It was 200 years ago that the Rev Samuel Marsden led New Zealand’s first church service, on a beach in the Bay of Islands. Now, some churches are riding a resurgence in which theology and pastoral care collide with pragmatic acceptance of sex, booze and rock’n’roll.

Loma Uhila yawns as he lists the miracles given to him and his wife Emma — seven of them in all, who often wake him at 4.30am. "I have no idea how we ended up having three sets of twins. It's just one of those random acts that happens."

First was Micah, born in 2008, then the twins Ava and Lily in 2010. Isla and Eden followed in 2011. And Emme and Indie arrived in time for Christmas last year.

"I have no idea what our grocery bill comes to. We get support from Angel Food, they provide us meals — then there are spaghetti-and-eggs-on-toast weeks. The more the kids grow, the more they eat. One chicken just isn't enough anymore."

There's no bill from the ready-to-go meals service. Angel Food is "love you can eat". The provider? St Paul's Anglican Church on Symonds St.

Emma and Loma Uhila, with their seven children. Photo / Michael Craig
Emma and Loma Uhila, with their seven children. Photo / Michael Craig

"It's random. We checked the church out on Sunday, but we're not expected to go. The pressure is from ourselves. They helped us through the zombie stage, so we want to give back." When they walked into the Sunday morning service, heads turned: St Pauls had turned their story into a short film. "Everyone looked at us. I went in there wearing jeans. I felt self-conscious at first, I'd spent time ironing my shirt but when I got there I thought, 'Oh — I could've worn a polo shirt. It's not so traditional'."

He's right. Church is not so traditional, not any more. Churches are no longer bricks and mortar. They are groups of people. They are social media, they are viral marketing. St Matthew-in-the-City posted a billboard showing Mary and Joseph in bed together; Auckland Baptist Tabernacle's billboard depicts attractive young people in tight tops.

Churches may meet at 9am Sunday in a stone edifice, or on Saturday evening in the pub, or Sunday afternoon at the beach. Buildings may provide a base, but Christians will congregate regardless of whether there's a roof above them.

When the Lord's house in Beach Haven closed down last year, explains the Reverend Uesifili Unasa, the people moved up to the Methodist church at Birkenhead. The commanding voice of this University of Auckland chaplain and mayoral candidate delivered the final Sunday sermon.

It was a sad day. "People live through a building, whether Sunday School, weddings or funerals. You lose a sense of the spiritual dimension of the congregation's life and personal stories. It's deeply felt."

Still, a church is really just a community narrative and people carry on doing church work without realising it. "Counsellors and marriage celebrants have traditionally been the church's role. People may say they're not religiously affiliated, but they're doing the church's work."

When the faithful won't go inside church, often church goes inside them. Sociologist Dr Tracey McIntosh says churches have been forced to fit themselves to the needs of their parishioners, to remain relevant. When churchgoers began to lose their virginity and get tattoos, churches had to let them.

This helped churches to begin bouncing back. "Suddenly they needed to be relevant. People used to be born and die in the same church. Now there is a religious marketplace. People can move from denomination to denomination depending on what stage a person is at in their life.


"A PhD student asked why young people stay in church. He found there was a lot of two-timing — attending two churches at once. They'd go to one on a Wednesday night for the music, then another on Sunday because of a strong pastor."

Jason Wright has just hit 18. He has been through borstal and he is fit for disillusionment — except he reckons Christ is king.

Wright and his friends regularly give #praise. "My mates don't intentionally do it to show off, it's because they feel happy and blessed," he said.

He is mentored by former NZ Idol winner Ben Lummis once a week, attends Youth Horizons music courses where gospel is as ordinary as pop music, and hooks up with Jehovah at Manurewa Bible Church. He's ecstatic about plans for flatting with two Christian 20-year-olds and is unashamed about belonging to Boys Rally ("It's like scouts, but more Christian") or being a pubescent puritan. "Most big events like Jim Beam Homegrown have alcohol involved, but at Parachute, you could meet new Christians and share your testimony and help other people become saved."

Loma Uhila understands. When he's not changing nappies, he works with "Auckland's worst youth offenders". Some gangsters attend youth group and Sunday School when they're not offending. "I've got gang members who have tattoos of the Virgin Mary and stations of the cross on their back. They may have FTW tattooed on their knuckles — as well as the rosary around their necks."

Religious sociologist Reverend Dr Kevin Ward says some Christians lead a double life. "In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, if you were Christian it was seen as being a nerd or odd.

"In the later 1990s it began to turn. This is part of the pluralism of our culture: 'religion is okay as long as you don't impose it on me'."

Whether hungover or just shy, Christians can find safety in numbers. The answer from on high is mega-events, and for mega-events, you need a mega-church.

"What City Impact, Destiny, Equippers and Life provide is a phenomenal, event-focused religion," says professor Peter Lineham. "Week after week, they produce stunning events. The issue of long-term relationships doesn't occur to selective young people, so the tremendous power of mega-churches is that they meet the event-focused culture of wider society."

Lineham says the Life churches can attract an astonishing 8,000 people on a Sunday. CityImpact isn't far off, with two congregations estimated at 4,000 together. Encounter Church has 1,000 people. The total Auckland mega-church congregation is up to 25,000 people.

St Matthew-in-the-City, for all its outspoken media profile, averages a headcount of only 100.

Mega-churches celebrate strong leadership and individual achievement, Lineham says. They have a mega-music appeal and offer a prosperity gospel. "You can be rich if you follow us," Linehamexplains. "This appeals to young people who want fame and fortune."

Fitting, then, that a Sunday visit to Destiny's Manukau campus reveals four state-of-the-art cameras streaming footage of nine singers in front of two huge drum kits, four child cheerleaders, and a procession of preachers, amplified through massive speakers.

It's all so mega that Destiny had to install cinema seating in its converted warehouse. Two donation buckets and an information desk selling tickets and taking tithes helps bankroll it, because stage shows, a school, gym and pool don't come cheap.

Bishop Brian Tamaki makes no apology for the luxury cars, the houses, or Pastor Hannah Tamaki's $90,000 diamond ring. Destiny and its leaders' wealth comes from the 10 per cent tithe demanded of worshippers, and voluntary work done by churchgoers including the builders who constructed their new Wiri City of God. This is the prosperity theology, personified.

Ah, those contentious tithes. "It gets quite distorted — people say Pacific churches give far too much at the expense of their children," Unasa says. "But Pacific Island communities have to build a church because many of them don't have a building in which to meet regularly. A lot of these migrants don't have the traditional resources that Palagi congregations do. They have to start afresh to build up their community."

Senior minister Greg Burson leads worshippers at Edge Kingsland. Photo / Jason Oxenham.
Senior minister Greg Burson leads worshippers at Edge Kingsland. Photo / Jason Oxenham.

Tithing is done discreetly

at Edge Kingsland, a centre so hip it doesn't even have the word "church" in its name.

"We don't harass people for money," explains senior minister Greg Burson.

Despite the piercings, pecs, sneakers and shorts, Burson has the highest title in his church - but he prefers "bro" or "dude".

Burson says Edge Kingsland is "a collective, responding to the urban environment". It's a church so in vogue that people travel from the margins of Auckland to attend.

Murals, canvases, Central Auckland real estate and an ironic French confession booth cost money.

"We talk openly about what is needed to run a building, pay staff, record albums and give to the poor. We have an Eftpos machine."

Edge is, well, edgy in every way. In an unassuming side street that can cope with 500 cool Christians, most of whom work in design, media or creative industries, Burson delivers sermons on the spiritual significance of U2 albums or Rembrandt paintings.

The country's funkiest church represents a triumph over the international atheist campaign that, in 2010, saw Auckland buses emblazoned with: "There is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life".

Burson is unruffled. "Atheism is an ideology which doesn't have huge traction, bro. I think there are bigger issues people are interested in — ecology, the poor and the plight of Third World countries."

Photographer Jason Oxenham got more than an order of service and a cup of tea when he visited Edge Kingsland last Sunday.

The first surprise was the number of celebrities in attendance. "I could see All Black Steven Luatua there, and some top Mystics netballers, and Petra Bagust."

An associate pastor was determined to make Oxenham feel involved. "From the podium, he said, 'I looked into your eyes and you reminded me of Jason from the horror movies'.

He said he could see in my past there had been a lot of horror. "Then he said that through my job I could give people around the world hope. I wanted to bolt."

The church's PR woman approached Oxenham and asked: "Do you want me to pray for you?"

"If you want," Oxenham replied. He thought she would do it privately "but then she put her hand on my shoulder and went ahead".

The Edge seems more of a cafe for musicians than a church, so it's no surprise its gospel album was nominated for the gospel awards, or that chart-topping singer Ginny Blackmore and Parachute music impresario Mark de Jong belong here.

Once, Christianity was for nerds. Now, with musicians, sports stars and parishioners who look like they've stepped out of a fashion magazine — has Christianity become cool again? And does it risk becoming too cool for regular people?

With a family so busy their 5-year-old has to hang out the laundry, Loma and Emma Uhila are still trying to find time to think about God.

"We want to attend a church but with our routine, every day is clockwork. The timing has to fit in when our kids are at their best," Uhila says.

And for many people, the coolest thing about the new Christianity may be that you don't have to go to church. Church will come to you. Where two or more are gathered you can be your own church. Like wet towels, toys and nappies, God is everywhere.

Hip-hop star gives thanks

Backstage with the likes of Smashproof, Scribe and David Dallas, Billz is handed taunts and tequilas in equal measure.

"My idols make jokes, I've had that my whole life growing up in South Auckland, 'Ahh, shame, you go to church,' but they respect me anyway."

The Otahuhu rapper, 23, is working on his first album and aims to follow in the footsteps of ... well, no one.

"I rap alongside people who are the total opposite of what I do," Billz says. "I want to get to the same place as those people without doing the things they did."

Billz says his aim is "to combat everything that is marketed in rap today — money, sex, drugs and alcohol".

"Going to high school, I was really embarrassed that I went to church, that I was a Christian. Church was almost looked down on as much as drug dealers or alcoholics."

It's the Destiny Church campus in Wiri that Billz heads to most Sundays.

"I love that place. I owe my life to God and Bishop Tamaki because of what they've done for my family. My mum was an alcoholic, my dad was absent. To see where they are now is huge for me. It's important for my kids to see me doing better than what my father did."