Believing without Belonging:
Church in the aftermath of the 60s
by Kevin Ward
What has been the impact on our churches of the social and cultural changes
that have taken place since the sixties? Kevin Ward investigates.
Over the past three years I have taken funerals for three of my uncles and
aunties and in the process indulged in a considerable amount of discussion
with a fairly wide range of cousins with whom I grew up, some of whom I had
not seen for a number of years.
On a number of occasions discussion inevitably turned to the subject of
church. My mother's side of the family were deeply religious Brethren, my
father's have been significantly involved in the Anglican church. Within the
family my parents' generation have stayed significantly involved in their
respective streams of the church for a whole lifetime. What of my generation?
Of the eight cousins brought up within the Anglican church, most of whom
married members of other mainline churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman
Catholic) none have remained involved in church since student days. Of the ten
cousins brought up in conservative evangelical churches (many of whom married
outside that stream) three have remained involved since young adulthood. In
other words the drop out rate in the 60s and early 70s was 83%.
While the statistics may vary, that family story represents a picture of our
generation, for whom, in the words of Kris Kristofferson, the things that
remind them of religion (church bells, a Sunday School class, a choir singing)
"take them back to something they lost sometime, somewhere along the way". In
1960 40% of the primary school roll in New Zealand were on the rolls of Sunday
Schools in New Zealand and by 1975 this had dropped to 15%. As a consequence
of this we have dropped from about 20% of the population being in church on a
Sunday in 1960, to about 10% today - with nearly half of these being
pre-boomers (born in 1946 or earlier).
This is a pattern that has occurred in all western countries. As one
Australian researcher put it: "Alienated from the religion of their parents,
almost an entire generation of teenagers and young adults seems to have
dropped out of Protestant churches. The socialisation process by which
religious affiliation was transmitted from parents to the next generation
broke down . . . the relative absence of young adults of child rearing age has
affected church membership figures ever since." (1)
A consequence of this is that while for baby boomers Christianity may be a
memory in their past, for their children - known as Generation X - it is not
even a memory. They never even had the chance to get to the Sunday School
stage (by 1980 attendance was 11%).
This really struck me when, in the late 1980s, I went back secondary school
teaching - teaching English literature, a lot of which has religious themes or
backgrounds. I found the vast majority of students had no understanding of the
church, or of even the basics of the Christian faith. This was confirmed by a
survey of first year students at Otago University which showed over 40% had
never even heard of Adam and Eve.
In the late 80s and early 90s there was hope, and numerous reports, that baby
boomers were returning to church. It never eventuated. In fact what became
clear as the 90s ended was that many of those who had stayed in church over
the previous three decades were in fact now dropping out in mid-life.
Peter Brierley found in his research (in England) that for the first time the
largest age group of dropouts was no longer the traditional young adults, but
those aged 30 to 45. (2) One consequence of this is that the second largest
group of dropouts was children. Anecdotal evidence in New Zealand indicates
similar trends, although we do not have the same survey data to verify this.
The seriousness of these trends has been disguised by the profile of some
large growing churches (many having grown as a result of transfer growth) and
growth among ethnic communities.
What factors have led to this serious decline of the church in western
countries like New Zealand? For a long time the major explanation given by
academics was the 'secularisation thesis'. Under the influence of leading
sociologists this declared that as society became increasingly modernised,
religion would eventually disappear. Perhaps the most famous expression of
this was the cover of Time Magazine (3) in the mid 60s which asked "Is God
Dead?" and claimed that for modern individuals traditional religion was no
This thesis, however, has had a hard time of it over the past 20 years, and
Peter Berger, one of the leading proponents, declared that "by the late 1970s
it had been falsified with a vengeance". (4) It is now hard to find
sociologists who still hold to the secularisation thesis in the sense of the
ultimate demise of religion. We must look elsewhere if we are to explain the
decline of the church rather than at the convenient scapegoat of secularism so
often wheeled out by church leaders.
What has emerged in more recent research done in countries like New Zealand is
that despite the fact that the church has been experiencing serious decline,
people have continued to remain overwhelmingly religious. An article in the
American Demographics magazine on religion concludes that "Amid the crumbling
foundations of organised religion, the spiritual supermarket is on the rise .
. . . Numerous surveys show that Americans are as religious as ever - perhaps
even more than ever." (5)
Similarly in Canada, where church attendance is at levels much closer to that
in New Zealand than in the US, the leading researcher of religious trends
declares that "Belief in a supernatural dimension of reality is widespread . .
. and shows no sign of abating." (6) Australian researchers state that "the
myth of 'Australia the secular society' needs to be put aside" when 85%
believe in God and two thirds say they pray - half of them once a week or
It is much more difficult to make the same kind of absolute statements about
New Zealand because there is much less research data available here. The most
helpful - the Massey ISSP Survey (8 carried out in 1991 and 1998 - indicates
if anything, a slight increase in religious believing. For instance, certain
belief in God was indicated by 31% of people, up from 29%; belief in life
after death was up from 57% to 60%; and 30% of people indicated they prayed
several times a week, up from 22%. There is no identical survey to go back
further, but Webster and Perry's study done in 1985 (9) would seem to support
the view that religious believing has at least held its own. Different
questions were asked so it is difficult to make exact comparisons, but there
seems to have been little if any decline.
What all this means then is that in New Zealand, as in all western countries,
we have not seen the gradual extinction of religious believing as the
twentieth century ran to its conclusion. Instead, many of the generation who
left the institutional church in droves in the 60s and 70s, rather than
becoming unbelieving secularists, have continued on a spiritual journey.
The great tragedy for the Christian church is that even though this searching
continues to be shaped significantly by the Christian tradition, most of it
has been occurring outside the church. This has created the paradox of a
highly spiritual culture yet declining involvement in organised religion. In
other words it appears that people who are seeking spiritual experience and
meaning in their lives are not finding it presented in a form that meets their
values and aspirations in what the church has continued to offer.
My personal view is that this is because while the values, attitudes and
styles of the surrounding culture underwent a profound change beginning with
the counter culture of the 60s and coming home to roost with a vengeance in
the 90s, (10) the church has continued to be shaped by a set of values,
attitudes and styles that belonged to a previous era. As a consequence,
whenever it has knocked on the door of the vast majority of the under 50s they
have responded, "No thanks I'm shopping elsewhere."
Of the various trends that have developed, five in particular seem to have
significantly impacted the church.
Many studies have indicated that since the 60s western societies have seen
rising levels of self-centred individualism. As a result increasing numbers
have come to believe that church going and church authority are optional and
no longer necessary to sustain spirituality and faith, or to be a good
A common theme in the emerging literature on the religiosity of the baby boom
generation is a distinction between personal spirituality (which is viewed
positively) and organised religion (which is viewed negatively). Wade Clark
Roof, who has been studying the religious journey of Baby Boomers (11) since
the mid 1980s, describes this changing perspective on religion as a radical
shift from an ethic of self denial to an ethic of self-fulfilment. It results
in a religion "functionally and spatially located in the self... individuals
are free to create their own religious faith and consecrate their own sacred
space... This kind of religious individualist neither wants, nor feels the
need for, formal religious institutions". (12)
A term used to describe the way in which people live their lives less in
public and more in private or within the family. Individuals in modern society
have to move among a host of different institutions that no longer form parts
of an integrated whole. Each has its own values and beliefs, so integration
can now only be achieved on an individual level.
As a consequence, instead of religion being a central and integrating force
for all of life, it is banished to the private sphere of life. It becomes
"more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more private
than public." (13) And so rather than being committed to the church for the
sake of the church itself to which one owes something, people are involved to
the extent that, and as long as, it benefits their own private lives.
Certainly this a complaint I frequently hear from pastors today.
Members of the post-war generation were exposed to pluralism of all kinds.
This is much more than just the arrival of a few more religious options, such
as the Hare Krishna, Muslims or New Age spiritualities. Even more important is
the changing mix of peoples and cultures in most western countries, including
New Zealand, that began to emerge in the 1960s and has accelerated in the past
The rapid globalisation of this period has brought many differing people,
cultures and lifestyles into the same space, particularly in the cities where
people have increasingly chosen to live. (14) Rather than living in small
communities where similar beliefs and values are held by the vast majority,
people now live next to, work alongside and play with people who may hold a
wide diversity of view points.
Obviously the more varied, or plural, the beliefs held in a community or
society, the weaker the reinforcement is for any one particular set of
beliefs. They can no longer be taken for granted as 'just the way things are'.
Consequently when individuals are faced with making choices in life about all
kinds of things, they are faced with a multiplicity of options that were
simply not available to previous generations. There is no longer only one way.
In addition, the social cost that previously went with choosing an alternative
set of beliefs, values or lifestyle is greatly diminished because of the next
If pluralism describes a social and cultural reality, relativism is an
attitude that allows one to live comfortably and at peace in such a diverse
setting. It is an attitude that casts doubt on the whole concept of truth and
falsehood, right and wrong, good and bad. In an increasingly pluralistic
society how do you live alongside those who hold different religious beliefs,
moral standards or gender and sexual preferences? A belief that you are right
and they are wrong becomes increasingly difficult to hold. So tolerance
becomes the great virtue of contemporary society, as it is the only way a
diverse mix of often diametrically opposed cultures, lifestyles and beliefs
can coexist together.
In this context a Christianity that claims to be the only way, to know the
only truth, becomes highly problematical. How can Buddhists be so completely
wrong and damned forever when they are your very pleasant, caring, moral
neighbours with whom your children play?
In the previous era church going was an expression of belonging and civic
responsibility. However in the 60s and 70s many young people experienced
widespread alienation from many institutions of society. It was the era of
Vietnam, and Watergate; in New Zealand of Bastion Point and Muldoon. Many
developed a deep cynicism toward public institutions as well as an inclination
to make autonomous decisions irrespective of conventional mores or traditions.
One legacy of the era has been a heightened sense of the view that
institutions should serve individuals and not vice versa. So when the
institution is no longer doing this, people no longer feel a need to belong or
contribute. Many Boomers and Gen Xers have come to view the church as
demanding they serve it, rather than feeling it serves them.
While this attitude has affected the church it has also affected a wide range
of institutions in our society, with voluntary organisations of all kinds
finding it difficult to recruit members. For example, sport has become
increasingly highly valued in our society, and yet sport at an organised level
for adults is really struggling in almost every code. In an article called
"Bowling Alone" one American researcher points out that while the numbers of
people bowling has reached an all time high, numbers in organised bowling
leagues are at an all time low.
It is not then that the post-war generations have been less interested in the
religious dimension of life, but their distrust of institutions means that
increasing numbers of them believe that religious organisations are more
likely to hinder than help them in their search for a satisfying spirituality.
The consequences of these changes are that organised religion has been having
a rather hard time of it over the past four decades. It means that an
increasing gap has grown between religious believing and belonging. While
people are apparently increasingly concerned to nurture the spiritual
dimension of life, find answers to questions of meaning in life, prepare for
whatever happens at the end of physical life, they see organised religion in
the form of the institutional church as being increasingly irrelevant to those
issues. Increasing numbers are "believing without belonging". (15)
Wade Clark Roof in his most recent book writes that "A decade ago these
questions were raised by Boomers who felt at odds with the religious culture
of the churches; today these same concerns are most likely raised by those
younger, the Generation Xers. In either instance, it is less a protest of
religion in the deepest sense . . . than a response to institutional styles
that are unfamiliar or seemingly at odds with life experiences as these people
know them." (16) Roof describes the world of these generations as a 'quest
culture' in which spiritual ferment is readily apparent.
Robert Wuthnow in his exploration of American spirituality since the 1950s
likewise tracks an escalating fascination with spirituality, as the culture
has moved from what he calls a "spirituality of dwelling" where God is
identified with particular places, such as church, to a "spirituality of
seeking" in which individuals seek to negotiate their own way through an
increasingly complex maze. (17)
In similar fashion the movie and television industries indicate the intensity
of spiritual searching in our culture with movies such as The Matrix, Keeping
the Faith, Sixth Sense, End of Days and Stigmata among a host of others and
television programmes such as Touched by an Angel, The X Files, Promised Land
and the increasingly spiritual dimension of Star Trek. Clearly they are still
singing the song with which U2 began the 90s, "I still haven't found what I'm
If this is the market, why is it that the church is struggling so much in
countries like New Zealand? Is this current quest a false one? Is it a case of
'until their eyes are opened to the truth we hold, they will not find it'? Or
could it just be that while we know the God they are seeking, the containers
in which we present that knowledge are hide bound by values, attitudes and
styles, by forms and demands that are anathema to so many of our
contemporaries? To adapt Paul's analogy from 2 Corinthians 4, the containers
are so warped and cracked that people cannot imagine they might contain the
treasure of Christ.
The reality of this was brought home to me on a recent flight from Auckland to
Wellington. I sat in my seat pleased to have the chance to catch up on some
reading. I had a book titled The Postwar Generation and Establishment
Two women about my age came and sat next to me They were off to a self defence
conference for the weekend. I saw the woman next to me glance at my book, and
after about ten minutes she said "I just have to ask you, what is the book you
are reading about? I'm incredibly interested in that."
And that was the end of my reading for the rest of the flight. She told me she
had a new flat mate, a born again Christian who went to a large Pentecostal
church. But it was terrible, all so judgmental, demanding and controlling.
Just weird fanatics. That's not what it's about surely? she asked.
A bit further on she told me her parents in Taupo were church goers, good
Anglicans, and when she went to see them she went to church - but that had
been her lot since she was a teen as far as church was concerned. Last year
was absolutely terrible for her (including a nasty marriage breakup) and when
she was in church at the end of the year she prayed really hard and told God
if he got her through this she would go to church every week.
So when she got back home off she went to an Anglican church. The large
building she entered was occupied by only a few scattered people, nearly all
of them over 60. In addition it was so boring and irrelevant. She hasn't been
So what should she do? Earnestly seeking God, spiritual resources and meaning
for her life, but faced seemingly with the choice between an irrelevant
"museum piece" (to use her words) and a bunch of judgmental, controlling,
demanding, weird fanatics. Are there not any other options?
In two future articles I will explore some of the factors and issues which I
believe need to shape our church life as it seeks to connect with the
spiritual seeking that is going on in our unchurched, dechurched and
1 D. Hillard, "The Religious Crisis of the 1960s; The Experience of the
Australian Churches." The Journal of Religious History Vol 21., No. 2, June
2 P. Brierley. The Tide is Running Out; What the English Church Attendance
Survey Reveals (London: Christian Research, 2000)
3 Time Magazine April 8 1966.
4 P.L. Berger, "Sociology: A Disinvitation." Society Vol. 30, No 1 Nov?Dec
1992, 15. In 1998 Berger wrote that this was the "one big mistake" he made in
his career as a sociologist.
5 D. Climmo and D. Lattin, "Choosing My Religion", American Demogrpahics,
6 R. Bibby, "Religion in the Canadian 1990s" in Church and Denominational
Growth, D. Roozen and C.K. Hadaway (eds) (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993) 288.
7 G. Bouma and B. Dixon, The Religious Factor in Australian Llife (Melbourne:
MARC Australia, 1986) 167.
8 International Social Science Survey Programme, Department of Marketing,
Massey University, 1991, 1998.
9 A.C. Webster and P.E. Perry, The Religious Factor In New Zealand Life
(Palmerston North: Alpha Publications, 1989)
10 "At the centre was a rebellion by the young against the values, conventions
and authorities of the older generation and the emergence of a new cultural
style the 'expressive revolution' based on individual self-exploration and
self transformation, informality, spontaneity and immediate experience." D.
Hilliard, "The Religious Crisis of the 1960s: The Experience of the Australian
11 Roof, W.C. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom
Generation. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.
12 Roozen and Hadaway, Church &Denominational Growth, 265.
13 Roof, W.C. "God is in the Details: Reflections on Religion's Public
Presence in the United States in the Mid-1990s." Sociology of Religion 1996,
14 Despite our rural mythic images over 85% of New Zealanders live in cities.
15 This is the subtitle of Grace Davies' book Religion in Britain Since 1945
(Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994)
16 W.C. Roof, Spiritual Marketplace (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
17 R. Wuthnow, After Heaven (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999)
After graduating from university, Kevin Ward spent time both secondary
teaching and pastoring Baptist churches. Since 1990, he has been lecturing at
BCNZ Christchurch, as well as being involved with Spreydon Baptist Church as a
part time staff member for the past five years. He is currently doing a PhD
through Otago University looking at the impact of social and cultural changes
on the church in New Zealand over the past 40 years. Kevin is married to Sheri
and they have three children, all now young adults.
Article reproduced with the author's permission.