New Zealand is WEIRD. We belong to a group of countries that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic and which think in a particular way. The acronym WEIRD is apt given how foreign that way of thinking would be to most people– both living and dead.
WEIRD societies see religious belief as an individual preference and see the growth of non-belief as benign. Other societies, including New Zealand a century ago, would see it as a breakdown of social and moral values. WEIRD societies also confuse labels and actualities. In New Zealand up to half of those with “no religion” have religious beliefs (there is a God/Higher Power or life after death) while some with a religious affiliation do not. The 2008 ISSP survey of religion found New Zealanders belong to roughly three equal categories: for about a third their religious or spiritual beliefs were very important to their lives; another third had no interest in religious/spiritual beliefs; and the remaining third are less religious than the first but still believe in a God and may have faith practices, though often not in church. [This paragraph draws on Franco Vaccarino et al, Spirituality and Religion in the Lives of New Zealanders, The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, vol 1 no 2]
As WEIRD countries go, New Zealand is neither particularly religious nor irreligious. At 12.6% the number who stated “I don’t believe in God” is dwarfed by the 52% in Germany and well below the 23% in France or 18% in Great Britain; and our 26.4% who stated “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” is much lower than the 60% in the United States or the 45% in Ireland. [Tom W. Smith, Beliefs about God across Time and Countries, Report for ISSP and GESIS, 2012. http://www.norc.org/PDFs/Beliefs_about_God_Report.pdf]
This means that commentary from other societies may or may not resonate here.
A statistical analysis of our decline shows that most was caused by the rise in No Religion. People have not so much stopped being Presbyterian as being Christian. (In fact 2011 Church Life Survey found over 75% of our members thought it was important to them to belong to this denomination. Only 2% said they would rather be non-denominational.) This suggests we flourish when the Church Universal flourishes and we decline when it does.
However, not all churches have suffered like us. Like elsewhere, we have seen the rise of “non-denominational” churches, and over the 2000s these grew to the point that now they are where most people worship on Sunday. [The graph is based on the New Zealand Electoral Survey which asks both the denomination and the frequency at worship.] An investigation lower North Island churches [This was done using the Charities Commission register combined with the statistics produced by the main denominations.] suggests that most are small, with some very large mega-churches in urban centres; most are not ethnically based, though a sizable minority are; and almost all are theologically conservative. While most have a preference for loud music and “headline” preachers this is not universal. But the major reason why these churches dominate on Sunday is the commitment of their members. They are three times as likely to be in church on a given Sunday than our members (or other old denominations).
In contrast, our attendance rates have been steadily dropping. In 1961 on average each person on the roll attended services 5.3 times a month; by 2009 it was 3.3 times. It is not clear why but it is not because our people are unhappy. The Church life survey found 82% of members thought their parish was “resourcing my spiritual journey well” and 35% said they had experienced “much growth” in their faith. All these are about the same as other mainline denominations. [The 2011 Church Life survey had few of the independent churches participate despite efforts to encourage them.] Further, our members were happier with our children’s programme (though only about the same for youth and young adults).
However, it is clear that the decline in attendance accompanied a drop in private devotions. Our younger members are less likely to read their Bible, pray, or give more than 5% of their income than our older members. This is of concern because experiencing “much growth” was strongly associated with these private devotions. This suggests that the WEIRD-ness of our society may have also reduced the faith-growing activities of those still attending.
However, the Church Life survey did indicate three areas for optimism. First, our member’s beliefs suggest we belong in the conservative part of the theological spectrum where growth has been occurring. That might also explain why we had about 25% of our members have a Baptist, Brethren and new denomination background – a much higher proportion than most mainline churches. Second, our Presbyterian parishes are recruiting new members, with 9 members with less than 5 years in the congregation for every 10 members with over 20 years, though this is lower than the average rate of 14 new members. (Our union churches – with 4 – and co-operating parishes – slightly over 5 – are doing less well). We also have an about average reach into the non-churched community, with 11% reporting that previously they did not go to church at all. Finally, most of our own members see the future as bright. When asked to predict what their own parish will be like in 10 years’ time, over 45% in Presbyterian parishes think it will be bigger and another 30% think it will be the same size, and only 20% think that their parish will have mainly old people. (Again, the pattern is not so positive for union and co-operating parishes. In Uniting parishes 15% think their parish will be bigger and 30% think it will be the same size, and almost 50% think it will be mainly older people.) As these are the people on the ground, who are in a position to judge their church’s situation, and who will have to make it happen, these numbers suggest that we should be optimistic about the rejuvenation of the church.
Dr Margaret Galt is an elder at Wellington St John’s in the City. While she is a Church Property Trustee this article was written in a personal capacity.