Although the Church as an institution, whether Catholic or Protestant, is being viewed with increased suspicion, Jesus is still very much admired and respected in this country, the results of the Wilberforce Foundation Faith and Belief study in New Zealand showed. Former World Vision NZ CEO and now Wilberforce adviser Chris Clarke said the report bears out “what a number of us have felt intuitively for many years”.
The report found that at least one in four “non-Christian” New Zealanders are interested or open to exploring religion, but conversations around this need to be held in a “respectful and humble way”. Mr Clarke spoke at an open lecture facilitated by Otago University’s Department of Theology and Religion on October 10.
“[There are] some opportunities for us to respond to how we engage New Zealanders and particular the role of the local church,” he said. Among the report’s challenging findings is a growing distrust of the institutional church, whether Catholic or Protestant, among all New Zealanders. “In one sense, that’s not a surprise because what we are seeing across the generations is a growing distrust of institutions, whether it’s government [or] church institutions,” he said.
On the positive side, he said, there is a warmth towards Jesus. The report showed Kiwis connect Jesus to love (53 per cent), hope (45 per cent), truth (41 per cent), care (38 per cent) and strength (35 per cent). “So, while they may be suspicious of the institution, they are not suspicious of the founder,” said Mr Clarke. The top five issue blockers that are most likely to prevent non-Christians from exploring Christianity are teachings on homosexuality, hell and condemnation, suffering, the role of women and supernatural effects. “The survey didn’t seek to analyse the data. That was very deliberate. What we’re trying to do is to start conversations. Rather than leaping to conclusions, the better thing is to give you the information and see where the conversations go,” Mr Clarke explained.
But from the findings, he said, one can see the tension that is there. “Our doctrines are not up for a polling. We don’t determine our doctrine according to what the polls tell us. We are scripturally- based. We believe the traditions of our Church come from teaching and inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
On the other hand, behaviours that stop non-Christians from exploring the faith include church abuse, hypocrisy, religious wars, judging others and issues around money.
“I think we do need to appreciate that there are some widely held perceptions out there which [are] stopping people from engaging with [the] Church. And perceptions matter,” he said, “because like it or not, we’re not doing it particularly well. We are coming across as intolerant, bombastic, unable to listen and out of touch. That’s a huge challenge.”
At the lecture, Mr Clarke presented several ways that Christians can reclaim the conversation in society by being authentic, humble and respectful. He said the top attractor to the faith is “seeing people who live out a genuine faith”. “The model of change that Jesus espoused is incarnational. He lived in the community. He was not elite. He never worked with the powerful. He actually stepped away from that. Maybe, these are models of societal change that we need to reclaim,” he said. He said Pope Francis is an example of living the faith. “What we see in Pope Francis is a very authentic, humble and vulnerable expression of faith,” he said.