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Western Christian Decline

A recent tweet (and thread) caught my attention with the image (above). Australia’s census decline of people who call themselves Christian has dropped by about a third (1/3 of 61%) in a decade. I checked New Zealand’s census percentages – the starting point is lower, but the slope of the decline is similar. I graphed the two:

In Australasia, census Christians are now a minority. If this slope continues, Christianity in Australia and in New Zealand has approximately another 25 years.

The statistics for Anglicanism are even more challenging – NZ Anglicanism has dropped from 17% to 7% in the 17 years covered by the above graph. As for church attendance, as our Church resolutely keeps no national statistics (and separate diocesan statistics have no consistency in what they record) I am not sure that many, even at higher leadership level, could even guess at our church attendance last Sunday, say, and say get it correct to the nearest thousand. Best guess I used to make was about 1% of the population was in an Anglican Church building on a Sunday. Now I wouldn’t even be able to guess that to within a decimal point of 1%.

What does it matter?

In a recent conversation about this, the story I have heard before was repeated: we need not be toon concerned is the moral – elderly babushkas were the only ones in a Russian Orthodox Church, and the prediction was that the church would die out within ten years. Come back a decade later and new, different babushkas had simply taken their place. I am not convinced that the story translates to our context.

I have travelled too much in lands that were once vastly Christian (along North Africa, for example, with massive cathedrals, etc) where now Christian communities are house-churches fitting into a living room. The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, is sobering reading – telling the story that most Christians don’t know, of a Christianity in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia that essentially died out.

I recently saw an English statistic that 33% of those over 75 saw themselves as Anglican; and 1% of those between ages 18 and 24 do.

Honesty about our situation is the first step towards appropriate visioning for the future.

Sure, there are today’s gyrovagues, moving from church to church and denomination to denomination, and changing one’s style of worship, or the preacher, or whatever, will move some of these either in or out. Individual church apparent growth statistics can simply be movement of a steadily declining number of deck chairs. We do need to have quality worship, preaching, and welcoming at every service. If I try a cafe, and it serves me badly once – I’m pretty likely not going to come back. And I am tired of repeating over and over: our online presence must be clear, welcoming, and accurate. It far too often isn’t.

Church organisation still often appears in a Christendom, majority model – we use titles and have top-heavy organisations that give the impression (to ourselves at least) that we are far more significant than we are in reality.

And what sort of training, study, and formation is required in a world where people would struggle to tell you Jesus’ mother’s name, or give the vaguest indication of what is meant by “New Testament”, or be able to articulate what Easter is celebrating? There is no point, in this world, to have a website or notice board (however up to date) with terms like “1662”, or “BCP”, or “Prayer Book”,… – if your intention is to aim beyond your little, shrinking, ageing in-group.

Are we going to abandon the Anglican concept of parish? Where the vicar was understood to be there for anyone and everyone within the geographical boundaries. Is the priest there simply for those who come on Sunday? And if so, does the concept of parish still hold, but it is the congregants who relate to all within parish boundaries in the manner a vicar was understood to do so in the past?

If there is any remaining sense of parish – how many people in an area should there be for every stipend priest? I used to have a rule of thumb – 1 stipend priest per every 10,000 general population. Is there any such strategic figure in today’s church planning? With the burgeoning of suburbs and subdivisions, is church planning seeing 1 stipended priest per, say as just an example, every 20-25,000 general population? With a church plant for every new subdivision of how many houses?

And, finally (for the moment), honesty about the downward trend will help us to be a bit more gentle with ourselves. The decline and ageing in our particular worshipping community is not totally our fault! We can tinker around the edges, but we are caught up in a much larger movement that includes post-modernism, pluralism, alternative facts, revelations of massive church sex abuse scandals and cover-ups, revelations of emotional and other abuse by Christians, unscientific responses to Covid, inability to connect with contemporary science, damaging relations with LGBTQIA+ people, changes to the work week and the weekend, lack of agility in the digital world in which people now live, changes to leisure, standards of living, and sport, and so on, and so on…

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7 thoughts on “Western Christian Decline”

  1. Kelvin Wright

    It’s far worse than most of us realise, given the age/gender balance of our congregations. Here in the South there is a typical pattern: a rural congregation of around 20 which has been constant for decades. Every Sunday, an attendance of about 12-15 and nothing changes, because it is the same 12-15 people week after week after week, and then suddenly they all fall off the perch together. In the space of a year or two, through death, disability or people moving into elder care the congregation suddenly ceases to be. And in the small town in which the church building is located, no-one much notices, except for the young entrepreneur who thinks the church would make a great wee backpacker’s. You give the church in New Zealand 25 years? I think that’s probably accurate, though in parts of the country it might be half that.

    But by contrast, our City Council put on a display for Matariki and 20,000 out of our city’s 120,000 population showed up. I run a six day silent retreat every year and it is always over subscribed – we have to have a waiting list. My sister teaches Chi Gong and a constant problem for her is finding venues large enough. As you know, one of the biggest problems these days for the Camino Santiago is the super abundance of people wanting to give up a month of their lives and put themselves to considerable discomfort for inner reasons most of them can scarcely identify. People are inveterately religious. I think it’s hardwired into us to seek the divine, and they will do it whenever they sense that the divine is on display. Our problem is that we are usually displaying something else.

    1. Thanks, Kelvin. I agree with all you say. I think the graph of church attendance (rather than census Christians) is more a curve downwards as you describe – it is going to come to head down increasingly rapidly because of the larger proportion of older people in the pews. I was interviewed recently and make the point you are making: people do not generally go, “I’m interested in spirituality – I will go to church.” They tend to look to Buddhism, etc. Most Christians (including lots of clergy) have little awareness or agility within the great Christian tradition of spirituality. We have missed that boat. I also say that we are currently missing the wellbeing boat – for which, I suggest, we have a fuller framework than the usual that is offered. Thanks again for your contribution. Blessings.

  2. So, what, gentle reverends, would you yourselves prescribe to halt what you both see as the obvious decline of the Church and Christianity in Aotearoa/New Zealand. And how, from your respective experiences of retirement from full-time ministry in ACANZP, will you be able to help replace the attendance of old people like me – and your good selves – with the younger people you have failed to keep in the Church by your own, not insignificant, ministries?

    If you, who have been at the coalface of active Christian ministry most of your adult lives have failed to produce the increase in youthful replacement of us old geezers, then do let our General Synod representatives know how you think you can help them with the answers to your sad dilemma – as a result of your own experience of failure.

    Otherwise, I can see all of us older congregational members being so discouraged by such a tale of woe that we, too, may be tempted to absent ourselves from the public worship that is, seemingly, the only criterion that is needed for evidence of a devastation of the Body of Christ amongst us! (I’m reminded of a placard I once saw in the rear window of a car: “Feeling the absence of God? Guess who moved!”)

    I believe that God will not stand by and see the death of the Church while there is one faithful believer seeking Christ in the sacramental life of the Institution – believing that Christ can be found therein, and through which (Whom) grace can be received. Then, with Blessed Julian of Norwich, I believe that “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well” (Mind you, this does require the gift of Faith, which still is retained by some of our elders who actually still go to Church – together with prayer – that some of our children might be disposed (by our example) to live the Christian life)

    We cannot do more than we’re each able to do. I think we have to be faithful to our own calling praying that God my bring any increase. Bemoaning the fact of our own impotence could be the first signs of our lack of trust in God’s power to re-build His Church on a more loving, merciful, non-judgemental and openly compassionate foundation, that only God can provide.

    Love, Joy and Peace!

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron,

      Bishop Kelvin will have to respond for himself, but I think that my response to your comment was already in the original post:

      1) I listed off the dramatically-changed context in which we now live which makes any Christian mission and ministry very difficult, and

      2) I listed off some of the present realities and yearnings that the church could have put significantly more energy into: spirituality, wellbeing, and a much better digital presence.

      3) I think we, the church struggle to be fully honest with ourselves about our situation, and I was heartened that Kelvin, as a significant church leader, expressed the reality in our land.

      4) I do not at all think that Christianity will die – I think Philip Jenkins’ work, which I have pointed to more than once, highlights that historically Christianity is not a European faith – in the manner it is so often perceived. We are at another shift in where Christianity is the major force and, when we know our fuller history, we can see that there is no assurance that what was once a Constantinian-style “Christian” nation will remain so.


  3. Father Ron Smith

    Thank you for your response, Dear Bosco, to my own challenge – to a Church (European-style) that you see as in decline. I was issuing another challenge as to what, precisely, can be done about a situation both you and Kelin see as so devastating!

    I note that you also offer the hint that the Church might be rescued by a non-European model.

    However, I am aware of only one Anglican model of Church that represents itself as being this particular brand of spirituality at the present time. This is that of the GAFCON/Sydney ‘Confessional Anglican’ conglomerate, that seems to be based on a dis-satisfaction with Western Christianity, and determined to replace it with its own ‘Sola Scriptura’ mode of mission, which ignores common human justice issues, in the interests of producing a ‘purer’, more ascetic, male-dominated expression of discipleship.

    I cannot but feel that a religious system that fosters the culture of sexism and homophobia might be counter-productive to the message of Christ in the Gospel – which could be characterised as “One poor man showing another poor woman where to find Bread!”

    Agape! (Looking forward to your coming to SMAA as our interim P. in C.)

  4. Hello, I am Dalal Hamid, along with my husband Mohammad Hossein Pirmohammadi and my children Hirbad and Hiva, we have been refugees in Turkey for almost seven years. We are Iranians and because we became Christians and our lives were in danger, we had to flee from our country Iran.

    We live in a Muslim city in Turkey and with the current economic situation in Turkey, the Muslim people of Turkey consider us Christians to be the cause of inflation and high prices and torture us mentally and permanently. They insult us. My children are being harassed in the streets and at school because we are Christians and even my children were not allowed to go to school because we are Christians and we received a letter from the Turkish Church of Turkey confirming that we are Christians. . My children were sent to school.
    Our house was robbed three times, personal belongings, cellphones, money, watches, and other items were stolen, and we caught the thief for the fourth time, and now we have been going to court regularly for nearly four years, but they do not answer us. . And we, they are constantly under threat.

    1. Dear Dallal, the struggles of being Christians in the Middle East, further east, and elsewhere are slowly being realised by us here in the West. Blessings.

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