Wednesday, 1 March 2017

What's Hot and What's Not

Some Reflections about the Church Scene in New Zealand

Please read this preamble first

This paper, for the most part, is not based on hard data. It is simply my reflections after six years of interactions, involvements and asking lots of questions in my role as Executive Director of WillowNZ within the church and para-church scene in New Zealand. I’m not a statistician or a trends expert. I am, however, an interested observer so much so that WillowNZ has recently started a small research unit within our organisation. I’d like this to be a ‘developing document’ and it will certainly be a changing one. Your thoughts, comments and feedback, as an informed reader, are very welcome.

Bill Hybels reminded us many years ago that one of the first tasks, if not the first task of leadership, is to define reality. I have sought to do exactly that in this paper. He has also re-iterated on many occasions Ken Blanchard’s important mantra, ‘let facts be your friends’. That is quite easy when the facts are up and to the right; it is much harder when the facts are not bringing particularly good news as is the case in this paper.

I am an optimist by temperament—most leaders are. We are glass-half-full rather than glass-half-empty people. However, I am not a triumphalist. I have already noticed over the last few years as I have spoken more publicly on this topic that many leaders struggle to engage with this content and invariably point to a success story.

I know there are some great stories around NZ. I’ve both seen and heard about some of these. One of them is in my own family. Most of these stories are off the radar in generally small-town NZ. I rejoice that these stories exist. And they exist right across the church body. They are so encouraging; even more so in a day of decline and spiritually dry conditions.

The truth is that the church scene in NZ is not particularly encouraging at present, particularly in so far as new-convert growth or evangelistic growth is concerned and hasn’t been for at least 10 years, but probably more like 15-20 years. So therefore, this paper is not very bright or upbeat. I am trying very hard to ‘define reality’ accurately.

Of necessity then, I am making a lot of generalisations, as I am taking a national view NOT a local view.

Finally, I believe with every bone in me that ‘the local church IS the hope of the world when it’s working right’. The local church biblically understood is the best representation of the person of Jesus the world has. The church IS the Body of Christ in the world.

Here are my reflections in summary form only. I have a lot more commentary and detail that is best shared in a seminar or workshop setting.

1.      Conversion Growth is at an all-time low. Possibly the lowest since the Billy Graham era of the late 50’s to early 60’s.

2.      Church attendance numbers continue to decline. At best 10% of New Zealanders attend a Sunday Worship service on a Sunday morning. That’s about 470,000 adults, teenagers and children.

3.      Of greater concern is the numbers of children and teenagers regularly at church is of course also declining.

4.      Because of this there has been a huge upswing of what Alan Jamieson[i] called ‘The Churchless Faith’ in the late 80’s and early 90’s and are now referred to as the ‘Dones’ or ‘Church Refugees’. These are not all people who can’t get along at a regular church like I used to think—they are mostly genuine Christian people who love God and are often sad that they can no longer be part of a church family.

5.      There is now emerging a new concern within the evangelical church in NZ, namely what The Barna Group refers to as ‘Cultural Christians’. These are people who are ostensibly committed to a local church but whose faith in Christ is either non-existent or at a very low level at best. In other words, Christian on Sunday, secular on Monday.

6.      The following denominations are in decline: Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Brethren, Salvation Army and Pentecostals[ii].

7.      The following denominations are experiencing increase: Catholics, Migrant congregations and the Independents.

8.      The Independent Church Sector has seen a huge increase in the number of churches in the last 10 years or so and also in the size of four churches in this category. Their growth, by and large, has been by transfer from other churches[iii] both within NZ and from new migrant peoples.

9.      Our brothers and sisters in the ‘Revivalist Stream’ have not shown any better results in conversions (and medically authenticated healings for that matter) than the evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal churches.

10.  There are, according to my research, six churches that have more than 2000 in average attendance every Sunday morning in NZ. Though ‘mega’ technically means one million we tend to refer to 2000 or more in weekly attendance as a megachurch (or very large church). These six churches are all multi-site, using digital and/or satellite technology, run their own conferences every year and except for one are located in Auckland, an officially recognised megacity of the world.

11.  There are approximately 20 churches in NZ that gather 1000 people or more every Sunday—eleven in Auckland and nine in the rest of NZ.

12.  The small church of under 100 is not financially viable any more given our current church model (i.e., a building, a full-time pastor etc.) unless it has been given or has access to ‘extraordinary funds’ or a pastor and his or her family that effectively subsidise the church which, by the way, happens a lot.

13.  Intentional church planting has been patchy over the last 15 years and has now, by and large, stalled. No denomination has had significant success here[iv].

14.  Alternative church models haven’t had traction in NZ even after all the talk about emergent church, missional church, simple church and other alternative models. I do want to note that there are a few outstanding exceptions to this.

15.  The reasons for this overall decline are many and varied which I will discuss in a follow-up paper, but suffice to say for now, here are five reasons as I see it:
  • I believe that, at least in part, it is a leadership problem. Pastors are salt-of-the-earth people and by and large have chosen Pastoral Leadership as a vocation because they love God and they love people. However, many pastors do not have the requisite gifts or emotional resilience to do the job in today’s complex world. They would be better as Assistant Pastors on someone else’s team.
  • Too many pastors have not personally experienced a person coming to Faith in Christ for a very long time. Pastors have forgotten that one item on their job description is to be an evangelist, a preacher of the Gospel.
  • I believe our training models are not helping with the problem.
  • Many mid-size churches are spending too much on wages and salaries leaving too little for the resourcing of existing sub-ministries in the church, not to say anything about new evangelism and mission endeavours. This has largely come about due to a shrinking of total volunteer hours available to churches as it has in the wider NZ community. For example, talk to most sports clubs.
  • Grandma and Grandpa are quite possibly still the major reason for low levels of innovation, bold steps of faith and courageous leadership in the established church in NZ. That is hardly an issue in the newer contemporary churches where change is in the churches’ DNA.
16.  Finally, and perhaps the most sobering: Over the last 15 years we have talked a lot about being missional. Hundreds of local churches have started Charitable Trusts to do community outreach work; new training institutions have opened up and conference offerings have multiplied exponentially, it seems. While all this important activity has been going on, just about every social statistic in NZ, as a percentage of the total population, has gotten worse in that exact same period of time: Homicides, incarcerations, family violence, childhood poverty, marriage breakdowns, abortions, suicides, problem gambling, STDs, and addictions, especially the two deadly Ps (porn and Methamphetamine), to name a few. In other words, the two-way bridge is broken and has become a one-way bridge only. What started out as a genuine desire to have church people walk over ‘the bridge’ into the community, do outreaching ministry of some kind and as a result walk back over that same bridge with a not-yet-Christian person or family on their arm, has, by and large, not worked. Sadly, the bridge has only experienced one-way traffic. We have to go back, I believe, to the drawing board and figure out how we in the evangelical church can see the transformation of The City.

So, as I said, this is merely a summary—hopefully, a contribution to the ongoing discussion that is top of mind at present, and my prayer is that it will form an important backdrop to our praying, our strategizing, our conversations and our local church mission. As I have said earlier, please feel free to be in touch.

Thanks for your interest.

[i] See

[ii]I principally refer to the Pentecostals as New Life, Acts (formally Apostolic), Elim and the Assemblies of God as being the largest Pentecostal denominations in NZ. I know there are several other smaller ones as well.

[iii] I am aware that this sector does see reasonably good numbers (comparatively speaking) of believers’ baptisms. However, most of their growth is still transfer growth. This is a source of some pain for the churches that lose good people to these new ‘hipster’ churches.

[iv] I believe we need to have a church-wide conversation about ‘the need for church planting’ AND ‘the ethics of church planting’.

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