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”.
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:
- Church attendance has never been high in New Zealand. Therefore the eventual decline of cultural Christianity has been fairly unencumbered.
- 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.
- Walrond, C. (2011). Atheism and secularism Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Government. ↩
- 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 ↩
- Guy, L. (2011). Shaping Godzone: public issues and church voices in New Zealand 1840-2000. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press. ↩