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Future ‘conservative’ for NZ churches

By Paul Titus

New Zealand Protestant churches are not only declining in numbers, they are becoming more conservative, says Massey University historian Peter Lineham.

What it means to be a ‘conservative’ Christian today is a real puzzle, however, and the future of the church may be one of more variety and choice rather than less.

As he reads the tea leaves of statistics and social trends to make sense of what is happening in New Zealand churches, Peter identifies a number of sometimes contradictory phenomena.

Census data show mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist) continue the steady decline in numbers that began in the 1960s. Nevertheless, there is also a trend for some people who leave these churches to find their way back to them later in life.

“The mainstream denominations used to be cradle to grave institutions. People belonged because their family did, and they had an almost in-bred loyalty to them. Now people join or return to church to be part of a local congregation and they bring many different experiences with them.”

Increasing congregationalism –the tendency for people to identify primarily with their local congregation – is one trend Peter identifies.

“The future of the denominations does not look particularly strong. With their increasing diversity, it is harder for them to maintain a broader vision and shared ethos.

“They may be held together primarily by their joint ownership of property. But if local groups don’t share an ethos with the wider denomination, it may be difficult for them to reproduce themselves,” he says.

“This tendency is strong among Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, where congregations are often built around strong leaders. These impresarios have a high casualty rate, however. They work too hard and if something happens such as a marriage break up, or they don’t hold the numbers in the pews, they may face a vote of no confidence. This is why we see constant rebranding and enormous instability among these churches.”

Peter observes conservatives are becoming stronger within New Zealand’s traditional Protestant churches. He points to the Presbyterian Church’s recent decision to block gays and lesbians from holding leadership roles as an example.

But he wonders what form their conservatism will take in future.

“One scenario is for the church to become a series of refuges for people who feel nervous about the increasing liberalism of secular society. The church is their final ground to occupy or a defensive place to hide. In this case, the church becomes a series of negatives rather than a series of positives.

“These conservatives feel purity in separation. They feel contaminated by the wider. liberal church but if they begin to reconnect with it they could put the traditional liberals on the defensive.

“The other scenario is that conservatism is creating a more vigorous and combative cultural movement. Some conservative religious groups give people new energy and new life. This is happening in the Muslim world but also here with groups like Destiny Church and even the conservative Presbyterians,” Peter says.

“These conservatives Christians are very urban, very trendy and extraordinarily youthful. They believe they can convert the world to Christianity and they speak in absolutes. They often use the language of warfare.

“While the mainstream Protestant churches represent the old middle class, these new conservatives are from the up and coming middle class. They display the signs of new wealth and are more attuned to popular culture.”

Parachute Music embodies this type of conservative Christianity, Peter says. Because they embrace cultural innovation, these conservatives face a number of dilemmas, such as how much cultural plurality to accept.

At the recent Parachute Festival, for instance, there was a debate over whether the band Nesian Mystik should be allowed to perform because not all of the members are Christian.

And, because they are in touch with current cultural trends, not all young conservative Christians hold the same views about homosexuals. For example, in a recent interview in the gay magazine ‘Express’ the popular Christian singer Brooke Fraser said churches should welcome gay people.

The greater number of Pacific people is another factor Peter identifies in the growing conservatism of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. But the Pacific churches may be coming to a crunch point, he believes. Many Pacific young people are not happy with the hierarchical nature of their churches and want greater freedom.

Peter is concerned some conservatives have a tone that they couldn’t care less about society and are solely interested in preserving their denominational interests. If they prevail, mainstream Christianity in New Zealand will be narrower than in the past.

On the other hand, if people with different interests can continue to find homes in local congregations, churches will be smorgasbords where people from different backgrounds can share religious community.