Home > Uncategorized > Migration, cultural diversity and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand

Migration, cultural diversity and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand

Last week I was involved with a conference on this theme, jointly organised by George Wieland from Carey Baptist College and myself, hosted by Carey. It was the first Knox / Carey combined event which came out of George and I attending a conference in Toronto two years ago on “migration, religion and identity,” as we both began focussing on this area in our research and teaching. It was, perhaps, the most energising and exciting conference I have been involved with in New Zealand in my 25 years of theological teaching, and that was without any “overseas big name” to highlight it. We had hoped we might get 50 people with 12 different presenters. We ended up with nearly 100 attending and 21 offers of papers, of which we could accommodate 18. It was, also, by far the most culturally diverse, gender balanced and youngest I have attended. All this reflected in its makeup the significant challenge and opportunities this area provides for the church.

We are aware that NZ’s population is changing rapidly through migration. Most are unaware of how much. NZ now has the highest percentage of its population born overseas of any country in the world (over 25%) and is one of the most diverse societies. Auckland is now classified as a super diverse city with over 40% of its population born overseas. But it is not just Auckland, as visiting any rural community in NZ and looking around shows. What a lot of people are not aware of is that vast numbers of these immigrants are Christian, far more than those who are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. High percentages of Pacific Islanders, Filipinos, Koreans, South Africans and a significant number of Chinese are. This is the only area of real growth for the church in NZ (as in all western countries) and if it were not for this our decline would be even more drastic. It is estimated that over 40% of churches in Auckland are ethnic churches, but looking around you find them in all kinds of places, even in Dunedin.

The energy they bring is a wonderful opportunity, but it is also a great challenge. These ethnic churches play a significant role in helping migrants adjust to living in a new land, but all the research shows that as these migrants move into the 1.5 and second generation they do not want to remain in these ethnic churches. They become like the host community for whom church going is not a high priority. This is what has happened to many young Pacific Islanders, although some have ended up in multi-ethnic Pentecostal churches. The Asian communities show greater signs of accepting and working with this reality to become multi-ethnic. This difference was shown up by the one sad feature of the conference, the very few numbers of Pacific people involved especially  compared with the high number of Asians.

Gary, Sun Mi, KevinA highlight of the conference for me, as well as many others, was the worship on the second morning which was led by two of our recent graduates from Knox, Gary Mauga a Samoan and Sun Mi Lee a Korean, who shared using their Samoan and Korean cultures their journey into being multicultural. An increasing amount of research show that it is multicultural or multi-ethnic churches in western societies which are the most likely to be growing, rather than those which are predominantly of one ethnicity, either European or some recent immigrant ethnic group. There is also powerful gospel imperatives found in texts such as Ephesians 2.11-22, Galatians 3.28 and Revelation 7.9 which should pull in this direction.

One very significant comment quoted in one of the presentations from an interview with Phillip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom and The Church in the Global South, paints significantly the challenge and the opportunity.

“Let me suggest to you that in 30 years, there will be two sorts of church in the world. There’ll be the ones that are multi-ethnic, transnational, and multi-continental. They are constantly battling over issues of culture, lifestyle, worship, and constantly in conflict, debate and controversy. And those are the good ones. The other churches will have decided to let all these trends pass them by. They’ll live just like they’ve always done with an average age in their congregations of 80. Personally, I’d much rather be in one of the ones that is recognizing, taking account of the expansion with all the debates and controversies.”

Shortly I am heading off to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference in Indianapolis, USA, where I am presenting a paper on this theme and next year am a speaker at  a symposium in Seoul, Korea, on “21st Century Asia Pacific Theology and Practice: Studies and Conversations on Asian Mission Theology.” I am sure that these international gatherings will confirm my growing belief that this area is the major challenge we face as churches in New Zealand. It also provides the greatest opportunity for the renewal of our churches and missional engagement with our communities. It is time we stopped being side tracked by other issues and focused our energies where God is working in exciting new ways.

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