Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Chris Trotter "burns" NZ Christianity

It does not get much more brutal, or accurate than this:

"In 2017, New Zealand's "mainstream" Christian denominations are, with the notable exception of the Catholic Church, advancing towards their respective graves on a collection of wobbly Zimmer frames.
Meanwhile, in those few churches still able to attract a youthful following, the theology being preached elevates faith above works with fundamentalist certitude. To the lost and the disappointed, salvation is presented as the permanent pay-off of their personal surrender to the Almighty. Neither version strikes much of a chord with New Zealand's millennial generation."


There is a lot to ponder in this acerbic description of failing Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Your thoughts?

Who is the acerbic critic?

The paragraphs come from the pen of social(ist) critic and commentator Chris Trotter, here.

The whole essay concerns the ongoing battle for the politico-economic soul of Aotearoa New Zealand, focused on the state of our welfare state, introduced to 1930s NZ as "applied Christianity."


Anonymous said...

Our NZ Anglican Church keeps no national statistics.

The Church's Pension Board keeps track of clergy so that the actuaries can declare that even if no more clergy join the pension scheme, the current clergy will all see their retirement out fine. That, as far as I know, is the only national statistic we have about clergy, age profiles, types of training, etc.

Diocesan statistics vary in usefulness - but if you have, say, 3 people meeting daily for morning & evening prayer, that can more than double many a parish's weekly attendance figures.

Plenty of parishes employ a vicar with a congregation of about 30 people and half a dozen or so buildings.

The Church paid for diocesan statistical analysis - good luck finding a public copy of that or even trying to find out who owns the work to get permission to quote from it!

And the special synod meeting being called, is it to plan to purchase land and move mission and ministry into the new areas where huge numbers of people have gone since the mass destruction of housing since the earthquakes? Nope - it's to yet again, yet again, yet again debate the subject that even on this site has now been prohibited.


[getting back to trying to see how to push a wheelchair up to the communion rails whilst using a zimmer frame]

Jonathan said...

Not much here to encourage an elderly Abraham and Sarah, or a Joseph in prison, but there is encouragement elsewhere thankfully! And the (large) kernel of truth has already been (and is being) felt and pondered by God's people themselves. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear Peter, I too was a wee bit shocked at Chris Trotter's article this morning - crediting the Roman Catholic Church with the sole responsibility of carrying forward the Christian Faith.

However, there are other signs that God is not dead in other places:

1. The appointment of the Bishop of Crediton, The Rt.Rev'd Sarah Mullaly (yes! A female bishop) to become the next Bishop of London, and:

2. This from the Internet this morning:

During the last week of Advent, preparation for the coming of the Light into our lives takes on greater intensity. With that in mind, you might want to listen here to this rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” by Enya each day of the coming week:


Anonymous said...

Perhaps both the Labour party and the Anglican Church have significantly departed from their origins; and perhaps the sort of reasons we have for sticking with the Anglican Church ( Sunday's reading - the hope of restoring the ancient ruins) apply to continuing support for Labour (when they do not show themselves utterly unfit to govern as in the 2014 election). Sadly much the opposition to Labour, so widespread in the Christian community, seems to be a tepid NZ version of the ideological hatreds we see in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Chris Trotter's implicit critique of churches begs four important questions:

(a) Which expectation matters? It is one thing to expect a church to offer a style of religion to those who want it and can afford it. And that is all that most mainstream churches have ever really expected of themselves. It is another thing to expect it to generate social capital in a post-Christian society. It is yet another thing to expect it to exercise influence on the electorate and legislation of the said post-Christian society.

(b) Which expectation is realistic? Everything is better on the blessed isles, of course, but here up yonder it is probable that mainstream churches were only organised to meet the public demand for their respective denominational distinctives, and as that demand is declining, this purpose is becoming easier with time. Apart from that, they use social capital rather than generate it, and only exercise influence on the electorate and legislation as representatives of class and ethnic constituencies, which are declining in numbers and clout. One is mischievously tempted to argue that, if churches are doing well the only thing that they were meant to do in the first place, and if they will soon complete even that task, then the proper mood for them today is a happy one of-- "Mission accomplished! Now what?"

(c) What is the relationship between projected size and whichever expectation matters? A tiny church can still represent a tradition fairly well. A tiny church can contribute useful institutions over time, and may influence mass attitudes and habits by example. A church's influence on the legislation reflects who its members are rather than how many of them there are.

(d) If a church decided that influencing the electorate and legislation was its priority, should it aim at church growth? Trotter's sarcasm could prod one to think so, but sober political science suggests that churches owe whatever influence they have not to the number of their members but to their influence. One could try to teach churchfolk to exercise the influence that they have, but the reliable strategy is surely to get more members who already have and effectively wield great influence on politics. If political success is the measure of a church, then it should evangelise the masses less and cultivate the wealthy even more than it already does.

Please note that I am not at all unsympathetic to Trotter's larger points that the welfare state needs a moral constituency in political systems like ours, and that churches with influential members once formed and mobilised such a constituency, but no longer do so well. But churches as well as states need strategy, and that requires consistency of objectives and continuity of effort. So yes, there are C21 civic needs that churches formed around C19 religious needs cannot meet, but without some further assumptions that is not a judgment about the latter


Andrei said...

You miss the point as does Chris Trotter

The purpose of the Church is to guide us as individuals to salvation - it is not to remake society but to remake individuals that the image of God that humans contain shines forth.

Any improvement in society is derived from the members of the Church shining forth the Light of Christ

Our Christian Faith may inform our political allegiances but to put our faith in politicians is misguided to say the least. We live in the world and politics is a symptom of the world's fallen nature, another pitfall we must negotiate

And we should stand against political initiatives that go against God's commandments - e.g. Euthanasia - no matter how in is dressed up violates the Commandment Thou Shalt not Kill and poses a threat to the vulnerable and the elderly

Was Jesus a socialist? Or did he command us as individuals to take care of the poor and the sick. Sometimes I think that we look to the Government to take care of the things that we should be taking care of ourselves when it regards the less fortunate in our communities.

The other thing this post highlights to me is seeing the Christian denominations as branding, like the National Party and the Labour Party are brands as are Coke and Pepsi.

But the Church is the Church, it is not a social club or service organization, its purpose to form us individually in the Christian Faith, not change the world. If we are well formed in the Faith we may contribute to positive change in the world and there is no doubt that most if not all of the positive change in society has come from people whose way of thinking has been formed by Christ through his Church but changing the world is not our primary mission, changing people by leading them to Christ is

Mike Crowl said...

Hmm. Well, Chris could perhaps come and visit Dunedin City Baptist, which, in spite of moving out of the central city, now has more people attending than ever, including students (who are bussed in where necessary), and a host of young adults. Children in large numbers (our new church building was already too small for the number of kids by the time we completed it in late 2015).
The usual number in the congregation, including kids, is around 400 on any ordinary Sunday morning, and there are a good number of people who come less frequently.
I think you'll find there are at least two Pentecostal churches with large numbers in the city (Pentecostal in the sense that their roots were in Pentecostal churches but now they seem more mainstream), and there are a number of smaller and tiny churches as well. The Anglicans do seem to be the ones that are struggling, as they have been for several years here. As for the Catholics, I don't know how their numbers are; I suspect they're not on as good a footing as they used to be, since they've closed some primary schools recently, and have trouble getting enough priests for the parishes.

Father Ron Smith said...

Oh dear, Peter. I never thought I'd see the day when a Baptist Church appears on ADU advertising its superiority to our Anglican ethos. Perhaps some of your more evangelical contributors would like to move into their corner. Numbers seems to indicate some sort of superior faith indicator!We Anglicans may not be numerous, but we are well-founded in the Sacraments of Christ.

Mike Crowl said...

Nothing superior about the faith. Just ordinary Christians in a church where the Holy Spirit is at work.

Peter Carrell said...

Ron and Mike

Dear Ron,
Mike is most welcome to comment here and is a fellow commentator with me on that great social media format, much enjoyed by Our Tweeter-in-Chief in the White House.
Mike only stated the descriptive truth about the situation in Dunedin and I don't think any "superiority" was involved in his observation at all.
He has simply made a counterpoint to Chris Trotter and myself: namely that not all non-Catholic churches in NZ are on their Zimmer frames.
As for the Diocese you and I minister within: there are many bright spots, but there are also many congregations of ageing worshippers that will not exist in 20 years time. And the latest Diocesan yearbook shows yet another steep decline in Anglican attendance.
Is there much point in a claim to have the Sacraments if there is going to be noone left to share them with?

Jean said...

Well the article at least garners some attention : ) ...

Personally I would need to separate out the growing 'lack of acceptance' of Christian faith and principles by the government and hence the flow on social impacts, and whether there is a lack of practical application of faith in kiwi christian community.

A) I see no such lack in church run or based social justice or service based initiatives; alongside a multitude of parish initiatives you also have the majority of our non-government social service organisations locally and globally focused still being under-girded by a christian ethos:
Salvation Army, Drug Arm, Barnardos, Tearfund, World Vision, Christian World Service, Mission Without Borders, Presbyterian Support, Anglican Care, St Vincent, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, Prison Fellowship... and that's just the top of mind ones.
I do not mind the emphasis on personal salvation; true personal salvation leads to true practical application.

B) Yes the 'unpopularity' of Christianity in our largely secular country has and will continue to influence the social policy and political approach we take. People do need to be reminded of where the foundations for what we have inherited came from, and made aware of the real consequences of setting Christian principles aside. The child poverty action group does good work and has existed for a long time, however, the turnaround focus on child poverty happened when the catholics and Anglicans held a pre-election gathering about the topic (multi-party) and 1000 people turned up to listen...suddenly it went to the top of the political agenda. Christianity is often dismissed these days, and one can not expect secular people to follow Christians principles, but the church can still influence. This is a good example of not responding to the current political agenda but bringing to the forefront a concern the church sees, setting the agenda.

As for Zimmer frames. Yep, much of the last few generations are now multi-generationally removed from the Gospel. Our hope is not in numbers but in Jesus. Our responsibility is to be faithful to Him to keep sowing seed whether to one on a simmer frame or pushing a baby buggy, but God is still the architect and builder of the Kingdom.

Anonymous said...

"Any improvement in society is derived from the members of the Church shining forth the Light of Christ."



James said...

Chris Trotter's views of politics have always been clouded by his far-left vantage point, I suspect his assessment of Protestant Christianity is similarly clouded.

I believe that reports of mainstream Protestant Christianity's terminal decline are greatly exaggerated. My wife and I moved to a much smaller Christchurch Anglican church from a much larger Presbyterian church (which is extremely active in social causes counter to Trotter's blinkered analysis). Our church is growing very healthily with young and old alike - I see no dominance of zimmer-frame-wielding-geratrics in our church. Just as active are our church's programs and ministries in the community - Jean does well to list the organisational ministries across Protestantism above.

I have been somewhat of a journeyman through Protestant denominations throughout New Zealand - I have never encountered the shallow theology he describes of faith without works. Brethren, Presbyterian, Baptist and Anglican churches that I have been a member of have universally been active in their works as evidence of good trees bearing fruit. I cannot say the same about my Roman Catholic church attending relatives!

A decline in numbers of New Zealanders attending church says more about New Zealanders than it does the church. I believe it is because no generation on earth has ever seen more wealth, peace and prosperity than today's younger generations, so why would people think they are sinful souls in need of a saviour? Rich men through the eye of a needle and all that!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi James
Your last paragraph gets to the nub of my concern: how to strike a chord with millennials in an NZ which has a thousand reasons not to listen to the chord!

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean said...

In reply to Peter and partially James,

Think emotionally damaged souls in need of a healer ... materially yes NZ millennials have less to pull them towards the need of a saviour... relationally they have as much if not more need of a saviour than previous generations - knowledge of a father, healer who loves them.

Anonymous said...

"...the nub of my concern: how to strike a chord with millennials in an NZ which has a thousand reasons not to listen to the chord!"

Peter, an extended analogy may make it easier for your readers to think about this some detachment and flexibility.

Your question is asked in myriad C-suites as corporate executives try to hire and keep that generation's best and brightest. For management, a persistent problem is that the single-minded focus on shareholder value that was a reform of business when they were young now turns off rising talent who simply expect to realise themselves in work that also serves higher ends. Unlike those Boomers who were leftish when they were young, Millennials do not begrudge investors the profit that makes risk-taking and scaling possible, but they rightly regard it as a means rather than as an end. And they will take detours in their lives and careers that were unthinkable until now to realise their ambitions.

And what exactly is different about now? The picture is complicated a bit by the resurgence of survival values in locales that are not especially prosperous and so feel the heel of rising inequality. But in places where mass prosperity for those who learn and live the system is taken for granted, there is the keenest focus on the top of Maslow's famous pyramid that we have seen since the Summer of Love.

Unlike the children of the Sixties, however, the children of the Naughties are coming of age in a world where capital is abundant and cheap but talent and ideas that can put it to work are relatively scarce. And as technology disrupts everything we do, ways of doing things change very quickly. As Bain & Co were explaining in Davos this year, organisational power is shifting from shareholders to innovators, from managers to differentiators, and generally from the slow to the fast. More than the Boomers, Millennials meet their world with some leverage, and hence some understandable impatience.

Although many executives think of their own work in similar terms, they are not used to having to justify their operations as personal growth or their products as social goods to people half their age. The analogy from corporations to churches has many facets but is, I trust, obvious. In retrospect, nearly all of my recent comments here been exploring a Body ethos that is much more covenantal, mystical, virtue-seeking, vocation-centred, and diaconal than any in the recent past. Where Millennials actually lead in churches, at least a few of those themes are resonating.


Anonymous said...

Jean is doubly right-- right that the children of social flux and high expectations are not unscathed, and right again that salvation makes sense to them less as slack cut by a stern taskmaster than as a healing intervention from a God who cares about them.


Anonymous said...

Peter; it seemed on my reading that Chris Trotter was as concerned as we all might be about protestant decline, because we would then be left with the rich man’s excuse that he need only give to the deserving poor. Work and Income doesn’t apply such a test, but legislation can be changed. Obviously Chris Trotter does not know about Mike Crowl’s very successful church (or other long-time successful student churches including your own St Matthew’s in Dunedin). Chris Trotter’s notable Catholic exception is due partly to immigrants in the four main centres (Dunedin is no longer in the four) and partly to our strong historic brand; seemingly not irreparably damaged by criminal paedophile priests. Rightly or wrongly many people coming to faith seem to view us as the authentic Church because of our early first century connection and possibly our claims to Papal supremacy. Our Rite of Catholic Initiation as Adults is popular. It takes 6 months for non-Catholics to do the course, even longer for non-Christians. This seems to attract not deter people.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Nick
The RCIA is part of a wider recognition that if we are serious about making disciples we need to be serious about discipleship (including the preparation for initiation).
As someone who has twice lived in Dunedin it is galling to think that it has been overtaken ... I presume you mean by Hamilton ...!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter; I meant Hamilton (4), Tauranga (5), and Dunedin (6). The consolation is that Dunedin feels like a real city with the oldest university and its Scottish heritage. The Tron is a large rural service town and Tauranga has a resort feel IMHO.


Anonymous said...

Slowly, I catch on to the geography of the Blessed Isles, but a few details remain unclear. As every schoolboy knows, the top eight cities are-- (1) Gondor, (2) Rivendell, (3) Caras Galadhon, (4) Hamilton, (5) Tauranga, (6) Dunedin, (7) Christchurch, (8) Edoras. But where does Otago rank? Which city used to be Mordor? And does Santa Claus visit from a depot near the South Pole?


Anonymous said...

Bowman, I sense that, like me, our host is an Otago (Dunedin) graduate. All other NZ universities pale in comparison (they are new) and all other cities are merely pretenders. Floreat Dunedin.


Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Nick!

Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia.