I have had a lovely if tiring weekend. Saturday morning my family I travelled to Timaru (South Canterbury) for a collation service for the new Archdeacon of South Canterbury (an eager to please person who in a moment of weakness said Yes to the Bishop's invitation). A lovely excursion followed in the middle of the afternoon to visit family camping at Lake Clearwater in the foothills of the alps behind Ashburton before presenting ourselves at St Stephen's Ashburton for the late afternoon collation service for Rosie Staite as the new lay Archdeacon of Mid Canterbury. All that travelling was in gorgeous sunshine, as was Sunday's excursion to Cheviot in North Canterbury.
I had a fascinating conversation in the course of these travels with a bloke who lamented lowness of congregational numbers and offered a reason for them. "People don't need God in their lives these days." I think my conversation partner is putting his finger on something which may take a bit of courage for the church to face up to.
In commercial terms, we have a product (the gospel) which by definition is good news for people in poor circumstances. If those poor circumstances cease to exist, if people don't feel a great need to cry out to God for help (salvation), then it is no wonder that our 'business' is feeling the squeeze, represented by lowered attendances in many places, or, in some places where attendance is reasonable, by observation that the congregation is aging and not replacing itself with younger generations.
Now much more could be said about this state of affairs and no pretence is being made that in the above two paragraphs I have covered every angle of current church life ith its varied hues of growth, decline and stability. But sticking with the insight that at least one significant factor in our situation is people's loss of a sense of need of God, it is intriguing - to me at least - that Saturday's Press carried a major article on our 'rockstar' economy. The gist of the article is that the world, but especially China, wants our farmyard products, particularly milk powder, with demands not previously experienced. As one of China's farms, we can scarcely keep up. One figure is startling,
"In a single year, New Zealand's exports to China leapt a mind-boggling 45 per cent, increasing by a whole $3.1 billion to $10b, making China now our biggest international customer."
That is huge. No wonder the farming country we travelled through looked so prosperous (e.g. lots of new houses). No wonder that after six years in government, the National Party is as strong in the polls as ever. The good times are rolling on. Faced with a decision whether to go shopping on Sunday for a new car or a new boat, or even both, why would people feel a need to honour God in worship, let alone seek God's help for unmet needs?
That some people have a need for God in their lives and are finding God in the context of church was a spontaneously emerging theme from some impromptu testimonies at an evening service I was part of at the weekend's end. Excellent! But that does not change the question relating to the broad sweep of congregational life in China's Farms Inc (South Pacific division): how do we engage our whole society with the gospel in an age of plenty?
I am delighted that our economy is growing but I feel compelled to conclude that milk powder is bad for the growth of the gospel!