If you ever visit the Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s upper North Island, take the ferry to the particular bay where the gospel was first preached, by Samuel Marsden from Australia. That was on Christmas Day 1814.
The general area is well worth visiting, having various historical sites that recall early missionary effort.
During the early years of European settlement, the gospel had a considerable effect upon the Maori people. So much so, that by the early 1840s a large proportion of the Maori population attended church on Sundays.
Sadly, today, it is a different story. While still claiming to belong to mainline denominations, the Maori are conspicuously absent from many church gatherings.
Moreover, they are returning to their pre-Christian beliefs – a move that is popular in the current climate of religious pluralism and sensitivity to ‘things Maori’.
Just north of the Kaipara Harbour, Independent churches established a settlement in the 1880s. Their founding members set off from the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. But the settlement did not succeed.
Others, for example Free Church people, arrived in New Zealand from Scotland in 1856, and settled around Waipu in the North.
Then there were other church settlements, especially in South Island.
New Zealand has never been a deeply religious country. After the Second World War, church attendance rose, but today stands at only 5-8%.
The media, and society in general, consider the church to be in decline. If one goes by attendance, this view cannot be disputed.
Nonetheless, there are churches all over New Zealand – too many, in fact. For they multiply more often because of human conflicts than from gospel success.
Over the last 30 years the Charismatic movement has undoubtedly contributed to this state of affairs. This movement has affected all denominations.
It is strange that New Zealanders, who by repute are somewhat quiet and reserved, should get caught up with a movement that so emphasises emotion.
Equally strange is that, in a country given to reading, the Bible and sound Christian literature are so little read.
There are, of course, some biblically sound churches and ministries, but they are few and far between. Among them are the various Reformed churches, which number 40 or so and have some 4,500 in attendance.
These do show signs of progress and hope. Nevertheless, the climate of opinion among New Zealand Evangelicals means that most will continue to favour churches where music and emotional ‘highs’ predominate.
Sadly, most evangelical believers in New Zealand just want to stay ‘comfortable’ – which means that they want to gather with those of their own age and tastes!
Such an outlook is destructive both of true fellowship and faithful preaching.
As with Western churches, the church in New Zealand seems unwilling to oppose the State with any vigour over ethical issues. Notable among these is abortion, which deletes the equivalent of a good-sized town from the population each year.
Meanwhile, New Zealand welcomes large numbers of immigrants – which presents churches with welcome opportunities for cross-cultural evangelism and interaction.
Large-scale immigration is probably the best thing that has hit the church for decades. People from many nationalities have come into the churches in considerable numbers.
As to the training of preachers of the gospel of grace, one Reformed theological seminary has been established. Beyond that, however, there is no other Bible college with a clear Reformed voice.
Few young men are coming forward for the ministry. Why there should be this dearth is unclear, in a country from which many missionaries have been sent out.
Perhaps recent tensions within the Reformed church constituency have deterred suitable men.
Perhaps, too, the Reformed churches (and maybe Reformed Baptists in particular) have not presented the gospel ministry as the privilege and honour that it is. Pray that the Lord will raise up gospel preachers.
However, New Zealand is a country that still enjoys freedom of religion – in spite of the State’s meddling in family rights and the training of children, and society’s intolerance of the Christian viewpoint.
Christianity may have been effectively shut out of the public arena, but its voice has not been silenced.
There are still bold Evangelical believers in all segments of society, and the spread of the Word of God could accelerate far beyond its present languid pace, should that be God’s purpose.
In the meantime, the Reformed churches need internal peace, faithful preaching of the Scriptures, and courage to address current issues in the light of those Scriptures.
Based on information kindly sent by Stephen Turner