God Works in Mysterious Ways — RNZ

ARISE Church has been serving God, people and our community since 2002. Here's a media article from the past that provides a glimpse into the journey.
Original article hosted here

John Cameron always had faith. It just took a brand-new suit for him to find it.

It was an 18th birthday present, and he wanted to wear it straight away. But, as a teenager “mucking around … wasting potential” in west Auckland, he was dressed up with nowhere to go – but church. “I just turned up. And I pretty much haven’t missed a Sunday since.”

It’s a “funny story”, he knows. “But when I got there, it was just real. I was connecting with God, I felt His presence, and I felt that was what was missing. Out of that, faith became personal for me.”

But that service was “nothing like this”, Cameron agrees, nodding his head towards the source of thumping bass on the other side of the wall.

We’re sitting in a changing room at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua, which is serving as a makeshift green room – complete with a rider of Phoenix juices and scented candles – before Cameron takes to the stage to give his sermon as lead pastor of Arise Church.

“Sermon” may not even be the right word for it. An Arise service is part rock concert, part variety show, part stand-up gig (“To quote from Bruce Almighty…”). It’s hard at times – like a five-minute tangent when Cameron pulls a pastor on stage for an impromptu rendition of the Frozen theme – to pinpoint just how and where the Bible fits into this slick, enormous production.

There are volunteers to guide you to a car park and a seat in the stadium; a 14-piece band, featuring seven enviably confident and well-dressed young singers; a camera crew, a smoke machine, a big screen. God works in mysterious ways, and many of them demand a multi-plug.

Cameron’s upfront about it being a bid to make the Christian faith relevant and accessible to younger generations, but says it’s not the show that resonates with Arise’s 10,000-strong congregation, many of whom are under 35. There are plenty of places young people can go to listen to loud music with their friends that aren’t church.

“If you feel a connection to God, or you don’t and you feel like He could be an important part of your life, I guess that’s the number-one reason anyone would attend a church,” says Anna Chisholm, 26, who has been a part of the church for close to a decade. A blunt-bob-era Jessie J-lookalike, wearing fuchsia lipstick and a leather jacket, she met her now-husband at Arise.

“[Arise] is just packaged really well. It’s honest; if people say something, they really mean it. What John’s saying on stage, that’s how he lives his life. And for me personally, it’s just fun. … Arise is part of a solution that’s making church accessible and fun and relevant.” There’s no lecturing, she agrees, and rolls her eyes: “You get enough of that from everyone.”

Arise’s medium might not be traditional, but it’s “the same Christian message – just in a vibrant and engaging way that’s going to help young people’s lives”, says Cameron. “I think what resonates with people is that Jesus offers real answers to real-life problems. I personally believe we’re all designed to have a relationship with God; it’s just a case of finding that it makes a difference.”

It’s a hard sell in a world where religion has increasingly higher buy-in. As difficult as it is to measure belief, there’s global evidence that religious affiliation is declining, and the churches and traditions that played pivotal roles in shaping Western culture and society are losing their relevance. And New Zealand’s not exempt from the fall in faith: the 2013 census showed a 5.5 per cent drop in religious affiliation since 2006.

Young people, in particular, were less likely to identify with any one faith. Nearly half (47 per cent) of respondents aged between 20 and 34 identified as ‘No Religion’, compared with just 16 per cent of those aged 65 and up.

There are plenty of reasons for this, including the Millennial generation putting off milestones; their reluctance to attach themselves to institutions, be they churches or political parties; and their general support of marriage equality and gay and transgender rights clashing with some attitudes enshrined in institutionalised religion.

But the decline also reflects a question of categorisation: in a post-denominational age, distinctions like Presbyterian and Anglican don’t have the same cultural clout they once did, in part because of low levels of religious literacy.

“The census asks some quite specific questions about what your religion is, and it’s kind of useful to know whether you’re this, that, or the other, but for an increasing number of people, they don’t make any sense,” says Dr Geoff Troughton, a lecturer in religious studies at Victoria University. “It doesn’t reflect what their religious identification is, so they’re opting for a different way of telling the story.”

And for an increasing number of New Zealanders, that story is a secular one. Even with population growth, and increased ethnic and cultural diversity, “No Religion” has replaced Anglicanism as the default position for a large chunk of society. It captured a full 38 per cent of respondents in the 2013 census – up six per cent from the 2006 survey, and just five per cent less than the total response across all Christian denominations.

With “No Religion” increasingly the new normal, there are more perceived barriers to young people “just turning up” to church as Cameron did 20-odd years ago – in part because of the stigma and stereotypes associated with what it means to be religious.

“There are a lot of stories about religion that have become kind of truths that are deeply debatable – religion breeds violence, religion causes conflict, religion is for the gullible and naïve, religion is coercive,” says Dr Troughton. “They’re kind of silly if you stop and actually look at evidence about religion and how it works, but they have a lot of power in our culture, and that’s a big thing for young people to deal with, whether they’re religious or not.”

It means young people who do align themselves with a faith are likely to be more invested – even if they don’t use any more specific a label than ‘Christian, no further definition’, which accounted for nearly five per cent of census respondents aged between 20 and 34.

“If you’re a young person, and you say ‘I’m a Christian’, that’s quite an act of commitment,” says Dr Troughton. “There’s a lot of reasons not to be Christian, or to identify as religious, so it’s maybe not surprising there’s a higher level of buy-in.”

“Across the board, not just in religion, people’s commitment to institutions is dropping,” says Cameron. “It used to be that you’d be born Catholic, and you’d stay like that forever, whereas now it’s more like, ‘How about me? Where am I at?’”

As such, the churches that are struggling most as a result of this generational shift are the large, traditional, low-commitment and low-investment institutions. Going to church at Easter and Christmas used to be enough to be able to call yourself Anglican; today, says Dr Troughton, people are seeking meaningful ties and a personal relationship with God.

“The big churches feel like institutions, and that doesn’t cut it in this day and age,” he says. “But the churches that have a strong sense of community – well, we can buy that. We can buy relationships. The churches that don’t just offer a ritual on Sundays but are a place to belong to, where the people are warm and friendly and notice if you’re there or not – these are the kinds of churches that are attracting younger people.”

Like the global “megachurch” Hillsong, Arise is Pentecostal, meaning it emphasises a direct experience of God’s presence, not just relating through ritual or reflection. Pentecostalism is one of the fastest-growing strands of Christianity in the world, particularly amongst young people, who appreciate its energy, creativity and community.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cameron shies from the Pentecostal tag. “Sometimes you want to be identified with that label sometimes you don’t, but I think churches that are making it about God and people and a real relationship are growing all over the world.”

He sees Arise’s role as facilitating direct and personal connections with Jesus Christ, and channelling that into helping others in the wider community. And the church’s contribution, through initiatives like food drives and fundraising for humanitarian aid, is significant. In Wellington, 120 Arise volunteers spent six mornings a week at breakfast clubs, feeding 500 children; after the Christchurch earthquake, the church arranged and oversaw the distribution of clothes and food to thousands of homes.

“There are so many tangible ways that churches make a difference that people don’t necessarily see, they just happen every day,” says Cameron. “A lot of people seem to find value in being part of that, and their being people of value, and that’s the cool thing about it – when it begins to touch what they want to do with their time, and their lives.”

Helping individuals to connect with God on their own terms is part of the reason Arise is so active on university campuses – the site of a “massive life transition” – and elsewhere in the community, he says. People come to the church when “they see the way it makes a difference for others, and then they discover Jesus for themselves”.

“For us, it’s not so much about joining a church. We don’t have a membership process; it’s more like you hang out with us on a regular basis. You opt in or you opt out. … That’s our whole goal, not to be a big institution.”

Of course, with a congregation of thousands across its “campuses” in Wellington, Kapiti, Hamilton and Christchurch, and a Dunedin presence due to be launched next year, Arise is a big institution. But it doesn’t feel like one.

Dr Troughton says the combination of the scale of the Sunday service and the tight-knit units that make up that community creates lasting ties to Christianity. He calls it “honeycombing”.

“You’re a little bit anonymous in the big gathering; there’s so much going on, you can slot in and be unrecognisable. The real strength is in the groups that meet mid-week for social activities, or that have bible study together. The big group, the big event, the big show – that wouldn’t work without the small cells, the sense of tight connection to people who know you.”

It’s a high-commitment form of religion, he says, and that’s part of the draw – though churches like Arise do have a high turnover, as much as between a quarter and a third every year. “The cost of commitment can be a bit high; people can get a little worn out by the expectations.”

But the “whole social world” on offer at Arise can help people prioritise faith at a time in their lives when there are plenty of demands on their time and attention.

Though Geordie Shaw, 25, had attended church with his parents when he was at high school in Christchurch, he was “probably 50-50” about whether he’d keep it up as an architecture student in Wellington. Living at a university hostel, he felt like “there were two things going on”.

“I was feeling pretty stressed out – you have a certain amount of time in your week to get stuff done, and I was trying to party with friends, and enjoy the hostel experience, and meet new people, and go to church, and try to get into second-year architecture school,” he remembers. “I basically decided to put going to church on Sunday first, and that made a really big difference in my life.”

That church was fun, and social, was a big part of the appeal. “The church that I grew up in was cool, but there wasn’t a great number of my peers there; I sort of felt like I was doing it alone,” he says. “When I came to Arise, I made mates at church, which makes it exciting to hang out with your friends and learn about God at the same time.”

But he’s quick to point out that, for all its sense of community, church is about Christianity. “Young people have got so many options for things to do these days … I think every young person wants to feel part of something. Church on one level provides that – but the reason I guess I keep coming to church and don’t join a football team, or something like that, is to keep learning more about God.”

But just because a person is not prepared to commit to going to church, or doesn’t describe themselves as religious, doesn’t mean that they are not in some way spiritual – or even that they don’t believe in a higher power. A recent survey of 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States found that they were more likely to “talk to God” than to “look to religion” for guidance.

Faith’s a problematic thing to try to quantify, says Dr Troughton. “We can be lulled into thinking that ‘No Religion’ on a census means ‘I have no beliefs; I have no religious ideas that matter’ … but most people who say they have no religion are not thoroughgoing materialists.”

As such, he dismisses out-of-hand predictions that religion is set for extinction in much of the Western world as “exceedingly naïve”. Even though there’s every reason to believe that religious non-affiliation will continue along its upward trend, faith will never die out in all its forms.

The future is less certain for religious institutions, especially those that are cornerstones of Christianity. “For the churches that have been big on census forms, there are real challenges in how they be what they are, and maintain their traditions and identities, but respond to the forms of religion that are attractive to young people today.”

Dr Troughton predicts there will be fewer churches on balance, with those that follow in the Anglican tradition set to become more and more niche. He thinks the faith will be sustained by churches that are “less polished” than Arise, but aspire to “similar forms of community”.

“There are going to be a lot of young Christians will need some context to nourish their sense of being Christian, and their connection with the wider Christian world, but they won’t particularly mourn the loss of the older institutions.”

Elle Hunt

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