The Press reported recently that perhaps God is not so dead in New Zealand after all. Victoria University’s religious studies professor Paul Morris considers there to be evidence of a growing religious revival among young people in the country. This comes after a United States study listed New Zealand as one of the nine countries in the world where religion will all but die last year.
It is true that latest New Zealand census figures (2006) show that the number of people ticking the “no religion” box is increasing: 1.3 million people, or 34.7 per cent, had no religious affiliation in 2006, up from 1 million, or 29.6 per cent, in 2001.
However, there are apparently growing numbers of young people who are very committed to their faith, despite smaller numbers than in the past. Dr Morris of Victoria University comments after his recent study of students at his university that:
“There is a sizeable number of students who are not religious and a significant minority who are more religious. Those two things are happening simultaneously,”
This makes sense in a generally freer New Zealand society than a few decades ago – why go to Church if you don’t really want to be there? Parents today on the whole are much less likely to force you to. There is also much less social stigma around not going to Church – in fact in New Zealand you are more likely to face stigma if you do go.
These differences may mean that the true numbers of practicing and committed Church goers are not as different as they seem – that is, those who were merely forced to go to Church or who felt under some sort of guilt complex to do so simply no longer do, and there is certainly no longer any perceived obligation to tick one way or the other on your census form.
Dr Morris believes the “religious revival” among young people in New Zealand is caused in part because they are living in troubled times, feeling anxious about the job market, the economy and the environment. Could this mean these factors are having an effect on religious practice among young people in the rest of the world too? Dr Morris comments that:
“In many ways, our young students who are committed religiously are very idealistic. They genuinely want the world to be a better place and they want to be involved in that process.”
Dr Troughton, also of Victoria University, believes that young people may be turning to religion because to some extent Christianity has become “new and counter-cultural”. An interesting observation given teenagers’ age old desire to be ‘different’ – although normally only if they are different in the same way as everybody else!
All the Christian churches contacted by The Press said that it is difficult to measure youth numbers, but that they have indeed noticed a change. The Catholic Church commented that the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney (a worldwide youth event held every three years in a different country) had a significant effect on young people in New Zealand. Four thousand young Kiwis flew over for the event which included concerts, international speakers, worship and Mass with the Pope. The Church confirmed that youth are definitely more active in attending retreats and camps which often sell out.
The Press also reports that the Presbyterian Church is selling out events, with its Connect youth leaders’ conference fully booked for the first time last year. The Anglican Church is seeing the same thing, with Youth Commissioner Michael Tamihere saying there is “more activity among youth people”. However, he further comments that “it still doesn’t say a lot for the overall numbers. We are still dealing with low numbers, lower than we ever have,“. Does this point to a smaller, more committed Christian Church in the future?
A church that has enjoyed both a spark in numbers and youth activity in both New Zealand and worldwide is the Pentecostal church. Pentecostalism only began at the start of the 20th century and is the fastest-growing Christian stream in the world, with an estimated half a billion followers. The Press reports that it may be having an effect that Churches are increasingly trying to connect with young people by using their language – social media. Pentecostal Churches appear particularly good at reaching out to people, but The Press comments that ‘even the Pope is on Twitter, tweeting for the first time last July to announce the launch of the Vatican news information portal‘.
The coming 2013 census will indicate whether there has been any increase in the number of New Zealander’s who profess to be religious, but will not show in which age groups there has been a fall or rise in religious activity or indicate any sort of level of committment. The stats will be shaped in part by New Zealand’s changing demographic as immigrants bring with them their beliefs. There have been small rises in numbers of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and there are also a growing number of immigrants from the Philippines, China and Korea who are very committed to their Christian traditions. In fact, a growing number of religious leaders in New Zealand across a number of faiths are immigrants.
Perhaps demography will mean that New Zealand will be re-evangelised from the outside some 200 years after the first evangelists arrived? Especially if the recent report from The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research which argues that New Zealand should aim to increase its population from 4 to 15 million over the next 50 years is acted upon – that is something that would have to be done largely through immigration given current birth rates. In any case, one thing is certain: God does not appear to be dead in New Zealand yet.