New Zealand is becoming more secular, according to a new report — Faith and Belief in New Zealand by the Wilberforce Foundation — with fewer people following a religion. But in Whanganui, it seems God isn't giving up without a fight, as Jacob McSweeny discovers.

"The way I talk about denominations ... they're like flavours of ice cream.

"We're all serving the same product, we're just serving slightly different flavours — most people like ice cream but they don't all like the same flavours."

That's Reverend Nigel Irwin, who leads Whanganui's Central Baptist Church and is also chairman of the Whanganui Christian Leaders' Association.

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Whanganui is a hub of religious activity — only last month a new church, the Cornerstone Community Church, set up under Reverend Rob Clow.

There's something that attracts the more pious among us to the city, Irwin says.

He rattles off names of religious leaders who have come to the city.

"The Anglican Bishop of Wellington (Bishop Justin Duckworth) ... he's a significant denominational leader who's chosen to come and live here.

"We've got significant leaders within different movements who are retiring to Whanganui because they see this as being a significant place.

"You've got the [General] Superintendent of the Assemblies of God movement (Pastor Iliafi Esera) who lives here and leads the Faith City Assemblies of God Church."

Irwin is also a big cheese himself among religious leaders, heading a national network of city Christian leaders. Irwin moved to Whanganui about six years ago.

"There is something in the water for leadership in Whanganui.

"We do tend to be a magnet for people who, particularly in regards to Christian faith, have that kind of leadership about them."

Reverend Nigel Irwin is Chairman of the Whanganui Christian Leaders' Association says even he struggles to keep count of the number of denominations in the city.
Reverend Nigel Irwin is Chairman of the Whanganui Christian Leaders' Association says even he struggles to keep count of the number of denominations in the city.

As to the exact numbers of churches in Whanganui, well, that was a struggle even for Irwin.

Whanganui is the base of the traditional Catholics, the Society of St Pius X. There's also the Exclusive Brethren who moved to Wanganui about 10 years ago and have grown since.

The roots of Te Haahi Rātana began just south of the city in 1925 and thousands of Māori around the country are dedicated to the Rātana movement.

Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons and others are all in operation in Whanganui.

Last week even Destiny Church and its controversial leader Brian Tamaki rode into town and ruffled feathers in the gay community.

Irwin leads the Central Baptist Church.

"The Baptist denomination is one that holds a couple of things as being particularly important. One is gathering around the meal of Eucharist, which is basically ... one of the really important moments of gathered worship as we reflect together on the death and resurrection of Christ.

"Another significant moment of our worship is baptism being a symbolic act which kind of gives a visual to the internal regeneration in terms of our spirit."

Irwin says Baptists were often regarded as biblically solid and grounded.

In Whanganui there are probably about 500 Baptists according to the pastor, with two main churches — Central Baptist and East Baptist — and also a Baptist Church in Gonville.

"That doesn't mean they're all in Church on Sunday. I'm not worried about numbers too much but we would regularly have about 220 on a Sunday morning."

It's been five years since the 2013 Census gave us an idea of who followed what religion in Whanganui.

Back then, nearly half of the city's 40,000 strong population were Christians while nearly 16,000 people declared no religion.

Catholics made up the biggest number of Christians in 2013 with a reported 5778 in Whanganui.

But that was fewer than 2006 and the global trend is downward for Christians in general — something the Parish Priest of the Catholic Parish of Whanganui, Father Marcus Francis, was well aware of.

"People are thinking about what they belong to a lot more.

"They're challenging themselves and, at a certain level, you have to respect that. It's people being sincere and honest about what they think and feel."

He also hoped the door swung both ways for those keen to become Catholic.

"But then religious freedom means people have the freedom to join something and to practice their faith as well without undue restriction."

The Catholic population in Whanganui was likely stable at about 5500 people, Francis says.

A crowd of singing and dancing toddlers are often found crowding out the next church.
Whanganui's Presbyterian Church have gone through quite a transformation since Reverend Mo Morgan stepped in about five years ago.

"The church was at a point where they were mainly elderly and had lost connection with young people," Morgan, who's based at St James Church in Wanganui East, says.

"But they still cared about the community and before they got to a point where they weren't sustainable they wanted to give it one last go.

"They asked myself and my friend Kath (Barrett) to come along and start some community activities."

They discovered a group of people in Whanganui in need of events like Mainly Music or Twinkle Toes, where parents can take their young children to sing and dance on a weekday.

Morgan says these families were struggling to find a church that was family-friendly.

"The church has been here for 100 years ... for the last six years over half of the makeup of our congregation has changed. It is no longer mainly elderly — it is all ages and we have a very strong children's ministry. More than half the church is now young families."

Morgan also understood the numbers of Christians were in decline — but serving the community was their purpose.

"We are a faith community and following Jesus in a time it's counter-cultural to be Christian.

"That adds certain challenges but I really believe that faith communities offer meaning and hope like nothing else in this life.

"So I believe in the purpose of creating the space here for people to learn and grow together and think how together we love and serve our community."

David James is an active member and former chair of Whanganui's monthly Quaker meetings.
David James is an active member and former chair of Whanganui's monthly Quaker meetings.

The Quakers are a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to religion.

"Some of us are Christian, some of us are not," says David James, an active member and former chairman of Whanganui's monthly Quaker meetings.

"Some would describe themselves as post-Christian, along with other people in mainstream churches who simply grit their teeth and say the words that they have to say without believing them."

David James gave out a chuckle before continuing.

"We will not bind ourselves to a form of words. We cover a wide spectrum of beliefs."
Is it even a religion?

"Yes we would probably say it's a religion but the atheists among us would have difficulty with that word. Again you come to the problem of words."

According to James, the Quakers believe by sitting together quietly they can listen to the spirit and be guided by it.

James says the Quakers are known for their benevolence, famously offering relief during the Great Famine of Ireland without requiring those in need convert to their beliefs.

In Whanganui the monthly meeting is small, there about 26 members. James says there'd usually be about 10 to 20 at a meeting.

He was confused why younger people didn't seem to be attracted to the movement and they'd had struggles with numbers because a lot of their membership were older.

"I've sometimes said Quakers are where you go when the pre-cut answers don't make sense any more — and that tends to be people in their 40s and 50s."

Due to the cost of living in New Zealand's main centres, there had been a slight increase in membership in Whanganui as Quakers moved here from elsewhere.

Outside of Christianity there are a number of other religions being practised in the city.

There's the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Whanganui, who believe religions should be cause for unity and promote the oneness of humanity.

Tejomani Earl and Nityajyoti Perry are two local Buddhists who offer Buddhist teachings every week in Whanganui.

 Vijeshwar and Pushpa Prasad have been leaders in the Hindu community in Whanganui for almost 30 years.
Vijeshwar and Pushpa Prasad have been leaders in the Hindu community in Whanganui for almost 30 years.

Pushpa Prasad has seen a bit more than a slight increase of Hindus in Whanganui.

Prasad and her husband, Vijeshwar Prasad, have been in Whanganui for almost 30 years. They run Whanganui's multicultural centre on Anzac Parade.

"There has been a gradual increase of Hindus. When we came there were only three families that observed this religion ... now there are more than 50."

She says this year's census will show "way, way more" Hindus in Whanganui.

"There is a bit of internal migration ... because of the cost of living and the house prices. They are coming to places which are cheaper for them to buy a house."

There were a number of variations of Hinduism in Whanganui, she says, hailing from Fiji, India and Sri Lanka.

"People from Fiji ... they are Hindi and their religion is quite old compared to the people from India.

"Most people from India are Sikhs. Their religion is a little bit different from the religion we follow.

"India is a vast country and there are different states ... and they all practice their own religion."

In Whanganui there used to be a place of worship but Prasad says people now gather in small groups and usually meet at people's houses.

"Our little group congregates here ... at least once a month or so. We do Ramayana recitals. We chant, do recitals and then we sing kirtans (like hymns in Christianity).

"If there are some foreign people sitting with us I usually do the translating of what has been read."

Whanganui's Mosque can be found on a quiet corner of Talbot Street in Wanganui East.
Whanganui's Mosque can be found on a quiet corner of Talbot Street in Wanganui East.

Around the corner from where the Prasads operate, a small white and green building with the words 'Masjid E Bilal' written on it is tucked into a quiet corner of Talbot Street.

This is where Whanganui's Muslims gather to pray five times a day.

Zahid Mohammed is the secretary of the Islamic Association Wanganui — "We are a very small community - maximum probably 30 families."

"We are all ordinary people living here. But we practice our religion like every other religion ... like Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and everything."

Mohammed predicts the Muslim population in Whanganui would likely remain stable, with people who work as doctors often stopping in for a year or two before being moved on to other hospitals.

Muslims in Whanganui come from all over the world, including Fiji, Malaysia, Indonesia and Egypt.

"Muslim religion is an easy religion and a hard one. Hard one because of the rules, easy because it's a normal everyday life thing. It tells you to greet your parents when you get up in the morning, be nice to your neighbours."

Negative perceptions of Islam abroad have frustrated Mohammed.

"What's happening on the other side of the word puts pressure on every Muslim. Not everybody is bad.

"It's like one bad person commits a crime and everybody is put in the same category. Islam is a peaceful religion."

"Our little group congregrates here ... at least once a month or so," says Pushpa Prasad.