Religion in a Postaquarian Age

The Tide Is Running Out

by Kevin Ward

The New Zealand Listener ran as its cover heading for the last edition of the twentieth century "Faith in the Future; Searching for Jesus Christ at Christmas". The author began the lead article:

Over 50 years, the expression may have grown sharper, the message more urgent, but the conclusion is inescapable: you can see the end of Christianity from here, 2000 years after the birth of Christ ... Consult all the statistics and all the data - falling church attendance figures, the growing absence of "Christian" on census returns - and the news is bad and worsening for the Christian mainstream.

What are we witnessing? Not the death of spirituality, not the death of belief, not the death of meaning, but the death of religious institutions, the death of organised religion, the erosion of Christianity's historical core, its hold on the heart of the West ...

It is the death of Christendom says theologian Lloyd Geering. [1]

In England, for example, the number of people attending church has dropped steadily over the past one hundred and fifty years from a time when 40% of the population attended church in 1871 to the point where in 1998 it was under 10%.[2] In New Zealand church attendance has never been particularly high, with the 1881 census indicating approximately 20% of the population attended church. In 1911 active membership in the Anglican and Catholic churches was about 12%. As they accounted for slightly more than half of church affiliation at that time it would indicate that attendance was still at around 20% for all churches combined. By the 1960s it was probably still at a similar level, but by the end of the century had declined to about 10%. The United States has presented a somewhat different picture with an increase in attendance from about 40% in 1860 to 58% in 1958. However by 1972 this had declined to about 40% a figure which has since remained relatively stable.[3] What is common across all western countries though is that since the middle of the 1960s the mainline Protestant denominations have seen significant declines in numbers involved.

In the United States where the most widespread research has been done the following gives a succinct summary of the key trends.

Before the sixties there was little reason to question the vitality of American religion ... the years between 1950 and 1960 saw a church-membership surge that verged on "religious revival" giving the lie to the secular prophets who believed that Christianity would 'wither in the bright sun of modern culture.' However in the mid-sixties, an unexpected and massive change began. Many of this country's culture-affirming 'mainline' denominations began to experience membership declines for the first time. The declines were sudden, dramatic, and persistent.

Between 1965 and 1985, for example, the Presbyterian Church declined 24 percent, the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) declined 20 percent, the United Methodist Church declined 16 percent ... Meanwhile, conservative churches and religious movements grew.[4]

In looking at religion in Britain since 1945, Grace Davie observes: "Statistically there can be little doubt about the trends; they go downward, whichever indicator is selected."[5] Church attendance, which was 18% in 1960, had declined to 11.7% in 1979, 9.9% in 1989 and 7.5% in 1998.[6] The dominant church in England has been the Anglican Church, and it's losses since 1960 can only be described as calamitous. "It is not exaggerated to conclude that between 1960 and 1985 the Church of England as a going concern was effectively reduced to not much more than half its previous size."[7] Archbishop George Carey declared in 1998 that "in some sections of our Western Church we are bleeding to death."[8] The Presbyterian and Methodist churches have experienced similar rates of decline.[9] Consequently Steve Bruce points out that when we talk of the decline of British churches we should more properly talk of the decline of liberal and mainstream Christianity, as we find a general pattern of resilience as we move from 'left' to 'right' across the Protestant spectrum. Conservative elements have generally survived the best and a number of groups have shown marked growth.[10] However these independent and Pentecostal churches are relatively small in total numbers and consequently have made little impression on membership and attendance statistics as a whole.

In New Zealand a similar pattern emerges. If we look at census returns[11] indicating religious profession, in 1926 only 7% of the population did not indicate a profession that could be defined as Christian.[12] In 1961 the figure had shown only a slight increase to 10.9% but by the 1996 census it had risen dramatically to 37.6%. As seen it appears about 20% of the population attended church weekly at the beginning of the century and that somewhere near this proportion continued to be the case till 1960. By the 1970s this appears to have declined to about 16%.[13] A 1990 survey indicated about 13% weekly attendance,[14] and the 1992 and 1999 ISSP Surveys in New Zealand[15] indicated the 20% who attended weekly for the first six decades of the century now attended monthly. Looking at 1998 denominational returns weekly attendance was about 370,000, or 10% of the population. In 1960 40% of the primary school roll were on the rolls of Sunday Schools in New Zealand Protestant churches. By 1975 this had fallen to 15% and by 1985 to 11%.[16] These figures indicate a slow erosion of Christian profession overall this century prior to the 1960s, but since then the loss has been much more marked.

When we begin to look at how different sectors of the church have fared we find a similar pattern to other western countries. In the 1926 census 73.3% of the population indicated affiliation with one of the three main Protestant denominations, Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist. In 1961 this was still 64.1% but by 1996 had fallen to 35.1%. The more conservative churches, the Baptists, Brethren, Salvation Army, Churches of Christ and Pentecostals, accounted for 4% of the population in 1926, 3.9% in 1961 and a moderate increase to 4.7% by 1996. As has been the case in all countries, the most dramatic growth has been experienced by the Pentecostal sector - from 0.1% in 1961, when they figure for the first time, to 2% in 1996. It is obvious from these percentages however that we are still dealing with relatively small numbers, and their growth has done little to offset the very large decline in this period experienced by mainline churches.[17]

One other indication of declining involvement in institutional church life is the demographic make up of attenders. In 1997 the first New Zealand Church Life Survey was done it began by noting :

Compared to 20% in the community, some 41% of church attenders are over 60 years of age. The low levels of young attenders is a huge issue for the churches - the implications of which will only magnify in time ... The church has greater proportions of people aged over 50 years and only half the number under 40 years than the community.[18]

Why has this pattern of decline, which shows no signs of being reversed, occurred?


For at least the first twenty years of this period the most widely held explanation was the secularisation thesis. The word 'secular' has had a long and complex history and so might be placed in that category of slippery terms that must be used with much caution. In the middle ages secular clergy lived 'in the world', in contrast to religious clergy who belonged to monasteries or orders and later, secularisation implied the state taking away property from the church. The understanding that the secular indicates an absence of the religious emerged strongly during the enlightenment when control of religious institutions and concepts began to be removed from science, medicine, philosophy, art, law and so on, and was placed in the hands of secular authorities.

The term secular then simply refers to those areas of life that are not under the control of the religious. Thus to refer to a society as secular is to indicate that the major areas of life are not controlled by religious institutions, beliefs or symbols. Secularisation refers to the process whereby this is brought about, as the control of the religious is rejected. When it has totally rejected such characteristics, a state of secularity may be said to exist. In this sense almost all western countries, including the U.S.A., may be described as secular. In contrast, secularism refers to a consciously held ideology whereby adherents deliberately attempt to bring about a state of secularity.

The "secularisation thesis," as used here, is somewhat more specific. Under the influence of Max Weber, it proclaims an ongoing rationalisation of society eventually leading to the disappearance of religion altogether.[19] For most of this century among sociologists and historians secularisation in this sense has been simply accepted.[20] Perhaps the most famous expression of this view was that of the cover of Time Magazine April 8 1966, which set the question "Is God Dead" in large grey letters against a solid funeral black. The article surmised that for modern individuals traditional religion, Christian or otherwise, was no longer accessible.

Secularisation interpreted this way has been vigorously attacked. Some sociologists of religion, such as Martin[21], have challenged the very notion of secularisation as being inaccurate and ideological. The development of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in the West, the rapid growth of conservative evangelical churches in the United States, the emergence of 'new religious groups' and the quasi-magical world of the New Age have all been listed as evidence falsifying the theory[22]. Closer to New Zealand, Bouma and Dixon claim in The Religious Factor in Australian Life: "The facts indicate that the myth of Australia the secular society needs to be put aside. Australians are far from secularists according to the data provided by this study."[23]

Peter Berger wrote of secularisation theory

By the late 1970's it had been falsified with a vengeance. As it turned out, the theory never had much empirical substance to begin with. It was valid, and continues to be valid, for one region of the world, Europe, a few scattered territories, such as Quebec which underwent an amazing process of secularization after the Second World War, and

a fairly thin stratum of Western-educated intellectuals everywhere. The rest of the world is as fervently religious as it ever was, and arguably more so than it was earlier this century.[24]

R. Warner, in arguing the need for a new paradigm in studying religion, reports that now "it is the antisecularisation thesis that has become the accepted wisdom"[25]. There is increasing evidence that even in Western Europe the theory may not stand up[26]. The proponents of secularisation have responded by calling for a re-examination of what is meant by the term secularisation. M. Chaves states that secularisation is "best understood not as a decline of religion (as in the old paradigm) but as the declining scope of religious authority," which he sees occurring at societal, organisational and individual levels.[27] This involves a significant redefinition of the concept of secularisation from the decline of religious belief in society to a changing role for religion in society. Davie links this change to the shift in postmodern society. "Religious life - like so many other features of Post-industrial or postmodern society - is not so much disappearing as mutating, for the sacred undoubtedly persists and will continue to do so, but in forms that may be very different from those which have gone before."[28] Thus a use of the term secularisation that implies a decline of faith, an abandonment of the religious dimension to life, is of little help in explaining changing patterns of church involvement. However the emphasis of more recent writers, with their focus on religious change rather than decline, may be more helpful. Of particular significance is their focus on declining religious authority and privatisation of religion. However, in light of the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the term itself, it does not seem a helpful way of describing this change.

Patterns of Religious Change

What is central in the complexity of the various trends we need to carefully study are the findings of many researchers that while church involvement has declined over the past four decades in almost all western countries, the population of those countries has continued to remain overwhelmingly religious. Writing from the perspective of the United States Leonard Sweet states:

We are only now realising how dead wrong scientists like Carl Sagan or secularisation theorists like Max Weber or science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Gene Rodenberry actually were. Far from the future being religion-free, the future is more filled with soulprints than ever before ... US America is one of the most religious nations in the developed world. It is also one of the most secular ... We are living in a secular society but a spiritual culture. Postmoderns prefer a nonreligious spirituality - a spirituality that is not associated with organised religion ... On the same day on the same page of the same journal, one headline read "Spiritual Renewal Flourishes" and the companion headline bannered "Religion's Influence May Be Fading".[29]

Even in the U.S. the decade of the nineties has seen declining levels of church involvement expressed in such measures as attendance, membership and giving while on the other hand all the indicators are that increasing percentages of people are holding to religious or spiritual beliefs. An article in American Demographics on religious trends concludes that "Amid the crumbling foundations of organized religion, the spiritual supermarket is on the rise ... Numerous surveys show that Americans are as religious as ever - perhaps more than ever." [30]

Sociologist Reginald Bibby has been researching life in Canada since the beginning of the 1970s. He writes that "Belief in a supernatural dimension of reality is widespread in Canada, and shows no sign of abating." He points out that the paradox that is central in seeking to find some explanations of the patterns of declining church involvement is "that at a time when organised religion is facing very serious problems, the interest in spirituality, whether verbalised as such or not, appears to be extremely pervasive."[31]

The same picture emerges in Britain. Davie in her study of religion in post-war Britain expressed her findings in the subtitle she gave the book, "Believing Without Belonging".

Within this book, one particular theme predominates. It concerns the increasingly evident mismatch between statistics relating to religious practice and those which indicate levels of religious belief ... On the one hand, variables concerned with feelings, experience and the more numinous aspects of religious belief demonstrate considerable persistence in contemporary Britain (as they do throughout Western Europe); on the other, those which measure religious orthodoxy, ritual participation and institutional attachment

display an undeniable degree of secularisation.[32]

She goes on to add, as indices of religious belief have not dropped in the way that was predicted a generation ago, an approach to the study of religion based on the concept of secularisation is getting more and more difficult to sustain. "It seems to me more accurate to describe late-twentieth-century Britain - together with most of Western Europe - as unchurched rather than simply secular."[33]

It is more difficult to get an objective picture of what the trends have been in New Zealand. There have been few attempts to analyse longitudinal, quantitative data about religious belief. In part this is because of the lack of availability and accessibility of relevant survey data. National social survey questions on religious beliefs in New Zealand have been until the late 1980s irregular and unsystematic. However the results of those surveys have been done would indicate a similar conclusion to the other western countries examined. The Massey ISSP Survey[34] carried out in 1991 and 1998 indicate, if anything, a slight increase in religious believing. Certain belief in God for instance was indicated by 31% of people, up from 29%; belief in life after death was up from 57% to 60%; and 30% of people indicated they prayed several times a week, up from 22%. There is no identical survey to go back further, but Webster and Perry's study done in 1985[35] would seem to support the view that religious believing had at least held its own. Different questions were asked so it is difficult to make exact comparisons but there seems to have been little if any decline.

New Zealand then, like all western countries, does not appear to have seen the gradual extinction of religious believing as the twentieth century moved out of the sixties towards its conclusion. Instead many of the generation who the figures indicate left the churches in the sixties and seventies, rather than becoming "secular atheists" have been conducting a renewed search for the spiritual. In all of these western countries the pattern seems to be consistent. People have continued to express an interest in things spiritual and religious beliefs have continued to be held by the great majority. Indeed over the past two decades interest in these dimensions appears, if anything, to have increased. On the other hand the pattern has been consistent in western countries as regards attendance at church services and involvement in institutional forms of Christianity - the figures point down. How are we to explain this apparent paradox.

A Post Aquarian Age

As the picture of declining involvement began to emerge in the late 1970s researchers were unanimous in pointing to the baby boom generation[36], at that stage in young adulthood, as the major source of the downturn.

[The] losses can be explained to a significant degree as the result of young people being thrust together by a variety of historical events into a countercultural generation unit whose values and lifestyles did not include, and were often in active opposition to participation in organised religion.[37]

The speed of change is demonstrated in Gallup figures indicating how Americans viewed the importance of religion. In 1957 69% believed it was increasing it's influence, and only 14% saw it as losing it's influence. By the end of the next decade, in 1970, these figure were almost reversed. Only 14% believed it was increasing in influence and 75% that it was losing its influence.[38] A staggering change in so short a period. Why?

It is now universally accepted that the 1960s saw the beginnings of a significant change in the cultural values of most western societies and the impact of these changes, sometimes referred to as the age of Aquarius, has hit the churches from the outside in significant ways. These changes came about as a result of the environment of affluent security that existed in the postwar years and in which the baby boom generation grew up.[39] The value changes that developed with them were in the direction of individualism, personal freedom as self fulfilment and tolerance of diversity.

At the centre was a rebellion by the young against the values, conventions and authorities of the older generation and the emergence of a new cultural style - the 'expressive evolution' - based on individual self-exploration and self-transformation, informality, spontaneity and immediate experience.[40]

It seems there are five main values that have had a significant impact on the life of the church and it's place in society. These are individualism, privatism, pluralism, relativism, and anti-institutionalism.

(a) Individualism. In their influential study Habits of the Heart,[41] Bellah and his associates argue that the rise of modern self-centred individualism, with its obsession with our personal interests, our feelings and whether things are going to advance our own ambitions is undermining the vital bonds of community that have sustained society in the past. In the sphere of religion this emphasis on the self can result in faith without community. As the level of individualism has risen increasing numbers have come to believe that church going and church authority are optional and no longer necessary to sustain spirituality and faith, or to be a good Christian. A common theme in emerging literature on the religiosity of the baby boom generation is a distinction between personal spirituality and organised religion. Many do not make a direct connection between their personal religiosity and participation in religious institutions.

Perhaps the most significant study has been that of Hammond in Religion and Personal Autonomy.[42] He makes the case that since the sixties religion has been far less a matter of traditional kinds of denominationalism and parish activity, and much more one of "personal autonomy" in which external religious authority is widely rejected. This has resulted in a very "loose-bonding" of individuals to religious institutions and the growth of forms that find cohesion not in the system but in the person, not in the institution itself but in the people who draw on its resources to illuminate their daily lives."[43] These findings have been supported by Roof's study of baby boomers,[44] where he notes a radical shift from an ethic of self denial to an ethic of self-fulfilment - to the notion that it is important to "find meaning", "to grow" and to find "self-expression".[45]

The result is a religion functionally and spatially located in the self ... individuals are free to create their own religious faith and consecrate their own sacred space... This kind of religious individualist neither wants nor feels the need for formal religious institutions.[46]

(b) Privatism. A term used to describe the way in which people live their lives less in public and more in private or within the family. Again this is a phenomenon affecting more than just the religious sphere and is seen, for example, in the trend in residential patterns toward "lifestyle enclaves", which act as retreats from public involvement. So far as religion is concerned a number of sociologists[47] argue that individuals in the modern world, with its increased segmentalisation, are forced to move among a plurality of institutions that no longer form parts of an integrated whole. Integration can be achieved only on the individual level. So because modern society allows for a plurality of structures, religion is therefore banished to the private sphere of life. It is more to do with private prayer and privately held beliefs than acts of corporate worship or public action so that religion today is "more internal than external, more individual than institutional ... more private than public."[48] This stance has encouraged the growth of a utilitarian perspective on faith and church involvement. These are seen to have importance for a person to the extent to which they contribute to personal success and fulfilment. So it is argued goals of personal advancement and success have displaced the collective purposes that have traditionally undergirded the organised church. Certainly this is a complaint that one hears increasingly from local church ministers and pastors. Rather than being committed to the church for the sake of the organisation or wider social functions, people are increasingly involved to the extent that it benefits their own private lives.

(c) Pluralism. If one message rang loud and clear for the church from the sixties it was that "pluralism in religious and cultural styles was here, and here to stay"[49] Members of the postwar generation were exposed to pluralism of all kinds. It is important to see it as much more than just the arrival of a few more religious options for people to choose from such as Pentecostalism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna or New Age spiritualities. What is even more important is the changing mix of peoples and cultures in most western countries, including New Zealand, that began to emerge in the 1960s and has accelerated in the past two decades. In the U.S. in the 1960s changes in immigration laws saw increasing number of Hispanics and Asians immigrating and civil rights legislation gradually broke down the segregation of American society. In Britain West Indians and Asians began to arrive in mass. In New Zealand the 1960s saw the beginning of large numbers of immigrant workers from the Pacific Islands as well as rapid migration of much of the Maori population from rural areas to the cities, and in the 1980s and 1990s considerable Asian immigration. What has appeared is a new ethnic and religious landscape. The rapid globalisation of this period has brought many differing people, cultures and lifestyles into the same space, particularly in the cities where people have increasingly chosen to live.[50] Rather than living in small communities where similar values, beliefs and ethics are held by the vast majority, people now live next to, work alongside and play with people who may hold a wide diversity of different view points.

Hoge, Johnson and Luidens see this as a very important factor. "Pluralism assaults traditional plausibility structures. We believe that it is an important historical factor explaining the problems of mainline churches."[51] Plausibility structures are the networks of persons in constant contact who hold to a common worldview and set of moral commitments and thus help to maintain beliefs.[52] Obviously the more varied, or plural, the beliefs held in a community or society, the weaker the plausibility structures are for any one particular set of beliefs. When a basically Christian set of values and beliefs was held by the great majority then people are more likely to continue holding to those beliefs and values. It is almost the only voice heard. As alternative worldviews sit alongside those so the structures reinforcing previous beliefs and values are undermined.[53] Thus when individuals are faced with making choices in life about all kinds of things, they are faced with a multiplicity of options that simply were not available to previous generations. In addition the social cost that previously went with choosing an alternative set of beliefs or values is now greatly diminished, if not removed completely, because of the fourth factor closely associated with pluralism, relativism.

(d) Relativism. If pluralism describes a social and cultural reality, relativism is an attitude that allows one to live comfortably and at peace in such a diverse setting. The popular form of it is expressed in the attitude 'You can believe (do, be) whatever you like so long as it doesn't hurt me.' It is an attitude that casts doubt on the whole concept of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and bad. In pre-modern societies there was a coherent and binding sense of truth and goodness. People simply accepted those beliefs and values. There were not really any competing options. In an increasingly pluralistic society though how do you live alongside those who hold different religious beliefs, moral standards or gender and sexual preferences. A belief that you are right and they are wrong becomes increasingly difficult to hold. It is easy to hold that Buddhists are 'ignorant pagans destined for eternal damnation'[54] when they live on the other side of the world, but much more difficult when they are your pleasant, well educated, friendly neighbours or co-workers. This increasingly common fact of life over the past four decades has combined with an understanding of culture and beliefs as being local rather than universal. So tolerance becomes the great virtue of contemporary society as it is the only way a diverse mix of often diametrically opposed cultures, lifestyles and beliefs can coexist together. The trouble, as Hoge, Johnson and Luidens point out, is that while "tolerance of diversity ... make civility and cooperation possible in a pluralistic society ... they also make for weak churches."[55] Relativism which sees other beliefs as equally valid therefore lessens the impulse to be engaged in evangelistic activities. Why seek to change peoples beliefs and behaviour if they are all of equal value.

(e) Anti-institutionalism. In the previous era church going was an expression of belonging and civic loyalty.

In the sixties and seventies, however, a much different cultural

milieu prevailed. In the early phases of this period particularly,

young people ... experienced widespread alienation from many institutions

of the society. This was not a climate in which religious belonging

flourished ... To many in the antiestablishment climate of the 1970s

these churches and synagogues seemed deeply implicated in a culture

that itself had gone awry ... Hence the mood of 'rejecting' organised

religion reached unusually high levels in those years.<span style="mso-special-character:

footnote" class="endnoteref">[56]

Many developed a deep cynicism in this period toward public institutions as well as an inclination to make autonomous decisions irrespective of conventional mores or traditions. One legacy of the sixties and seventies has been a heightened sense of the view that institutions should serve individuals and not vice versa. When the institutions no longer appear to be serving individual needs then people no longer feel a need to belong to or to contribute to the institution. It is important to realise that while this has had a major impact on the church as an institution, it has also affected a wide range of institutions in our society. The effect is seen in all kinds of voluntary organisations which are now finding it difficult to recruit members. In New Zealand, for example, sport has become increasingly important as a value in our culture, yet all across the board sports clubs and organisations are finding it difficult to get members and many are being forced to close or merge. R. Putnam points out that in the United States more people than ever are bowling but numbers in organised leagues have plummeted.[57]

The important observation that religious believing seems to have become detached from religious belonging should be understood in relation to the parallel observation that

virtually all voluntary associations have been finding it difficult in the last few decades to attract and retain members. In other words 'belonging' has been simultaneously losing its popularity in religion and in other fields as well. The split between believing and belonging is therefore part of a broader pattern of change which happens to affect religious organizations amongst others. It is not a problem unique to religion and does not necessarily arise from the inner dynamics of religious organizations alone.[58]

It appears then that this has been a significant factor in the increasing gap that has occurred between believing and belonging, between people's pursuit of the spiritual and their involvement in institutional religion. It is not that the postwar generations have been less interested in the religious dimension of life, but their distrust of institutions means that increasing numbers of them believe that religious organisations are more likely to hinder than help them in their search for a satisfying spirituality.

Alongside these value changes in the culture, there appears to be at least two other important social changes that appear to have had significant impact religious patterns. The first has been a weakening of local community ties and the second changing patterns of marriage and family life.

(i) Research has consistently shown that with baby boomers the highest correlation of all factors affecting whether a person remained in the church tradition they were brought up in is the distance they had moved from the community in which they grew up and received their religious upbringing.[59] Roof and McKinney claim that this happens because such mobility "results in weakened ties - to family and kin, to neighborhood and community ... and erodes social infrastructures undergirding corporate faith."[60] One of the key social trends of this period has been the increasing mobility of the population. In the 1960s many baby boomers left home to pursue higher education and since then have been a very mobile generation.[61] With the fragmentation of this kind of cohesive local community the social expectation of both relatively uniform religious believing and churchgoing as part of that has been diminished.

(ii) In looking at changing patterns of marriage and family life, Roof speaks of the "massive changes" that have occurred since mid-century."

In the older, white bourgeois Protestant family that came to be the normative nuclear family, religious and family symbolism were closely intertwined - indeed, one might say families created religious space.

The family was an extension of the church, the place where faith and practice were lived out ... The mainline churches relied heavily on intact families with children to replenish them. Penny Long Marler's research shows that, among other demographic changes, declines in nuclear family units have contributed most to the decline in Protestant church membership since 1950, leading her to conclude that 'as the family goes so goes the church'."[62]

Again we need to be aware that because of the higher levels of church involvement in the United States the relationship between church and family has undoubtedly been stronger there. However the relationship in New Zealand has also been significant, as seen for example, in the number of parents who sent their children to Sunday School before the 1960s. It is interesting how much church literature from all sectors of the church, stressed the link between church and family life in New Zealand. It has always been true that a significant number of people drop out of church, at least for a time, in their young adult years. In the past however churches could count on them returning to the fold in their early twenties when they sought marriage for themselves and a religious upbringing for their children. "The establishment of a family brought a return to church."[63] This has not happened with boomers, despite hopes in the 1980s that it would. Changes in family life including the postponement of marriage and family formation, and relatedly low birth rates "cut deeply into the historically strong connection between church and family."[64] Wuthnow points out the enormous impact of the contraceptive pill alone.

During the 1950s the average time between confirmation class and birth of first child for U.S. young people had been only seven years; by the end of the 1960s, in large part due to the impact of new contraceptive technologies, this period had more than doubled to fifteen years. Since the time between confirmation and parenthood has always been one in which young people could drop out of established religion and turn their attention to other things, the doubling of this period was of enormous significance.[65]

Research seems to indicate that the motivation for adults to go to church is weaker when there are no children present.[66] On top of this delay has been the increasingly high divorce rate, increasing ratio of married couples deciding to have no children, the increasing numbers of adults remaining single and those who live in one parent families.[67] All these factors fragment the dominance of the two parent nuclear family in society. With so much focus in church life on marriage and raising children in two parent families, as well as the stigma still often attached to divorce and sex outside of marriage, the increasing numbers of adults who do not fit into this pattern often find church life problematical at best and alienating at worst.

Related to these, and in some ways parallel to them, have been changes in women's roles. As more and more women become part of the workforce, fewer are available for the voluntary activities on which churches have relied to maintain their programs. In addition, even weekend involvement becomes more difficult as the work week leaves little time for domestic matters and these become focused over the weekend - whenever work does not intrude there. Further, with the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s, the teachings and practices of the church have been widely criticised for being patriarchal. This has led to many women feeling alienated from the church. With these changes becoming stronger in the younger generations it could be expected that these trends will increase to have a significant impact on church life and involvement.


In seeking to summarise these changes a number of phrases recur.

(a) 'From public to private'. This argument has long been pursued by Wuthnow:

The character of spirituality appears to be changing in response to changes in the culture ... Their beliefs are becoming more eclectic, and their commitments are often becoming more private. Growing numbers of Americans say they are spiritual but not religious, or their spirituality is growing but the impact of religion on their lives is diminishing. Most Americans say their spirituality is private - that it must develop without the guidance of religious institutions

Many argue that a distinctive characteristic of contemporary religion is its fondness for privacy. The authors of a 1993 Angus Reid Poll on religion in Canada which indicated 73% of adults disagreed with the statement 'I am not a Christian', note that:

It is not that (people) have forsaken God - many just do not feel compelled to worship in an establishment church anymore. Whatever beliefs they hold tend to be private ones - their lives clearly divided between the public secular world ... and the personal, reflective realm of God ... Christianity in Canada has undergone a profound metamorphosis outside - and sometimes alienated from - the mainstream churches. [68]

Religious belief and practice in industrialised western countries around the world today is increasingly individualised and contained within the private domain. This is producing an intensifying disjunction of the traditional links between believing and belonging. It is this change that has had the most significant impact on church life over this period. Not, as postulated by the secularisation thesis, that people are increasingly becoming irreligious, but that religious believing no longer necessarily leads to belonging to a religious institution.

(b) From religious commitment to religious consumption. Marler and Roozen claim that "the increasing dominance of religious consumerism as a form of cultural individualism is the most important change in the religious market place of the late eighties."[69] As ascriptive social ties have eroded and social differences become blurred so religious preference has become more a matter of individual choice than an expression of belonging to a particular social group or community. Institutions exist primarily to serve the individual not vice versa and individuals choose religious involvement or lack of it based on whether they find self-fulfilment in belonging to a church. So instead of being a system of belief and practice to which one is committed and that addresses and shapes the whole of life, the gods have been reshaped so that religion has "become a neatly packaged consumer item - taking its place among other commodities that can be bought or bypassed according to one's consumption whims."[70]

Roof describes this as "pastiche styles of belief and practice" and Bibby as "religion a la carte." In Fragmented Gods[71] he argues that the gods of old have been broken into pieces and offered to religious consumers in piecemeal form. This seems to be a helpful description of what has happened not only in Canada but also much of the contemporary western world. It has happened because of the kind of societies that the process of modernisation has created. Durkheim observed that as societies become more advanced they come to be fragmented into many smaller and more specialized units, each with their own set of values and controls. Individuals also tend to become more specialists as they are called on to play a variety of often diverse roles. As a consequence we tend to relate more and more to each other in very specialised ways in different roles that are often not connected together in any way so that we deal with entirely different groups of people in each of them. In this kind of society it is sometimes difficult to be the same person in all of these different roles.

In the light of this it is not therefore surprising that many people in Western countries find that Christian commitment, particularly with the pressure to conform that has been present in most of the major traditions during the modern era, creates problems. It calls for a level of role consistency that is very difficult to achieve. Business ethics are frequently incompatible with Christian ethics. Sexual inclinations, particularly for the increasing percentages of unmarried and previously married, commonly conflict with church expectations. Increasing numbers of frustrated people have protested that religion is simply not relevant to life as they know it. The use of religious fragments on the other hand permits one to retain some central elements of belief and practice without requiring a high level of role consistency. So in responding to the highly complex, specialised kind of society that has emerged in the second half of the twentieth century people seem to be trying to find integration and meaning in the self rather than in existence as a whole. This is a radical change from the way in which Christianity, or religion in broader terms, has been historically viewed, and consequently has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the life of the church. Roof asks:

What if these are signs of a new mode of the religious? What if we are witnessing the emergence of a world where individuals are less rooted in traditions and are becoming, as Zygmunt Bauman says, more like tourists exploring the religious terrain in search of fragments of truth and insight? What if we are in the early stage of a shift in religious-identity construction in which, as Danielle Hervieu-Leger says, religion has become like a "toolbox" of assorted beliefs and practices available to individuals for their selective use.[72]

If these are not just temporary trends in a time of change, but rather as postulated by Bauman the beginning of a very different world then the impact and implications are of much significance. Regardless of the future though it is in a context shaped by these kind of changes that the church has sought to live out it's existence over this period.


[1] Matthews, P. "The Afterlife" The New Zealand Listener December 1999, 17.

[2] Source. Brierley, P. The Tide is Running Out: What the English Church Attendance Survey Reveals. London: Christian Research, 2000.

[3] There is now a wide consensus among social scientists that poll figures on church attendance tend to inflate the figures. In Britain the 1989 church survey found 10% in church on "Census Sunday" compared with 14% in a poll the same year. Brierley, P. Christian England. London: MARC Europe, 1991. A number of New Zealand polls in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave 14% as the figure so if the same gap exists between poll indications and actual attendance in New Zealand the 10% figure given here, based on denominational figures, would be realistic. In the U.S. even wider disparity has been found. See in particular Hadaway, C.K. and Marler, P.L. "Did you really go to church this week? Behind the poll data." Christian Century, May 6. 1998, 472-475. Hadaway, C. K., Marler, P. L. and Chaves, M. "What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance." American Sociological Review, Vol. 58, 1993. 741-752. Most believe the U.S. poll figures are about 10 points higher than actual attendance.

[4] Parrott III and Perrin, R.D. "The New Denominations," Christianity Today, March 11 1991, 29-33.

[5] Davie, G. Religion in Britain Since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994. 52.

[6] Brierley, The Tide is Running Out, 27.

[7] Hastings, A. A History of English Christianity, 1929-1985. London: Collins, 1986. 603.

[8] Quoted in Brierley, The Tide is Running Out, 27.

[9] See Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945, 46-49.

[10] Bruce, S. Religion in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 67.

[11] Census of Population and Dwellings. Department of Statistics, Wellington, New Zealand. 1926, 1961 and 1996.

[12] This figure includes the no religion, object to state as well as non-Christian religions.

[13] Webster, A.C. and Perry, P.E. The Religious Factor in New Zealand Society. Palmerston North: Alpha Publications, 1989. 13.

[14] "Heartland Survey" Sunday Star 1990. A 1985 Heylen poll indicated 15% and research by Dr. Peter Lineham of the History Department at Massey University in 1982 14%.

[15] International Social Survey Programme. Department of Marketing, Massey University, 1991, 1998.

[16] Figures supplied by Childrens Bible Crusade, New Zealand and printed in Challenge 2000AD and Beyond, N. Klinkenberg and W. Fernandez eds. Dawn Strategy New Zealand, 1988. In 1950 there were 50% of children enrolled.

[17] Figures indicate rapid growth experienced in the 1970s and 1980s by these churches is slowing. This reflects the pattern the Brierley has found in Britain, and indeed around the world.

[18] Brooks, N. and Currow, S. "Lifting the Lid on the New Zealand Church." In Shaping a Future, Kaldor, P. Bellamy, J, Powell, R. eds. Adelaide: Openbook Publishers, 1998. A-1.

[19] For many early sociologists this certainty was eagerly welcomed.

[20] Stark and Iannaccone claim, that "perhaps no other single social scientific proposition has been so widely accepted". Stark, R. and Iannaccone, L.R. "A supply-side reinterpretation of the 'secularization' of Europe." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol 33, No 3, 1994. 230-52.

[21] Martin D, "Towards Eliminating the Concept of secularisation" in The Penguin Survey of the Social Sciences, J. Gould, ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. 169-82

[22] The growth of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in Latin America, growing religious interest in Eastern Europe since 1989, Islamic Fundamentalism, Catholicism in Poland are also discussed as indicators of the strength of religion in the modern world.

[23] Bouma, G.D. & Dixon, B.R. The Religious Factor in Australian Life (Melbourne: MARC Australia, 1986) 167

[24] Berger, P.L. "Sociology: A Disinvitation." Society Vol 30, No 1 Nov/Dec 1992. 15.

[25] Warner, R.S. "Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States" American Journal of Sociology Vol 98, No 5, 1993. 1044-93.

[26] See for example Davie, G. Religion in Britain Since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Also her shortly to be published Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

[27] Chaves, M. "Secularization as declining religious authority" Social Forces Vol 72, No3 1994. 750

[28] Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945, 198.

[29] Sweet, L.I. SoulTsunami. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999. 408. In 1998 Peter Berger wrote: "In the course of my career as a sociologist I made one big mistake ... which I shared with almost everyone who worked in the area in the 1950s and '60s, was tobeleive that modernity necessarily leads to decline in religion."

[30] Climmo,R. and Lattin,D. "Choosing My Religion", American Demographics, April 1999.

[31] Bibby, "Religion in the Canadian 1990s: The Paradox of Poverty and Potential." In Church and Denominational Growth, D.A. Roozen and C.K. Hadaway, Nashville: Abingdon, 1993. 288.

[32] Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945, 4.

[33] Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945, 13.

[34] International Social Survey Programme, Department of Marketing, Massey University, 1991, 1998.

[35] Webster and Perry, The Religious Factor In New Zealand Life.

[36] The name given to the generation born in the post war period, 1946-64.

[37] Wuthnow, R. Experimentation in American Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. 143

[38] Gallup and Lindsay, Surveying the Religious Landscape, 11.

[39] The best study of the development of these changes in western societies and culture can be found in Inglehart, R. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic & Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. 33-34.

[40] Hillard, D. "The Religious Crisis of the 1960s; The Experience of the Australian Churches." The Journal of Religious History Vol 21, No 2, June 1997. 210.

[41] Bellah, R.N. et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkley: University of California Press, 1985.

[42] Hammond, P.E. Religion and Personal Autonomy. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

[43] Cox, H. Fire From Heaven. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994. 305.

[44] Roof, W.C. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.

[45] This ties in with Ingleharts findings of a move to postmaterialist values, where rather than self denial in order to ensure that economic security is maintained the emphasis is on personal fulfilment and in order to satisfy inner needs.

[46] Roozen and Hadaway, Church & Denominational Growth, 265.

[47] See for example Berger, P. The Heretical Imperative. New York: Anchor - Doubleday, 1979. and Luckmann, T. The Invisible Religion.London: MacMillan, 1967.

[48] Roof, W.C. "God is in the Details: Reflections on Religion's Public Presence in the United States in the Mid-1990s." Sociology of Religion 1996, 57:2, 153. He quotes as evidence of this a national poll reported by U.S. News and World Report in April, 1994. 65% of Americans said they think that religion is losing its influence on American life, yet so far as their own personal lives are concerned 62% said religion was increasing in importance.

[49] W.C. Roof and W. McKinney, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987. 15.

[50] In New Zealand, for example, 87% of the population now live in cities, despite the continuing myth of a 'rural identity', 'people close to the land.' We are an urban people.

[51] Hoge, Johnson and Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries, 201.

[52]The theory was developed by Berger, P.L. A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery the Supernatural. New York: Doubleday & Co, 1969.

[53]While regarding religious decline in the modern world as his big mistake, Berger regards his one big insight was "that pluralism undermines the taken-for-grantedness of beliefs and values." Berger, "Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty, 782.

[54]This statement is intended to sum up the kind of attitude held toward other religions by most church going westerners before the 1960s. It provided the motivation for much of the missionary endeavour of the church in the previous 150 years.

[55] Hoge, Johnson and Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries, 185.

[56] Roof and McKinney, American Mainline Religion, 46.

[57] Quoted in Roof, W.C. "God is in the Details," 155. Putnam tables the decline in involvement in a whole of host of organisations.

[58] Quoted in Davies, Religion in Britain Since 1945, 19.

[59] See for example Hoge, Johnson and Luidens, Vanishing B