360° in 180 - Unlocking facts about faith in New Zealand (Part 7)

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Like an exhausted marathon runner falling across the finish line, I reached for the door of the chaplaincy centre and pulled.

Ker-click

Locked?! No way!

I’d already crossed the Pacific, traversed Australia, reached New Zealand, traveled an hour on foot, another hour by public transit and finally 20 minutes on foot to tug on this door. Why? Because I was on a mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ experiences at secular universities—and a locked door couldn’t have the last word. No, ‘locked or not,’ I had to find out what worldview New Zealand embraces, and what that means for the Christian students here who represent their Church’s future.

Investigating spirituality in New Zealand:

A few phone calls later, I finally arranged to meet the chaplain the following Monday. Meanwhile, the chaplain suggested I review a recent study about faith and belief in New Zealand, which included the following key facts:1

  • Half of New Zealand’s young people (Generations Y and Z) believe that “spirituality” is important for wellbeing;
  • However, less than half the population identifies with a mainstream religion. In fact, 1 in 3 New Zealanders are outrightly “cold toward Christianity.”
  • In the last seven years, the total number of self-identified Christians in New Zealand dropped from 49%-33%, while the nonreligious segment rose from 31-38%. In other words, New Zealand has more nonreligious people than Christians, and is becoming less Christian every year.
  • However, many New Zealanders reported being slightly (42%) or extremely (12%) open to changing their religious views if “given the right circumstances or evidence.”

Interesting! With these statistics in hand, I took a step back to consider what I knew so far about Canada, Australia and New Zealand. First, I knew that all three countries were on a map I’d drawn earlier of nations which have pledged to teach evolution in their public education systems.2 Second, I’d heard in an Answers in Genesis seminar by Ken Ham years ago that embracing the story of evolution had ultimately led Western cultures—including these three nations—to dismiss Genesis 1-11 as inaccurate.

He had explained that because every major Biblical doctrine is ultimately founded directly or indirectly in Genesis 1-11, abandoning these scriptures meant abandoning the foundation of the Christian worldview. So, with God’s word dismissed as scientifically irrelevant, Western nations based their thinking on another foundation—man’s word. This foundation leaves cultures devoid of an absolute basis for determining truth, resulting in spiritual confusion and moral relativism.

Well, I’d recently witnessed evidence of both these effects in Canadian and Australian universities. And now, I had evidence of the same results unfolding in New Zealand. For instance, the statistics that New Zealand’s youth tend to accept “spirituality” while rejecting Christianity reflect what happens when humans, who are designed for communion with their Creator, abandon belief in that Creator’s word. That abandonment, in turn, plays out as New Zealand’s statistically grows less Christian every year. But on a hopeful note, the finding that many New Zealanders would potentially change their views given “the right evidence” hints that one solution is teaching apologetics.

Apologetics, the intellectual defense of the Christian worldview, is primarily for equipping those inside the church. But it’s also an extremely useful witnessing tool. In fact, Scripture mandates it in 1 Peter 3:15, which commands believers to have a reason (or reasoned defence) for the hope that is in them. By presenting “the right evidence,” therefore, apologetics encourages nonbelievers to trust the Bible—and believers to trust it even more.

Both these applications make apologetics essential for helping Christian students keep their faith in secular cultures. I’d read as much in Ken Ham and Britt Beemer’s book Already Gone, documenting research on American youth. Then, I’d heard it again from a university chaplain who had witnessed a lack of apologetics training lead to lost faith in Canadian youth. And here in New Zealand, I was about to hear my chaplain contact tell the same story.

Insights from campus Christians in New Zealand:

The chaplain, a bespectacled woman, began by describing how hostile New Zealand can be towards Christianity, both in university and at large. She referenced the ridicule that Christian students encounter, mentioned the insults she’d personally taken for being a chaplain, and related how a social work student she knew didn’t finish his masters because he, as a Christian, couldn’t affirm the statements he was asked to. When I asked her advice for Christian students entering such a setting, she immediately referenced students need training in apologetics and discussion skills (intellectual foundations), to defend a Biblical position in gentleness and respect.3

Of course, no student can defend a Biblical position without knowing what the Bible teaches. That’s one reason why local campus ministry leaders I later spoke with emphasized students’ need for solid Bible training (spiritual foundations) as youth.

“Teach [youth] the Bible, and about how the gospel should be lived out,” one leader urged. “I see that as lacking in some churched students’ upbringings. They don’t really know what the Bible says, how to open it up and see what it’s saying, or how to link the gospel to daily living.”

In addition to the importance of intellectual and spiritual foundations, Christians in New Zealand—like those in Canada and Australia—also stressed students’ need for interpersonal foundations, or Christian support networks. In fact, New Zealanders highlighted the same three supports which Australians did: a Christian peer group, godly adult mentors, and a strong local church.

However, several interviewees also mentioned two obstacles which often prevent students from accessing these supports. First, cliquishness within churches or peer groups may bar newcomers from finding the Christian community they need to thrive. As students told me how they struggled for inclusion, I witnessed how vital it is for established Christian groups to embrace an outward-focused mindset that welcomes, rather than an inward-focused mindset that excludes. Second, limited connections with local churches may prevent students from finding a church home before the academic onslaught strikes.

Stories I heard of this happening in New Zealand confirmed what a recent Canadian study4 uncovered: Christian students who didn’t find a new church within the first month of leaving home are far less likely to attend church during university at all. However, students who have someone from their home church connect them with a new church in the university city are three times more likely to attend church during university. Campus Christians in New Zealand, therefore, urge home churches to help students transition to university churches, and advise prospective students to start church hunting well before the semester begins.

The moral of the story:

As I mentioned earlier, I’d heard Ken Ham explain years ago how Western cultures’ rejection of Biblical authority translates to those nations becoming less and less Christian every year. Now, after investigating the spiritual situations at universities educating the future leaders of three Western nations, I could see this reality unfolding firsthand. I saw it in Canada; I saw it in Australia; and now I’d seen it in New Zealand, where coldness towards Christianity is deeping every year.

But remarkably, the solutions which I’d heard Canadians and Australians suggest to help Christian students navigate university in those secular nations were the same solutions I heard in New Zealand. They all boiled down to helping students build intellectual, spiritual and interpersonal foundations through means including apologetics resources, Bible training and community support. Practical suggestions to ensure students access this support, meanwhile, included squelching ‘cliquishness’ and facilitating contact between students and local churches.

Ultimately, the pattern I’d been seeing across Western cultures couldn’t be clearer. But would this pattern hold true as I kept traveling West. . .to end up in the East? With God opening doors—even locked ones—to connect me with campus Christians, I knew the answer lay just ahead.

(Stay tuned for part 8!)

Footnotes

  1. Faith and Belief in New Zealand , McCrindle Research (commissioned by the Wilberforce Foundation), 2018, https://nzfaithandbeliefstudy.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/faith-and-belief-full-report-may-2018.pdf.
  2. Inter-Academy Panel. 2006. Inter-Academy Panel (IAP) statement on the teaching of evolution. Inter-Academy Panel. http://www.interacademies.org/13901/IAP-Statement-on-the-Teaching-of-Evolution [Retrieved 09-17-2018].
  3. 1 Peter 3:15-16
  4. Renegotiating faith: The delay in young adult identify formation and what it means for the Church in Canada. Hiemstra, R., Dueck, L., and Blackaby, M. (2018) https://p2c.com/wp-content/themes/avada-corp/files/Renegotiating-Faith-Report.pdf.

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