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Lessons from the New Zealand Church

By Derek Allan.

I must begin with a disclaimer: I am not an expert on the church in New Zealand and what follows is based on my personal experience and impressions from eight years as senior pastor of one Baptist church. My comments will inevitably be coloured by the fact that most of my networking was among fellow-Baptists, but I hope that most of what I have to say will find a wider currency.

Some Background Reflections

My first visit to New Zealand was in 2001, when I used part of a sabbatical to study a church-planting movement in the 1990’s there among Baptists. I travelled fairly widely on both main islands and was introduced to over a dozen situations where people were planting churches. I came away with the impression of a young country still harbouring a pioneering mentality.

And New Zealand is a young country! Following a few decades in which most of the Europeans to find their way to New Zealand were in pursuit of whales and women, the first recorded Christian sermon in the country was by one Samuel Marsden, on Christmas Day 1814. This year is therefore the bi-centenary of the arrival of the Gospel in the country and it is being commemorated by a wide variety of initiatives. It is fair to ask how deeply the Gospel has penetrated Kiwi society in those two hundred years, and the answer would be as difficult to summarize as assessing the state of the British church. New Zealand is a ‘Christian country’ in the same sense that the UK is. Also like the UK, certain parts of the church are flourishing whilst others have seen better days. 

This can be seen by comparing answers to the religion question in the census of 2013 to those from 2006. How people complete the question on religion on a census form is not necessarily an accurate indication of the spiritual life of a nation, but these figures at least highlight some trends:

 

2006

2013

Anglican

554,925

459,771

Baptist

56,913

54,345

Catholic

508,437

492,108

Christian nfd

( = not further defined)

186,234

216,177

Methodist

121,806

102,879

Pentecostal

79,155

74,259

Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed

400,839

330,519

Other Christian Religions

108,924

107,799

(Latter-day Saints = Mormons

43,539

40,725)

Total people, Christian religions

   2,027,421

         1,858,980  

 

There is a clear story of decline amongst the historic denominations. Only those Christians classified as “not further defined” show an increase. With the population rising by over 200,000 in the period, the decline is even more disappointing. 

By contrast, figures for some non-Christian religions show sharp increases, mainly fuelled by immigration:

Buddhist

52,362

58,407

Hindu

64,389

89,919

Islam/Muslim

36,072

46,146

Sikh

9,507

19,191

 

It’s also noteworthy that the total of people ticking NO RELIGION rose from 1,297,104 to 1,635,348.

I think that we can conclude that, like many other Western nations, New Zealand is moving away from its previously Christian roots and is becoming less ‘religious’ - with much greater diversity among those who do profess any religious affiliation. So even if New Zealand is not exactly the Promised Land ...

What can we learn from New Zealand?

I would not want to give the impression that New Zealand has everything sorted (and nor would leaders in the Kiwi churches). Some of what we can learn from New Zealand would be about avoiding their faults and mistakes, but there are plenty of positives to embrace:

1. Kiwi can-do mentality

This relates to the pioneering spirit that I mentioned earlier. Kiwis are much more likely to look for ways of achieving something than to look for reasons why it cannot be done! This statement will provoke envy in those of us who have endured church meetings where avoiding new initiatives and preserving the status quo was the not-so-hidden agenda of an entrenched party. New Zealanders pride themselves on “Kiwi ingenuity” and their proverbial ability to fix almost anything with Number 8 Wire (intended for fencing in sheep and cattle, but put to myriad uses!). This mindset transfers itself to church life, with positive outcomes.

The figures given for decline in numbers are a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, NZ Baptists have experienced their first decline after a century of growth, whereas Baptist numbers in the UK peaked around the time of World War 1 and have been declining ever since. It is easier to cultivate a ‘can-do’ mentality in a time of growth.

2. Entrepreneurship

In addition to the ‘can-do’ mentality, I was struck by the number of churches that were running agencies and even businesses alongside their more traditional roles. These might include childcares, cafes, sheltered housing and agencies part-funded by government or local authorities to tackle youth unemployment, poverty or other social issues. Many churches have trusts set up for such purposes, with the trustees nominated by the church. This approach can obviously give the church a meaningful way in to its community, though such initiatives are subject to market forces and the whim of funding bodies. For example, the long-established Childcare at Hamilton Central was recently obliged to close because of increased competition from new childcare facilities springing up around the city, and particularly in areas of new housing.

3. Readiness to Plant

New Zealand is a very young country indeed. There were no human beings there until Maori began to arrive about a thousand years ago, and European settlement is barely 200 years old. This means that New Zealand’s history has been one of rapid change and development, which has had its effect on the churches; they have been planted as towns and cities have expanded, but also closed when once-flourishing settlements declined when  the economic activity which brought them into being also declined (notably mining  or timber production).

This story of rapid development and change is the background to a readiness to plant churches. The oldest church building in New Zealand, in Russell (Bay of Islands) dates back to 1840, so it is fair to say that the history of the NZ church is a history of church-planting.

The pattern has not always been of churches following population. In the cities there is also considerable church-planting activity arising from (often Pentecostal) streams eager to extend their reach. Successful independent churches have a tendency to want to take their formula elsewhere, opening up a well-resourced branch church in another city, often without consultation with existing churches. These plants sometimes take the form of youth congregations, which can reach teenagers and students, but which can also have the effect of depleting the numbers of young people in more established churches by attracting them into a youth-culture environment.

4. Charismatic Influence

The charismatic movement was very influential in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and has left a significant and mainly positive legacy, particularly among evangelical churches. Certainly in the Baptist circles in which I moved, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were regarded as a normal part of church life. Prayer ministry for healing or other needs was also an accepted feature, often based on the Vineyard model. Depending on your point of view, this might be seen either as a healthy return to New Testament norms or as the result of Pentecostal practices entering the melting-pot that is the Kiwi church.

5. Flexibility between denominations / streams

What might be called a “charismatic consensus” may partly explain the fluidity I found between denominations and even their ministries. It is no secret that denominational loyalties have been eroding for decades in many countries, but it was something of a surprise that Kiwi ministers would switch quite so readily from denomination to denomination. My predecessor at Hamilton Central Baptist had not come from a Baptist background and had moved out of Baptist circles when he moved on. My own associate pastor at Hamilton Central Baptist was from an AOG background and I discovered that a recently departed associate pastor had become an ordained Anglican.

Whilst the weakening of denominational boundaries may be welcome, the Kiwi experience in this regard is not wholly positive. There was considerable lateral movement of church-goers from one church/stream to another (and sometimes back again), as people shopped around for the church that suited them best. What effects will this consumerist phenomenon have? It could lead either to the blurring of denominational distinctives, as one stream becomes indistinguishable from another, or to their being rediscovered and reaffirmed. Time will tell. The lateral movement of ministers will surely tend towards eroding denominational identities.

6. Recognition/Accreditation of Ministers

Although denominational loyalty (even among ministers) proved to be fairly weak, I was impressed by the Baptist approach to recognition/accreditation. Ordination was set aside among New Zealand Baptists some time ago, but anyone wanting recognition as a pastor has both to acquire suitable training and sign up to an ongoing learning contract, which includes agreed reading and other study options, regular mentoring, and attendance at denominational conferences and training events. Failure to keep up with the demands of the learning contract would imperil the minister’s status. The points system covering these areas smacked slightly of Brownies, but at least ensured that the minister’s relationship to the denomination was dynamic rather than static.

7. Consultancy or Superintendency?

Again writing from my experience of Kiwi Baptists, the role of the central organisation in resourcing and enabling its member churches in mission and ministry has been a matter of often intense debate. Broadly speaking, superintendency was abandoned some ten years ago in favour of a consultancy programme aimed at encouraging “Healthy Churches”. Although this programme produced notable results in many quarters, lack of suitable regional oversight led to numerous difficulties and some fragmentation. There is now a move afoot to reintroduce regional oversight, with the regions taking much more responsibility than previously (prompted by the cost of central programmes proving unsustainable).

The Association in which I served, the Waikato, had defied the national move away from superintendency to the extent of employing a former denominational leader in a part-time role as a quasi-superintendent - whilst embracing the value of consultancy. The message is surely that both approaches have much to offer, side by side.

Neither the former regime of superintendency nor the focus on consultancy managed to address the problem of so many ministers dropping out of ministry, resulting in considerable personal heartache among those who had felt insufficiently supported by the system – not to mention a dearth of ministers with enough experience to take on large churches.

8. Size of Churches

The question of the right size for a church is never going to receive a simple answer, and this is not the place to enter into a discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of different sizes. However, in New Zealand I came across a considerable number of larger, multi-staffed churches (including my own) that gave me a fresh appreciation of what they can achieve. Some of the church plants were started with over 100 members because the mother church was large enough to do this, and the expectation was that the plant would go on from strength to strength. Large-scale churches were able to offer excellent ministries to children and youth, with the result that they attracted many families, although this would often be at the expense of smaller churches, of course. Large churches can also take risks without destabilising their futures. There were also many examples of pastor-and-wife teams jointly leading larger churches – clearly not an option for a church struggling to support even one pastor. 

A less attractive feature of some large churches, particularly among the Pentecostal and the ethnic churches, was an emphasis on tithing as an obligation, even a condition of membership. The grandiose premises and programmes of such churches were often literally built by insisting on tithing. An insistence on tithing was not confined to the larger churches, but empires have been built by making it a condition of being in good standing. From time to time the secular press would feature articles on the lavish life-styles of some pastors (usually of independent churches), whilst pointing out the fact that many ordinary church-goers were tithing very modest incomes.

9. Schools and Schooling

New Zealand schools do not conduct a daily act of worship. However, many (mainly) primary schools do welcome a non-denominational organisation called Bible in Schools which teaches an agreed syllabus through local volunteers in a slot which is in school time, but not officially part of the school day. The fact that Kiwi secularists are currently mounting a sustained campaign to have Bible in Schools stopped is probably an indication of its value!

At least Bible in Schools is a coordinated attempt to bring Christian teaching to schoolchildren, rather than leaving any initiative to individual local churches. Concern to reach children of school age is also evident in two other Kiwi trends:

  • A number of Christian schools (as distinct from denominational ones), offering a caring environment and teaching the national curriculum from an overtly Christian viewpoint – often with an emphasising creationism.
  • A further step away from the state school system is home-schooling, which its exponents regard as guarding Christian and family values against the secular environment of state schools. There are networks of home-schoolers and, in a city the size of Hamilton, they were able to come together for sporting, musical and drama activities in order to minimise the disadvantages of isolation. 

My observation is that both the Christian schools and the home-schoolers were producing mainly good outcomes, academically as well as spiritually and socially. Though both streams are unlikely to set trends in the UK, at least their concern about the secular norms of state education is worthy of consideration.

Negatives from which to learn

Having celebrated the vitality and can-do attitude of Kiwi Christians and looked at some of the features of Kiwi church life that we might envy, there are some negatives from which we might also learn:

Ecumenism

The ecumenical scene in New Zealand was disappointing, with little evidence of any formal links beyond occasional meetings of heads of denominations and churches. What does happen ecumenically (in the very broadest sense of that term) happens at local level, if at all. Again speaking from my experience in Hamilton, meetings of local pastors and Christian leaders were not well attended and joint action proved practically impossible. Everyone pleaded their busy-ness or immersion in denominational activities - even when the celebration of the bi-centenary of the Gospel in New Zealand was on the table. Sadly, a degree of competitiveness was evident at times, coupled with unwillingness to take a lead from anyone else. Whilst British ecumenical instruments may be creaky and unsatisfactory at times, at least they exist and serve to remind all of us that our particular church or stream is only part of the church of Jesus Christ.

Women in Ministry

New Zealand appears to be a considerable distance behind the UK as regards women in ministry. Although Christchurch has had a female Anglican bishop for some years, I came across very few women ministers (apart from some serving jointly with their husbands). This may be a manifestation of macho Kiwi culture, though it is odd to reflect that New Zealand rejoices in the successes of its women’s rugby team (and soccer is widely played by girls and women). It would seem that the church is lagging well behind sporting circles when it comes to valuing the place of women.

Public Prayer

I don’t imagine that New Zealand is unique in this regard, but there was a marked paucity of intercessory prayer in many of the services and gatherings I attended. What prayer I encountered tended to be of the ‘bless me’ variety, or at best very parochial. It may be that the emphasis on prayer has shifted from Sunday morning to homegroups, or to special events and occasions, but Paul’s injunction to Timothy about public prayer (1 Timothy 2.1-2) appears to have been largely by-passed. Special prayer events, 24/7 prayer initiatives, Houses of Prayer and other activities are excellent, but surely the baseline of a church’s prayer life should be evident on a Sunday morning.

Detached Believers

Alan Jamieson’s work on this phenomenon (see A Churchless Faith) will be familiar to many British readers. He interviewed numerous Kiwi Christians from an evangelical/charismatic background who had opted out of organised church, often nursing a sense of having been abused by the demands of their church and its leadership. Jamieson’s analysis may be open to question in some respects (for example, neither Jamieson nor any of his interviewees apportions any degree of blame or responsibility for the separation to the individuals concerned), but he has clearly highlighted a worrying phenomenon within the New Zealand church and beyond.

Conclusion

I began by saying that the Kiwi church does not have all the answers that the British churches need to hear. However, it has some. Above all, I come back to the can-do mindset of Kiwis in their young country and can find plenty of scriptural support for stepping out boldly and confidently that the Kingdom can come amongst us.

Derek Allan

Senior Pastor of Hamilton Central Baptist Church, New Zealand

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You are reading Lessons from the New Zealand Church by Derek Allan, part of Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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