AC Nielsen research

This is a summary of the Attracting New Zealanders to Spiritual Life research commissioned by the Council of Assembly. The research was published in 2002. 



Despite not currently attending a church or other formal religious institution spirituality is still strong among our participants. The central shared premise to this sense of spirituality is the belief that there is ‘something more’ to life than just existing: a greater purpose or meaning of some sort; a belief that one does not become ‘nothing’ on death. All research participants had experienced some degree of conventional Christianity, be that through high involvement as a child/ teenager or just occasional exposure throughout one’s life.  They all felt they understood at the least the basic premise of Christianity.

A range of beliefs expressed

However individuals vary widely in their descriptions of their spirituality – on a continuum from those who feel they have conventional Christian beliefs through to those who identify with more non-conventional forms of spirituality.

Spirituality is not static

People also recognise that spirituality is evolutionary as people refine and redefine their beliefs and views throughout their life journey - searching for beliefs and values that fit with who they are as a person.

At the point of interview

Thus, at the point they were interviewed, participants divided between those who:

  • Feel quite decided and explicitly state that they have conventional Christian based beliefs.
  • Feel decided that there is some sort of higher power or force but not in conventional God terms.
  • Are still searching and evolving their spiritual beliefs. Either struggling with accepting conventional Christianity or feeling that they have moved away from conventional Christianity but have yet to find an alternative they feel certain of.

Exploring the response to church

Attending church is not necessary to express one’s spirituality

While participants differ in their expressions of spirituality and can be at quite different points on their spiritual journey, they share the view that one does not have to attend church in order to express a spiritual dimension in life. Spirituality is seen as a personal, inward and reflective process. People do not see a need for an external party to guide them in defining their own beliefs. They make a clear distinction between spirituality and church attendance. This includes those who feel they have conventional Christian beliefs. The second key dynamic underpinning people’s response to church is the degree to which church has retained any sense of relevance for that individual (either personal and/or in a broader societal context).

Degree of relevance

Participants struggle to see a role for church in their lives. However, the strength of response varied along a continuum from those for whom church has lost relevance to the other end of the continuum where church is recognised as having potential to add value for the community and/or the individual. However, there are still deeply felt negative perceptions of church that create strong barriers to participation across the board.

Non-churchgoers' responses to spirituality and Church

These two key dynamics: conventional to non-conventional spiritual beliefs and the degree to which the church is seen to retain relevance; underpin our model explaining non-churchgoers’ expressions of spirituality and response to church.

Conventional and some acceptance

While they see their beliefs in line with church teachings, a key barrier for this group is the feeling that church does not fit with their lifestyle at the moment. They may for example feel partners would refuse to go, meaning participation would split the family up on Sunday – a day when they feel it is very important to be together.

They require an event that all the family can enjoy and participate in. This requires a change from what they perceive as traditional Sunday services, incorporating more physical activity and having the flexibility to allow an optional spiritual element for those in the family for whom this is a barrier.

Weekday evening service is the other option for this group as it does not cut into weekend family time. (They tend to be unaware this offering currently exists). This can be for the individual and/ or for family.

Non-conventional but some acceptance

While church teachings are not felt to be relevant as they have non-conventional beliefs, this group can still see a potential role for the church in their lives. This centres around associations with church as fostering community and perhaps being a vehicle through which to help others.

Here they need to be offered this opportunity for community involvement and again, the spiritual element needs to be optional - there if they wish to explore it.

Non-conventional and reject

These people have strong barriers to church, having neither conventional beliefs nor seeing attraction in participation at a community level. Strongly negative stereotypes of church are less balanced by positive associations compared to other groups.

Never the less, using the church hall as a venue for secular activities of direct concern to them does allow the church to have a role in their lives. It also provides the opportunity to challenge negative stereotypes by signaling that the church is taking an active and caring role in the community.

Conventional and reject

For some, experiences directly related to church have created strong barriers to involvement despite conventional beliefs. In these cases the church is seen as having the potential to be a negative force in their lives and they actively avoid it. This group can express intense emotions about their associations with church.

For these people the church’s task is to mend bridges. A strong ‘come and go as you please’ feeling and an emphasis on non-judgemental support will challenge their negative beliefs about church.

Core values are closely linked to spirituality

One’s spirituality is also perceived as being strongly linked to one’s core values. Core values are those that people live by and try to pass onto their children.

Regardless of where people are currently positioned on the model, they all describe universal and consistent core values. Certain of these values are seen as in line with the conventional values of the church

‘Church’ Values

  • Compassion
  • Honesty
  • Trustworthiness
  • Respect
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Beyond Church Values

However, people also cite universal core values that they feel extend beyond conventional church values. These core values are:

  • Tolerance and acceptance of difference
  • Value individual choice and making one’s own decisions (as opposed to strict obedience)

These values are seen to be in line with modern society but running counter to conventional church. For example, our participants spoke of a greater acceptance of de facto relationships, children born out of wedlock, second marriages, divorce, cultural diversity and, increasingly, homosexuality.

Detailing participants’ perceptions of the Church

Negative response most ‘top of mind’

Childhood experience, media and cultural myth have contributed to an often negative image of the church. While there are some positive elements in participants’ picture of the church it is the negative preconceptions that people bring up first. These are strongly held barriers which make it very difficult for the church to attract participation or even communicate with non-churchgoers.

Participants negatively portray the church as a dictatorial, Judgemental and narrow-minded institution. It is seen to dictate not only what one must believe, but how one must live one’s life, and is seen to be intolerant of any other lifestyles, cultures or religions. As previously discussed this perception that church has values that run counter to one’s own core values creates a significant barrier to involvement.

Positive associations

People do however see positive elements in the church’s values. Generally they are seen as wholesome and good, in line with people’s own values. There is also a sense that the certain faith that is associated with churchgoing would be comforting. These positive views do not necessarily counteract the negative ones, but they do co-exist in people’s minds.

Like church teachings, the perceived congregation provokes both positive and negative reactions. It is seen as a warm, supportive community that offers members a sense of belonging and support. The negative side of this however is a view of the church as a place for needy people – not people like our participants who feel their lives are full and who do not want to see themselves as needy.

The church’s role in the wider community is appreciated. Practical help such as food parcels or counseling is noted and respected, and the building can hold an important place as a community venue. It can also be appreciated for its architectural beauty, or its peaceful spirituality – a calm place of contemplation in a busy world.

Boring services on the other hand are a further strongly negative association with church. People feel that a service involves sitting and listening to something that may have little relevance for your life, and singing boring, old-fashioned songs. While some allow that the church may have moved away from this, few believe it has become a fun, interactive experience that they might enjoy.

Images associated with a churchgoer’s life reflect these mixed emotions surrounding church. A churchgoer’s life is seen to be warm and safe, but it is also seen to preclude freedom, independent thought and exploration. The research participants place a great deal of importance on these qualities, and therefore reject the life of the churchgoer.

When people describe their ideal place for a spiritual gathering, the resultant descriptions are very consistent and stand in direct contrast to their perceptions of church. The key themes are to do with a free, relaxed, interactive environment where people are able to explore their spirituality in a non-prescriptive fashion. Yet, some confess that even if their ideal were available, they still would not attend.

The church faces an enormously difficult task in the face of participant’s strongly negative perceptions of church. These barriers keep people away, yet even if they are addressed some participants are still unwilling to participate in church. The positive aspects of church are seen as appealing for other people, not themselves. Church, as participants currently see it, does not fit with their lives and aspirations.

Opportunities for church?

Whilst the task of encouraging participation is undoubtedly difficult there are key times in an individual’s life when they may take an unprompted step towards the church.

These times include particular life stages such as adolescence, the birth of a child, old age or times of personal crisis, particularly those involving serious illness and death. These events can encourage people to examine their own concept of spirituality, and perhaps actively seek information to help them develop this. This creates an opportunity for the church because people’s barriers are lowered so lines of communication are more open than usual.

The ceremonies traditionally associated with key life stages can also open people up to the possibility of church assuming some relevance in their life.

Christenings, weddings and funerals are all ‘special’, ‘serious’ life events which can offer an opportunity for non-churchgoers to consider a step towards the church.

This is because the church is a special venue. For some the appeal is based primarily on the spiritual element. Others are attracted by the sense of tradition, and the physical beauty of some churches makes them very appealing for these events.

Whatever the motivation, holding these events in church allows people to take a step closer. It allows the church and the minister to take a special place in their hearts as ‘the man/ woman who married us/ christened our baby/ buried Grandma’.

Funerals in particular are a time when people may turn to the church and spirituality because of the comfort it can offer. Even those who have non-conventional beliefs can find the use of traditional prayers or the involvement of religious people very comforting at these times.

However non-churchgoers generally do not feel a ‘need’ to hold these events in a church (unless they are strongly conventionally religious.) These events are more about the people involved than they are about the spiritual element, so a garden wedding, an at-home naming day or a funeral parlour funeral can be as, if not more, meaningful than a church ceremony.

Therefore, while these events are opportunities for the church, they don’t necessarily imply a position of strength. People’s steps towards the church at these times may be tentative and many may find their own barriers prevent them making a move.

Others have approached the church and found the church put up barriers of its own by insisting they conform to rigid church rules. In these cases the church closed the door on these opportunities, turning a step towards the church into an angry counter rejection.

Making the most of these special opportunities requires the church to be flexible and welcoming, not validating negative stereotypes by imposing rules and conditions. When people actively seek out the church of their own accord it is essential that the church supports this by allowing them the freedom to take this step in their own way and at their own pace.

Exploring activities offered by the Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Church currently offers a number of programmes designed to invite participation in church activities and spiritual life. Research examined Mainly Music, Oasis, Alpha, the Art Gallery concept and Church Café in order to explore their likelihood to prompt non-churchgoers to take a step towards the church.

Activities which appeal most easily to the non-church going population are those which appeal in their own right, not as a way to access Christianity. Mainly Music is an excellent example of a church activity which gives the church an opportunity to be involved with young families and gain relevance in the community. It appeals widely because it is fun and accessible, and raises few barriers because no attempt is made to approach people on a religious level.

However the other activities explored were seen as appealing to conventional, church-going Christians, not to our participants. While they do see these activities as a step forward from traditional services, the explicitly Christian content is a strong barrier to their involvement. Attending such activities is a big step that requires a person to be already predisposed to attending church.

Exploring these different activities also clearly highlights how what is seen as explicitly Christian language and messages act as an immediate signal to our participants that the activity is not for them. Words like ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and even ‘discussion’ imply an attempt to persuade and convert.

Activities people choose to be involved with

Participants all describe busy lives taken up with work and family life like after-school activities and childcare. Some families respond to their busy weeks with quite insular weekends – a time to re-charge. Others seek weekend activities that the whole family can participate in. These activities must meet a genuine interest for all family members. Activities that typically have a physical component, are often outdoors and sport orientated. This fits with the image of the Kiwi family and has the added advantage of teaching useful skills and values (e.g. teamwork).

People find out about these activities via word of mouth, school newsletters, notice boards, local newspapers and by seeking out particular clubs associated with their interests.

In the context of these busy lives, one key barrier to church is the belief that church demands a regular Sunday time commitment. This can feel an enormous and unwelcome commitment. Sundays are perceived as too precious to ‘give up’ for church. Weeks are busy and Saturdays are committed to sports – this leaves Sundays as the only time for families to be together and spend quality time. If a partner and/or children will not attend, a person is unlikely to be comfortable sacrificing time family can spend together by attending church without them.

Church brands

Participants’ responses to the range of churches available to them were strongly consistent. Churches were divided into the ‘extremists’ such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; traditional mainstream New Zealand denominations including the Presbyterian Church; and the enormously respected ‘active helpers’ – the Salvation Army.

People have few strong associations with the traditional denominations, although they are commonly described as ‘old-fashioned’. As a group these denominations do not tend to attract strong comment. Individually there is little, if any, differentiation between the mainstream denominations, which makes it difficult for the Presbyterian Church to stand out in the ‘market’.

However some participants noted the work of the Presbyterian Support Services. This represents an opportunity for the Presbyterian Church to gain from these positive associations and build an image as an actively caring organisation. (NB: An image the Salvation Army already owns.)

The threat for the Presbyterian Church (and other traditional denominations) is the high level of media coverage and exposure given to ‘modern’ extremist churches which reinforces negative stereotypes of church in general. This danger is exemplified in the perceptions of the Baptist Church which has modernised and attracted participation but, in the process, has (for some) come to seem too extreme.

Spirituality for children from non-churchgoing families

Children and Bible Class

School-based Bible Classes can be the primary exposure to Christianity for children from non-churchgoing families, especially those parents who are at the more non-conventional end of the spiritual continuum.

Feelings about Bible Class change over time. Younger children see it as interesting and fun. As children get older they increasingly understand the morals and values underlying the stories that they are told. However, by the age of 10 children’s spirituality is more defined and they either: hold conventional religious views (Christianity); are not interested at all; or have scientific views and reject Christianity. These spiritual views are often centred around the differing views on the creation of the world - as children learn more about science the Christian teachings can lose credibility. It is critical to institute a carefully thought out curriculum that builds on incremental learnings and appreciates their dual exposure to scientific instruction.

Another key issue is poorly taught Bible Classes. Children refer to discipline problems and teachers who lack the skills to convey the ideas. Not only do children find it difficult to learn in such situations but the programme runs the risk of being cancelled if the school perceives it to be disruptive.

Bible Class can inadvertently act as an advocate for Sunday School and get children more involved. Some children from non-churchgoing families were attending Sunday School as a direct result of Bible Class. This is only likely to happen when the child’s spiritual beliefs are in-line with the church and they have a positive perception of Bible Class.

Children and Church

For some children, church is an unknown entity. It is either a place they have never been or somewhere they visited once or twice for a special occasion. As such, it is an unfamiliar environment with rules, protocols and ceremonies the children do not understand. When children do not understand what is happening and are unable to participate they perceive church to be boring, a place they are unlikely to elect to return to.

Secular activities run at the local church

While some of the children in the research are not interested in attending a Sunday church or Sunday School session they are open to attending secular activities run by the local church. The activities suggested by the children tend to have a caring element to them, for example first aid, disaster survival. This is in line with perceptions of the church as an organisation that cares for others.

Conclusions and implications

The consistently expressed view in this research is that you do not need to attend church to express your spirituality. Spirituality is a personal, inward and reflective process in which people do not see a need for formal guidance from others. This is even with those who feel they are quite conventional in their Christian beliefs. Religion alone will not be enough to entice this group of current non-churchgoers to church.

Moreover the church as a whole is currently perceived as lacking relevance to modern life. People carry strong negative stereotypes regarding a church whose values do not match with modern society’s values. It is seen as dictatorial, preaching literal interpretations of the bible, judgemental and narrow-minded, running counter to people’s values of acceptance of difference and encouraging individual decision-making. People believe that they would have to change both their lifestyle and their outlook to match church values.

There is potential to leverage off positive associations with the church as being caring, looking after those in need and as the keeper of attractive traditions associated with our Western cultural heritage.

However, given the strong barriers to church and rejection of perceived attempts to convert them, the church requires a two-tier strategy to encourage participation.

Tier one

Tier One needs to offer non-religious community activities that do not contain any hint of an attempt to convert. Mainly Music is a good example of an activity that currently does this. Fund-raising for worthy causes of value to a local community would be attractive (e.g. fenced playgrounds), as would show-casing key events, like Christmas, Easter and ANZAC Day so that elements have appeal at a secular level also. Secular topics of concern to people such as teenage suicide, bullying in schools and so on offer another potential Tier One activity.

Tier One activities will help challenge current negative stereotypes and create a positive, active face for church in their local community. It will communicate to people that their local church shares its community’s values.

It should be noted that for some people, involvement with church will at best only include Tier One activities. Their barriers and negative perceptions are so strong and their expression of spirituality so different, they will see no value in being involved in more explicitly religious church offerings.

Tier two

The research also clearly points to key windows of opportunity where people can be more open to interacting directly with the church in a more religious context. Examples include: children with open minds and interest; adolescents seeking and exploring; adults at key points on their spiritual journey or organising important family transition events like christenings and weddings; and those people who would like to be more involved or actively helpful in their local community.

The church needs to treat every such interaction as an opportunity to build bridges and lay negative stereotypes to rest. For example, transition events. If someone is going to the effort of holding such an event at a church then it is likely that the door is still open to conventional Christianity to some degree. The church must not shut this door by setting rules and challenging people’s level of commitment at this point. It needs to be unconditional and allow people to have a strong sense of driving their own ceremony content (while leaving the door open to a religious context if desired). Developing initiatives like wedding garden backdrops, playgrounds and toy baskets at church will communicate an inviting feel at a tangible level.

However, given the strength of negative stereotypes, the church needs to accept that this is a long-term strategy. It will need to be consciously conveyed in every communication. While notice boards, billboards and community newspapers are ways to raise awareness, word of mouth from those experiencing events will be an important communication vehicle to signal this initiative.

Careful communication will be critical

Church communications that use terminology like ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and even ‘discussion’ are clearly interpreted by our participants as being not for them. For those at the non-conventional end of the continuum, such language quickly allows them to reject the message as not of personal interest/relevance. Attracting participation at even the Tier One level will require careful use of language/visual references to ensure that communications that not automatically disregarded.