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Believing Without Belonging: Church in the Aftermath of the Sixties

By Kevin Ward.

(Although written originally with a New Zealand perspective, we believe this article, and the others which will follow in the next two editions of Ministry Today, offers a number of useful insights into what is happening in westernised Christianity.

Let me begin by identifying the perspective from which I see the world. I am an early baby boomer (born 1949) brought up in a conservative religious home, who left the church in my mid teens, but returned as a young adult and have given a fair proportion of the following years of my life to full time Christian ministry, despite an, at times, problematical relationship with the church.

Over the past three years I have taken funerals for several of my uncles and aunties. This has provided a considerable amount of discussion with a fairly wide network of cousins with whom I grew up, some of who I had not seen for a number of years. On a number of occasions discussion inevitably turned to the subject of church. My mother’s side of the family were deeply religious Brethren, my father’s have been significantly involved in the Anglican church. Within the family my parents’ generation have stayed significantly involved in their respective streams of the church for a whole lifetime.

What of my generation? Of the eight cousins brought up within the Anglican church, most of whom married members of other mainline churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic), none have remained involved in church since student days. Of the ten cousins brought up in conservative evangelical churches (many of whom married outside that stream), three have remained involved since young adulthood. In other words, the drop-out rate in the 60s and early 70s was 83%.

While the statistics may vary, that family story represents a picture of our generation, for whom, in the words of Kris Kristofferson, the things that remind them of religion (church bells, a Sunday School class, a choir singing) “take them back to something they lost sometime, somewhere along the way.”

In 1960, 40% of the primary school children in New Zealand were on the rolls of Sunday Schools, but by 1975 this had dropped to 15%. As a consequence of this, from about 20% of the population being in church on a Sunday in 1960, the figure has dropped to about 10% today, with nearly half of these being pre-boomers (born in 1946 or earlier). This is a pattern that has occurred in all western countries. As one Australian researcher put it: “Alienated from the religion of their parents, almost an entire generation of teenagers and young adults seems to have dropped out of Protestant churches. The socialisation process by which religious affiliation was transmitted from parents to the next generation broke down. The relative absence of young adults of child rearing age has affected church membership figures ever since.”

Not even a memory

A consequence of this is that while for baby boomers Christianity may be a memory in their past, for their children, known as Generation X, it is not even a memory. They never even had the chance to get to the Sunday School stage (by 1980 attendance was 11%). This really struck me when I returned to secondary school teaching in the late 1980s, teaching English literature, a lot of which had religious themes or backgrounds. I found the vast majority had no understanding of even the basics of the Christian faith or the church. This was confirmed by a survey of first year students at Otago University which showed over 40% had never even heard of Adam and Eve. In the late 80s and early 90s there was hope, and numerous reports, that baby boomers were returning to church. It never eventuated. In fact, what became clear as the 90s ended, was that many of those who had stayed in church over the previous 3 decades were in fact now dropping out in mid-life. Peter Brierley found in his research in England that, for the first time, the largest age group of drop-outs was no longer the traditional young adults, but those aged 30 to 45. One consequence of this is that the second largest group of dropouts was children.

Anecdotal evidence in New Zealand indicates similar trends, although we do not have the same survey data to verify this. The seriousness of these trends has been disguised by the profile of some large growing churches (mainly as a result of transfer growth) and growth among ethnic communities.

Is secularisation the problem?

What are the factors that have led to this serious decline of church attendance in western countries like New Zealand? For a long time the major explanation given by academics was the secularisation thesis. Under the influence of leading sociologists, this declared that, as society became increasingly modernised, religion would eventually disappear. Perhaps the most famous expression of this was the cover of Time Magazine in the mid 60s which asked, “Is God Dead?” and claimed that for modern individuals traditional religion was no longer plausible. However, the thesis has had a hard time of it over the past 20 years, and Peter Berger, one of the leading proponents, declared that “By the late 1970s, it had been falsified with a vengeance.” It is now hard to find sociologists who still hold to the secularisation thesis in the sense of the ultimate demise of religion. We must look elsewhere if we are to explain the decline of church attendance rather than at the convenient scapegoat of secularism so often wheeled out by church leaders.

What has emerged in more recent research done in countries like New Zealand is that, despite the fact that church attendance has been experiencing serious decline, people have continued to remain overwhelmingly religious. An article in the American Demographics magazine on religion concludes that “Amid the crumbling foundations of organized religion, the spiritual supermarket is on the rise. Numerous surveys show that Americans are as religious as ever - perhaps even more than ever.” Similarly in Canada, where church attendance is at levels much closer to that in New Zealand than is the US, the leading researcher of religious trends declares that “Belief in a supernatural dimension of reality is widespread, and shows no sign of abating.” Australian researchers state that “the myth of Australia the secular society needs to be put aside” when 85% believe in God and two thirds say they pray, half that number once a week or more. It is much more difficult to make the same kind of absolute statements about New Zealand because the research data here is much less. The most helpful, the Massey ISSP Survey carried out in 1991 and 1998, indicates if anything a slight increase in religious believing. For instance, certain belief in God was indicated by 31% of people, up from 29%; belief in life after death was up from 57% to 60%; and 30% of people indicated they prayed several times a week, up from 22%. There is no identical survey to go back further, but Webster and Perry’s study done in 1985 would seem to support the view that religious believing had at least held its own. Different questions were asked so it is difficult to make exact comparisons but there seems to have been little if any decline.

Spiritual journeys, but outside the Church

What all this means then is that in New Zealand, as in all western countries, we have not seen the gradual extinction of religious believing as the twentieth century ran to its conclusion. Instead, many of the generation who left the institutional church in droves in the 60s and 70s, rather than becoming unbelieving secularists, have continued on a spiritual journey. The great tragedy for the Christian church is that even though this searching continues to be shaped significantly by the Christian tradition, most of it has been occurring outside of the church. This has created the paradox of a highly spiritual culture yet declining involvement in organised religion. In other words, it appears that people who are seeking spiritual experience and meaning in their lives are not finding it presented in a form that meets their values and aspirations in what the church has continued to offer. My personal view is that this is because, while the values, attitudes and styles of the surrounding culture underwent a profound change beginning with the counter culture of the 60s and coming home to roost with a vengeance in the 90s, the church has continued to be shaped by a set of values, attitudes and styles that belonged to a previous era. As a consequence, whenever it has knocked on the door of the vast majority of the under 50s they have responded, “No thanks, I’m shopping elsewhere.”

Of the various trends that have developed, five in particular seem to have significantly impacted the church.

1. Individualism. Many studies have indicated that, since the 60s, western societies have seen rising levels of self-centred individualism. As a result, increasing numbers have come to believe that churchgoing and church authority are optional and no longer necessary to sustain spirituality and faith, or to be a good Christian. A common theme in the emerging literature on the religiosity of the baby boom generation is a distinction between personal spirituality (which is viewed positively) and organised religion (which is viewed negatively). Wade Clark Roof, who has been studying the religious journey of baby boomers since the mid 1980s, describes this changing perspective on religion as a radical shift from an ethic of self denial to an ethic of self-fulfilment. It results in a religion “functionally and spatially located in the self. Individuals are free to create their own religious faith and consecrate their own sacred space. This kind of religious individualist neither wants nor feels the need for formal religious institutions.”

2. Privatism. This term is used to describe the way in which people live their lives less in public and more in private or within the family. Individuals in modern society have to move among a host of different institutions that no longer form parts of an integrated whole. Each has its own values and beliefs, so integration can now only be achieved on an individual level. As a consequence, instead of religion being a central and integrating force for all of life, it is banished to the private sphere of life. It becomes “more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more private than public. As a result, rather than being committed to the church for the sake of the church itself to which one owes something, people are involved to the extent that, and as long as, it benefits their own private lives. Certainly this is a complaint I frequently hear from pastors today.

3. Pluralism. Members of the post-war generation were exposed to pluralism of all kinds. This is much more than just the arrival of a few more religious options, such as the Hare Krishna, Muslims or New Age spiritualities. Even more important is the changing mix of peoples and cultures in most western countries, including New Zealand, that began to emerge in the 1960s and has accelerated in the past two decades. The rapid globalisation of this period has brought many differing people, cultures and lifestyles into the same space, particularly in the cities where people have increasingly chosen to live. Rather than living in small communities where similar beliefs and values are held by the vast majority, people now live next to, work alongside and play with people who may hold a wide diversity of view points. Obviously the more varied, or plural, the beliefs held in a community or society, the weaker the reinforcement is for any one particular set of beliefs. They can no longer be ‘taken for granted’ as ‘just the way things are’. Consequently, when individuals are faced with making choices in life about all kinds of things, they are faced with a multiplicity of options that were simply not available to previous generations. There is no longer only one way. In addition, the social cost that previously went with choosing an alternative set of beliefs, values or lifestyle is greatly diminished because of the next factor.

4. Relativism. If pluralism describes a social and cultural reality, relativism is an attitude that allows one to live comfortably and at peace in such a diverse setting. It is an attitude that casts doubt on the whole concept of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and bad. In an increasingly pluralistic society, how do you live alongside those who hold different religious beliefs, moral standards or gender and sexual preferences? A belief that you are right and they are wrong becomes increasingly difficult to hold. So tolerance becomes the great virtue of contemporary society, as it is the only way a diverse mix of often diametrically opposed cultures, lifestyles and beliefs can coexist together. In this context a Christianity that claims to be the only way, to know the only truth, becomes highly problematical. How can Buddhists be so completely wrong and damned forever when they are your very pleasant, caring, moral neighbours with whom your children play?

5. Anti-institutionalism. In the previous era, church-going was an expression of belonging and civic responsibility. However in the 60s and 70s many young people experienced widespread alienation from many institutions of society. It was the era of Vietnam, and Watergate, in New Zealand of Bastion Point and Muldoon. Many developed a deep cynicism toward public institutions as well as an inclination to make autonomous decisions irrespective of conventional mores or traditions. One legacy of the era has been a heightened sense of the view that institutions should serve individuals and not vice versa. So when the institution is no longer doing this people no longer feel a need to belong or contribute. Many boomers and Gen Xers have come to view the church as demanding they serve it, rather than feeling it serves them. While this attitude has affected the church, it has also affected a wide range of institutions in our society, with voluntary organisations of all kinds finding it difficult to recruit members. For example, sport has become increasingly highly valued in our society, and yet sport at an organised level for adults is really struggling in almost every code. In an article called Bowling Alone, one American researcher points out that while the numbers of people bowling has reached an all time high, numbers in organised bowling leagues are at an all time low. It is not then that the post-war generations have been less interested in the religious dimension of life, but their distrust of institutions means that increasing numbers of them believe that religious organisations are more likely to hinder than help them in their search for a satisfying spirituality.

The consequences of these changes are that organised religion has been having a rather hard time of it over the past four decades. It means that an increasing gap has grown between religious believing and belonging. While people are apparently increasingly concerned to nurture the spiritual dimension of life, find answers to questions of meaning in life, prepare for whatever happens at the end of physical life, they see organised religion in the form of the institutional church as being increasingly irrelevant to those issues. Increasing numbers are “believing without belonging”. Wade Clark Roof in his most recent book writes that,

“A decade ago these questions were raised by Boomers who felt at odds with the religious culture of the churches; today these same concerns are most likely raised by those younger, the Generation Xers. In either instance, it is less a protest of religion in the deepest sense... than a response to institutional styles that are unfamiliar or seemingly at odds with life experiences as these people know them.”

Roof describes the world of these generations as a “quest culture” in which spiritual ferment is readily apparent.

An escalating fascination with spirituality

Robert Wuthnow in his exploration of American spirituality since the 1950s likewise tracks an escalating fascination with spirituality, as the culture has moved from what he calls a “spirituality of dwelling” where God is identified with particular places, such as church, to a “spirituality of seeking” in which individuals seek to negotiate their own way through an increasingly complex maze. In similar fashion the movie and television industries indicate the intensity of spiritual searching in our culture with movies such as The Matrix, Keeping the Faith, Sixth Sense, End of Days and Stigmata among a host of others and television programmes such as Touched by an Angel, The X Files, Promised Land and the increasingly spiritual dimension of Star Trek. Clearly they are still singing the song with which U2 began the 90s, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” If this is the market, why is it that the church is struggling so much in countries like New Zealand? Is this current quest a false one, and until their eyes are opened to the truth we hold, they will not find it? Or could it just be that while we know the God they are seeking, the containers in which we present it are so hide bound by values, attitudes and styles, by forms and demands that are anathema to so many of our contemporaries? To adapt Paul’s analogy from 2 Corinthians 4, the containers are so warped and cracked that people cannot imagine they might contain the treasure of Christ.

The Church a museum piece?

The reality of this was brought home to me on a recent flight from Auckland to Wellington. I sat in my seat, pleased to have the chance to catch up on some reading. I had a book titled The Postwar Generation and Establishment Religion. Two women about my age came and sat next to me, off to a self defence conference for the weekend. I saw the woman next to me glance at the book, and after about ten minutes she said, “I just have to ask you what is the book you are reading about? I’m incredibly interested in that.” So that was the end of my reading for the rest of the flight. She told me she had a new flat mate, a born again Christian who went to a large Pentecostal church. But it was terrible, all so judgmental, demanding and controlling and just weird fanatics. That’s not what it’s about surely. A bit further on she told me her parents in Taupo were church- goers, good Anglicans, and, when she went to see them, she went to church - but that had been her lot since she was a teen as far as church was concerned. Last year was absolutely terrible for her (including a nasty marriage breakup) and when she was in church at the end of the year she prayed really hard and told God if he got her through this she would go to church every week. So when she got back home off she went to an Anglican church. The large building she entered was occupied by only a few scattered people, nearly all over 60. In addition it was so boring and irrelevant. She hasn’t been again since. So what does she do? Earnestly seeking God, spiritual resources and meaning for her life, but faced seemingly with the choice between an irrelevant “museum piece” (to use her words) and a bunch of judgmental, controlling, demanding, weird fanatics. Are there no other options?

Over the next two articles I will explore some of the factors and issues that I believe need to shape our church life as it seeks to connect with the spiritual seeking that is going on in our unchurched, dechurched and postchurched culture.

The Revd Kevin Ward is a lecturer in PracticalTheology at the Bible College of New Zealand. He holds a Masters degree in history and is completing a PhD examining the impact of social and cultural changes on the church in New Zealand.

Ministry Today

You are reading Believing Without Belonging: Church in the Aftermath of the Sixties by Kevin Ward, part of Issue 26 of Ministry Today, published in October 2002.

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