The Times...they are a changing! Part 1
I became a teenager on the 1st July 1966. I had my Drivers Licence in my hot little hands on the 1st July 1968 (literally on the day I turned 15) and shortly after that my motor bike licence. I attended along with my family (Mum, Dad and 3 siblings) St John’s Presbyterian Church in down town Wellington since I was 6, a strong evangelical and growing church back then (even though we lived in the Eastern suburbs of Seatoun).
During the teen years my siblings and I attended youth group at St John’s where Dad was a Bible Class leader. Around 80 teenagers gathered at 9.00am every Sunday. We would call it Youth Church these days. Worship, notices, testimonies, prayer and solid bible study…..the whole shebang………and did I say solid Bible study? Then at 11.00am we all attended the main church service for an hour. That was known as the Holy Hour of the week back then. Then on Wednesday nights many of us attended a home bible study. So around 5 hrs a week attending church events that had biblical content. Add to that a social event most Saturday nights.
A funny side note. We Presbyterians went quite regularly to dinner and dance events or parties where we danced much to the shock of our Brethren and Pentecostal friends. Oh those were the days! Another point worth a brief mention is that at age 24 (if my memory serves me right) I had qualified as a ‘Lay Preacher’ with the Pressies, a 3 year part time study programme. I mean I was an insider!
I am saying all that to say this. Back in my teenage (and young adult) years we went to church about 5 hrs a week every week. That’s about 250 hours a year. Today we count you as a regular church attender if you attend once every 3 weeks1. So that’s about 54 hours a year - a fall off of 80%......WHAT?......yes 80% fall off. So is it little wonder that the average church in NZ is struggling to get some good lift and forward motion? Is it any wonder that biblical literacy has never been so low in the history of the western church? Is it any wonder that 25% of churches have less than 10 children aged 0 – 12 years, and 51% have less than 20 children including teenagers2. Oh yes the times have certainly changed and they will continue to do so in the next decade with one big difference, the pace of change will be so much faster as it already is.
So here are a few of my thoughts around trends to keep in mind in 2020.
- The Children will continue to decide where the family goes to church. Every Christian parent wants their children to go to a good children’s and youth programme. If that means as parents they have to compromise on where they attend then most will. The corollary to this is that small even medium size churches generally speaking start on the back foot because their children’s and youth programmes are struggling. It is my observation that churches who have a regular attendance of 200 or more have enough talent and money to make it work for the kids. The so called mega churches as we know have outstanding programmes for babies through to Young Adults. Actually it is a key to their numerical growth.
- The very small and large churches will by and large do OK if not thrive but the middle will increasingly struggle to survive. A small church can major on the personal and pastoral touch not to say anything about keeping costs down and a large church can provide great programming. The middle is too big to be really personal, very expensive on a per capita basis and too small to provide the programming that the average punter is looking for.
- Irregular attendance on Sunday mornings is here to stay. This is a hugely challenging issue for all of us no matter what the size of church. It’s just that the small church ‘feels’ it more. This impacts on what and how you preach, the children’s programmes, corporate prayer, giving and overall ‘buy in’ to the vision of the church. In a day of superb content online this is I think one of our biggest challenges. I have yet to read or see a church who has successfully navigated through this in NZ.
- Skimming and scanning will increase but serious Bible study will decrease even further. Personally I see this as a major problem. With church attendances down and online options increasing by the day, more and more Christians will skim and scan the internet and in depth reading let alone study will continue to suffer. As a result biblical literacy will continue to decline. This will result in fewer Christians knowing the ‘truth that sets us free’. And that will result in everyday life for Christians becoming more secular but has the appearance of being Christian. Much more to say here. But can I urge you to think and pray about this issue? In fact do you have any thoughts you could share with me?
- Related to the previous point is a three dimension crisis of confidence3.
- Crisis of confidence in the power of the Gospel.
- Crisis of confidence in the usefulness of one’s personal testimony.
- Crisis of confidence in the effectiveness of the local church.
Next week I will share a few more trends that are more Global in nature yet will have impact locally.
1 That’s how most church groups count these days in NZ.
2 Source: Scripture Union research of Children’s ministry in NZ in 2018.
3 I will take a deep dive into each of these crisis later this year.
On Tuesday 25th February Dr Michael Brown (USA) and Prof Paul Moon (NZ) will be speaking in Auckland. All details and registration can be found here.
Alan Vink is currently the Executive Director for LeadershipWorx. Prior to this role he has been the Executive Director of Willow Creek Association NZ (WillowNZ), a Baptist pastor (23 years), Bible College teacher, and church consultant.