Touchdown in New Zealand:
Practical me: Face it, Patricia: this is actually terrible.
Positive me: Now, now. Being stuck in an airport parking lot at 1:30AM in another country with no reasonable way of contacting the stranger who may or may not be waiting somewhere to give you transport might seem like a good reason to panic. But you know better than that. Is God here, or isn’t He?
Positive me: I’m fine staying in the airport; it’s our contact I’m worried about! With flight delays and your getting lost, he must have been waiting for an hour already.
Thankfully, a much prayed-for glimpse of my contact cut short this inward discussion, and I stepped into the left front seat without even noticing the scorpion emblazoned on the hood – I mean, the bonnet.
Not that it would’ve mattered. I was staying at a Christian ministry base, after all. And after a wonderful, partial night of rest, I went to get groceries and practically ended up in Tonga.
At first, I had no idea what the red and white Tongan flags represented, or why hundreds of them were fluttering from houses, churches, and the windows of nearly every fifth car. Why were so many drivers apparently honking unprovoked? Where did all these women get the flowered wreaths in their hair? And why was everyone dancing in the mall?!
Piece by piece, I eventually realized that no, I hadn’t landed on the wrong island; rather, the many New Zealanders from the Pacific Islands were celebrating a huge Tonga vs. Australia rugby final set to happen that night.
But the surprises weren’t over yet. The next day, Sunday, I managed to find a (mostly) English church with hymns in four different languages! After the service, a graduate-level student in the church agreed to tell me about her experiences studying here.
Graduate Student Interview:
“It was kind of hard trying to get involved in a group that had Christian values at a university setting,” she said. “I think it’s because religion’s not spoken about so much. That was one of the hardest things, because there’s the mindset that ‘your beliefs are your beliefs; stay within your group and don’t really speak out.’ From what I’ve seen in seven years of study, the attitude toward Christianity in general is that it’s taboo.”
“Christianity is taboo?” I asked, “or just ‘religion’?”
“Religion,” she answered, after a pause. “I know it’s there, but people don’t really acknowledge it. It’s hard to find people who can support you in that kind of space. That’s what we as students need, especially if we’ve grown up in church. Every day as a student, you’re wanting to be spiritually filled and led. But there are no outputs at the university that allow you to do that. You don’t know who to connect with. There’s no kind of network. That’s really hard, especially for us as modern Pacific Islanders. Our faith is quite strong.”
“There were no advertisements for Christian groups?” I asked.
“Not at the university I was at. Unless you ask about it, or they promote it at Club Week once a semester. It wasn’t visible. You just know it through people, by word of mouth, unless they invite you. I found it really difficult because I thought, I should have signed up at the beginning of the semester to get integrated with the group. Students had already known each other and established relationships from the year before, so new students were hard to integrate.”
“What would help with that?”
“Group leaders should be open with people that come in and should embrace new students. You don’t know where they’ve come from or where they want to go. There will be times when they just want a group to uplift them in prayer and word.”
When I went back to home base afterward, the topic of cliquishness arose again, spontaneously. I was putting away two loaves of bread I’d received at church (when I’d prayed for ‘daily bread’ that morning, I hadn’t expected to be answered so literally!), while explaining my travel purpose to a lady who stood nearby.
“When I was a student,” she said, “I wanted to join a Christian group, but all the students had already formed relationships. It was really hard to get involved.”
Interesting. I’d heard so many students express how valuable their Christian campus community had been to them, helping them to grow spiritually, to integrate their faith with their academic life, and to combat the sense of isolation which can accompany being a Christian at a secular campus. But how can students access those benefits if they can’t access the group? How can a student experience true Christian community while feeling as though an glass wall of unwelcoming, unrelatability, awkwardness or apathy were partitioning them apart from the others?
While considering these implications, scenes from my own experience as a student flashed through my memory like a mental PowerPoint presentation. Again, I felt the loneliness, uncertainty and apprehension of my first weeks transitioning into university life far from home, in a place where I knew no one and struggled to fully connect with the few Christian young adults I’d found. But later, involvement in active Christian campus communities became one of the best, most valuable and most fulfilling parts of my time in university.
Undergraduate Student Interviews:
Fortunately, a quick online search told me that campus ministry groups were active here in New Zealand too. Because it’s nearly summer here, though, none were still in session. However, I did find students at a housing centre specially meant to support Christian freshmen transitioning into the responsibilities of living away from home. This place strove not only to support students practically, meeting their physical needs for meals and housing, but also spiritually.
“How many students are living here?” I asked a couple of the students as we sat in a living area opposite an industrial kitchen, which other students breezed in and out of throughout the evening.
“40ish in total.”
“FORTY!?” That was nearly the number of members in my own whole Christian university group!
“What sense do you get of people’s attitude towards Christianity in New Zealand?” I asked.
“Laid back,” replied one guy, flopped back on a couch.
“Empathetic,” offered another, whose head I could just see above the back of an armchair. “If you don’t push it nobody cares. I think it’s less polarized here than in the US, where people love Christianity or hate it. But no one wants you to ‘push it’ on them. If people do have faith, it’s more their parents’ faith than a personal relationship. Teachers also occasionally make negative remarks about Christianity, though not in class, that I’ve heard.”
“So, what’s helped you both stay strong Christians here?”
“Living in this place! And getting plugged into a church, to make connections outside this place and to find mentors. It was also helpful to find other Christians at university who took similar courses to me.”
I glanced up from my notes to face the guy on the couch. “You mentioned something that a lot of people have brought up: mentoring. But often, Christian communities have this intergenerational divide between older and younger groups. How do you think we can bridge that gap?”
“Personally,” he confided, “I don’t connect very well with older folks, but some of my mates do. Students can get to know the parents of their friends—that’s how this mate of mine got plugged in.”
He mentioned that along with this connection came ‘perks’ like meals, reminding me that one effective way for older people to invest in students is to combine spiritual or moral support with practical support, like dinner or transportation. Looking back, I can see what valuable roles supportive adults played in my own undergraduate years, when I knew I could always count on an older couple or church member for a conversation, meal, hug, or ride to the airport.
Before the conversation turned to other things, I wanted to return to the topic of cliquishness which had aisen in my earlier discussions.
Both students laughed.
“I used to go to this big church,” said the guy on the armchair, “but I didn’t really fit in because everyone knew each other from youth, kids church and everything. So, I started going somewhere else.”
“How can we work on this, as Christians?” I asked.
“Find a smaller church,” he answered. “Especially at big churches, it’s very hard to get plugged in unless you find a small group. In smaller churches, it’s easier to meet someone and not forget them, and for them not to forget you.”
The Conclusion on Combating Christian Cliquishness:
Later, I also asked one of the hostel managers their thoughts about cliquishness in Christian circles.
“A few students here have mentioned it,” she replied. “They often say it as being ‘relationships have already formed, so it’s hard to step into the group.’ However, if the group is willing to step to you, that’s when a good relationship happens. I think a lot of that responsibility lies with the church and ministry leadership being proactive.”
Part of it, though, is also up to the student.
“I think that if you’re a student and you really want to be in that group,” she continued “you might need to be a bit tactical.”
Then, after questioning why anyone would want to join a cliquish group anyway, she offered the following suggestions for students seeking deeper group involvement:
- Approach the leader and do your best to engage them. Be persistent.
- Volunteer to serve within the group, and seek out opportunities to help with anything that needs doing.
- Find someone you know who’s not in the group and go together.
In the end then, the best scenario seems to emerge when both the established group and the new students are proactive in other-focused involvement with each other. This happens when the group intentionally creates a welcoming culture, a standard both set and modelled by the leadership, and when newcomers actively invest themselves in the group as contributors rather than just consumers. Then, when both sides are concerned about what love they can give outside themselves rather than what benefits they can get within themselves, the body of Christ can move to advance God’s kingdom with unity, health and vitality.