006, lower than the 10.8 per cent nationally. It was a different story for Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, which have experienced surges in membership.”

I do not have much confidence in NZ media, especially when it comes to understanding religion. My first degree is in Maths – as I read the article I am reminded that there are “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

Let us put to one side the irritating journalism that this is a “battle for believers”. The violent metaphor is grossly inappropriate. As is the presupposition that “believers” is a subset of humans in the same manner that, say, young women, or retired couples might be a particular niche market one might target. Spirituality, belief, is not a niche market activity. Spirituality, belief, is there for all! And religions and spiritualities are not merely interchangeable products directed at the (ever-shrinking-the-media-would-have-it) “religious” subset of humans!

The study is, in fact, not based on attendance and practice, but on the 2006 Census! It does not take a degree in journalism to realise that culture is changing. Those who did not practise a faith, in the past, for social reasons still would have identified with a faith tradition. Older people would put down CofE on the census even if it did not represent for them minimally “Christmas and Easter”. Even if a church with this title does not exist in this country. That generation is dying, and being honest about one’s non-practice is now de rigueur. Census figures are not an indication of attendance, and never have been. But little by little the census figures are trending towards an honest indication of practice.

My thanks to an Auckland friend who provided me with the actual Auckland Anglican diocesan attendance figures over the last decade. In fact, looking at attendance figures across the last decade, they have gone from 464,740 a year to 487,948. Another measure, total attendance in the month of June, has risen from 33,994 to 36,475.

Similar information is, interestingly, available from (the often-maligned) The Episcopal Church. Thirty three dioceses have shown growth. One church, St. Martin’s, Houston, has an active congregational membership of 8,480.

Let me stress: numbers are not the goal. But I do think numbers are not unimportant. True – numbers are lessening and congregations are aging in places. Let’s do such analysis carefully.

Let me also stress, once again, the point that Dr Peter Lineham makes: churches grow through “better marketing and online presence” and “ability to connect with the young”. “What we are seeing is an increasing number of people who do their church shopping online, from home,” he said.

H/T Peter Carrell
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7 Responses to Christianity shrinking or growing?

  1. St Martin’s is pretty much a cathedral http://www.stmartinsepiscopal.org/ right in the heart of Houston. They run a cafe serving lunches to business-people with tables in the cloisters, which reminds me of Chester Cathedral back in the UK. You can see by their website they have literally hundreds of programmes/activities on offer, and almost 100 members of staff, and many more volunteers.

    Houston has the biggest churches ( in terms of numbers ) in America.

    I like the Episcopalian Church, they have a marvellous leader here in Katharine Jefferts Schori.

  2. I think the problem with statistics is not so much that they are “damn lies”, but that they are dependent on what question was asked in the first place, but can be, and often are used to answer totally different questions. the evidence is incontrovertible that numbers at Anglican churches in the ‘western world’ are down on what they were in the 1950’s, but the debate concerns by how much, why, and what we should do about it. Here are a few factors not commonly commented on.
    1. The birthrate in Anglican churches is much lower now than in the 50s. When I was g rowing up at St Paul’s Auckland, my family was one of 4 each with 6 or more children. those families alone could generate a bigger Sunday school than many parishes of today.
    2. In those ‘good old days’, a deeply committed parishioner could be expected to attend every single Sunday, often twice, and frequently mid-week as well. Now a very committed member might attend 2 or 3 times a month. So maybe we are not measuring a fewer number attending, but the same number attending less frequently.
    3. We take as our benchmarks either the Victorian period, or the time between the wars of the 20th Century, the two periods when attendances were possibly the highest in the history of English-speaking Christianity. In the 18th century attendances were abysmal, during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries the best way to avoid being arrested for worshipping the wrong way was not to attend at all. Even during medieval times, when supposedly there was a church at the centre of every village, there is evidence that actual attendance at worship was not very high – difficult to prove of course, as they did not keep statistics in the way we do now.

    My point is that the church does not require big numbers to be able to participate strongly in the mission of God, and the desire to build up our numbers is the worst possible motivation for mission. If a particular parish, mission, or chaplaincy is involved in vibrant mission, it is likely to be a more welcoming place, and numbers are likely to increase to some extent, but that should not be our motivation.
    We need a mission-shaped church, not a church-shaped mission.

    • Some excellent points here, thanks, Edward. I love the line, “We need a mission-shaped church, not a church-shaped mission.” I think we need statistics for the numbers we serve. That is clearly not easy 🙂 but it is a different way of viewing what we do. Just as I think it would be great if those who aren’t there were able to have a say in choosing leadership. Blessings.

  3. These comments are interesting, but beside the point. Auckland Anglican diocese is not keeping up with population changes and not keeping up with the changing city, although the text of what I said recognises that there are various factors. In fact I have a wide variety of other statistics as well, from the diocesan figures and from the Church Life Survey.

    • Thanks, Peter. Is the study available online? It would be really good to put a link to the original. As I said in my penultimate paragraph, it is my impression that numbers are lessening and congregations are aging – and we need to do our analysis carefully. I have regularly, on this site, expressed my unhappiness that we intentionally keep no church-wide statistics. The church regularly gives the impression that we are large, basing this, eg, on census-type figures. I think we would be in a different place if we acknowledged we are small, based on attendance. Small can do a lot. Small, acting as if it is big, has issues. Blessings.

  4. She is privileged to meet with you Bosco- and I am sure she is paying attention!

    To Edward Prebble, a church member of practically any denomination can attend as they like here in the US, but most are expected to commit 10% of their income to their church membership.

    Even if you do that expect many other requests for charity.

    It gets old….especially if you are unfortunate enough yourself to fall on a time of need- there are corporate causes and everyone else is invisible.

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