Faithful grow fewer
Churches will be busy this weekend, but the trend is to more diverse faiths, REBECCA WALSH finds.
As Christians celebrate Easter, latest Census figures show there are fewer of them, but the diversity of faiths among New Zealanders is growing.
Over a million people (27.5 per cent) described themselves as having no religion in the 2001 Census compared with about 670,000 people (19.9 per cent) a decade ago.
New Zealand's changing population is increasingly reflected in the variety of religions. The number of Hindus has more than doubled since 1991 to 38,769, and the number of Buddhists has more than tripled to 41,469.
At the same time, most of the major Christian denominations experienced drops in the tens of thousands.
Peter Lineham, associate professor of history in the school of social and cultural studies at Massey University's Albany campus, said that in the past half century the percentage of New Zealanders who described themselves as Christian had dropped by a third to just over 60 per cent.
The growth in "other world religions" had not made up for the decrease. "It's not a collapse. What's happened is there has been this massive decline in Christian support, but it is still the majority religion."
Other faiths, such as Hindu and Baha'i, had grown from less than 0.5 per cent of the population in 1951 to 3.5 per cent today.
Most of the main Pentecostal faiths had experienced a decline and a redistribution into newer and smaller groups. Many American and Australian based "one-off congregations" had grown rapidly in the past five to 10 years.
"People are no longer interested in the brand, they want to know, what's the flavour?"
Professor Lineham said he expected that although the number of people with no religious affiliation would continue to grow it was slowing and likely to stabilise around 35 to 40 per cent.
"The pattern of Western society is religion is not a prime value any more."
Whether people from other cultures came to feel that way about their own faiths when they were in New Zealand was a question time would tell.
About 500,000 people did not state a religion or objected to answering the question. But there was a longer list of more unusual religions - from Wiccans (crudely known as witchcraft), nature and earth based religions, which think of the earth as a sacred place, to Jainism, an Indian religion.
Although fewer New Zealanders label themselves Christian, church services this weekend will be among the most popular of the year.
The Rev Paul Windsor, principal of the Carey Baptist College, said that despite the fact most people saw Easter as a "much looked forward to holiday" many would turn up for an Easter service.
"I think religion has almost slipped into a hobby area, some people are into it and others are not ... in our church we are always surprised by the numbers who show up at Easter who don't at other times."
Mr Windsor said the Census figures could be seen as painting a picture of "doom and gloom" but there was a lot more youth and vibrancy in the church than was acknowledged. Compared with a generation ago people had become more self-sufficient.
"There's a lot more shopping around. A consumer mentality comes into church life. People can be quite mobile in the church they attend. Their loyalty doesn't last that long. If the church up the road has something more exciting, they might move."
Jonathan Young, senior pastor at the Lincoln Christian Life Centre, anticipated a bigger congregation over the Easter weekend and to attract more people the church was putting on The Jerusalem Encounter.
"If churches want to have people come they have to put the effort in ... my parents' generation would have gone to church religiously. People under 40 would have no inclination to go. We are trying to gain a bit of attention by doing something different."
He was not surprised by the increase in people with no religious affiliation.
"We are in a post-modern society where it is far more acceptable to not have any [religion] but be open to everything."
©Copyright 2002, New Zealand Herald