Next Church

The Church - 10

Christianity in the New Millennium

Enormous economic, social and cultural changes are sweeping the world. Christian churches are not immune from these changes, which pose great challenges for their identity, mission, and survival. In this article, final in a series on ‘The Church’, Rob Yule, minister of St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aoteoroa New Zealand, gives his perspective on how the church can meet these challenges and his view of the prospects of Christianity in the third millennium. It was originally published as 'Christianity in the New Millennium', in Crosslink, monthly magazine of the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches of New Zealand, (Vol. 13, No. 8, September 1999, p. 8).

I am confident about the future of Christianity in New Zealand. I do not say this lightly, for our churches face enormous challenges today. Yet, amid the waning of Western Christendom, the breakup of traditional institutions, and the catastrophic decline in the last thirty years of historical denominations, a new kind of church is being born. Still largely unnoticed by the secular media, new forms of Christian worship, community and social service are emerging across this country in response to the challenges and to minister to the needs of our fast-changing society.

The Persistence of Religion

My first reason for confidence about Christianity’s future is that human beings are incurably religious. There is a religious longing, a sense of incompleteness or unfulfilment, in every one of us. ‘You have made us for yourself,’ wrote St. Augustine in his Confessions, ‘and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.’ Even when denied by secular society, this longing finds expression in popular culture. ‘What if God was one of us?’ ‘There can be miracles when you believe.’ Contemporary music bears witness to this fundamental longing.

As our society becomes increasingly fragmented and loses its moral purpose, a resurgence of religious faith is occurring in this country. The recent International Social Survey of religion carried out here by Massey University’s Department of Marketing indicated that a surprising 80% of New Zealanders have a religious belief of some kind. A majority (61%) believe in a personal God, with one third (31%) admitting no doubts about God’s existence. A further one fifth (19%) believe in some kind of impersonal higher power. Though New Zealand is often thought of as a secular society, the survey indicates that there is a vigorous religious interest in this country. Three quarters of New Zealanders (74%) would prefer children to have religious education in state primary schools, and over half (55%) would like to see religious education in state secondary schools.

The survey also reveals a fascination for alternative religions, occultic beliefs, and plain old-fashioned superstition. It showed, for instance, that 40% of New Zealanders believe that fortune tellers can foresee the future, 30% that a person’s star sign, or horoscope, can affect their future, and 30% that charms sometimes bring good luck. This rag-bag, eclectic religiosity, which began in the Counter-Culture of the late sixties and early seventies, has today entered the cultural mainstream, even gaining cover status in a recent New Zealand Listener (‘Psychic Power: Why Spiritualism is Big Business’, 8-14 May, 1999).

More a mood than a movement, New Age religion encompasses a diverse, even bizarre range of alternative spiritualities, therapies, beliefs and practices, often deriving from the eastern religions. While some of this represents a disenchantment with churches and western Christianity, it also indicates a new climate of spiritual openness and searching that provides us with significant opportunities for presenting the Christian message to our contemporaries.

Measured against the resurgent spirituality of our day, the prophets of secularism are shown to be wide of the mark. In the seventies, when I was chaplain at Victoria University of Wellington, atheistic Marxism was the ruling ideology, and religion was out of fashion. Now the Berlin Wall is only a memory, and the oft-predicted demise of religious faith has turned out, as Paul Johnston says in his History of the Modern World, to be ‘the outstanding non-event of modern times.’

The Pervasiveness of Truth

My second ground for confidence is the persistence of truth questions concerning the meaning of life. As far back as 1980 Time magazine was reporting a remarkable renaissance of religious belief:

In a quiet revolution in thought and arguments that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers . . . but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse. Now it is more respectable among philosophers than it has been for a generation to talk about the possibility of God’s existence.

The same quiet revolution has been happening among scientists. Twentieth century scientific exploration into the origins of the universe and of life has a created a climate of openness to Christian faith unparalleled since the eighteenth century. Edwin Hubble’s great discovery in 1929 that other galaxies are receding from ours, for instance, has theistic implications still to be fully grasped by the wider community, because it indicates that the universe is expanding, came from a finite point and must have had a beginning.

Similarly, modern scientific research into the physical conditions within which life is possible has shown how finely-tuned the universe is for sustaining life on earth. Scientists now widely use the term ‘Anthropic Principle’ to describe this ‘just right’ universe, so delicately ordered to an extraordinarily narrow band of variables within which human life is possible. A simple example is what I call the ‘freeze-fry factor’: a change in the earth’s distance from the sun of as little as 2% would destroy all life on earth, freezing if it was further away or evaporating if it was nearer all water necessary for life’s existence. Such examples of fine-tunedness give evidence that our earth and universe are indeed products of supremely intelligent and loving design.

The Resilience of the Church

My third reason for confidence in the future of Christianity is the astonishing resilience of the Christian Church. The forms of an earlier age may die, but the faith continually rises up invigorated to meet new challenges and situations. The Church endured the Roman persecutions, survived domestication as the Imperial religion, and outlasted the fall of Rome. It flourished in the social chaos of the early Middle Ages, renewed its vigour in the break-up of medieval Christendom, and spread worldwide in the age of European expansion. In our day Christianity has shed its Western trappings and prospers in a thousand ethnic cultures as the first truly indigenous yet global faith in world history.

John Henry Newman, leader of last century’s Anglo-Catholic revival in England, observed in his The Idea of a University that ‘True religion is slow in growth and, when once planted, is difficult of dislodgement; but its intellectual counterfeit has no root in itself; it springs up suddenly, it suddenly withers.’ In this age of instant solutions we are inclined to forget that the growth of the church, like the seed growing to harvest in Jesus’ parables, is normally slow and steady rather than sudden and spectacular.

The movement which began twenty centuries ago with an itinerant Jewish preacher and a dozen motley followers, in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, today, according to statistician David Barrett, numbers just on 2 billion people, fully one third of the world’s population, set to pass 6 billion for the first time in history as the new millennium is ushered in. The Christian movement exists in such diverse situations, survives under such persistent hostility, and displays such extraordinary capacity for self-rejuvenation, that it defies secular analysis or explanation. To understand this remarkable phenomenon, we seem driven to invoke its founder’s promise: ‘I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.’ (Matthew 16:18)

The Re-emergence of Community

The emergence of Western society from the Christendom era is creating many challenges for traditional institutions, including churches. But it is also showing that the church can survive, indeed flourish, under any social system - not just when subsidised or supported, but even when marginalised or disestablished. As our pluralistic, postmodern society becomes more fragmented, losing its moorings of truth and value, churches that keep their message but adapt their medium will shine like lighthouses in a sea of change. Tradition-bound churches may be dying, but the Next Church is being born. Centuries of European heritage and Christian habit are being abandoned, as new, indigenous, entrepreneurial congregations emerge to meet today’s needs and opportunities.

In August 1995 the Atlantic Monthly carried a cover story on ‘The Next Church’, the result of more than a year’s research on the new large churches which are transforming the religious and social life of America. Author Charles Trueheart commented:

Social institutions that once held civic life together - schools, families, governments, companies, neighbourhoods, and even old-style churches - are not what they used to be. The new congregations are reorganising religious life to fill that void. The Next Church in its fully realised state can be the clearest approximation of community, and perhaps the most important civic structure, that a whole generation is likely to find anywhere in an impersonal, transient nation.

Havens of community in a world falling apart, forums of truth in a confused and fragmented society, beacons of hope in a fast-moving and despairing age - this will be the shape of the church in the next millennium.

Rob Yule
1 June 1999

© 1999, Rob Yule, Palmerston North, New Zealand