The church responds to cultural changes

Cultural shifts offer challenges for church

2004. Religious belief is not declining in New Zealand and other Western countries – the situation is increasingly described as a change from “religion” to “spirituality”, so is the consensus from sociologists, theologians, and academics from around the globe who say there is a resurgence of spirituality and belief in God outside of institutionalized Church.

Dr Kevin Ward presented a one-hour inaugural address – entitled is New Zealand’s future churchless? – attended during February this year by academics, church leaders and students at the School of Ministry, Knox College, Dunedin.

Mr. Ward concluded there will still be churches, but there will also be a wider and more diverse religiosity and spirituality outside of the church beyond its control.

The church will be less, he said, in its form being less institutional, in its role being less central, and its authority being less powerful.

“Learning how to function positively in this new social and cultural reality is I believe the central challenge we face. But I would also suggest that in the New Testament the church existed in a not dissimilar context, and so we can learn much from a fresh reading of our central text.

“The church can still have a significant role resourcing that churchless faith and seeking to give some Christian shape to it. It will not be a ‘church-less’ society but it will be one with ‘less-church’,” Mr. Ward said.

Photo by Aksonsat Uanthoeng on

Mr. Ward referred in his address to his own research on several congregations in New Zealand which convinced him that the loss of young people from churches in the 1960’s and 1970’s was because they no longer wanted to belong in the ways churches of the time demanded rather than because they no longer believed.

He said that it is important not to assume that because people still believe their beliefs have remained the same. He quotes Grace Davie that “belief begins to drift further away from Christian orthodoxies as regular practice diminishes.”

Of those who indicate “no religion” in census figures, Mr. Ward says that more detailed research done on the beliefs of those who now define themselves as having “no religion” throws this assumption into question.

“The most significant factor in the increase in this category was the cultural experience of coming of age in the 1960’s and that religious skepticism proved to be an unlikely explanation. Most people with no religion hold conventional religious beliefs, despite their alienation from organized religion.”

Referring to Robert Wuthnow the change in American spirituality since the 1950’s suggests that a spirituality of “dwelling” or “place” has given way to a spirituality of “seeking” or “journey”. Wuthnow defines the former orientation that links spirituality to participation in institutional religion and is marked by sharply drawn symbolic boundaries. Spirituality is indicated by membership in the organization and “being there” by belonging.

“With the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, though, people began to shift to a spirituality of seeking or journey.

“It means that even in the traditional religious institutions the authority of the institution has less hold on the individuals who belong to that institution as they take more account of their own personal convictions and beliefs.

“This means it (personal faith) is now much less located in institutions which consequently carry less authority in determining how people express it. 

“Many now are suggesting that since the mid-1980s there has been a reconnecting with belonging, a quest for new forms of community.

“Some sociologists talk about a new communitarian age. It is not however occurring by people going back to those primary institutions through which older generations belonged, but in face to face, open, tolerant, inclusive, non-judgemental, and democratic, much looser, secondary institutions.

“Wuthnow in researching the now incredibly widespread small-group phenomenon suggests it is bringing together two important contemporary searches: the quest for the sacred and the quest for community: believing and belonging.”

Mr. Ward suggests this is the essence of the challenge the church in societies like New Zealand faces.

He suggested that Christians can participate and connect with this spiritual and religious questing that is taking place in our culture in all kinds of ways, especially in popular culture – film, literature, art, music, tourism and even sport. One area that Mr Ward offers for further exploration is a reawakening of the voice of the Church in the public arena.

“As our fragmented society seeks to redefine some common values and beliefs without which it cannot function,” he says, “the Church can play a significant public role.”

Mr. Ward mentioned the Hikoi of Hope and the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification were positive examples.

By Peter Veugelaers.

Published 2004, Challenge Weekly


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