It was on a gloomy Christmas morning in 1814 when the English-born Anglican cleric, Samuel Marsden, officiated the first Christian service in the newly-discovered lands of New Zealand. Prior to this celebration, there had never been any Christian commemoration done on our soils.
The missionary Marsden had been spreading the gospel in neighboring Australia before this event, and had set his sights on planting the first seeds of the Christian faith in what was then a relatively unexplored landmass. And so upon commencing his service, Samuel Marsden boldly proclaimed these words:
“I shall not live to see it, but I may hear of it in heaven, that New Zealand, with all its cannibalism and idolatry, will yet set an example of Christianity to some of the nations now before her in civilization.”
In saying this he saw promise, Marsden dreamt of a New Zealand where its’ people would forego their barbaric and uncivilized ways. Marsden hoped that the natives of this newfound land would turn to God and in turn, civilization and become a Christian nation.
Indeed it did not happen in his lifetime, but two centuries later Marsden would see his wish fulfilled as New Zealand became a predominantly Christian nation. In the 1991 Census, the total population professed to being sixty-nine percent Christian. This number composed mainly of Anglicans and Catholics, but also had a significant percentage of Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Methodists and other Christian denominations.
In 1992, a music festival emerged with a strong Christian theme – the Parachute music festival. The music fest would later become the country’s longest running music festival of any genre and the world’s largest Christian festival outside of the United States. An impressive accolade for a nation of four million people. Furthermore, the country’s national anthem also has strong Christian roots, beautifully titled “God Defend New Zealand” – a sign of Christian influence over the nation.
Knowing all these facts, you would think that New Zealand must be a very devout nation. That beacon of Christian values that “sets an example” to the rest of the world that Samuel Marsden’s mission had envisioned. But the New Zealand we see today is a different picture, at least in the past decade.
The census results of 2013 was released partially early this year. Aside from finding out important facts such as the ageing median age of the population and the decline in the number of smokers, the census results also showed an interesting trend: New Zealand Christianity is dying.
From those healthy figures in 1991, the numbers for last year gave a depressing outlook for the future of our churches. Christians are no longer a majority in our society for the first time in modern history, the percentage of the population professing to be of the Christian faith fell to 43.5% – almost 30 percent less than two decades ago.
Another interesting fact the Census showed was that for the first time in New Zealand history, Anglicanism had lost its place as the majority Christian sect – that title now belongs to the Roman Catholic church. However, even Catholics saw a decline in their numbers as they lost over three percentage points since 1991. In truth, every Christian denomination experienced a decline in numbers except for those who categorized themselves under ‘Evangelicals’ as well as the Seventh-Day Adventists – both denominations experienced slight growth.
The group that enjoyed the biggest addition to their numbers are those who professed to having ‘No Religion’ in the Census. From just 29% of the population they are now at 50.8%, more than half of the population. This development in turn makes New Zealand among the most secular nations in the world, on par with Japan and Sweden – two countries with no history of religious affiliation.
If the numbers seem too exorbitant for you to consider accurate, then you probably have skipped the primetime news in the past month. That longest running music festival, Parachute, that prides itself in being a huge Christian event has been cancelled. This came as a result of declining ticket sales, that came to a point where its’ organizers incurred a loss of $250,000 this year despite bringing in more bands and cutting costs. Aside from the death of Parachute, the Bible Society of New Zealand also estimates the number of people attending church services at least once a month to a mere 15%.
People may ask ‘so what?’, is it really a cause for concern that Christianity is dying? I would like to argue in the affirmative. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas puts it this way:
“Christianity, and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”
In other words, Christianity is the backbone of Western way of life; in turn, the New Zealand way of life. This country may not be a Christian-majority state, but it is definitely a culturally-Christian nation. The arrival of European missionaries in the early 19th century boosted literacy among the early Maori population as the Bible was a required scripture. The influx of the Sisters of Mercy greatly helped in healthcare and in education, as these two fields were their devotion.
We can still see the contributions of Catholicism to healthcare today, religious hospitals such as Mercy Hospital, St. Joan’s and Southern Cross are in demand. Even the national ambulance service, St. John’s has a Christian influence. The most active charity groups in the country today such as the Salvation Army and TEAR Fund are ran by Christian groups. Holidays which many New Zealanders look forward to each year like the Easter weekend and Christmas are obviously based on Christian tradition.
It is also estimated that 11% of the New Zealand student population are in Christian schools which also means that a sizable number of teachers are employed by these groups. From an aesthetic point-of-view, Christian churches also present attractive architecture in our cities with iconic places such as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland City and the Anglican ChristChurch Cathedral coming to mind. Oh and by the way, the name Christ Church – as you can guess – also has Christian roots.
New Zealand culture is Christian whether people may like it or not, therefore it is painful to see that it is losing the cultural wars. Recent years have seen the country ditch its’ Christian roots to a more secular way of living. But that leaves a haunting question as to what New Zealand society would look like, or act like, in a post-Christian scenario. What would be the basis of Christmas holidays? What would be made of the ChristChurch Cathedral or the hundreds of worship places all over the country? And are we going to have to rename hundreds of schools and hospitals?
It would also be interesting to see a secular charity filling the gaps left by the Salvation Army, World Vision or Caritas NZ. And since charity is a Christian virtue would it still be called that or will it instead be known as reverse altruism?
It’s hard to imagine what life would be in a post-Christian setting, but with the recent numbers in the census we might not need to imagine any longer. The church is very good in telling its’ parishioners why they should keep the faith, but fail miserably in convincing them why. A lot needs to be done to save the church, and in turn – save our culture.