Archive for March, 2014

Crunching the numbers: census 2013 and the future of Christianity?

March 26, 2014 2 comments

The results of the 2013 Census are slowly being released piece by piece. This is true of the figures for religions also, which makes more detailed analysis difficult. Some of the analysis in the mainstream media has been inaccurate on some points, but the main trend is clear that the overall decline in Christian affiliation or identity is continuing and that, as one headline put it, “Census shows Christians are no longer a majority in New Zealand.” In 1961 Christians made up almost 90% of the population. By 2006 it was down to 56% and by 2013 48%. The biggest increase was in those stating no religion which rose from just over 30% to 39% of the population, a 26% increase. If these trends continue it is clear that by the next census those saying they have no religion will be the largest group of New Zealanders and perhaps within a decade be over half the population. Those identifying with religions other than Christianity also increased from about 4.5% of the population to 6%. These three trends have been happening since the 1960s.


The major change in this census is that as a US report titled “Negative numbers” indicated in the subtitle, “the decline narrative reaches evangelicals.” All branches of the church declined between 2006 and 2013. Baptists and Pentecostals who had increased since the 1960s showed decline in this census from 1.9% to 1.75% and 1.4% to 1.3% respectively. Catholics who had bucked their decline in the previous two census returns also declined from 12.5% to 11.6%. The overall rate of decline for Christians, when worked out on an annual basis, remained about the same (we need to be aware that this census covers a seven year period instead of the usual five).


Anglicans who have always been the largest group in NZ were surpassed by Catholics in this census. They declined from 12.5% to 11.5% (losing 95,000) Presbyterians declined from 9.5% to 7.5%, losing 70, 000 and Methodists from 3.2% to 2.4%. In some research I did in 2004 ( Toward 2015: The Future of Mainline Protestantism in New Zealand ) I predicted that looking at the age profile of these mainline? denominations 2015 would be a significant year. These statistics indicate this as the rate of decline was faster for this period than it was between 2001 and 2006. These are sobering figures for these denominations, but indeed they are for the state of the church generally in NZ.


In looking at regional distribution it is interesting to note from a Presbyterian perspective that they still remain by far the strongest on a percentage basis in the lower half of the South Island. Overall Auckland has the highest percentage of religious people at almost 60%, compared with 55% nationally. So much for perceptions of “Godless Auckland!” This is, of course, largely a result of migration patterns. Again I have written elsewhere that the only places the church is growing in NZ, as in most western societies, is through immigration. Other religions also increase, with a very high percentage of migrants being religious. This is one of the reasons the older strong secularisation argument is being discarded or significantly changed. Without the ethnic / religious data correlations not having yet been released we cannot make any specific comments on this, but it is likely that particular churches will continue to benefit from Pacific Island, Asian and South African immigrants. Without this the figures would be even bleaker. The other data set missing is correlation with the age cohorts, and it will be interesting to note whether the decline of mainline denominations is just due to the aging and death of those lifelong loyal members, which is likely to continue with the Bible Class generation of the 1950s, the last of these, now entering that group or whether considerable numbers of younger generations are also disaffiliating.


Overall church attendance in NZ seems to have stabilised since 2000 at about 10% on a Sunday. Christian identity though continues to steadily decline. This would support the argument made by sociologists that religion depends on community / institutional expression to be maintained and transmitted long term, and the longer Christian believing (identity) is separated from Christian belonging (church going) then the weaker it becomes until it too fades away for many. The challenge for the church is how can we connect in meaningful ways with the nearly half of NZ’s population who still identify with Christianity, which for the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches is still over 300.000 people each?

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