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Losing Our Religion or Populating the Pews?

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

New Zealand has grown to be a multi-cultural nation and encompasses a wide range of groups and beliefs. But as of the 2018 census, statistics show almost half of our population doesn’t identify with any religion. As churches all over the country celebrate somewhat differently this Good Friday and Easter Sunday, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, elocal looks at the history of Christianity in New Zealand and whether it is still relevant.

Christianity in New Zealand dates back to the arrival of the missionaries in the early 19th century. It quickly became our largest religious group although it wasn’t officially adopted and there was no official state church.

The first Christian service conducted in New Zealand was by Rev. Samuel Marsden, an English born priest of the Church of England in Australia and a prominent member of the Church Missionary Society that is believed to have introduced Christianity to New Zealand. At Te Puna in the Bay of Islands there is a monument known as the ‘Marsden Cross’ that commemorates the site where the first service was held on Christmas Day, 1814. Held in an open space by the beach and attended by Europeans and Maori, rough planks and upturned boats served as seating and a temporary altar and reading desk were draped with native black cloth and European white duck. Three weeks later, on the second Sunday in 1815, another service was held, this time in a building at the Mission Station that was advanced enough in construction to be used a church, making it the first ‘church’ building in New Zealand.

Other places of worship in Waimate North and Kaitaia were created and by 1840, the commencement of official colonisation with these and other settlements replaced primitive structures with properly designed churches built of timber, some capable of seating 300-400 people. Later, somewhere between 1870 and 1880 these structures were again replaced by churches with steep roofs, tall spires and larger windows in the manner of the Gothic revival, one of two styles favoured in church architecture based on European medieval style.

Marsden was believed to have such a strong and dynamic personality that he was untiring in his efforts to spread the word, especially in his efforts to convert Maori to Christianity, despite their own creations of the religion, Ratana and Ringatu. As a result, he had an impact on the history of New Zealand with the mission ultimately a great success opening a door for British influence and settlement outside of a religious context.

When Samuel Marsden died in May 1838, the conversion of Christianity continued with William Colenso, another Christian missionary and printer who introduced the first printing press to our shores. That same year, the complete First Testament was printed in Maori. This had a profound impact as the Maori written language had no form of written script prior to the printing, and by the middle of the 19th century, two thirds of Maori had rejected their old ways and turned to the Christian message.

In 1851, New Zealand had its first official census, confined to Europeans (the first Maori census began in 1926) The 1851 census revealed a population of 26,707. With a decidedly smaller population than today, census records showed 93 per cent of that population classified themselves as Christian, while non-Christian sectors made up 0.24 per cent and other specified religions at 6.41 per cent. Since 1881, censuses have been held very five years with only four exceptions, 1931, 1941, 1946 and 2011.

Since the 1960’s the number of people affiliating themselves with Christianity has been slowly in decline, but the numbers associated with regular church attendance has roughly stayed the same since 2013, with a 10-16 per cent weekly attendance, meaning church goers have never been the majority.

Despite this, in New Zealand, particularly in some areas, churches are thriving and even expanding.

Pastor of Crossroads Church in Mangatangi (with an outreach to Pokeno) Steve Millward has been fortunate enough to see this first hand having pastored at the church since he, his wife Ruth and family moved to the area in 1997.

Steve says that Crossroads, a church with a difference, is a place for everyone from retirees and those who work, live or go to school locally or in the city.

“What was once a monocultural church is now ethnically and demographically diverse and we have a lot of commuters and a lot of professionals which is astonishing considering we are a true country church, the nearest shop is 10 km away. “

He says while a lot of country churches are struggling and some have closed, he is grateful they’re talking about expanding and there are a multitude of reasons people keep coming back each week.

“For some, we’re the closest church within 15 minutes, although some will travel from further away to come to us and another reason is our relevancy. We really try to focus on being a 21st century and we are contemporary. In the country, you can be isolated, and it can lead to depression and other challenges which can you leave you in a bad place. The social aspect of rural churches is important, and we have the space to offer something for all ages and a chance to interact, from five year olds, to youth and adults. Plus, we’re unique, offer great coffee and people seem to like us – Ruth my wife, our team of leaders and what we do!” ‘It takes a team to achieve the dream.’

Set on ten acres of land amongst trees and gardens with an indoor, outdoor flow and barista made coffee, Crossroads offers something refreshing and unique to the average country church while encompassing their vision to be a vibrant and loving serving community and ensuring it is a safe place where people want to grow.

Steve, Ruth and team also recognise the importance of rural churches and perhaps a stronger connection with Christianity in these areas, how it is embraced or shunned and people’s personal decisions.

“We recently had a presentation here that showed (from census figures) there is an increase of under twenty five year old’s going back to church, which is a personal choice. This is encouraging. And I feel this reflects the emptiness there is in materialism - the philosophy that there is no God, no life after death, no purpose in life once you’re gone, other than what we do right now. It doesn’t offer a lot of dignity, hope or love and it doesn’t place eternal value on a human life, and I wonder if there is an connection between the emptiness of materialism, the suicide rate in NZ, and the fact that more under 25’s are coming back to Church.”

He says where Christianity has been embraced in a healthy way, it has a done a lot of good for people and where it has been exploited, it has done harm. He also thinks the decline of Christianity in New Zealand over the years could simply be due to a boring experience when we were younger, or that church was presented in an irrelevant way.“

“I think a lot of people have had those experiences and that experience has influenced people into thinking they don’t need Church.

On top of that, he says media can also present churches as dull, completely irrelevant, and of course there is a lot of competition on Sundays.

“I think if there were other organisations in NZ that had upwards of 430,000 people going to their events each week, people would say, “that’s huge!” That’s what is happening throughout New Zealand in churches every Sunday. It’s the biggest thing that goes on, but for whatever reason its covered up or isn’t publicised enough, or just gets bad press.

“We’re a pretty comfortable and safe nation and when we’re facing hardship or crisis, people often find that there is a greater hope than materialism and start asking questions and become more open to coming to church. Embraced in a healthy way, Christianity has done a lot of good and offers hope, community and love to people.”

Right now, with the new norm of social distancing and isolation with the corona virus, and the global fear stalking our planet, the hope, comfort and love of the Christian faith and the Christian faith community is needed now more than ever. With Sunday Services non existent many churches including Crossroads, are connecting to their congregations using online mediums.

As New Zealand begins to chart the untested waters of the near future similar to the journey the first Christians made as they worked to establish Christianity’s first foothold in the antipodes, Pastor Steve Millward, his wife Ruth and team at Crossroads church are reacting to the ever changing environment, and at the same time helping to mould and support the growth of the community.

The notion of a relevant and healthy growing church may be foreign to many of you reading this, but in many ways it is simply a response to a need.

The world we live in is vastly different to the New Zealand of old, but the pioneering spirit required to see a need and react to it is the same. While providing spiritual anchorage for his flock, Steve Millward and Ruth and team are the living embodiment of those 200 year old missionaries and even though the overall percentage of the population that identifies as religious is dropping, the community still needs country churches like Crossroads.

“Where Christianity has been embraced in a health way, it has done a lot of good for people; where it has been exploited, it has done harm.”

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elocal Digital Edition – April 2020 (#229)

elocal Digital Edition
April 2020 (#229)

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