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New Zealander recounts challenges Baptists face amid nation’s atheism

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (BP)–Guitars, a synthesizer and drums strike the opening chord as the four singers standing on the platform begin a praise chorus.

The congregation eventually rises to their feet and joins the singing — some clapping to the beat, some moving slightly from one foot to the other in time with the music.

A couple of older men in the congregation wear suits and ties. However, all others, including the ministers, are dressed from casual to picnic casual.

This could be a Southern Baptist church most anywhere, except the accent is too southern — a few thousands miles too far south and west. The accent and location are down under, in New Zealand.

“When we left New Zealand for 17 years, the worship style was formal,” said Julie Belding, who serves as editor of the New Zealand Baptist newspaper. “While we were gone, something happened. Now, most Baptist churches in the country have this style of worship.”

Winsor Baptist Church is a thriving suburban congregation in Auckland, New Zealand, the island nation’s principal seaport city. The church’s attractive facilities — a converted nightclub — are filled twice each Sunday morning with 500 adult and youth worshipers and a beehive of activities during the week. The church has seven full-time ministers.

But this fifth-largest of New Zealand Baptist churches is not necessarily representative of Baptist life in this British Commonwealth that just voted to become independent from Britain.

“Membership seems to be declining,” acknowledged Belding, who attended Southern Baptist churches in the United States while her husband studied and then taught computer science.

New Zealand Baptist Union churches now claim 22,456 members.

Being a Christian in New Zealand is significantly different from the United States, Belding notes.

“Being an atheist is an asset in this country,” she said. “It costs something to say you are a Christian.”

While many people claim membership in the Catholic or Anglican churches, most of the population attends services only on special occasions, Belding said.

Even a local bus driver explains that people want a church “only for marriage and burial purposes.”

In addition to a secular society, church membership is not stressed — even by churches, Belding reported.

Baptist Union statistics verify her point. While total resident membership is stated at about 20,000, average Sunday attendance at New Zealand Baptist churches is twice that, leaders reported.

Baptist denominational missions in New Zealand also seem to be experiencing significant challenges.

“The New Zealand Missionary Society seems to have fallen on hard times,” Belding said. “They have told New Zealand Baptists that unless gifts to the society increase significantly this year, they will have to recall some missionaries.”

The mission program seems to suffer because of a lack of denomination loyalty, Belding continued, and para-church groups have become the primary missionary-sending agents.

As an illustration, at a lunch in the Belding home for visiting Southern Baptist editors, Belding’s daughter was leaving in two days for an 18-month stint with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Another visitor for the luncheon had just returned from a year of service in North Africa with an independent missionary agency.

Belding edits the New Zealand Baptist, a monthly publication of the New Zealand Baptist Union, with a circulation of 10,500. It is sent in bundles to all churches of the union. Churches are asked to reimburse the union for circulation costs. A significant amount of its costs is paid by advertisements from a wide variety of advertisers.

Despite concerns, Belding said she remains optimistic about the future of Baptists in her homeland.

“There are churches that are reaching people and growing,” the Baptist editor said. “It’s just not easy — and it is going to take more and more dedication on the part of Christians.”

One wonders as well if New Zealand is a case study of the challenges that increasingly face Baptists in the United States.

    About the Author

  • Lynn P. Clayton