16 December 2013

No Surprises in the Census

by Dr Mark Keown

So the census figures are out. There are few surprises with the previous trends continuing. Christians by census profession now make up 44.5% of the country, down from 46.7% in 2006 and 63.8% in 1996. For the first time ever, there are less than 2 million census Christians in NZ. In eighteen years the percentage of Christians has dropped by about 20%, down from 63.8%.

The mainline denominations are all receding, largely due to some of the many elderly members and adherents dying. The sharp rate of decline in the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches continues, down from a combined 36.4% of NZ's population in 1996 to 20.6% of the population. Of interest is the decline in Pentecostal Christians since the last census, down from 2.1 to 1.7% (79,155 to 74,433). Catholics too are down, for the first time for three censuses, but they are now NZ’s largest denomination superseding the Anglican Church. Some of these changes can be due to the number of undefined Christians increasing by 30,000.

Eastern religions continue to rise with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Sikhism up to 213,693, or 5% of the population (1996, 2.1%). Especially noticeable is the growth of Hinduism – now 2.1% of the population (90,018) from 0.8 in 1996 (25,551). This is largely due to immigration and NZ's changing demographic.

The number of people who have no religion, will not state it, or object to answering is about half the population, 49.6%. In 1996 about 40% of NZers were in this category. NZ then is a country that is split with about half able to be broadly defined as “spiritual” and the other half “secular.” So, NZ is increasingly a secular nation, but in reality is a spiritual/secular nation. It certainly can’t be called a Christian nation, although the afterglow of Christendom continues and Christianity remains the dominant religion.

What does all this suggest? It suggests that we should expect this trend to continue with NZ becoming increasingly non-religious, Christian census professing continuing to recede, and eastern religions slowly growing. We can expect to hear louder calls for pluralism and the removal of Christian and religious symbolism from the public square.

How do we Christians respond? I humbly suggest we respond by renewing our efforts to live faithfully to the gospel. Our greatest challenge is not the drop-off of Christian profession, but it is to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil 1:27). We must move beyond nominalism, hypocrisy, and lukewarm Christian living. We need to continue to gather in worship and community. We must persevere in seeking to be a holy people. We must live relentlessly out of love. We continue to stand in wider society for Christian values of love, compassion, justice, social justice, marriage and family, and the things of God. We must continue to share Christ with the world, through our attitudes, our actions, and through words “full of grace and seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6). We need to renew our efforts to embody in our lives and communities the values of Christ.

We must not allow the changing value systems of our nation to compromise our values. The answer to the decline is not selling out the gospel; we live to please God not the world. Our work is to plant and water, it is God who brings the growth (1 Cor 3:6). We continue to build the church on its one true foundation, Jesus Christ. As the society changes to become increasingly multi-cultural, our churches must become transformed intercultural communities where all NZers can find a place. As we live out the gospel well, the God of the harvest will do his work, and he will fulfil his purposes in history. May we have the strength to do so.

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