General Assembly 2014

October 10, 2014 Leave a comment


I have just returned from the Presbyterian General Assembly held in Auckland at St Kentigern’s College, interesting for me as it was a geography of significant events in my life. I was the minister at Pakuranga Baptist Church, just across the road from the College, when I resigned from Baptist Ministry, and then for the next three years found “spiritual refuge” for my rather bruised faith in St Columba’s Presbyterian Church, also just across the road, while I taught at MacLean’s College. This was my first real engagement with the Presbyterian Church. Both churches have now moved as the land has been taken over by the expanding Town Centre, but the moderator of this Assembly, Andrew Norton, is the minister of St Columba’s,GA 2014 and it was a joy to meet again Graeme Murray, the minister from the time I spent recovering there.


I have attended many Assemblies, both Baptist and Presbyterian, and I have often felt my soul echoed the words of the prophet Amos, “I cannot stand your assemblies.” However I did not feel that on this occasion, and overall my impression is that it was the best and most significant I have been to in the PCANZ. Not only did it have a much better culture about it but I also believe it took some significant steps in moving us forward. The culture change that Andrew facilitated, both in the way he set it up (having us sitting around tables for one thing), organised the worship and speakers and moderated the business sessions, was part of this. Some significant decisions were also made.


From my perspective, not surprising giving my previous blog, it was wonderful to see a much greater visibility of our bicultural and multicultural character, something commented on by the guest speaker, Steve Taylor, in his closing comments. It was wonderful to see our commitment to being a “cross cultural and multicultural church with a bicultural commitment” passed unanimously. Now it is important for us to engage in the journey of becoming cross-cultural rather than just remaining multicultural. Another very significant decision was that to set up a Mission Enterprise Fund and to commit 10% of the sale of property to this, which will be used to facilitate mission initiatives. Decisions were also made which will enable more easily some of the changes which need to be made in rationalising the number of parishes we have, again an urgent necessity. So for me these kind of decisions, which will enable us to more readily make changes to adapt to the reality of our context and so engage more effectively in God’s mission, left me feeling greatly encouraged.


There were other decisions made with which I did not always agree but such is the nature of a “broad” and therefore diverse church. One of the most significant moments came as the debate on issues of sexuality was to begin and my friend Hamish Galloway passionately stated that after 28 years of debating we need to find a better way of dealing with our diversity and led a walkout which was taken up by about one third of the commissioners. I trust that those who hold passionate and strong positions at both ends of the spectrum take note of what this said.


One final reflection is on the courageous leadership Andrew Norton showed, both in the way he brought changes into the assembly programme and lea and moderated our time together. One of the things he introduced was to have a ministers’ resourcing day the day before. About 200 of our ministers attended and it was an excellent day, both in terms of content and also the chances for ministers to share some of the joys and challenges of their ministry with one another. The afternoon session was on ‘transformational leadership’, and I gave the opening address comparing transactional leadership (‘keeping the ship afloat’) and transformational leadership, arguing that the latter was adequate in settled times but in times of rapid change and challenge the latter is needed. It seems to me that moderators have been expected to act in the former way and have done so. Andrew took the risk of being transformational. That often attracts criticism, but for myself and I know many others, I am pleased he took the risk and helped to bring about significant change. I trust we can build on this as we move forward together.


Categories: Uncategorized

Migration, cultural diversity and the church in Aotearoa New Zealand

September 20, 2014 2 comments

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.

Categories: Uncategorized

Searching for church in Williamstown

April 20, 2014 1 comment

I am spending Easter in Melbourne this year with my grandchildren, three year old Ruby and one year old Huxley, along with their parents. Like many of their generation my son and daughter in law were raised in the church but have been non-attenders for nearly a decade and a half. The arrival of children has, as with many, brought a renewed interest in faith and meaning along with concern about how to transmit those to their children. Being involved in this with them has sadly reaffirmed for me how challenging it is for a couple like this to find what they are looking for in church today.


They moved from Brisbane to Melbourne recently and had decided they wanted to find a church to belong to. Ruby has been going to a play group run by the pastor’s wife at a nearby Baptist church. It is pretty good and mum has enjoyed the other young parents and the pastor’s wife. Grandad was allowed to come along on a visit last year and Ruby certainly loves it. I enjoyed my conversation with the pastors wife and also the pastor when he dropped in. However when they attended the church on a Sunday there was a great disconnect between the playgroup atmosphere and the church. It was very traditional, mainly older people and they were made to feel like terribly bad people. Huxley, only about 9 months old, was a handful also and they decided to wait till he was a bit older and try somewhere else.


Granddad arriving for Easter, 6 months later, was deemed a good time. They had done a bit of scouting and a charismatic and a Pentecostal church were deemed the best options. Their websites were very attractive and indicated they had a focus on children and families. We turned up at the first but all we saw going in were a number of grey haired older people, matched by the old bluestone building they were using (formerly a Uniting Church). Se we quickly headed off to the Pentecostal church. The building looked much more modern in style and two car loads with children turned up at the same time. All very promising.


When we entered apart from 4 of 5 leaders we and the other two carloads were about all who were there. Was this it? There were not that many seats in the auditorium we noticed. All looked so different from the images the website conveyed. The service got underway and a few more arrived but still only about 25 adults and perhaps 10 children.  Ruby immediately made a friend and attended the highly publicised children’s programme, which as it turned out was watching videos, mainly Pippa Pig. At least she enjoyed it especially with an Easter Egg hunt afterwards. Huxley was a model toddler.


The service was interesting to observe. Everything was high tech, done mainly on a big screen, dimmed lighting and spots focussed on the front. We began with high powered worship songs lead by the Hillsong worship team on the screen performing (sorry ‘leading’ worship) at a packed out Hills Christian Centre of several thousand. We twenty odd voices didn’t quite create the exciting experience that was happening on the screen in front of us. It was all a bit flat. At last we got to one song I could sing. After some prayer this was followed by the notices, again done high tech visually on the screen. No personal relationship or community feel about it. I quickly realised that what the pastor was doing was creating for himself a sense of the church he wanted to lead, not the church he was actually leading.


So the service went on. A forty minute sermon with all the usual Pentecostal phraseology and dramatic presentation, complete with calls for amen’s and that’s right from the congregation, offered in an orchestrated kind of way by a few of the faithful, and then a ten minute appeal. The content of the sermon itself was ok but the style so totally out of place with a small congregation of a bit over twenty, where it is actually relationships and personal connections that really matter rather than slick performance and adrenalin soaked experience. From reactions I think the people there were rather surprised to have some strangers turn up and didn’t quite know what to do apart from giving us a card to fill in. There was no attempt to engage in conversation, even asking where I was from.


The experience caused me to reflect on the tragic situation that unfortunately is so much of church life. Here is a young couple wanting to find a church that has some life and vitality, other young couples and children like themselves, but also which connects with real life. Not just going through the motions. The style of this service was such that unless you were a part of that particular subculture already you would feel rather uncomfortable. It was hard to imagine a typical aussie or kiwi under 40 connecting, and certainly there were no others there with whom they might be likely to connect. There are plenty of smallish Pentecostal and charismatic churches like this around (despite the stories about big Pentecostal churches, such as in the Herald on Sunday this week  ( ). On the other hand there are also large numbers of declining traditional churches full of graying older people, like the Baptist church they tried out earlier. They have not given up and are going to try some others, although I must admit I have spent some time doing a bit of google searching and am not terribly optimistic, at least in this part of town.


However it has made me wonder how many times this experience might have occurred over this Easter (or indeed on any Sunday) for younger people in whom the God of mission has begun to stir into life the still warm embers of faith in ways that make them want to reconnect with a faith community to help their children find faith and to grow in their own spiritual journey. Lesslie Newbigin’s comment that “the local congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel” is profoundly true and sadly in many cities in countries like Australia and New Zealand the gospel that is “interpreted” in so many of those congregations is neither attractive to younger people who have begun to respond to its tug nor is it particularly authentic to the wonderful reality of new life that the death and resurrection of the Easter Jesus proclaim.

Categories: Uncategorized

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?

Categories: Uncategorized

A theology for uncertain times

January 21, 2014 3 comments

Over the past few years I have increasingly found myself being asked to provide some input to, or work as a consultant with, a variety of parishes and local churches, presbyteries and dioceses, who are struggling with their futures. It is very clear that a good number of churches in New Zealand are no longer sustainable, at least in anything like their current form, and are under threat of closure. Largely this is a consequence of the aging demographics of so many churches, but has been heightened by all the earthquake issues now facing many buildings. This has caused a great deal of anxiety, anger, conflict and grief among many people for whom their relationship with God has been significantly tied to a particular building. Without their buildings sadly many disappear from church.

As I have come to understand the issues found in these places I have come to realise that at a basic level it is a theological issue, and as I have reflected on that two comments from insightful church leaders have rumbled around in my mind. The first was shortly after I had come into the Presbyterian church and my role at Knox, from Kerry Enright while discussing with him what he had done on study leave. His comment was that far too many of our people have an inadequate theology for the twenty first century. They have a theology centred around place rather than a journey theology. The other comment was from the person who has been the most influential in my own faith and ministry journey, Murray Robertson. In interviewing him for the book I am writing on his remarkable forty year ministry at Spreydon Baptist Church, I asked him what was essential to sustain that. His immediate response was “well, first you have to have a theology of journey.”

I think these perceptions are profoundly true. Too many who see themselves as followers of Jesus have a theology of place rather than a theology of journey, which following implies. Their understanding of what it means to be God’s people is defined around the building where they gather for perhaps a couple of hours a week. Place implies stability, security and permanence, although the heightened awareness that we do indeed live in the shaky isles has shaken that a bit. Journey on the other hand implies change and uncertainty, a willingness to leave some things behind, that you have no fixed abode. If there is one thing true about living in the world that has emerged in the twenty first century, it is that it is full of change and uncertainty, and a theology that is founded on permanence and stability is quite unsuited to that.

Of course we should always have known this, because it is the theology we find for God’s people in both the Old and New Testament scriptures, from the call of Abraham in Genesis, through the gospels and ministry of Jesus with those who followed, on into the ministry of the apostles. My thoughts on this came to a head while preaching through the lectionary readings in Hebrews 11, 12 and 13 in August, where we are reminded that “we walk by faith and not by sight,” living as “aliens and strangers on earth… looking for a better country.” I am sure it was the faith with which our “pioneers” set out from Scotland, not knowing what lay ahead, but trusting in God as Abraham had. In all the security and stability we thought the modern world had brought for us, we seem to have forgotten the theological foundations that underpin our existence as God’s people, our trust in the God who is always moving ahead of us, and have instead come to place our trust in some of the temporary way stations we have established on route. For many it requires a re-digging of our theological foundations from the quarry of scripture.

Categories: Uncategorized


March 29, 2012 1 comment

Hi this is an introduction to my website. I’m not sure if this is a sign of my age, or if I’m in denial, but  I have had all this stuff sitting accessible to me only and get requests from people to make it available. So shortly I hope to have all that I have written that might be of interest or help to people will be accessible here. In addition my intention is to each month update this page with some thoughts or ideas coming out of my work, reading or observation, that might stimulate your own thinking, be helpful for you in whatever you are doing, or provoke some worthwhile discussion.

So for now trust you have a blessed Holy Week and Easter.


Categories: Uncategorized