Today at church I was reminded of the awesomeness of Jesus.

This shouldn’t be surprising as I am a part of a church where Jesus is always preached. Sermons are bibilical, faith-building and uplifting. What surprised me was just how effective a simple sermon was in changing my thinking and my general demeanour. It took my mind off myself and my ponderings and put it on God, where it ought to have been. The sermon was tightly focussed on Jesus and delivered with conviction, humility and humour. I was surprised at how much I needed this reminder of the main foundation of our faith. 

The sermon came at the end of a week musing on the recently released 2018 census. As a researcher who works at Carey, I was keen to look at the data and to consider why those who say they have no religion (48.6%) now outnumber Christians (37.3%). What follows is a quick and dirty analysis of the available data, and my initial musings (by which I really mean, there is no deep analysis, so please don’t expect any 😊).

For most of us, the decline in Christianity was expected as it follows the trend that has been occurring for some time. The graph below clearly shows the trend. There is a consistently downward trend for those identifying as Christians. There is an equally consistent upward trend for those that claim no religion.  

In absolute numbers the increase in people of no religion is huge. Close to 630,000 more people than the previous census claimed to have no religion. The Humanists who campaigned for people to proudly claim “no religion” on the census must be gleeful.  

 

Most of us Christians, myself included, simply saw the census as a neutral count of the population. We embraced it as likely to give a more honest picture, knowing that the number of practicing Christians is far below those numbers we see in the census. In his excellent and thought-provoking blog, my colleague Mike Crudge contends that the 16% of church-goers (The McCrindle Report, May 2018) are the real Christians in the country (access Mike’s blog here). Some would argue that those who attend church weekly ought to be considered the true church in Aotearoa New Zealand. That is just 9% of the population. However one sees the true church, we would be, on the whole I think, happy to accept that the census would show a decline in Christians and this would more truly represent the actual situation. It never occurred to us to campaign for those “ticks” on the census form.

The Humanists however, saw the census as a tool to undergird their agenda for power in our nation and campaigned hard. The extent of the impact of their campaign is unknown, but we can be sure that now that they officially outnumber religious people of any type, they will campaign even harder for their agenda for a completely secular society. They’ll stand on values of fairness and equity—so legitimate in a democratic state—and I don’t think we’ve really begun to see what that might mean for the practice of our faith. We can expect the National Anthem, tax exemptions for churches and Bible in Schools to permanently go the way of the prayer in parliament. We can expect to see Christmas and Easter celebrations under stronger attack as unfairly privileging one religion in a religiously pluralistic and majority secular society, but I suspect that these are just the obvious ones. So although we have been sliding away from being a Christian country for a long time, it is now official and I wonder if we will look back and mark this as the beginning of a time of more rapid and radical secularisation—or perhaps it is just a marker point as we continue on the existing trajectory which is already quite rapid. We won’t have to wait long to find out.

I agree with my colleague Mike that it is better to know that the real church is a small minority and rid ourselves of any possible delusion that Jesus has more support here than he actually does. Although I accept the reality, I don’t want to accept the inevitability of ongoing decline. I want to see the Church grow, and I’m a Baptist so I want our Baptist whānau to grow. But we’re definitely not.

According to the census, we have 15,000 fewer people identifying as Baptist in the 2018 census than the 2013 census. That represents a 28% reduction of those who identify as Baptist. This is a steeper decline than the percentage decline for Christians overall (21%). This graph shows the comparison quite clearly. The blue trendline shows a much more marked overall decline for Baptists from 2001 to 2018, than for Christians as a whole, indicated by the orange trendline. 

Some of this might possibly be the result of Baptists taking longer to experience the downward trend than other denominations. Regardless, the losses from last census to this one are particularly large.

The census paints a picture of mass exodus from our movement. Obviously not all of these ‘lost’ people were members or even attended Baptist churches regularly, or at all. However, as an indicator of the magnitude of this loss, the decrease represents sixty-four fewer people for every Baptist church or fellowship in New Zealand from 2012 to 2017.[1] That’s enormous.

I wondered how all the other denominations fared in the census, so I created the table and graph below.

The picture of decline is pretty consistent for every mainline Christian denomination. Only the combined category of “Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist” showed a significant increase. The group of “Christian not further defined” has grown slightly as has the combined total of all the other smaller Christian groups (added together by me, only for this graph). It is worth noting that Pentecostal churches have shrunk in terms of percent of total population but grown in absolute numbers of people identifying as Pentecostal.

I am not sure what all this decline means for the current and future church in Aotearoa. I do know that pondering these things made me melancholy even though I fully expected these census results and in one sense welcomed them as more honest. I am on the cusp of Baby Boomer and Gen X and it is a bald fact that the decline has occurred on our watch. The statistics show that we Baby Boomer Baptists evangelised effectively back in the day, but by the early 2000s we clearly weren’t able to lead and sustain churches that people were proud to claim as theirs. Mostly it’s my generation still leading our churches and I wonder if this is appropriate. I strongly suspect that it is not.

The Christian response to recent events at Ihumatāo gives me hope for the generations below mine to turn the trendline upwards. Young Carey students and their whānau were invited to run what became the most innovative church I have seen in a very long while. Dubbed “Church of the Good Vibes” by the locals, the students and their whānau curate 12 hour worship services on Sundays for a mostly non-christian, unchurched crowd. They have had to dig deep to find ways to worship God that resonate for their audience, and in the process have de-colonised much of what has traditionally been church. It’s not church as we know it, it’s not evangelism either, but it is resonating and people are turning towards God in genuine worship.

I am proud of our students at Ihumatāo but Carey can’t take any credit there. We couldn’t have predicted their situation and we didn’t yet have the capability to train them for it (Ngā Pou Amorangi is a step in the right direction)–but God is undoubtedly there, doing what God does—creating something where there was previously nothing; building His church in unexpected ways. It’s exciting and fresh.

I’m too old to sense what church might be like in the future, but just like the “Church of the Good Vibes” I’m sure it will be surprising and that my generation will not be prepared for it. My hope is that we will see what God is doing and stand down from our positions of power and allow the new to flourish, secure in knowing that we can support it from behind with the experience and wisdom we have from our many years of serving God. It won’t be ours to run for it is clear from my ponderings, that our time will very soon be over—if it is not already?

So, in my role at Carey I fully hope to follow in the footsteps of giants like Brian Smith and Laurie Guy who, having served faithfully in lead roles at college, now serve equally faithfully in supporting roles—Brian teaching in the Ethnic Ministry Training programme and Laurie tutoring Māori and Pasifika students in academic writing skills. They are my Baby Boomer role models. I note with joy that there are young graduates and current students at Carey who will bring dimensions to a role like mine, that I could never even dream of. Soon they will lead. I welcome that as I love Carey and the role we have in helping to build the kingdom, through theological training. I want it to be the best it can be, and to be a part of turning the curve on those statistics requires new ideas and energy as well as the stability of the tried and true. It is my hope that Carey becomes even better at training students, whānau and communities to be relational, innovative and fearless in their servanthood of Christ, able to take on the challenge of leading in mercurial situations like Ihumatāo. But I also hope that Carey will continue to train students to preach great, Christ centred sermons like the one I just heard. That sermon was delivered by a young Carey student, in his first year of training. It was his first time preaching and he did an outstanding job delivering a very appropriate sermon to one of our more conservative Baptist congregations. As a Carey staff member I was proud of the student and of the college for without training, this student would not have mastered preaching in such a way.

I’m sure the sermon won’t result in better census results for Baptists, but in church today as this young student spoke about Jesus and reminded me again of what Christian faith is all about, I relaxed, convinced the statistics don’t really matter.

To end, let me quote the scripture from that sermon. If we really believe it, we’ll not worry about the future of the church.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  

Colossians 1:15-20

Dr Sandy Kerr

Kaiārahi-Rangahau Māori and lecturer, Research Methods in Applied Theology (Carey Graduate School)

[1] There were 234 Baptist churches and fellowships at last count. Source: Baptist Yearbook, 2018.