Like an expended marathon runner falling across the finish line, I reached for the door handle of the university chaplaincy centre.
Locked?! I daren’t admit it aloud.
After travelling an hour on foot, an hour by train and bus, and another 20 minutes on foot in hopes of interviewing a chaplain here, a colleague-of-a-contact-of-a-contact in New Zealand, I couldn’t just let a locked door have the final word.
“Is the chaplain in?” I asked the information desk. “No one answered my call this morning, but the website said her office hours would be now.”
While the chaplain, I learned, turned out to be home sick, she agreed to meet me at a local café the following Monday. Meanwhile, she sent me a recent study to look at, with the following key facts about faith and belief in New Zealand:
- Half of New Zealand’s young people (Generations Y and Z) believe that “spirituality” is important for wellbeing, and 20% of Kiwis have some sort of spiritual beliefs.
- However, less than half the population identifies with a mainstream religion, and 31% are “cold toward Christianity.”
- In the last seven years, the number of Catholic or Protestant Christians in New Zealand dropped from 49%-33%, while the non-religious segment rose from 31-38%. So, New Zealand has more non-religious people than Christians.
- However, many Kiwis reported being slightly (42%) or extremely (12%) open to changing their religious views if “given the right circumstances or evidence.”1
So, with this introduction to New Zealand’s challenging religious climate in mind, I pulled open the glass door of the café, stood, looking lost until I heard a woman call my name, and walked to take a wooden chair across from her.
Interview Summary and Key Lessons Learned:
Whether from professors, employers, friends or colleagues, Christians in New Zealand can expect to face push-back for their beliefs. For instance, the chaplain explained that not only does she counsel students who have encountered negativity against Christianity, but she herself has also experienced attacks for her religious role on campus. From her observations, anthropology and social work are the two faculties where Christian students here face the most challenges.
Part of these challenges may be due to the fact that New Zealand, unlike Australia, has no strict religious discrimination act. However, New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission does provide a Statement on Religious Diversity2, which chaplains are seeking to leverage for protecting religious students’ rights. Some time after I interviewed this chaplain, however, I learned that other New Zealander voices are trying to leverage the Statement on Religious Diversity for quite another purpose: to keep Christian teaching far, far away from public education.3
Because statements on paper and actions in practice can be two different things, the chaplain recommends that students take time to both learn and exercise their rights. She also advises students to prepare for secular academics by consuming solid apologetics resources, echoing my own emphasis on building intellectual foundations before university. Like Peter told the early church in 1 Peter 3:15-16, moreover, she encourages students to present these Biblical perspectives with gentleness and respect, avoiding argument.
Ultimately, the chaplain’s story unites with New Testament teachings to remind us that following Christ means facing discrimination (Mark 13:13, 1 Peter 4:12-16, 1 John 3:13), because opposition is a natural reaction to truth. After all, no one sitting in the dark can keep quiet if a bright light starts shining their eyeballs. Similarly, when we dare shine Christ’s light in the face of a darkened culture, we can expect to hear some yelling. But, as the chaplain’s glow-in-the-dark persistence reminded me as I exited the café, laying low to leave society’s future to the darkness is not an option.
“I represent an international association of university chaplains from different faiths,” the chaplain explained after I’d sat down. “We’re very interested in learning about how and whether campus chaplains operate in some of the countries you’re going to, and in making connections with them. That’s one reason I said I’d meet you.” She smiled. “The other is the lengths you went to find me!”
“You saw that I emailed you a new study about faith and belief in New Zealand,”1 she said, going on to tell me about an earlier, secular study with questions framed so as to suggest that people of faith are less intelligent, needier, or more easily manipulated than their irreligious friends. This, it seemed, represented a common attitude towards religion here.
“We’ve got too many things going wrong right now in the name of religion, so people will grasp any excuse they can to say why ‘religion’ is bad.” she said. “I get a lot of push-back on campus.”
One time in fact, she revealed, a lecturer walking past her on campus stopped to tell her that the chaplaincy centre was waste of institutional resources and an “insult to higher education.”
If this is what a chaplain heard from a lecturer, I thought, I wonder what the students might be hearing!
“From your experience then,” I said, “what sorts of challenges might students face in this environment?”
“Ridicule,” she answered, “Just the derisive lack of respect.”
“Yes, and colleagues and employers. Christians can constantly feel like they have to defend or explain themselves, which I think is wearying. In universities, this happens more in anthropology and social work than anywhere else.”
Anthropology again. Immediately, my mind flashed back to the first interview I’d had with a university chaplain in Canada, who had said the same thing.
“We have many lecturers in anthropology that are practising Wicca.” She said, again making me think of the university chaplaincy centre in Canada. “They use their examples of paganism all the time in their lectures, but if a Christian student were to use examples from their faith, they’d be ridiculed.”
But the challenges to Christians weren’t just limited to anthropology.
“In the sciences,” she said, “I have many students who just stay under the radar.”
Like me, I thought, also recalling what a former professor in Australia had advised about avoiding confrontation in classrooms.
Not everyone can stay low-profile forever, though. As an example, she told me the story of a student who didn’t finish his masters in social work because he, as a Christian, couldn’t affirm the statements he was asked to.
As daunting as these challenges sounded, however, the chaplains on her campus are focusing on one loophole to help protect students against religious discrimination: diversity.
“Our city is more ethnically diverse than London or Sydney,” confided my contact. “40% of people here were not born in New Zealand. One reason why we have so many international students, especially, is that the exchange rate for other currency is strongest here compared to Canada, the US, Australia or England. Many of these international students from different religious backgrounds, which the university must accommodate because New Zealand has signed an international student code of ethical practice.”
She explained that when institutions formally recognize such diversity, students facing religious discrimination have firmer grounds for complaint.
“Is there a formal discrimination act here,” I wanted to know, “like the one a professor told me protects religious students in Australia?”
“We don’t have an act like that,” she said, “but there is a New Zealand statement on religious diversity.2 We don’t have a constitution, but what we have on paper and in practice are two different things.”
Still, she explained, students do have rights.
“When I’ve had students talk to me about being sidelined or talked-down because of their faith,” she said, “I thought it would have been nice if they’d known they could go to the human rights commissioner and say ‘this has happened to me, and it matters.’”
She suspected, however, that campus authorities may view a student’s faith as a choice, rather than an identity. “Therefore, facing religious discrimination would only be like listening to someone speak against your favourite kind of ice cream. But for anyone who’s life is determined by their faith, it’s not a choice; it’s an intrinsic part of who we are. However, it’s hard to get someone who’s non-religious to appreciate that. And many New Zealanders in positions of authority today are not only non-religious, but are also easily two generations removed from any kind of Christian witness. Nearly 10% of New Zealanders do not even know a Christian. And of the Christians that they do know—are they the kind of Christians that actually love Jesus?”
“So if you were to give advice to a student going into this setting,” I said, “What would you say?”
“Read Ravi Zacharias’ apologetics books and watch the videos!” she stated.
I smiled, noticing that this counted as an example of how students can prepare for university by building intellectual foundations.
“Also,” she added, “engage in conversation but avoid argument. Know enough about what you believe and who you are that you can present your side from the perspective, ‘my experience has been.’ No one can argue with that. But grandiose moralistic statements that disrespect other worldviews are not likely going to win you friends.”
I nodded, remembering how the Christian student housing managers I’d spoken with earlier had emphasized how important it is for churches to teach students how to soundly, respectfully defend Christian positions without entering the firetrap of profitless debate.
“And know your rights,” she further emphasized. “One of the challenges I’ve had, especially with the anthropology students is that they don’t want to formally complain against the people who mark their papers. So, that power differential really ties the hands of the university student.”
I can understand that, I thought, recalling what powerful psychological influence authority figures possess.
“How do you think the church can support such students?” I wanted to know.
“The New Zealand church is in decline,” she began. “In many churches, there is no children’s program because there are no young adults, no young families. Young people are not being discipled. So, churches must invest in dynamic discipling: attractive—but not watered down—youth ministry that prepares people to not abandon their faith when they get on campus.”
This, I thought, sounds like the sort of church family a student in Australia said was so powerful in activating her walk with God during university.
In the end, when I rose to push my chair back under the café table, I left with a better sense not only of religious rights and demographics in New Zealand, but also of why university chaplains can use our prayers.
“We always feel like we’re one pin-stroke away from not being on campus—not having an office,” she confided. “So, if we get the wrong managers, there will be no budget for us to have library access, email addresses or parking spots. Every meeting we have, we thank God that we’re still here.”
- The 2018 Faith and Belief in New Zealand Report is available at https://nzfaithandbeliefstudy.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/faith-and-belief-full-report-may-2018.pdf
- The Statement on Religious Diversity and other official information about religious rights in New Zealand is available at https://www.hrc.co.nz/our-work/race-relations-and-diversity/religion/your-rights/