Christianity, the surprising
"Asian religion"

Opinion piece by Dr George Wieland, Director of the Intercultural Practice programme, Carey Baptist College, Auckland.

New Zealanders no longer have to travel overseas to experience Diwali celebrations, take a course in Buddhist meditation or visit a gurdwara or mosque. Migration from countries where Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim and other religions are widely practised has naturally resulted in a larger presence of those religions in New Zealand, reflected in the statistics of successive censuses.

The entry to an Anglican Chinese church

When these figures are set alongside the decrease in the proportion of New Zealanders identifying as Christian, it is tempting to assume a causal link between the two trends, as if the decrease in allegiance to many Christian churches could be explained by the rise in “Asian religions” through migration.

The reality is, however, considerably more complex. Asian religious communities gather not only in temples and mosques but also in Chinese and Korean churches. Notice-boards of other churches and community buildings announce Christian services in a number of Asian languages.

2013 census results show 6 percent of people identifying as Asian were Muslim, 9.4 percent were Buddhist, 18.1 percent were Hindu – and 28.8 percent declared a Christian affiliation, the largest group after “no religion” (29.4 percent). The largest of the “Asian religions” in New Zealand is in fact Christianity.

This is more surprising when we consider that Christians represent much lower proportions of the populations of almost all source countries of Asian immigrants except the Philippines.

In research based on 2006 and earlier census figures, Dr Yaghoub Faroutan (University of Waikato) found that 73.5 percent of people resident in New Zealand who had been born in South Korea were Christian, while the percentages were 25.5 for Indian immigrants and 10.9 for Japanese.

This represents between two and a half times (South Korea) and ten times (India and Japan) the proportions of Christians in the resident populations of those countries.

Only for the Philippines, itself over 90 percent Christian, were the proportions similar (97.2 per cent of Filipinos in New Zealand identifying with Christianity).

This observation raises intriguing questions. Why should Asians in New Zealand apparently be more likely to be Christian than those remaining in their countries of origin?

Are potential migrants who are Christian more likely to select a destination country they perceive to be Christian in character?

Does the process of migration create new possibilities for religious exploration and change?

How much of a factor is the desire to adapt to the new context?

Are New Zealand’s churches welcoming migrants and introducing them to their faith? Or do Christian immigrants find here a greater freedom than they had in their source countries to share life and faith with other migrants?

These are all contributing factors. There are congregations consisting of refugees from ethnic and religious persecution. There are personal stories of religious exploration and of attempts to understand their new context leading to deeper interest in Christian faith.

Some New Zealand churches have reached out to new migrants and international students and there has been vigorous mission activity on the part of some immigrant churches. The practice, and in many cases the adoption, of Christian faith is a significant element in the story of Asian religion in New Zealand today.

The growing presence of Asian immigrant Christians is having an impact on New Zealand’s existing churches in several ways.

For local congregations, the appearance of new immigrants at Sunday services poses pragmatic questions of how to accommodate people who struggle with the language and form of the services. Some churches offer simultaneous translation or include Bible readings and songs in languages other than English.

There may be conversation classes or friendship groups to facilitate the building of relationships.

At national level, some denominations have established departments to support and facilitate the participation of Asian congregations or have entered into transnational partnership agreements with related bodies in Asian source countries.

However, effective integration of Asian immigrant Christians and congregations with majority culture churches is still the exception.

The challenges run deeper than differences of language or style. Koreans who gather to pray earnestly at the beginning of each day are dismayed to find little evidence of such communal prayer in New Zealand churches; egalitarian Kiwis feel uncomfortable with the deference accorded to Asian church leaders; Chinese Christians educated within Confucian cultures are perplexed by the relaxed youth programmes of New Zealand churches.

Globally, Christianity’s centre of gravity has been steadily shifting from north to south and from west to east.

New Zealand’s increasingly diverse Christian population represents the confluence of streams of Christian tradition shaped by western culture and northern European history with streams fed by histories and cultures of the east and south.

Its current challenge is to embrace the potential of intercultural engagement on the journey of their deeply shared, though variously experienced, Christian faith.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.