Saturday, March 4

motorbikes and ministry

My dad was riding motorbikes and dying his hair different colours when he set his mind on becoming a minister at 17 or 18 years old. Taken as a whole, aspects of his life made it difficult to confine him to a clear identity. Maybe because of this, when he was a young minister Rev Martin Baker was anxious. He described the tense mood shift when he told some people what he did. “For people who have no connection with that world, it doesn’t generate a lot of conversation.”

When it came to telling his secular family about his calling, most were surprised. His dad was antagonistic. In one community Baker became an outlier, in another he was wholeheartedly welcomed.

Baker has since relaxed about the awkward silences that follow when people ask him what he does. But even so, the identity he advocates for is diminishing.  Results from the 2011 census show that 60% of New Zealanders identified themselves as affiliated with a Christian religion. By 2013 this number dropped to under 50%. While those who identified as not having any religion rose from 29.6% to 41.9% between the same years.

But “the data is complex,” says Baker. “Like a lot of static information, it doesn’t tell you about the dynamics of change. While the church certainly isn’t the church it was in 1950s when there was very high levels of attendance, it’s much harder to argue that people’s interest in faith, spirituality, concepts of purposefulness and significance has diminished.”

Rev Dr Jonathan Jong, a young, Chinese-Malaysian Anglican priest and experimental psychologist, also has mixed feelings about the increasing secularism in countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom. If we understand increasing secularism to be more to do with increasing pluralism then Jong doesn’t see it as such a bad thing. “To use a capitalist metaphor, the marketplace of ideas has expanded. When people are spoiled for choice sometimes they just don’t make a choice,” says Jong. “In a sense, the current situation is more honest than it has ever been.”

This fluidity seems to show a new way of thinking about and defining Christianity.
“I think the older forms of Christianity have died or are changing and so how we express faith and Christianity in particular needs to be adaptive,” says Dr Rev Carolyn Kelly.

Kelly's own background suggests the adaptivity of the contemporary Christianity that she discusses. Despite her secular upbringing, Kelly became a Christian at university over thirty years ago. “I [had] an agnostic, confused sense of myself and almost over the period of a few months my paradigm shifted. In these late modern, much more secular times, I had a hunch as a young adult that there might be more to this reality than there being nothing out there.”

A few years ago, Kelly became the first woman to be the full-time Maclaurin Chaplain at the University of Auckland. In her role, Kelly can often be spotted by students stationed at various cafes ready to have a chat or at numerous campus events wearing casual clothes except for the bright pink cross she wears around her neck, which she describes with a laugh.

As a campus chaplain, Kelly doesn’t just deal with Christianity, she has conversations and is part of events that broadly discuss and question faith. When I talked to Kelly, she had just held a poetry night for women who wanted to talk about their faith and other issues that were important to them. Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu women attended. While they passionately talked about gender issues and rape culture “faith was central to how they see themselves,” says Kelly.

Kelly is also excited by young environmental activists like the Pacific Warriors in Auckland who show an adaptive way of expressing their Christian faith. “Twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable for young people from the Pacific to be involved in a protest movement and celebrating their faith,” she says.

In traditional churches (the ones that aren’t carparks or conference centres), however, this fluidity and adaptivity are challenged by the prominence of the elderly who loyally shuffle into the pews every Sunday.

Now in a new ministering role in Auckland, Baker realises that young people probably want more flexible and open styles of worship. “They want different kinds of music, different communication styles.” Although Baker doesn’t believe a successful ministry is about numbers he says that it’s critical that traditional churches engage with young people. “If young people don’t attend or participate in the life of the church there isn’t a future.”

But the problem, Baker says, is that while these churches may have a huge amount of capital investments, “it’s very difficult to shift that investment into the missions, people and resources that are going to engage with communities.” So, while still wanting cater to their partly elderly congregation, churches “find themselves with their resources quite stretched trying to [work out] where to invest.”

Jong, on the other hand, isn’t too worried about trying to make God cool. And, somehow, this seems to work for him. In summer last year, Jong taught a psychology and religion paper at the University of Otago. One night, Jong turned up to a party at my flat dressed in a full collar shirt and cassock with his shoulder-length hair tied up in a ponytail. What I initially thought was an ironic get-up turned out to be a true and proud display of his identity. He does this a lot and it often gets strangers talking to him about religion on their own accord.

I didn’t properly talk to Jong until he was back in England. When we Skyped, Jong was at his University of Oxford office in the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, which is, coincidentally, 100 meters away from notorious atheist Richard Dawkins’ house. Needless to say, Jong’s Catholic-Anglicanism makes him stand out a bit in his department. “Most of my colleagues are atheists,” he says. “It’s not the most common thing in the world to find a devoutly religious person who works on the evolution of religion. Their response to me is not so much hostility as it is perplexity.”

At 16 or 17 years old and living in Malaysia, Jong was drawn to Christianity because the stories within it moved him. “The idea of a god who could be vulnerable was compelling.” For Jong, these stories challenged his own ingrained ideas that people got what they deserved. “The exposure to a more merciful and therefore less meritocratic ethic was a kind of revelation to me.”

Despite Jong’s devotion, he has never been behind creating versions of church services that seek to appeal to more people or young people. “I’ve discovered a kind of Christian community that is interested in designing worship services for themselves on their own terms without thinking about what will appeal to the general public.” With full services every Sunday, Jong describes this approach as working “remarkably well.”

The often rigid ideas people tie to different denominations of Christianity make it hard for Kelly to choose a label for her Christianity. “I believe that Jesus is alive...I read the Bible, but I also [have] an attentiveness to what I see around me and what I see is true for people’s lives. Every generation, every epoch has to listen anew to what God seems to be doing. We have to listen anew to the fact that God is working through Christians who are gay in our churches – there’s not doubt about that. We have to listen to the fact that a Muslim friend might say something to us that is challenging and true.”

“Christianity didn’t start as a religion but as a movement. The structures we have built around organised religion, the rules and regulation defining who’s out and who’s in are changing and probably largely dissolving," says Baker. “Churches that are flourishing are the ones where the values of authentic community  – welcome, hospitality, grace and love –  are replacing the old doctrines and rules. My understanding is that Jesus called people into a lifelong journey of learning, he spoke about what it means to be part of a different story   and that the defining characteristic of those who chose to follow him, was their love for others.”

Socially liberal Christian thinkers and leaders, like Baker, Jong and Kelly, work to a different beat. You may not believe what they believe, but the conversation will always be interesting.

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