The Social Context

Social context: it is all so different now!

Recent Past & Current Trends
Decade decline-PCANZ
Relevant Gospel-Irrelevant (?) Church
First Century Similarities
Secular Nation-Census Data

Recent Past & Current Trends

In NZ the context in which the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand operates has changed radically over the last few decades. This is true for all Western countries but is particularly true for us. The PCANZ, as it became, was brought to this country as a nineteenth century European church, translated from Scotland and other British varieties. There have been significant changes over the decades but sadly not nearly as radical as the changes in our wider culture. I wish to enumerate some of these cultural and church changes, as they hold the key to why the PCANZ no longer seems relevant to emerging generations in pakeha NZ.

Changes in our lifetime

Consider the social changes that most of our church members have lived through in NZ. These are indicators of recent social change, but they are far from exhaustive, and they have a considerable church bias!


  • Unemployment seems inevitable now, along with its many side effects.
  • About one third of marriages now end in divorce or separation.
  • Many couples do not marry.
  • Many children are in reconstituted families.
  • Television is everywhere, bringing world events visibly and instantly into our living rooms.
  • Anti Catholic views have almost disappeared.
  • New protestant churches have grown.
  • The Charismatic Renewal Movement has had powerful influence.
  • A new generation of church music has significantly replaced that written 1700-1950.
  • There has been a significant drop in those attending church, Sunday school, and Youth Groups.
  • Society has become much more multi-racial.
  • There is greater equality of the sexes.
  • Contraception has changed the sexual climate greatly.
  • The courts and gaols are under severe pressure as crime increases.
  • The Communist empire has collapsed.
  • Apartheid has gone and a multi-racial government voted into South Africa.
  • Globalisation and market-driven economies break down isolation but increase vulnerability.
  • The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
  • What further social changes will interactive TV, the knowledge economy, and the digital revolution bring us?
  • What will be the impact from the significant ethical issues of genetic modification, birth technologies, and environmental issues?


I have listed 20 changes and yet not mentioned health or education, the two areas the political commentators tell us are of greatest concern.

Against these changes, the much smaller changes within churches mean the gap between church and community has only increased.

When our cities and villages were established in the 19th Century, the churches were built in the prime sites, often at a major corner, illustrating, in visual form, the place of the Christian church in the community. It will be interesting to see in Botany Downs, the East Tamaki Corridor, or Rolleston, areas currently being developed, where the churches will be placed in the 21st Century.

We have looked briefly at some of the recent great social changes that effect how the church operates and works in the wider community. I am limiting this to Pakeha NZ because most of my life has been lived in the South Island. My working life has been with teenagers, who have most of their life in front of them, so the future is strongly in my mind and heart. My experience is in working in the community, and only recently as a full-time church employee.

There are signs of hope though. Lyle Schaller (The New Reformation) reminds us, even in New Zealand, that huge numbers are responding with enthusiasm, commitment, energy, and creativity to doing ministry out in the world. The old system projected the expectation that the role of the laity was to "pray and pay" for missions. The new expectation calls the laity to do the mission. Their response is one of the brightest hopes today.

Decade decline-PCANZ

The PCANZ recorded adult Sunday worship attendance statistics for the decade 1990 to 2000. These show a decline of just under 25% over these ten years. Obviously there are variations across the country and some parishes have increased the number of worshippers. This, however, is the national figure for the denomination.

The question I want you to engage with though is the next decade, as we can't influence past decades. Consider the age profile of congregations you know and ask yourself whether the average is going up or down. If it is going up and has a reasonably senior congregation then the next decade's decline will be much greater. The 2001 annual figures for PCANZ show that 46% of all worshippers are 65 or over. The life expectancy of the youngsters of this group is 17 years! With similar standard actuarial life expectation figures it would be reasonably easy to estimate quite closely your likely congregation in 10 years time. This is through death alone and we all know there are many other reasons why people stop going to church. I am not suggesting though that this is the most rewarding or important issue for your parish!

New Zealand is a fairly mobile society. I have read that with normal movements in a NZ mainline congregation due to transfers out of the district, death, movement between churches and family pressures making church attendance improbable, there is a 15% shrinkage in a parish each year. This means that to maintain your present position you need more than one visitor a month who stays with your congregation of about 100. This is quite a challenge; and only maintains your present position!

Unlike airlines, however, churches are not about having seats occupied or even collection plates full! Of much greater significance is providing relevant and helpful worship for busy people with full lives. How can our churches provide that place of meaning and hope amidst the storms of everyday contemporary life?

Relevant Gospel-Irrelevant (?) Church

The Christian gospel, as distinct from the institutional church, is highly relevant to people caught in the fractured divisions of our culture, particularly in the last two decades. However the ways in which the church attempts to exemplify and articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ makes few connections with people's everyday lives. This is not the way it was with Jesus in the first Century. As his agents, under the power of the Spirit, how can we make improvements in the 21st century?

The church is not an end in itself but a servant of both God and contemporary society. Ted Witham in The Church at Risk expresses it this way: "It is against the church's nature to focus on itself." Unless the church engages meaningfully with contemporary NZ society across the diverse communities of our land its days are severely numbered. This is a stark situation expressed baldly, and from a national staff employee perhaps foolhardy, but it is where my reading, thinking, and praying is inexorably taking me.


Hopefully from out of the ashes of our ageing, inward looking, and often inflexible church, the phoenix of the Christian gospel will arise. My context is the PCANZ but other institutional mainline churches across the Western world are in a similar situation. The form and nature of this new manifestation is not clear but it will be radically different from our present churches. History is likely to show, however, that it grew out of the present churches so among the emerging edges of the present churches indicate the direction that the inevitable transition will take. Vast, substantial changes will yet have to be made.

The PCANZ has been strongly promoting Healthy Congregations. These are congregations which have:


  • An outward focus in concern for evangelism and wider community care
  • Healthy relationships with the wider church-locally, nationally and beyond
  • A sense of direction
  • Worship that is true to God, enhancing of life, and relevant to our context
  • A lively faith
  • A strong sense of community
  • An involving leadership
  • Newcomers and numerical growth


How is your parish developing in these growth areas?

Along with this, Leadership for Mission (Servant Mission Leadership) is encouraged where "servant" indicates the style of leadership and "mission" the direction of leadership. These developments are very helpful for all congregations. Although they probably won't turn the church around, they are prerequisites for more fundamental change.

First Century Similarities

As you read the New Testament-now often called the Second Testament, as something two thousand years old can hardly be called "New"-you will see that many of the attitudes and values discussed closely resemble current issues. In part that is because humans are much the same in all ages and cultures. In another way though the early days of the Christian church, when people could not have a background of Christian understanding, are similar to the present day when the majority of the culture have scant understanding of the Christian faith.

This contrasts starkly with the 19th Century values and "world view", on which European settlement in this country was formed. This is seen not only in the central placing of church buildings but also in the Christian base for our legal and health systems. It was a long and bitter debate too before the Education Act of 1877 declared our schools "free, secular and compulsory." Historians now feel that it was to minimise sectarian attitudes, not Christian values, that the secular clause was included.

Our mission work today is predominantly in the local secular community just as the first century Christians worked and witnessed. The models of relationship building outlined in the gospels and epistles are therefore helpful in our 21st century encounters. In one aspect, however, there is a significant difference. The cultural values that underpin contemporary Western society are strongly individualistic, whereas families and communities were much more interdependent in the 1st century. The epistles were written to Christian communities whose members were much more interdependent than our churches are in Western society. This is explained much more fully in the next chapter, using the anagram "FIRE" to highlight our pervading contemporary values. When we seek to apply the teaching from the epistles to our own personal Christian development, we can easily overlook the community focus that these writings originally had.

Secular Nation-Census Data

Successive census data in New Zealand shows we are becoming a much more secular country. The number who register as "no religion" has increased each census for over 30 years, as has the percentage choosing this option. People who are in a position to make such international comparisons claim that New Zealand is the most secular country in the world. France is the other contender for this dubious title. This evidence is based on attendance at religious events, including church services.

There has also been an increase in the range of religious affiliations passing the threshold to show up in the national census. Eastern religions are some of these, partially understandable as our country becomes more racially diverse. Also a wider range of protestant denominations and groups, along with a more secular society, have resulted in mainline protestant church support decreasing radically. People from younger generations have particularly low participation rates. As the population ages this will have a stark impact. This significant problem for the PCANZ, is addressed in this paper, but without having all the answers. As more congregations address the issues further solutions will evolve.

"Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches"