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What Prevents New Zealanders Being Christians?

Faith New Zealand

No sooner had I written about the McCrindle report on Faith and Belief in Australia, and my hope that there might be similar report – including on New Zealand – and a reply to my post promised me NZ’s version on Friday 18 May. And here it is.

The full report.
A handy infographic.

16% of New Zealand is churchgoing.
9% of New Zealand are active practisers.
1 in 10 New Zealanders have never met a Christian.

In this nation, the church is small. Christianity is small. We often act as if we are large and significant. The Anglican Church keeps no national stats (more on that below), but I would contend that no more than 1% of New Zealanders are active Anglican practisers. Yet, often, we present, at least to ourselves, quite a different image. And when you look at the study’s age brackets: those over 73 are three times as likely to identify as Christian than 18-23 year olds, and those aged 54-72 are twice as likely.

What blocks those who are open to exploring Christianity (page 41):
47% the Christian attitude to homosexuality;
45% a loving God sending people to hell and condemnation (these two percentages – God sending loving homosexuals to hell – combined in the recent Israel Folau message);
39% the classic “Problem of Evil”;
23% Christian attitudes to the role of women (on the infographic) – that’s 34% (page 41) for non-Christians who would be warm to Christianity;
and, fascinatingly, 54% (page 18) are repelled by stories of people being healed or supernatural occurrences.

Church abuse is the greatest negative influence on the perception of Christianity (76% page 43) – sex abuse and other scandals.

Non-religious Kiwis prefer a scientific and rational approach to life 43%. This expresses well my ongoing frustration at church leadership appearing unwilling to engage intelligently in questions of science. Yes – some 6,000-year-old-universers might be scandalised and even threaten to “leave the church” (an increasingly popular threat!) but the percentage beyond the church who think Christianity clashes with Science should be nowhere near 43% – the ability to be a rational, scientific person of faith should be well known in the public space.

Spirituality is very popular in New Zealand, people understand its importance in wellbeing, and they are comfortable discussing it.

Regulars here know of my interest in statistics. I am delighted that we have a real study here – not hunches and feelings. I again express frustration that NZ Anglicanism keeps no national statistics. Different statistics are kept diocese by diocese level (so good luck collating them into anything useful!). In my diocese (probably – who knows – the second largest in NZ), we keep no statistics on Sunday attendance. And the statistics that are presented are often so bizarre that no one could possibly take them seriously. In the latest statistics, possibly our most thriving parish is omitted completely. And one of our smallest parishes – with 38 people present at Christmas – is reported as having 466 congregations (no that is not a typo on my part!) Our diocese, hence, has (without apology, enthusiasm, or explanation) increased from having 237 congregations to having 768 congregations!

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More reflection by Mike Crudge

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9 thoughts on “What Prevents New Zealanders Being Christians?”

  1. Do parishes in NZ have geographical boundaries, like in England or are they anywhere someone wanted to start one, like in all four N American provinces?

    1. I’m not sure, David, what your question leads to, but, yes, parishes have boundaries with the (possibly mostly lost now) understanding that one is responsible for all within one’s parish boundaries – there is also no real “parish membership”. In England parish boundaries have ramifications as the established church that do not apply here. Blessings.

  2. I compared the Australian and NZ studies, which ask mostly the same questions. In the two studies, NZ is not so different from Australia in the pattern of responses Bosco summarizes, but NZ is different in degree. (Perceived) stance of the Church on homosexuality and belief that Christianity entails belief that a loving God send many to hell are the largest blocks to engagement with Christianity in both countries but in NZ to an even greater degree (47% and 45% of the population respectively) than in Australia (31% and 28% respectively). In both countries, Gen Y has more active practitioners of their religion than older generations, alongside fewer of them identifying as Christian. In the Aussi survey Gen Z is even more active – whereas in NZ survey Gen Z is the least active of all. However, the samples of Gen Z in both surveys are small and confidence intervals (sadly not given) must be wide. So more research is needed into the beliefs of this group. Also striking to me that significant numbers of people who do not identify as Christian, nonetheless report believing in Christianity but not regarding themselves as Christian (7%)or believing but having some significant doubts (4%) or believing in Christian ethics and values but not practising (15%), and some Anglicans describe themselves as “Other” rather than Christian (perhaps in order to avoid having to define themselves as either protestant or Catholic). So the NZ survey’s figure of only 33% identifying as Christian is an underestimate for those with a Catholic understanding of faith and salvation. It seems that the socially and theologically conservative view of Christianity domintes perceptions in both countries, but perhaps more so in NZ than Australia, and leads many with some faith to believe that they are not really Christians.

  3. I’ll read the report in more depth later Bosco, but two things jumped out at me.

    ‘Church abuse is the greatest negative influence on the perception of Christianity (76% page 43) – sex abuse and other scandals.’

    The sex abuse ( and the physical abuse before that ) is deplorable, especially the cover-ups, but even without that so many people have experienced abuse in a church, being manipulated financially or into doing or ‘believing’ things which are bad for them or overall unhealthy. Some of it’s overt, some of it’s subtle and subconscious. Many churches have their long-term bullies who make anyone miserable who will not comply, whilst other members who are used to them make excuses for their bad behaviour.

    I was physically injured in one job, had to take weeks off work, unpaid and unsupported, after feeling unable to assert myself to work fewer ( many of them unpaid ) hours. I’ve been sexually harrassed in two churches and one huge church hired me two occasions then did not pay the prearranged fee, first time saying I did not follow their complicated paperwork, second time cancelling last minute because I charge too much ( I don’t )

    I’m 100% committed to my faith ( and profession ) and have been lucky to have had the best friends, examples and mentors, yet I have often found it difficult to be in church…on two continents! And I have seen people treated way worse than my experiences too, used then cast aside, or ostracised for their relationships or unforgiven for basic mistakes. Shunned.

    I think people are wise to avoid or question such situations, and especially this ‘54% (page 18) are repelled by stories of people being healed or supernatural occurrences.’ If some churches will manipulate scripture then the handling of theodicy can become totally crazy-making. It’s got too much bad language to post it all but entertainer and pianist Tim Minchin did a song about a Christian he met who criticised his atheism because God cured the man’s mother’s cataract, whilst seemingly ignoring the plight of millions of others in life-threatening need:
    ‘Now I understand a prayer can work:
    A particular prayer in a particular church
    In a particular style with a particular stuff
    And for particular problems that aren’t particularly tough,
    And for particular people, preferably white
    And for particular senses, preferably sight
    A particular prayer in a particular spot
    To a particular version of a particular god,’

    well, to young people especially, educated and raised to question anything unfair and suspect, there can be a whole ‘give me a break’ vibe about ‘miracles’. I’ve seen miracles and I think it’s seldom appropriate to talk about without seeming glib and uncaring.

  4. I believe this report’s identification of LGBTI issues and the concept of eternal damnation to hell underscore the importance of a Christian response to the very damaging comments of Israel Folau. So far the Churches have been deafening in our silence.

    It is also a wake up call on attitudes to women, for example in the Catholic Church (our Anglican friends
    are somewhat more advanced, at least in Aotearoa NZ).

    The broader problem here is the rate of social change (“Future Shock”) and a society which in some ways is ahead of our rather too conservative Churches in it’s understanding and implementation of the gospel message of radical love.

    Many Blessings

  5. So is there a PWI in New Zealand? (Praying while impaired?) :o). I’m guessing Nelson doesn’t have the signs we do here… “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”. Or they have an * to disclose who is really welcomed. /s

    I can’t believe the Church spends so much time on “The Gays”. You’ve commented on this frequently. There is hunger, there is thirst, there is abuse, corruption; there is so much the Church could be doing to focus on bringing God’s light to the world…. But no. The Gays. That’s the singular issue (or at least in the top 5).

    Yes, we’re fabulous and the world has us to thank for braided belts (when they were in.. they no longer are), baseball caps backwards (you don’t want to know why), and likely teal, but even we feel the Church should focus on making other’s lives better.

    So the Church twists itself into knots to say we are children of God, but disordered or undeserving of the full banquet. We must practice celibacy. We must repent. Got to tell you, that gets tiring. You want us at the party, you want our style tips, our time, our talents, but we can’t drink out of the same fountain?

    So is it surprising that people stop attending? Stop believing? Hmm, I can throw my own party and invite my own guests.

    In one of your prior posts (Changing Christian Teaching), you had beautiful language about how our understanding can change… “…in many areas, a trajectory can be discerned, and that it is in the trajectory that we may hope to find God’s will.” (Simply beautiful, btw!)

    The world changes, climate changes, species die, yet our understanding of relationships can never change? The Church can never change? Read The Lord of the Rings–The time of the elves came to an end… listen to “The actress hasn’t learned the lines” from Evita– “she’ll simply take control as you disappear.” This is a time-worn plot line—if one doesn’t evolve, one dies. If a Church loses relevancy, it dies.

    The Church can continue to feel The Gays are the number one problem, but this report shows what many knew…if the Church isn’t open to them, it’s likely not open to [insert whomever]. It will “simply disappear”.

    Thanks for continuing to provide hope and keeping the light shining on the hypocrisy. Sincerely appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Stephen. I presented about spirituality at a conference last week, and a line I said ended up being tweeted by one of the participants: “The world is interested in spirituality and fascinated with Jesus – but not the Jesus the Church is presenting.” There are church-internal issues we need to be working on – but put little to no energy into. And our time is one in which the life and message of the Gospel could not be more relevant, but we seem intent on frittering away our energy. Blessings.

  6. Yes. The urgent vs important quandary. (Though “urgent” isn’t really the correct term in this instance.). Where can we use our limited resources to do the most good?

    I’ve read several of your posts about spirituality and how many seem to assume there is no area in Christianity. Only in Buddhism. Your writing and the language you use prove that wrong IMhO. The beauty is always there. You continue to provide me with things to ponder. Blessings to you.

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