Christianity in New Zealand: foundations and decline

We came back a few days ago from a family holiday in the Bay of Islands.  My nine year old summed up the trip as “we did too many missionary things”, but it is an area suffused with early New Zealand history, and much of that involved the missionaries and the expansion of the gospel to New Zealand.  Nowhere were the activities of missionaries more interwoven with the political history of modern New Zealand than at Waitangi.

For me, much of the trip involved revisiting places I’d been too before, and the satisfaction of introducing another generation to New Zealand history  There was Christ Church in Russell, where we learned that Charles Darwin was among those who contributed to the cost of erecting the church building.  The simple church near the Stone Store in Kerikeri.  And the Waimate mission station and church,  And the Williams memorial church on the waterfront at Paihia, and the Pakaraka churchyard where Henry Willians and his wife are buried.  There was Pompallier House in Russell, where much of the Catholic mission work in the north was based. And there was my first visit to Oihi, the site where Samuel Marsden conducted the first Christian service on Christmas Day 1814, and where the first mission settlement was established.  It is inspiring history, read against the background of the successful proclamation of the gospel to the Maori in the 19th century.  At the high tide of the evangelical movement –  and mission work more generally –  it was a past one could read of with some pleasure.  The sound had gone out into every land –  now even to New Zealand, the last significant landmass inhabited by humans.

And yet, and yet.   We attended Sunday service at the Anglican church in Paihia.  I’m pretty sure the only people only 60 –  and certainly the only ones under 40  –  were our family visiting from Wellington, and another family visiting from Seattle  It wasn’t a bad service  –  it was Sea Sunday, and we managed some good nautically-themed hymns (to canned music), which seemed fitting in a location where the founders had come by sea from the other end of the earth.  But it was really not much more than a handful of people, and what could only wonder what the future might hold 20 years hence.  At Waimate and Pakaraka, services are held only once every four Sundays, in a rotation with two other locations.  None of the church buildings were large.

Of course, Anglican churches aren’t all there is.  We saw several Baptist churches in our travels, and various independent (Pentecostal?) ones too.  No doubt there were a few Catholic churches around, but they weren’t prominent.  Not one of the church buildings we saw were large. The Bay of Islands area doesn’t have a large population –  and I’m not suggesting the decline of Christianity is any more severe there than in the rest of the country –  but I came away saddened. For all the Christian and missionary history, there was a sense of a receding tide which, before too many more years passed, could leave little of a living faith, and not much more than the tombstones of country churchyards to bear testimony to the power of the living faith that motivated men and women to come from so far away, eke out livings on the margins of a far-away land, all for the proclamation of the gospel.

Over history, the fortunes of the church have waxed and waned in many places. I long for –  and must pray more for –  a revival of faith in New Zealand.  With God nothing is impossible, and we’ve seen revivals in various times and places previously –  even among Maori here in New Zealand.  And yet…..perhaps I’m missing some examples, but I can think of all too many places where the presence of the gospel has been all-but-eliminated (Turkey is only the most prominent example, but increasingly one can think of much of the Middle East as well as most of North Africa) and all too few where the practice of the Christian faith has once waned as much as it has in New Zealand in recent decades, only to revive markedly.  Will the 300th anniversary of that first service at Oihi attract any interest at all?  How will future generations even know what a missionary was, when they learn of Henry Williams’ involvement at Waitangi?

Our hope is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.  But among the many lands that urgently needs the reviving work of the Spirit must be New Zealand.  Does the church sense that urgency?   Most of time, do I?

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