Once upon a time Christianity was main stream in New Zealand. Fifty years ago a large majority (87%) indicated in a national census that they were Christian. Now that is no longer the case, as the 2013 census figures show that the percentage calling themselves Christian is below 50%.
Recently the daughter of a friend went to an interview for teacher training. One question asked was how she would respond if she had to spend time as part of her training in a school that was counter-cultural. The example given of such a school was a Christian one.
Another friend commented on an exhibit in a museum he visited in a major European city. The exhibit showed a communion table, with a cup of wine, and bread on a plate. An explanatory panel described what these were used for, and why. The implication was that this exhibit belonged to the past.
Some years ago we drove to and stopped at our local church, to drop something off there. While my husband was inside the building the young friend accompanying our 8 year old son turned to him and said, "What goes on in there?" I forget what reply our son gave, but it struck me forcibly that day that a traditional church building is becoming as mysterious and foreign to many people as the Masonic Lodge is to most.
Christianity, and church, and its values and culture, are becoming unknown and foreign in our Western world. The reservoir of goodwill which used to be shown towards anything Christian is drying up and an ignorant and sometimes militant atheism is taking its place.
As an example, online forum comments frequently feature hugely disparaging and often vitriolic comments towards anything Christian. In the printed media, sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Islamic attitudes are not tolerated, but Christians and Christianity are often fair game – certainly in the New Zealand media, but maybe less so in Australia?
How then do Christians respond in such a hostile environment?
Maybe it's easier to comment first on how not to respond. I despair when I read Scripture verses quoted out of the blue in online comments or other media, as if those who post them think that these are somehow going to carry weight. They don't. If the Bible is dismissed as a lot of nonsense then what good does it do to quote verses?
Then there are those who say that some commentators will get what's coming to them. Such attitudes reinforce the belief in atheistic minds that Christianity is all about judgement and Christians think they are better than others.(Though who knows what 'trolls' may be at work, pretending to be judgmental Christians in their posts.)
More important than online forums though are one to one occasions. This is where a positive response can make such a difference. My husband has recently had a book published called, 'Finding the Forgotten God – A Credible Faith for Secular Kiwis.'
So when we meet new people and we are asked what we do, it is natural for the book to come up in conversation. What has surprised us is how many people are genuinely interested! So a number of copies have been sold or given away, often in most unlikely situations. (A friend who runs a Bed & Breakfast keeps copies of the book on hand to give away or sell to any guests who show interest. She has now taken over 30 copies, five at a time every few months, over the space of a year.)
We've found that despite the scepticism and antipathy shown by our secular media, there is genuine spiritual interest on the part of many. Tuning into where people are at is always crucial – and some are definitely not interested, of course. Others will show some interest, and then turn away.
Building relationships, soaking such encounters with prayer, and having a genuine concern for others; such things are basic when we are given opportunities to talk with others. And they are even more important as our society becomes more ignorant of, and antagonistic towards those of faith. Human beings are still the same, deep down.
The world fails to provide answers to the big questions of life, but people are looking for answers and looking in all sorts of places. It can be easy to be discouraged, and to see society's slide towards secularism as inevitable. But do those of us who are Christian have to accept that?
When Christianity was main stream, it was often a nominal watered-down version that prevailed in many churches and in much of society. 'Religion in moderation' was seen to be a good thing. That too has changed.
When 'the real thing' is in evidence, people are challenged by what they see. A well-known British author recently moved from a position of scepticism to become a Christian.
Why? Because of the ways in which Christians he knew lived their lives. Maybe the prayer prayed by a renowned evangelist can challenge and encourage us: "Lord, give us eyes to see – and grace to seize – any opportunity for you."
Liz Hay relishes life in a small mountain village an hour away from Christchurch, NZ. She and her husband, Ron, have three adult children, five grandchildren, and share a love of literature and the outdoors. Her working life has included a wonderful mix of teaching, editing and writing, various office jobs, along with all sorts of ministry opportunities.
Liz Hay's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/liz-hay.html