Teens tuning in to God's new beat

PALOMA MIGONE
Last updated 05:00 07/04/2012
MARCUS WILD

Inside New Zealand's Arise Church.

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A drummer is flicking his sticks, a man is playing electric guitar and seven singers are centre stage.

The music starts thumping through Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre, and a mosh pit of dozens of youths hurl themselves around to the beat.

The energy is contagious, as many close their eyes and throw their hands in the air.

"Let praise awaken in this generation. Let praise awaken all around the world," the crowd sings together.

The 1000-strong mass could be fans at a rock concert. But they are not. They gather every Sunday as members of Arise – a Pentecostal church – to worship God.

Arise defies all the surveys and statistics showing religion is losing its relevance in New Zealand, particularly among youths.

A United States study last year listed New Zealand as one of nine countries where religion will all but die, and the latest census figures in 2006 showed the number of people ticking the "no religion" box was increasing.

Half of all Kiwis are Christians, and there has been a growth in Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim communities who now constitute 1/20th of the population.

But 1.3 million people, or 34.7 per cent, had no religious affiliation in 2006, up from one million, or 29.6 per cent, in 2001.

Despite the decline, Victoria University religious studies professor Paul Morris says there is evidence of a "religious revival" among youths.

"It's a religious revival which must be seen in the broader context of an increasing secular world. The revival is smaller than the broad culture movement, but significant nonetheless."

Dr Morris conducted a survey of 147 students at the university and found of those who had a religious upbringing, half of them were as committed to their faith as when they were growing up.

About 10 per cent continued to practise activities such as praying and meditating, and 18 per cent were more religious than their parents, twice as many as when the first survey was done in 1999.

The findings spanned different faiths, but the students were mainly Christian.

All the Christianchurches contacted – Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Pentecostal – say it is too difficult to measure youth numbers, but all say they have seen a change.

The Catholic Church has witnessed a "small increment" of young members involved, with the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney a big part of that. Four thousand young Kiwis crossed the ditch for the event, which Pope Benedict XVI attended.

Christchurch's Catholic Youth Team director Chris Lysaght says it had previously attracted only about five people a year.

"Now we are organising the next one to go to Rio [de Janeiro, in Brazil] and we have 10-plus people interested and I haven't even advertised anything yet," he says. "I think youth are more active. We are starting to see them more involved in camps or retreats."

The Presbyterian Church is also selling out events, with its Connect youth leaders' conference fully booked for the first time last year. Of the 1000 youth workers affiliated to the church, 200 went to Christchurch for the event.

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National Youth Ministry development leader Carlton Johnstone says it is "encouraging" that Connect sold out.

It shows Presbyterian youth are becoming more active, he says. "It's a sign that our profile and what we do is going from strength to strength, but that in itself is no reflection that we've seen a kind of revival amongst young people within our church as a whole."

The Anglican church is seeing the same thing.

Youth Commissioner Michael Tamihere says there is "more activity among young people".

"But it still doesn't say a lot for the overall numbers. We are still dealing with low numbers, lower than we ever have," he says.

A Pentecostal church that has seen a spark in both numbers and youth activity is Arise.

Pentecostalism rose at the start of the 20th century and became more influential in the 1990s.

Geoff Troughton, a Victoria University religious studies professor, says Pentecostal groups offer a strong sense of belonging and a warm sense of community – family even. The church tended to take an individual's aspirations seriously, promising to transform divine power that would address the very real concerns and problems people face.

"It has quite a hopeful narrative about what can happen in the world, about the ability of God to change things for good," Dr Troughton says.

Pentecostalism is the fastest growing Christian stream in the world with an estimated half a billion followers – and the wave has also reached New Zealand.

Among the hundreds of Pentecostal churches is the Destiny Church, led by self-appointed Bishop Brian Tamaki. The media fascination with Destiny may have prompted some anxiety – a reporter was asked to leave the Arise service before the pastor began his message.

Dr Morris explains "much of the coverage of Pentecostals has been negative, and so very often they are wary of the press".

For all that, Arise young adults Pastor Ben Carroll had plenty to say about his church. When he joined in 2003, there were only 30 followers in Wellington. Nearly nine years later, that number has grown to 4000 across the capital, Hamilton and Christchurch.

And the majority of members, about 70 per cent, are between the ages of 18 and 35.

Mr Carroll says young people are attracted to his church because of the way it delivers its message.

"We worship God, Jesus is the son of God and God loves people passionately. He wants to have a relationship with them and we genuinely believe that.

"But when you walk into church you know straight away that it's different." Mr Carroll says people are straight away encouraged to actively engage – "to jump, to clap and to worship God".

BUT THAT'S not all. The Pentecostal church is flooded with people who "genuinely" want to know their peers.

"It's refreshing for people. People don't want to feel like another number," Mr Carroll says.

Dr Morris believes the "religious revival" is because youths are living in troubled times, feeling anxious about jobs, the economy and the environment.

"In many ways, our young students who committed religiously are very idealistic. They genuinely want the world to be a better place and they want to be involved in that process."

As New Zealanders become tolerant of other people's beliefs, young people also feel more confidence about expressing theirs.

In Catholic schools teenagers are finding it is now "OK to have a relationship with Jesus Christ", Mr Lysaght says. "If they want to dress in black and put make-up on, then that's OK. If those people want to go to Mass on Sunday and worship the Lord, then that's OK too."

Dr Troughton says young people may be turning to religion because to some extent Christianity has become "new and counter-cultural".

Young people in New Zealand are increasingly secularised, but some are finding religion interesting and attractive because they know so little about it.

Churches are trying to connect with youth by using their language – social media and video.

Even the Pope is on Twitter, tweeting for the first time last July to announce the launch of the Vatican news information portal. He has more than 51,410 followers, despite only tweeting six times.

In a video for Unesco, Dr Morris interviewed 14 students who use social media to learn how they use it to express their faith.

A third of the students, from AUT, Massey and Auckland Universities, sent more than 36 messages a day, and three had a religiously-focused blog.

The Catholic church ran an event called Theology on Tap during Friday night drinks. About 40 young adults went along after three days of advertising on Facebook.

"If young adults are in a pub, then why not give them formation in a pub?" Mr Lysaght says.

"What we are trying to develop is a model of community. It doesn't have to be solely going to church.

"We have to make sure that what we are doing is something that is relevant, cutting edge and we make sure that we are just not seen in church praying 24/7."

The Presbyterian Church is also finding innovative ways to spread its message, with 315 people following it on Facebook.

The church started using social media less than two years ago, and this Easter has started "KiwiEaster", a cellphone text message experience.

Members who sign up will get texts about the Easter story at the time it would have happened thousands of years ago. It is an example of the way religion is constantly changing to stay relevant.

Dr Troughton says churches and religious institutions that re-craft their identities can actually flourish, and there is a lot of scope for them to remain influential.

New Zealand religious profile will partly be shaped by its changing demographic. Immigrants bring with them their beliefs.

There is a small rise in Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim, but also a growing number of immigrants from the Philippines, China and Korea committed to their Christian traditions.

"The story is going to be mixed," Dr Troughton says. "I think there is going to be an influence. How ... is just going to be hard to really get.

"Are we going to see great spiritual awakening? I mean who knows?" he says.

KEEPING FAITH

New Zealand religion breakdown (2006 census): Anglican 554,925; Catholic 508,437; Presbyterian 400,839; Christian, not further defined 186,234; Methodist;121,806; Pentecostal 79,115; Hinduism 64,392; Baptist; 56,913; Buddhism 52,362; Ratana 50,565.

- The Dominion Post

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