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A Response to "Where have all the Christians gone"  from Alan Webster

Take time to dream


Thanks to Alan Webster for his response to my questions of last week.  I include his words below for consideration.  I was particularly struck by his comment that "the world trend is not for a return to traditional, institutional mass religiosity."  If that is the case (and I have a feeling it is), where to with "traditional, institutional mass religiosity"?  I plan to read the article he mentions below in the week that lies ahead, though creating a church that doesn't demand institutional commitment may be as difficult as changing our culture!!!!  Perhaps not so much from the people's prespective, but from the institutional side. 


Somehow we have to be true to the content of our gospel and the context of our culture.  Somehow the Word and the world need to meet in a way that brings meaning, purpose and salvation to people's lives.


Where have all the Christians gone? - A response from Alan Webster

I feel for Andre le Roux in his bewilderment at the low church attendance of New Zealanders. Having done some of the research which Gordon Miller has so usefully gathered over the years, I feel a comment or two on Andre's experience could be useful.

First, many researches over two or more decades have shown the South African situation not to be easily compared with that of Northern European and 'Anglo' countries.The level of belief in God and of church attendance in South Africa has run well above these countries over their respective histories. In the South African situation, as Andre will know, there is a strong Evangelical - to Fundamentalist tradition going back to the first colonization impact of both the British and the Boers. Each has regarded their traditional faith as essential to the stability of the colony, or of the struggling outlier of the colony as in the case of the Boers. 


The World Values Survey showed up to twenty years ago that the S A Black population was equally religious to the whites. All this broadly means that religion has been part of the identity struggle of a country in which major diverse elements have fought to control deep incipient divisions. 


It's a big jump from there to New Zealand, but some things seem clear. Our preference for diversity places us further along the road than South Africa, where the stress of recent freedom struggles still bites deep. The S A churches have had to struggle for a voice of integrity, differently expressed by the strong Evangelical and historically privileged mainstream churches, especially the Anglican. Methodists have been deeply involved in the freedom struggle.


Recent analyses of world values data have shown that the two main dimensions on which countries and their cultures can be located are the Traditional to Rational-Legalistic  and the Survival-to-Affluent condition. Those countries that are high on both Rational-Legal and Affluent conditions, mostly Northern European and Anglo-American, are more flexible, liberal in values, democratic, and secular. South Africa has struggled to be in either of those two camps. Australia and New Zealand are firmly within them though not as comfortably as Northern Europe. The USA is an oddity, being affluent and democratic but culturally traditional and lacking in liberal flexibility. 


My point is that a direct comparison between South Africa and New Zealand is not as simple as it might seem. If we throw in the Maori factor, we see some ways in which instability stems back to the not dissimilar colonisation experience. But religion was never a major political card in the NZ struggle. Interestingly, Maori have not, as did the S A Blacks, identified en masse with the religion of the dominant culture. They have markedly fewer claiming to be Christian.


Where does it leave us with low NZ church attendance? It means it is not a case of 'something's gone wrong'.  What we see is 'normal' in terms of cultural change. There seem to be a note of disapprobation in regard to Kevin Ward's now-familiar designation of the NZ stance as Individualism, Privatism, Pluralism, Relativism, and Anti-Institutionalism. Certainly these, in broad terms, characterise not only NZ but the whole post-modern group of countries I have referred to. But the important finding seems to be that the cultures, as formed by their 'founding religions', are highly persistent. Whilst the institutional forms of tradition and religion undergo change, eg in church attendance, the values and social habits of the 'cultural zones' that are historically the inheritors of original 'religious zones' are highly persistent. For example, Northern Europe is culturally Protestant, other zones Catholic, Orthodox, Confucucian, Islamic, Hindu, etc. Clear cultural habits are identified. South Africa is not easily recognisable as 'Protestant' by origin. It has it own oddities.


It seems fair to count on a residual of early Protestant religion and tradition in New Zealand, but to set out to change it seems a bit imperialistic! And optimistic. Anyway, the lack of general religiosity in NZ is little different from its history, nor from its countries of origin. While the culture zone probably remains, and is predominantly Protestant, the world trend is not for a return to traditional, institutional mass religiosity. My own choice is toward a mission strategy in which a spirituality that does not demand institutional commitment is free to be a creative influence in a changing culture. My articles in www.spiritandspice try to argue for this option.


Take time to dream

In our modern world things change fast.  Long term planning has become more and more difficult / impossible.  The temptation is to do no planning at all.  We spend our time receiving reports and maintaining our properties.  I find report back meetings boring, and so we have begun a new rythmn of Leader's Meetings - One month report back, next month "Dreaming Meeting."  The dreaming meeting is our time to look at the big picture, to think about the issues and that will grow our church.  It's a time to hope, to plan... to dream.  I think that people like to be part of creating something.  Leaders enjoy it when they can actually lead.  So many of our people want to see the church grow.  The church can hold together faithfulness to what has been and hope for what is to come. 


Andre le Roux