This graph shows the last 150 years of New Zealand census religion data and church attendance, plus my prediction for the next 100 years. Over the last few weeks I’ve been part of a conference with Christian Savings, Laidlaw College, and the Carey Centre for Lifelong Learning, where I talked around the idea that “something is different now” in terms of the relationship between church and society. This blog post is part of that talk. I debunk some of the hype around some census figures, and give two possible future scenarios for the church in New Zealand.
Looking at the census data in the graph below, the top line on the graph: Christian Affiliation – this is the line we hear sensational headlines about in the media when census results are released: about the church dying as this line on the graph plummets toward zero…
The vertical axis is percentage of adults, and horizontal axis is time from 1867 to 2013.
I don’t think we should believe the stories of doom! There is some bad news for the church, but I don’t think this is it.
I don’t think this downward line matters at all: what we’re seeing as this line falls is a correction in the data that will eventually match what the reality is.
As a comparison
This pie-graph shows current religion in Thailand. The yellow shows 93% are Buddhist.
I first went to Thailand in 2001, the Kiwi friends I went to visit were working with Buddhist monks – teaching them English. Looking at this pie chart, you’d think nearly everyone in Thailand was Buddhist. They might be culturally Buddhist, but not practicing Buddhism – there’s a massive difference between a cultural identity, and the following of a religious faith. My friends told me they had discovered that for Thai people: “to be Thai, is to be Buddhist” – which doesn’t mean they are Buddhist.
150 years ago in New Zealand
Think about where the Pākehā colonizers came from 150 years ago: Christian Brittan. A culture that had centuries of Christian influence shaping it.
In the first New Zealand census in 1851, I think “to be a coloniser, was to be Christian.” 93.35% ticked the Christian box (interestingly, the same amount that are currently Buddhist in Thailand – it’ll be interesting to see the figures in Thailand in 150 years from now).
I think most followers of this blog would agree: that to claim affiliation to a cultural identity shaped by an historical religious framework – does not make you a follower of that religion.
What we have with the downward line on the census graph, are people deciding they no longer need to have a cultural Christian Affiliation, and they’re now happy and able to say “No Religion” – which is the increasing green line (I don’t think “No Religion” was even an option for a long time in the census.)
Eventually, the downward blue line will level out at roughly the amount of what I would describe as active-participating-followers-of-Jesus: the church. I don’t like to use the descriptor, but maybe the blue line will eventually represent actual Christians (I know – who am I to judge? – but I hope you see what I mean: the difference between participation compared to identity-only).
This plummeting line on the graph, what I’m calling a “correction” to reflect reality, Pew Research refer to as “Religious Switching”.
These are global figures projecting the change between 2010-2050
They are suggesting: Christians globally will drop by 66 million. Unaffiliated will grow by 61 million.
This doesn’t mean 66 million people will lose their faith, it just means they will be able to articulate a different cultural association – one that matches their reality: of no religion.
This data matches my predication with the blue line on our census graph: that it will eventually reflect actual Christians not cultural Christians.
Pew also have this chart:
This chart is showing that New Zealand won’t have a Christian Majority in 2050 – they’re using Christian Affiliation figures – to suggest in 2010 57% of New Zealanders were Christian – that’s a cultural reference not a reality reference – the church was no where near that big in 2010.
If you hear media hype around this – that the church is dying – don’t believe it – it’s scare-mongering.
We don’t have a Christian majority now – what we have is a cultural identity with an historical Christian framework that is declining rapidly.
The actual church?
The data that is more significant, that might be a better indication of the church in New Zealand is this:
Assessing the state of the church by bums on seats is a pretty rough way to measure.
While you can be a follower of Jesus and not turn up regularly to church services – I do think regular participation in a local church community is a good indicator of “actual” Christians, rather than “cultural” Christians.
A new way to measure the church
As an aside: I’d be interested in coming up with a new way to measure how the church is going. What about this list forming some new measurement Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of the church:
good news to the poor,
freedom from oppression,
proclaiming the Lord’s favour.
This list comes from Luke 4:18-19, the bit from the prophet Isaiah’s scroll that Jesus read out as a manifesto at the beginning of his Gospel ministry. That’s what Jesus set out to do. Could that be a way of defining what the church is to set out and do?
The reality is, it’s much easier to count bums on seats.
The 1890s peak
Looking at the graph above – from the data we have, church attendance peaked in the 1890s – at 30% of adults attending. I think that’s a much better indicator of the church than the census affiliation numbers at the same time. New Zealand church attendance then is lower than in Great Britain at the time, which may have been 40% or more.
The right thing at the right time
The photo below was the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church building in Christchurch, New Zealand. I was an assistant minister there for 6 years from 2009. This building was destroyed in the 2011 earthquakes and no longer exists.
A close up of the top text:
This church building was built in 1881. They built that impressive building a decade before church attendance peaked in New Zealand. It was literally a case of “build it and they will come” – they couldn’t lose! There are stories of it being full to overflowing several times each Sunday for many decades.
I like to think they had their finger on the pulse as they sought to discern what was needed at that time and into the future. There will be similar stories throughout New Zealand. Those must have been exciting times for the church.
A strong minority
Current regular church attendance probably sits around the 10-15% mark. I think this is an indicator that 10-15% of New Zealanders are probably active, participating, followers of Jesus. Together we’re a strong minority.
In the graph below I’ve added the church attendance line to the census data:
What will the church look like in 100 years?
Now I want to predict 100 years into the future.
In the graph above I have added a church attendance line 100 years into the future that stays constant at 10% of the adult population. Imagine if the church stayed the same – we continued to be 10% of the population for the next 100 years.
This would actually mean the church grows significantly over the next 100 years, obviously as population increases, the size of the 10% increases too – so this is a pretty optimistic scenario: we stay the same percentage AND grow bigger.
As shown in the next graph, the Christian Affiliation line will correct itself and be in line with however we end up measuring the church. This is the so called Religious Switching of Pew Research:
In this scenario I’m guessing Other Religions will continue to increase – mostly with immigration – as shown in the next picture. I’ve drawn this as linear, reaching 25% in 100 years – but it might end up being exponential and much higher depending on our immigration policy…
Object to Answer will dwindle – people will be happy to tick No Religion, and No Religion will peak and then diminish as Other Religions increase:
Do you think this is possible? Is this a realistic projection?
Could the church match the historical peak?
I’ve got one more scenario:
What if, over the next 100 years, the church grew back to its 30% peak – so in 100 years, 30% of New Zealanders were active followers of Jesus:
The other lines could end up looking like this:
Can you imagine that happening?
Imagine if in 100 years nearly a third of New Zealanders were active followers of Jesus.
Coming back to 2017 – I’m interested in the things the church needs to consider now as we plan the next 100 years:
What are your thoughts on all of this?
Imagining the church in 100 years is a way to introduce ideas that help us consider what to do now as we plan for the future. In a following blog post called 5 ideas that shape church and society engagement, I run through five ideas that I think help us situate the place of the church in society – five ideas that help us critique and potentially adjust our engagement – helping us get our finger on the pulse at this time as we plan for the future.
Mike Crudge’s blog focusses on issues that in some way connect with communication, church, and society. These topics overlap with others such as theology and missiology, so if you’re interested in things like the mission of the church, being missional, or evangelism, you might find something of interest on it.
Mike currently lives in Auckland and is the Director of the Carey Centre for Lifelong Learning, which is part of Carey Baptist College, New Zealand’s Baptist theological college that has an ecumenical mix of students focusing on applied theology, pastoral leadership and mission training. Before that, he was a pastor at Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Christchurch.
The following article, by Carey Nieuwhof, is sourced from ChristianWeek and has been reposted here with permission.
… people who are churchless (having no church affiliation) will soon eclipse the churched.
Every generation experiences change.
But sometimes you sense you’re in the midst of truly radical change, the kind that happens only every few centuries. Increasingly, I think we’re in such a moment now.
Those of us in Western culture who are over age 30 were born into a culture that could conceivably still be called Christian. Now, as David Kinnaman at the Barna Group has shown, even in America, people who are churchless (having no church affiliation) will soon eclipse the churched.
In addition, 48% of Millennials (born between 1984-2002) can be called post-Christian in their beliefs, thinking and worldview.
I think the change we’re seeing around us might one day be viewed on the same level as what happened to the church after Constantine’s conversion or after the invention of the printing press. Whatever the change looks like when it’s done, it will register as a seismic shift from what we’ve known.
So what will the future church be like? And how should you and I respond?
Okay, before we get going, a few things.
I realize making predictions can be a dangerous thing. Maybe even a bit ridiculous. But I want to offer a few thoughts because I’m passionate about the mission of the church.
So, borne out of a love for the gathered church, I offer a few thoughts. Consider it thinking in pencil, not ink.
While no one’s really sure of what’s ahead, talking about it at least allows us to position our churches for impact in a changing world.
10 Predictions About the Future Church
So what’s likely for the future church? Here are 10 things I see.
1. The potential to gain is still greater than the potential to lose
Every time there is a change in history, there’s potential to gain and potential to lose.
I believe the potential to gain is greater than the potential to lose. Why?
As despairing or as cynical as some might be (sometimes understandably) over the church’s future, we have to remind ourselves that the church was Jesus’ idea, not ours.
It will survive our missteps and whatever cultural trends happen around us. We certainly don’t always get things right, but Christ has an incredible history of pulling together Christians in every generation to share his love for a broken world.
As a result, the reports of the church’s death are greatly exaggerated.
The reports of the church’s death are greatly exaggerated.
2. Churches that love their model more than the mission will die
That said, many individual congregations and some entire denominations won’t make it. The difference will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to the model.
When the car was invented, it quick took over from the horse and buggy. Horse and buggy manufacturers were relegated to boutique status and many went under, but human transportation actually exploded. Suddenly average people could travel at a level they never could before.
The mission is travel. The model is a buggy, or car, or motorcycle, or jet.
Look at the changes in the publishing, music and even photography industry in the last few years.
See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts….moving from things like 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs to MP3s and now streaming audio and video.
Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method (Kodak).
Churches need to stay focused on the mission (leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus) and be exceptionally innovative in our model.
In the future, churches that love their model more than their mission will die.
3. The gathered church is here to stay
Read the comments on this blog or any other church leader blog and you would think that some Christians believe the best thing to do is to give up on Christian gatherings of any kind.
This is naive.
While some will leave, it does not change the fact that the church has always gathered because the church is inherently communal. Additionally, what we can do gathered together far surpasses what we can do alone. Which is why there will always be an organized church of some form.
So while our gatherings might shift and look different than they do today, Christians will always gather together to do more than we ever could on our own
The church will always gather. What Christians can do together far surpasses what we can do alone.
4. Consumer Christianity will die and a more selfless discipleship will emerge
Consumer Christianity asks What can I get from God? It asks, What’s in it for me?
That leads us to evaluate our church, our faith, our experience and each other according to our preferences and whims. In many respects, even many critics of the church who have left have done so under the pull of consumer Christianity because ‘nothing’ meets their needs.
All of this is antithetical to the Gospel, which calls us to die to ourselves—to lose ourselves for the sake of Christ.
As the church reformats and repents, a more authentic, more selfless church will emerge. Sure, we will still have to make decisions about music, gathering times and even some distinctions about what we believe, but the tone will be different. When you’re no longer focused on yourself and your viewpoint, a new tone emerges.
As the church reformats and repents, a more authentic, more selfless church will emerge.
5. Sundays will become more about what we give than what we get
The death of consumer Christianity will change our gatherings.
Our gatherings will become less about us and more about Jesus and the world he loves. Rather than a gathering of the already-convinced, the churches that remain will be decidedly outsider-focused. And word will be supplemented with deeds.
In the future church, being right will be less important than doing right. Sure, that involves social justice and meeting physical needs, but it also involves treating people with kindness, compassion in every day life and attending to their spiritual well being.
This is the kind of outward focus that drove the rapid expansion of the first century church.
That’s why I’m very excited to be part of a group of churches that has, at its heart, the desire to create churches unchurched people love to attend. While the expression of what that looks like may change, the intent will not.
In the future church, being right will be less important than doing right.
6. Attendance will no longer drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance
Currently, many churches try to get people to attend, hoping it drives engagement.
In the future, that will flip. The engaged will attend, in large measure because only the engaged will remain.
If you really think about this…engagement driving attendance is exactly what has fuelled the church at its best moments throughout history. It’s an exciting shift.
7. Simplified ministries will complement people’s lives, not compete with people’s lives
For years, the assumption has been that the more a church grew, the more activity it would offer.
The challenge, of course, is that church can easily end up burning people out. In some cases, people end up with no life except church life. Some churches offer so many programs for families that families don’t even have a chance to be families.
The church at its best has always equipped people to live out their faith in the world. But you have to be in the world to influence the world.
Churches that focus their energies on the few things the church can uniquely do best will emerge as the most effective churches moving forward. Simplified churches will compliment people’s witness, not compete with people’s witness.
Simplified churches will compliment people’s witness, not compete with people’s witness.
8. Online church will supplement the journey but not become the journey
There’s a big discussion right now around online church. I think in certain niches online church might become the church for some who simply have no other access to church.
But there is something about human relationship that requires presence. Because the church at its fullest will always gather, online church will supplement the journey. I believe that online relationships are real relationships, but they are not the greatest relationships people can have.
Think of it like meeting someone online. You can have a fantastic relationship. But if you fall in love, you ultimately want to meet and spend your life together.
So it is with Jesus, people and the church.
9. Online church will become more of a front door than a back door
There’s no question that today online church has become a back door for Christians who are done with attending church.
While online church is an amazing supplement for people who can’t get to a service, it’s still an off ramp for Christian whose commitment to faith is perhaps less than it might have been at an earlier point.
Within a few years, the dust will settle and a new role for online church and online ministry will emerge. Online church has the potential to become a massive front door for the curious, the unconvinced and for those who want to know what Christianity is all about.
In the same way you purchase almost nothing without reading online reviews or rarely visit a restaurant without checking it out online first, a church’s online presence will be a first home for people which for many, will lead to a personal connection with Christ and ultimately the gathered church.
Online church has the potential to become a front door for the curious and the unconvinced.
10. Gatherings will be smaller and larger at the same time
While many might think the mega-church is dead, it’s not. And while others think mega-churches are awful, there’s nothing inherently bad about them. Size is somewhat irrelevant to a church’s effectiveness.
There are bad mega-churches and bad small churches. And there are wonderfully effective mega-churches and wonderfully effective small churches.
We will likely see large churches get larger. Multisite will continue to explode, as churches that are effective expand their mission.
At the same time, churches will also establish smaller, more intimate gatherings as millennials and others seek tighter connections and groups. Paradoxically, future large churches will likely become large not because they necessarily gather thousands in one space, but because they gather thousands through dozens of smaller gatherings under some form of shared leadership. Some of those gatherings might be as simple as coffee shop and even home venues under a simple structure.
We will see the emergence of bigger churches and smaller churches at the same time as the gathered church continues to change.
The future church will become bigger and smaller at the same time.