• The State and Growth of Brethren Churches in New Zealand (2011)

    Phil Tait, Pathways College, 23 March 2012

    A survey of Brethren churches was conducted in July-August 2011 where I mailed questionnaires to church secretaries and pastors of 108 Brethren churches (drawn randomly from the 188 churches listed on the Brethren website).  A total of 50 questionnaires were returned (response rate 46%, amounting to 27% of churches).

    Church and Congregation Size

    The average size of congregations (roll) is 203 (median is 142) and the average attendance at Sunday services is 144 (70% of the roll).

    If the sample is representative of all Brethren churches then the total would be 38,000 people.  However, this may be overstating the number because it is likely that more of the larger churches returned questionnaires.  The 2006 Census recorded close to 20,000 people designating themselves as Brethren, although a good number may have just described themselves as Christian

    The number of Open Brethren assemblies has been decreasing since 1961 but the number of people has not declined as much.  However as a proportion of the New Zealand population Brethren numbers have dropped from 1 per cent to less than 0.5 per cent.

    1881 12 Treasury
    1901 91 Treasury
    1911 110 Treasury
    1921 130 Treasury
    1961 220 Treasury
    1971 250 Treasury
    2001 200 Peter Lineham
    2011 188 Brethren website

    The racial composition of the churches surveyed was mostly New Zealand European (82%) but a growing number of Asians.

    Pakeha (NZ European) 82.4
    Maori 3.5
    Pacific island 1.9
    Asian 6.6
    Other 4.2

    Church Activities

    Participation of people in small groups for fellowship and Bible study ranged between 10 and 100 per cent with an average over the churches of 52 per cent.

    A full-time pastor was designated (employed) by 52% of the churches.  Half of the churches had an office person full-time or part-time and one third had a youth pastor.

    Average Days Per Week
    0-99 1 0 1 1
    100-199 4 1 2 1
    200-299 4 1 3 3
    300 + 5 5 4 3

    Sunday Services included the following elements and characteristics:

    Sunday school for children 90
    Morning tea and fellowship time 78
    Contemporary music 70
    Regular meal together (at least monthly) 46
    Evening service with focus on evangelism 14
    Evening service with focus on youth 12
    Morning service oriented toward unchurched 10
    Adult Sunday school 10

    Churches also had the following activities and emphases:

    Programme to identify and develop people’s spiritual gifts in the last 3 years. 24
    Programme to disciple new converts. 59
    Provide social services to the local community. 82
    Regular programme for corporate prayer. 78
    Partnered with other churches or para-church groups for evangelism or outreach. 66
    Has a specific strategy for evangelism and church growth. 62

    Only 24 per cent of churches had worked on identifying spiritual gifts in the last three years.  Two-thirds of these used a specific programme, most often using the Network materials. The remaining third had church leaders encouraging people individually.

    Programmes for discipleship of new coverts existed in 60% of churches. Of these one third used particular programmes and study materials. Over a third disciple people through one-to-one relationships. The remaining quarter integrated new converts into existing home groups and Bible study programmes.

    Most churches said that they had regular programmes for corporate prayer (78%) but only 30% had a weekly prayer meeting, while 30% had a monthly meeting, and the rest including prayer in the Sunday services, home groups and Bible studies.

    Most churches were involved in providing some social services to the local community (82%). The most common ministries were food-bank (24%), counselling (22%), budgeting (14%), Mainly Music (12%), providing clothes and furniture (8%), childcare (8%), use of facilities (8%), school chaplaincy (6%), community meals (6%), and holiday programmes (6%).

    Church Growth and Evangelism

    In the 2011 survey, the larger Brethren churches are all growing but only slowly.  Some of the smaller churches are declining and some are growing rapidly (above 10% per annum).

    Growth Rate in the Last 12 Months
    CHURCH SIZE Negative 0 to 4.9% 5% to 9.9% 10% or more TOTAL
    0-49 4 3 0 1 8
    50-99 4 2 2 2 10
    100-199 5 3 2 4 14
    200-299 0 4 2 2 8
    300 + 0 9 1 0 10
    TOTAL 13 21 7 9 50

    The average growth from evangelism was 2.5 per cent for the 12 months (the highest number being 7 per cent).  The average growth from transfer of people from churches was 6 per cent in and 5.5 per cent out, making a net increase of 0.5 per cent for the year.

    A specific strategy for evangelism and church growth was in place in 62% of churches. Targeting of children and youth was a key strategy for 20% of churches. Encouraging church members to develop relationships and be a witness to Christ was mentioned by 18%. Organising meals and social events to introduce friends and foster relationships was a key part for 10%. Alpha and Christianity Explored courses were mentioned by 12%. Also included was: evangelistic preaching, Mainly Music, educational seminars, street evangelism, ladies social hour and tracts. No churches mentioned church planting as a part of their strategy.

    Partnership with other organisations for evangelism was indicated by two-thirds of churches.  Of these half mentioned other local churches and half mentioned para-church organisations.

    The survey asked respondents to identify which of the following activities that had caused any conversion growth they had experienced.

    Friendship evangelism 33
    Youth ministry 28
    Community ministries 24
    Sunday preaching 19
    Involvement in home groups 16
    Gospel services 12
    Evangelism programmes (eg Alpha) 8

    Friendship evangelism is seen as the greatest contributor to conversion growth followed by youth ministry and community ministries. Sunday preaching and home groups are also important. Evangelism programmes and gospel services are the least significant either because they are less effective or because they are no longer widely used.

    When conversion growth is tested against other factors, the following factors showed a significant correlation with conversion growth:

    1. Existence of a specific strategy for evangelism and church growth.
    2. Programmes to identify and develop spiritual gifts.
    3. Youth ministry is a contributor to evangelistic growth.
    4. Home groups are a contributor to evangelistic growth.
    5. Contemporary music in Sunday worship.
    6. Youth service on Sunday evenings.

    It is to be expected that those churches with a specific strategy and focus on evangelism and church growth are the ones who are more likely to achieve that. Identification of spiritual gifts was the next highest factor to correlate with conversion growth. A focus on youth ministry is a third most correlated factor with conversion growth.


    The Brethren movement in New Zealand shows some encouraging signs and some indicators of concern. As Peter Lineham also found from analysing data from the 2001 National Church Life Survey, members of Brethren churches attend regularly, participate to a high level and are relatively committed. They are generally evangelistically minded. There is now a good number of Brethren churches above the 200 threshold (some even around 1,000) and all of these are experiencing some growth. In recent years ethnic diversity has increased particularly with Asian people.

    Ten years ago Peter Lineham felt that the Brethren had lost its focus on evangelism and had a relatively low level of involvement in community ministries. This new survey indicates that a good number of churches are now active in the community although many are not connecting this with evangelism. While most say they have a strategy for evangelism and church growth, the majority don’t seem to have this well thought through. A lot of churches are not helping people to identify and develop their spiritual gifts and most seem somewhat haphazard in their discipleship of newer Christians.

    There is no ‘one way’ to grow a church, or the Brethren movement as a whole, but a combination of factors under God’s sovereign work. One of the key strengths of the Brethren movement is its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and mobilising believers to use their gifts for ministry in the church and in the local community. For this distinctive to continue to help us we need solid discipleship and the equipping of people.

    Our existing churches can never hope to reach the diversity of people in our communities and there is a need for creative church planting approaches. Having some good sized Brethren churches provides a platform for this to happen, but it will not happen people are equipped and led by the Holy Spirit for this task.

    Church health and church growth go hand-in-hand. We need solid discipleship as well as outreach and evangelism; depth and breadth. Similarly, church growth and church planting should also be undertaken simultaneously. Both existing and new forms of church are needed to reach all those God desires to be His.

    The writer welcomes correspondence at phil.tait@sim.org

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