• In-depth research provides compelling snapshot of attitudes to faith and belief
• 55 per cent do not identify with "main" religion
• One in three identify as Christian, compared to 49 per cent in 2006 Census
• 16 per cent are churchgoers, 9 per cent "active practisers"
• Church teaching on homosexuality and abuse among key "blockers"
• New Zealanders remain open to "respectful" conversations about spirituality and religion
• Perceptions of Māori spirituality and Jesus positive, even among non-Christians


New Zealand is becoming less religious, exhibiting a sharp fall in the number of people who identify as Christian.

A new report, Faith and Belief in New Zealand, says a third of New Zealanders identify with Christianity, down from 43 per cent in the 2013 Census and 49 per cent in the 2006 Census. The results of the 2018 Census are yet to be released.

Twenty per cent have spiritual beliefs but don't identify with any main religion and 35 per cent identify with no religion or spiritual belief.

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The remainder identify with other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

The report was commissioned by the Wilberforce Foundation, an Auckland-based Christian organisation.

The report says New Zealand's "youth as a nation and resulting lack of religious tradition" could be one reason for the rise of secularism.

"Perhaps the increasing busyness of modern-day life or the emphasis on individualism and self-created identity have also had an impact."

Older New Zealanders are more likely to identify with Christianity, and younger generations are more likely to not identify with any religion or spiritual belief.

Of New Zealand's three most populous regions (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch), Auckland has the lowest proportion of residents identifying with Christianity, suggesting migration may be another factor.

Chris Clarke hoped the research started a conversation that led to the
Chris Clarke hoped the research started a conversation that led to the "Christian voice being invited back into the public square". Photo / File

Chris Clarke, former chief executive of World Vision NZ and now adviser to the Wilberforce Foundation, said the report confirmed what many church leaders already knew.

"We talk to Christian leaders, pastors, church ministers and so on, and intuitively they would have seen pretty much everything that's in this report. They're seeing their communities and congregations every week.

"Really importantly, what it's done is give some quite clear pointers about how the Christian Church can re-engage with society in New Zealand. It's a wonderful opportunity, but they have to re-engage in very different ways."

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Those pointers include many New Zealanders remaining open to exploring religion and spirituality. The report says that given the right circumstances and evidence, 12 per cent would be very open to changing their views. Another 42 per cent would be somewhat or slightly open.

New Zealanders are most likely to be attracted to exploring religion and spirituality by seeing people live out a genuine faith. They perceive Christians as caring, faithful and kind, and value disaster relief and other charitable work done by the Church and Christian organisations.

There was belief, particularly among younger people, that Māori culture and understanding of spirituality has influenced New Zealand values.

Many New Zealanders have little to no engagement with Christians or the Church.
Many New Zealanders have little to no engagement with Christians or the Church.

Most New Zealanders positively connect Jesus with love. Perceptions towards Jesus are often quite positive; non-Christians suggest he is relatable, approachable and gracious.

But there are major hurdles.

Church "teaching on homosexuality" is the biggest blocker to engaging with Christianity, cited by 47 per cent. Almost as many are influenced by the idea that a loving God would allow people to go to hell (45 per cent).

When it comes to perceptions of Christians and Christianity, Church abuse has the greatest negative influence. Christians not practising what they preach is the second biggest.

Many New Zealanders have little to no engagement with Christians or the Church. Nine per cent don't know any Christians. More than one in five know nothing about the Church in New Zealand, and 56 per cent don't know their local church well.

Clarke said the report contained "hard truths" and the Church had to be realistic about its role.

"Although 33 per cent of the population affiliate with Christianity, 9 per cent of the population go to church pretty well every week so we are a minority in New Zealand society and that needs to be reflected in how we engage with society."

The foundation's general manager, Carl Vink, said the report represented a challenge to the Church. "If you're not happy about numbers, what are you going to do about it?"

There was broad consensus in reaction from representatives of Christian organisations; they echoed the need to be active in the community; there was talk of humility, listening, engaging and living beliefs.

Bishop Justin Duckworth, believes the Anglican Church had to redefine its relationship with society. Photo / File
Bishop Justin Duckworth, believes the Anglican Church had to redefine its relationship with society. Photo / File

The Anglican Bishop of Wellington, the Right Reverend Justin Duckworth, believed the Anglican Church had to redefine its relationship with society.

The Church's "core business" had to be participation in the community.

Duckworth believed the Church could play a role in several key areas. They included the "self-centredness" that created problems like climate change; deep social isolation and loneliness; emotional trauma and anxiety, particularly among those under 50; a desire for hope; and a "deep, deep desire for authenticity". He said the survey pointed to the way respondents identified with the non-violent approach of Jesus and said that could help find a way through conflict.

"It's a great conversation. It's what I spend my life thinking about."

Dean Rush, senior leader and pastor at the C3 Church, which has five campuses in Auckland and Whangārei, said community work was key to attracting more people to his organisation – including throwing free parties at low-decile schools and helping run anti-suicide programmes in high schools.

"We've just got to find ways to show that positive force of what we're all about and I think often that is by helping people. With schools it's turning up and saying 'what do you need?' A little bit more humble position [asking] 'what can we do that's going to be helpful for society, for the community."

He said different strands of Christianity needed to work together.

"I think we've shifted from a place where we can just say 'people should do this'. Let's be honest, people are doing what they want to do and so I think our role now is really having some good communication about what our message is and how the churches can be relevant to society and I think we are. I think we've just got to communicate well."

Cardinal John Dew said the Catholic Church was mindful of the challenge posed by declining attendance. Photo / File
Cardinal John Dew said the Catholic Church was mindful of the challenge posed by declining attendance. Photo / File

Cardinal John Dew, the Catholic Archbishop of Wellington and vice-president of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC), said the Catholic Church and its counterparts were mindful of the challenge posed by declining attendance.

"However, the study also points to opportunities for faith communities, with recognition among both non-Christians and Christians that the Church is involved in areas of social good and that faith too has a role in contributing to the wellbeing of our society."

Dew said the members of the NZCBC, which co-ordinates the national activities and ministries of the Catholic Church, "humbly acknowledge our shortcomings, especially with regards to particular groups in society, such as the LGBT community who have felt a very real sense of rejection through the Church, or perhaps in falling short in fully meeting the needs of our recent migrant communities".

"We hear, too, the call of those who want to see our actions speak louder than our words, by living out the values that Jesus represents.

"The findings from this survey speak to Pope Francis' latest exhortation, in which he says 'we are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves'."

Professor Peter Lineham, one of New Zealand's foremost authorities on religion, said it would be "really significant" if the research foreshadowed the results of the 2018 Census.

He questioned whether certain migrant communities who may be more likely to identify as religious were under-represented in the Wilberforce research, but noted the 33 per cent of people who identify as Christian was "well below" the 2013 Census.

"Christian influence has dramatically retreated."

Peter Lineham said the church was being called on to
Peter Lineham said the church was being called on to "deal with the bad stuff and to focus on the positive appeal of a religion that focuses on the person of Jesus". Photo / File

Lineham said a secular outlook was hardly new in New Zealand. Since the 1960s the "restraints have been removed on being critical of churches".

"In New Zealand, being rude about the churches, nobody bats an eyelid at this any more so there's no sacred protection any more."

Sara Passmore, president of New Zealand Humanists, a secular group with a philosophy based around self-responsibility and treating others as we would want them to treat us, said the research highlighted a changing view of morals and values.

"That should be celebrated and we should be looking at how we're educating young people to be able to make their own decision about what is morally right."

Clarke hoped the research started a conversation that led to the "Christian voice being invited back into the public square" and a place at the "policy table".

"Not as the sole voice. Let's accept the fact that we're a minor but an important voice.

"It's up to us about how we deport ourselves so that voice needs to be humble, it needs to be intelligent, it needs to be connected and it needs to be authentic.

"Some will say we can't run the Church by polls, but at the same time, you've got to listen. That's the tightrope to walk.

"The Christian community has confidence in its message and its message is that the world would be a lot better place if we were serious about faith, serious about hope and serious about love. That's a message that is timeless. We're hoping for a conversation across different faith traditions in New Zealand.

Justin Duckworth among the thousands of goods donated by church members for Syrian refugees. Photo / File
Justin Duckworth among the thousands of goods donated by church members for Syrian refugees. Photo / File

"I think it's a question of how do we hold true to the message and yet be relevant to society which is a very different society than the society of say 10-15 years ago."

Relevance at his Church – Anglican, although he's also been a member of Lutheran and Baptist congregations, among others – meant running Esol classes, teaching English as a second language.

"Churches running preschools, foodbanks - that's what relevant looks like. It's reconnecting with communities.

"We're not telling our story well. Other people are telling it for us. We need to reclaim our story because our story is just as relevant today, probably more relevant than ever.

"I think sometimes Christians have more of a hang-up about talking about their faith than people of other faiths. There is an openness to exploring questions of spirituality and faith but just do it in a way which you don't ram it down my throat."

Lineham believed the report had been written to help churches.

"It's aiming to give churches tools to do something. Will they do it? That's the interesting question. It seems pretty obvious what they're being called on to do is to deal with the bad stuff and to focus on the positive appeal of a religion that focuses on the person of Jesus. I'd be intrigued to see if that happens."

What is the Wilberforce Foundation?

• The foundation is based on the Christian values of its founders Ian and Wendy Kuperus.

• It was founded in 2008 to distribute the funds generated by their commercial interests, including a tax accountancy business.

• The foundation supports more than 50 charities and has scholarship and leadership funds.

• Last year it identified three key areas of work: community, including the organisations they support and a community of philanthropists; creating a flow of strong leaders, not just in the faith community; and impact investment - investing in businesses, organisations and funds to generate a measurable beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return.

• General manager Carl Vink said the foundation believed in engaged philanthropy - creating relationships with the people they helped rather than just giving money and stepping back.

How was the research done?

• The Wilberforce Foundation commissioned Australian research company McCrindle, who did similar reports in Australia in 2011 and 2017.

• For the New Zealand report, they added new questions to capture data for the New Zealand context and surveyed 1007 people to be representative of the population by gender, age and region.

• McCrindle said the minimum sample size required to have a confidence level of 95 per cent in the findings would have been 385.

• It also held three focus groups in Auckland with 26 non-Christians segmented by age. The categories were Generation Y (those aged 24-38) , Generation X (39-53) and Baby Boomers (54-72).