Pop quiz: When did regular church attendance peak in New Zealand?

19 July, 2013 — 29 Comments

I only found this out last year and the answer was not what I had expected. Since then, as conversations have allowed, I’ve been asking people to tell me a decade when they think church attendance peaked. Not many people have given me the right answer.

When do you think it was?


It’s a pretty blunt tool to use as an indicator of the church’s health in a country, but people going to Sunday church services regularly does indicate something of their commitment to the traditional way of being “the church”.

Research like that done by Alan Jamieson over a decade ago showed that plenty of people have left church attendance behind for various reasons, and many still sustain their Christian spirituality without attending Sunday church services. Jamieson calls this phenomena a “churchless faith“.

For this post, I want to focus on those people who do attend church services regularly.

Most people that I ask to guess when church attendance peaked in New Zealand say the 1950s, so before the significant social changes that occurred in the 1960s (and I’ll do a post about that sometime).

Some people suggest the 1930s, so pre-World War Two.

The actual answer: regular church attendance in New Zealand peaked in the 1890s.

The next question is: what percentage of the adult population was attending church regularly during that time?

The answer is about 30%.

I put together the graph below mostly using data from Statistics New Zealand (via Walrond 1).  The two lines of most interest to me in this post are the top dark-blue line: “Christian affiliation”, and the light-blue line: “Church attendance”.


The church attendance line comes from data gleaned from published work by both Kevin Ward 2 and Laurie Guy 3, who found this info in various sources, some of which is approximated.

What’s the difference between Christian affiliation and church attendance?

When I first visited friends doing work in Thailand, Stu, who now works with Partners Relief and Development, said to me something like: “To be Thai is to be Buddhist”. Buddhism is so much part of the Thai culture, that to be Thai, is to be Buddhist.

A blunt but useful concept is the idea of Christendom as a paradigm. If we think of parts of the world, particularly Europe, where the Christian church has been culturally dominant in the past, we can imagine that being born at a certain time and place would mean you might consider yourself to be Christian.

In New Zealand 150 years ago, when filling out the census form, it seems that to be a New Zealander was to be Christian – that can be seen on the graph with Christian affiliation hovering around 90-95% for many decades. Compare this to the 30% of adults attending church regularly, and the commitment to Christian faith (through attendance) was a lot less than the cultural identity of Christianity, or in other words: Christian affiliation.

Christian affiliation has declined significantly since the 1960s, and there are various reasons for this, one is the green-line on the graph showing New Zealanders embracing “no religion”. I personally expect that eventually the two blue lines will end up being close to each other, meaning if someone is saying they affiliate themselves to Christianity, they are probably “going to church”.

BUT, I want to make a disclaimer here and say I think a better measure than “going to church” might eventually be described as something like “participating in a Christian-faith-community…”

What does this mean?

There’s lots to say about the lines on this graph, but today I will stick to two things:

  1. Church attendance has never been high in New Zealand.  Therefore the eventual decline of cultural Christianity has been fairly unencumbered.
  2. Around issues to do with moral change, in recent times the public voice from some parts of the church, has presented the idea that New Zealand society is on the edge of a very steep and slippery slope: for example, it’s not illegal to be gay anymore (1986), we’re not allowed to smack children anymore (2007), people of the same sex are allowed to get married (2013).

Actually, the slope isn’t that steep, and it’s not that slippery. AND, it began to happen over a hundred years ago! (The light-blue line on the graph.)

If the church attendance line on the graph was that of people’s commitment to another type of organisation, lets say a political party, or even a business, the people running those organisations would have been getting pretty concerned about what was going on back in the early 1900s.

It’s 2013 and I’m not sure most of the church is that concerned with where it’s at. I would even suggest that some people in the 10% minority of New Zealand society who are regular church attenders, believe the church is more significant in society than it actually is, to the extent of being delusional (for example, expecting the 90%-non-church-attending part of society to follow traditional/conservative Christian morals).

What comes to your mind as you think about the 1890s peak of church attendance in New Zealand? 

Top image: Sunday morning church service at Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Christchurch, New Zealand, 18 April 2010, Mike Crudge.
Graph: Religious affiliation and church attendance 1867-2006, Mike Crudge.



  1. Walrond, C. (2011). Atheism and secularism Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Government.
  2. Ward, K. (2006). Towards 2015: the future of mainline Protestantism in New Zealand. Journal of beliefs & values: Studies in religion & education, 27(1), 13-23. dpi: 10.1080/13617670600594152
  3. Guy, L. (2011). Shaping Godzone: public issues and church voices in New Zealand 1840-2000. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.
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  • Andrew Meek

    These statistics shocked me too when you first alerted them to me Mike. As a Millenial who has spent his life in a church full of those known as the Silent Generation (war time children), I grew up believing that Christianity and church on Sundays was fundamental to New Zealand culture and heritage.

    It astounded me that the senior church members I knew failed to acknowledge that not only had this day long past, but that even when they were children the church had spent 50 years in decline.
    As a Millenial, my initial reaction is relief – I don’t need to feel guilty that our generation (and those before us) have screwed up a ‘God defended Free Land’ that 1950s New Zealand was.

    My thoughts then turn to the lines, which one matters?

    Christian affiliation? Are these the people who are ‘saved’?

    Church attendance? Are these the people who carry the Gospel into the world?

    Hard to answer.

    Perhaps there is another line that measures evidences of the Kingdom of God at work? When did that line peak? What is it’s current trajectory?

    • HI Andrew.
      I think you’ve just come up with a new research project: plotting a graph showing evidence of the kingdom of God at work in NZ over the last 200 years!

      Imagine if as a local church we looked for that as a way to encourage or challenge how we were going, rather than weekly offerings or number of attenders. But it’s not as clear-cut as counting money or the number of seats our auditorium holds.

      I personally don’t think Christian affiliation is a sign of being “saved” – if a person ticks that box on the census but shows no indicators of participation (transformation) in the kingdom of God, then what’s the point of ticking that box?… What would Judas do?

  • disqus_aUV4kk8nVj

    Hard topic this week, Mike! I was tempted to give up and put it in the “too hard” basket and can’t really say I have sat and thought a lot about your question, to be honest.
    I was surprised at the 1890s being the peak of church attendance here in Aotearoa. I do think that the “traditional” churches, from my understanding, seem to be losing attendees but don’t you think, on the other hand, that there are new churches that have been established and are actually growing? I saw on Shine TV recently a programme about Peter and Bev Mortlock’s church in Auckland and that has grown wonderfully, planting at least two other churches, and they certainly reach out into their communities. And I can think of a more “local” example with Arise Church in Wellington, which grew from very small beginnings not too many yearsr ago and now packs out the Michael Fowler Centre (one of their venues for Sunday meetings), and has planted another church on the Kapiti coast.
    Could it be that “going to church” in that part of NZ’s history (1890s) was something expected by society (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing!) so they went because that’s what people did but they may not have known Jesus and consequently His salvation? I’d like to think that the majority of NZ’s modern “churchgoers” now attend because they WANT to (not because they’ve GOT to) gather with other believers and are followers of Jesus (rather than “fans” to coin a phrase currently used) and also that their weekday lives reflect that accordingly. Oh dear, I do go on but hope some of this makes sense …………………..

    • I see your drift!

      One thing I didn’t point out in the post is that my figures in this post are percentages, meaning, they are a portion of the population. This means what might be a smaller percentage of people in 2006, could actually be a larger number of people than a larger percentage in 1890 – due to the ongoing population growth in NZ.

      For example, 10% of the population of 1 million people (around 1907) is less than 10% of the population of 4 million people (a year or so ago).

      So, over the last 100 years, the church has been increasing in number, but the percentage is lower as a portion of society because the size/growth of the church has not matched population growth. For the church to have stayed at the 1890s 30%, it would have had to be continually growing at the same rate as population growth.

      For Baptist churches in NZ, the attendance graphs for the last few decades (as number of people not percentages) has been nearly flat, with a slight increase. It’s only in the last year or so that the direction of our line has started to head south. (I don’t have the actual figures to prove this and have just heard it being talked about – so don’t quote me!)

      When your current examples of growing churches are put alongside the declining or plateaued churches, the current big-picture is still decline. But there is hope!

    • Aaron Hutton-Cash

      Going back to this comment 2 years ago it is actually pretty phenomenal to think that we are currently experiencing incredible growth. Revival Fire is hitting New Zealand.

      ARISE Church in Wellington has grown into what America would class as a “MegaChurch” 13,000 attendees per week. 6 campuses (Hamilton, Christchurch, Whangerei, Dunedin, Kapiti Coast and Wellington) and a new building due to be finished in the next 2 years in Lower Hutt. Add to that on a weekly basis in Wellington we see The Michael Fowler filled to near capacity. Plus over the last 2 years we have experienced 2 Sold Out ARISE conferences at TSB Arena the 2nd biggest indoor arena in the North Island. 5500 people each year.

      To go with this we are experiencing new levels of discipleship and community impact unheard of in New Zealand. With ARISE conference we had of 300 churches in New Zealand represented plus multiple oversees guest ministers and the Largest church bible college with ARISE Interns being responsible for the 10 services nationwide on a Sunday and the Incredible community impact both here and overseas the completion of a World Vision Are Development Plan in Lipiri, Malawi completed in 3 years. This is impact in flowing out into the wider body of Christ in New Zealand.

      LIFE Church has now 10,000 members, they have a brilliant multi-site congregation. Much like them City Impact with the Mortlock’s have been experiencing growth alongside with Harborside Church with Pastors Steel. Equippers are now holding there conference at Vector Arena the Largest Indoor Arena in Auckland and another example of a multi-site Church having a World-Wide impact.

      The Church of New Zealand has it’s best days still ahead of her. We have reason to be excited!! We are experiencing the beginning of a REVIVAL.

      • Hi Aaron – thanks for sharing all of this information here and adding to the conversation.

      • Hi Aaron.. I am firmly of the belief that ‘size is not everything.’ You seem very passionate about the work of Arise church and Life church. While these churches have a ‘big front door’ John Cameron has openly admitted they also have a very ‘large back door.’

        This leads me to believe that we may well not be making disciples but disillusioned people. In a recent sermon Cameron said that the sole purpose of Arise was to get people to become Christians and that depth of teaching and discipleship were unimportant compared to this – this is not likely to sustain a ‘revival’. I have been blogging about Arise at rongopai.net and would welcome your views.

  • Great post. One thing of interest is the red line: other religions. Is this something corresponding to immigration?

    • Hi James. Yes, I think so. I have heard that the Catholic Church in NZ has had a lot of new worshippers due to immigrants from countries where Catholicsim is strong. Likewise, an article on Religion in NZ in Wikipedia says this: “At the 2006 census around 5% of the New Zealand population affiliated to a non-Christian religion. Statistics New Zealand report that about 80% of the largest non-Christian religious groups are composed of immigrants, almost half of whom have arrived in New Zealand since 2000.”

  • Tim Bulkeley

    What this raises for me is the question of Christian “affiliation”. Since the figures are for census returns it is a particular sort of cultural affiliation that is being measured. But I wonder about all the people who pray, have religious experiences and understand both in (more or less) vaguely ‘Christian’ ways but who don’t attend church and may or may not tick the ‘right’ box on census night… Does ‘the church’ have a responsibility to those sheep who have not followed the flock into the fold?

    • Hi Tim. I wonder if the answer to your question has something to do with what some people describe as ‘open set’ or ‘closed set’ Christianity. The closed set group might ignore the people you talk of until they show more conformity, whereas the open set group might be more hospitable to the “vaguely ‘Christian’ ways” (?)

      • Tim Bulkeley

        But both tend to see them as potential pew fodder. In the 21st century sitting in gathering is not normal even major sports face dwindling crowds unless they have big stars (Barbara recently watched Wimbledon a lot, top tournament, limited capacity, empty seats galore except when International top stars were on court) concerts are an exception, and churches that put on a good concert. BUT is that enough? Who pastors the sheep who don’t flock?

        • I agree Tim! I’m one of a very small minority at my current church that don’t think we should replace our earthquake destroyed church building with a 400 seat auditorium – because I’m not expecting the future of the 21st century church to be as large gathering centric as the old 19th century building was designed to cater for…

          What’s YOUR answers to the questions you pose?

          • Tim Bulkeley

            Questions are easy, answers are hard. I think there is a need for large gatherings, but like John Robinson in the 70s and the Cell Church movement in the 90s I think there is also a place for smaller “church”. Maybe these smaller gatherings could be informal and personal enough to encourage some unchurched people to discover a place to build their faith as a collaborative venture instead of alone.
            But without doing a complete makeover I’d like to see some churches deliberately encouraging and equipping some members to become “chaplains” to the unattached. A bit like a combination of the worker-priest idea and the Anglican non-stipendiary priests. It’s basically what we claim all Christians should be doing, but few actually do, some keep their heads down, others make forays to convert the heathen, few see themselves as chaplains tasked with nurturing the (nascent or developed in perhaps unorthodox ways) faith of their “neighbours”.

  • Rod Fleming

    Over here in Scotland I’ve heard it said that 0.5% of people go to Church – I would take it that my Pastor when quoting this stat was referring to “regularly attendees”. I’m believing that is going to change though.
    It’s amazing to hear of what is going on (what God is doing) in parts of Africa and South America and in parts of Asia.

    • Wow! That’s not very high in Scotland!!

      There is certainly some action in the majority-world church.

  • liturgy

    What comes to my mind as I think about the “1890s peak of church attendance in New Zealand” is firstly the question – what actual evidence do you have that that was the case?

    What do you mean by “regular” in your post?

    Was there some change in measuring that in the 1890s, different from the rest of your graph?

    After the 1890s you construct a dotted line until the 1950s. What evidence do you have for that construction? Might there not have been as sharp a drop as there was a sharp rise up to your 1890s figure?

    More importantly: if you remove the 1890s aberration, suspecting its veracity, you now have a flat 20% graph throughout NZ’s history until the mid 1960s. Your constructed slope and the “began over a hundred years ago” thesis now seems unsustained.

    Advent blessings



    • Hi Bosco
      There isn’t a lot of data concerning historical church attendance in New Zealand, and I have drawn my numbers from material Guy (2011) and Ward (2006) have published (cited at the end of the post), and they could be considered as respected NZ academics.

      You’re right in suggesting there may have been a sharp drop in the dotted period of the graph and the lack of data is why the line is dotted through that period – we don’t know.

      I think the 30% church attendance figure in the 1890s is believable considering the figure in England just a few decades before could have been between 40-60%,

      Measurements of regular church attendance varies but could be twice a month.

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  • Lindsay

    Actually, there is ongoing data about church attendance in NZ.
    Nielsen Research, formerly AGB:McNair have asked questions regularly in their Surveys for years. They ask about how often people attend church along with a host if other hobbies & activities; so historic data is available.
    I see they currently have research on
    “Associational membership”
    Individual membership of a group, club, or organisation (eg sports club, hobby club or interest group, neighbourhood/community association, or a church, religious, or spiritual group).
    So the information is there.

    • Hi Lindsay, and thanks for your comment. Can you provide a link for the research you’re mentioning – I’ve just done a quick look on google and didn’t find it. Thanks.

  • Mark Simpson

    Hi Mike. There have been huge events that have happened since you writing this post. Do you know what the gender differences are in church attendances? In the time I was gearing up for submitting a paper to the “Home or Away? Locating Sport and Leisure in Christian Faith and Practice” Conference at Carey Baptist College, I came across the issue of gender imbalance. Beginning in the Middle Ages with “bridal mysticism” , there was a lead up to what was considered quite a ‘crisis’ in the 19th Century Western world church. The issue being four women to one man attending churches! Ministers needed to cater for the dominant gender, compounding the feminisation of the church. The ‘feminisation’ kept men away. So gave rise to the Muscular Christianity movement in the late 1800s – early 1900s. It being the time of highest church attendance in New Zealand (possibly elsewhere). In an attempt to address the “manhood problem” the Muscular Christianity movement surged with the increased leisure time brought about by industrialisation and popularity of sports. Christians offered moral coaching to teams, there was a rise in men’s lodges , formation of the YMCA, and other men’s groups, all in an attempt to fill the pews with men to address imbalance of the masculine and the feminisation of the church. There was also the success of the work of the Temperance Movement and Prohibitionists in the 1890s as well as the Sabbatharians influence to put more people in the church pews. Sadly, at the height of church attendance in New Zealand (and the rest) Muscular Christianity in the end only fed the trenches of WW1 with the help of the “White Feather Brigade” and Christian men only made fit to kill Christian men. Due to the disillusionment, the Muscular Christianity movement had largely ceased by the 1920s, with just remnants of it carrying on today. Also there was the lifting of Prohibition in the United States that had a flow on effect in New Zealand. Sabbatharians too lost out and we have Sunday trading now as well as sports on Sunday (which never was the case in “God’s Own” once upon a time). Sports of course has far better ‘returns’ for the dollar, than sending men AND women onto the battlefield of war. Sports also gives opportunity for youth group activities, Christian sports team drama DVDs for moral coaching and lessons on perseverance. The popularity of sports offers themes for topical sermons or an international test a traditional attention grabber (how many pastors have preached from the pulpit in a rugby jersey?). Or where would the worship ministry be without referring to it as a “TEAM” to achieve goals? Though for some folk, church can interfere with their passion for sport.

    You may find this free ebook and interesting read.

    • Hi Mark – apologises for the delay in acknowledging your comment here – thanks for adding to the conversation – it’s interesting.

      By “feminisation of the church”, is it simply meant that the gender ratio was more women than men, or was the actual expression of what happened in the Christian-faith-community somehow more feminine? (such as evangelism, discipleship, worship, teaching, service, church services, etc).

      • Mark Simpson

        Hi Mike. As I understand, the “feminisation of church” being the ratio of women to men in church (4:1 in 1800s) led to ministers meeting the qualities and needs of women through sermons, worship, programmes etc; more than the qualities and needs of men. The situation also had bearing on the type of men drawn into ministry to meet those needs. Though this began far earlier than the 1800s apparently. A Puritan minister in the 1600s, noted that there were more “Godly Women” than “Godly Men” within a mile of his home. The ‘gap’ has closed to a point since the Muscular Christianity movement. Apparently we can even see it in our architectural aesthetics of our church buildings, moving away from Victorian aesthetics to more stadium, industrial, theatre. Technology has changed things greatly too today. I wonder what the ratio of women to men listen to quality Christian teaching online is?

        • I wonder if the reason there is so much singing in church services is due to this “feminisation of church”? But then, that being the case, we could have expected less singing since the Muscular Christianity movement.

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