The changing face of Christianity
All across the world, the landscape of Christianity is changing.
When compared to the Christian world of our parents' and grandparents' generations, the future of the Christianity appears to be vastly different.
While in the 20th century (and many centuries before) Christianity was synonymous with Western civilisation and the people of Europe, the 21st century is already beginning to break the stereotype.
While in Western Europe—Christianity's perceived traditional heartland— Christian affiliation remains relatively strong, figures on church attendance paint a different picture.
In a survey conducted last year by The Economist, the region with the highest church attendance was not Western Europe, or even North America.
Rather, it was in Africa.
While the good news is that across the world the Church is growing and thriving, the bad news is that Western countries are increasingly entering a post-Christian phase.
Christianity in New Zealand
In New Zealand, we can see the same trends affecting Europe repeating on a smaller scale. Over the course of the last 100 years, New Zealand's religious affiliation has changed dramatically—from over 90% Christian in 1916 to around 48% today. According to most estimates, while nearly half of all New Zealanders identify as Christian, only about 15% of New Zealanders regularly attend church every week.
Partially contributing to this change, there has been a growth of other religions in New Zealand, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. However, these changes are relatively insignificant when compared to the growth of New Zealanders who identify with no religion. As of the last census in 2013, about 41% of New Zealanders had no religious affiliation (up from 29% in 2001).
While there are many implications for Christians to consider from these trends, one of the most important is the trend towards theological illiteracy.
In New Zealand in generations past, Christianity had been part of the social and cultural fabric of our society. Most people, even if they didn't regularly go to church, identified themselves as Christians. And from a fairly young age, most New Zealanders had at least a basic understanding of Christian faith and of the Bible itself.
In the 21st century, this model is becoming increasingly less representative of our country. Indeed, a large proportion of the next generation of New Zealanders will grow up barely knowing the Christian faith, any more than they would be familiar with Buddhism or Islam.
In such an environment, having a basic understanding of theology is essential for every Christian. While of course having such knowledge should be essential for a Christian in any era, it is perhaps even more urgent in a culture which has forgotten its Christian roots.
Unlike in previous generations, Christians cannot simply assume their morality and values are considered the norm in society. Indeed, over the last 15–20 years, Christians have been fighting (and losing) many legislative battles in parliament over what are considered traditional Christian values.
In this context, it is not enough for Christians to be able to state what they believe, but more importantly they must be able to articulate why they believe it.
Similarly, good theology is necessary to separate Christianity from other religions. For the majority of people who fall into the atheist/agnostic category, Christianity is simply 'religion'. While they may wear different clothes, say different prayers, and worship in different ways, the sceptic will argue that all religions are essentially the same— just wrapped up in different packaging.
In an era where the news is dominated more and more by stories of religious extremism and terrorism, it is becoming increasingly important to articulate what is unique about Christianity, in order to differentiate it from other religions which have completely different philosophies, morals, and concepts about God.
As time goes on, Christians in New Zealand will find themselves swimming against an increasingly rapid current of popular opinion. We need to be ready to give an answer to those who ask us the reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3 chapter 3, verse 15).
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History (focussing on attitudes towards warfare in Islam and Christianity).
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html