Can churches keep up with their changing congregations?

2011-04-23 18:21

Far from remaining static, church membership and attendance across South Africa is shifting.

Old institutional churches are rapidly losing ground to independent churches and charismatic churches, rural congregations are decreasing in some areas, multi-racial congregations are on the rise, and while some churches are seeing a steady growth in membership, others are having to find new ways to attract members in the face of dwindling numbers.

Says Professor Kobus Schoeman, who is a leader in the Dutch Reformed Church and who heads the Department of Practical Theology at the University of the Free State, “while church membership in the southern African region has remained stable at 1.3 million, attendance has declined.

The extent of this, however, has not yet been quantified.”Schoeman, attributes this decline to various factors. Firstly, he says, “emigration has played a role.

Many members have left for countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.”Internal migration also seems to have played a role.

“Rural areas have seen congregations closing down,” he says, “for example in the southern Free State, there have been cases where the bank has closed down, followed by the post office, followed by the church because there just aren’t enough people to sustain it.”

Even within urban areas, there are shifts.

He says that people often move away from a more parochial suburb with a local church to a security complex that is much further away.

“They might still be religious, but they stop being formal members of a denomination because of these shifts in lifestyle,” he says.

Vuyani Nyobole, general secretary of the Methodist Church of South Africa, reports similar trends.

He says that while membership has remained stable or has even increased, “there is a noticeable decrease in attendance in some suburban churches and rural towns”.

This he attributes to “shifting demographics, and attraction to other churches because of worship style.”

Katie Apleni, a committee member of the Zion Apostolic Church in Gugulethu, Cape Town, says that her church has seen dwindling numbers because of preferences in worship style. “We once had 60 members,” she says,

“and now we have 30 to 35. People have left to join gospel churches and there is nothing we can about that.”

According to Professor Jurgens Hendriks, chair of the department of practical theology and missiology at Stellenbosch University, the decline in traditional Western-style churches in South Africa mirrors a global trend.

Firstly, he says, “the heartland of Christianity is shifting south which means that Christian churches in western civilisation are declining while in the rest of the world – especially in developing countries or in countries like China and Iran where persecution is rife, it is growing remarkably.”

And, within that trend, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic churches gaining more ground.

Hendriks says that the word Pentecostal might not be used in all regions, but the characteristics are the same: “It is about the Holy Spirit being at work,” he says, “and it is no longer just about ‘save our souls and get people to heaven and it doesn’t matter if they suffer on earth’.

It is changing to something far more holistic. In some regions even the Roman Catholic Church is taking on Pentecostal tendencies.”

This Pentecostal movement is spreading by 20-million people across the globe yearly, says Hendriks, and in the local context, it is an independent church like the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) that gains ground.

With a membership of around 5 million, and a steady rise in numbers consistently since the 1930s, it is by far the biggest in the region.

The Shembe church, which also blends Western and African traditions, is believed to have a membership of around 4 million and has a stable popularity.“It is a completely different set-up to the older institutional churches.

People live closer to one another in communities, the churches are much smaller, and people take care of one another as a lifestyle. It is much more neighbour-to-neighbour than organised committees,” he says.

According to ZCC member and Gauteng-based nurse Agnes Marope, the ongoing popularity of the ZCC is steeped in traditional beliefs associated with faith-healing.

This takes the form of laying on of hands, wearing of blessed cloth and the drinking of holy water and blessed tea and coffee.

“People flock to the ZCC because there is a belief that when you drink the holy coffee there, you will be healed,” she says, “and some go so far as to believe that it can cure HIV.”

The Anglican Church, which was brought to South Africa from abroad, seems to have found a model which is less vulnerable to societal shifts that result in dwindling numbers.

According to its provincial treasurer for the Western Cape, Robert Rogerson, the church’s footprint in the region is growing.

“We are establishing new parishes in the Eastern Cape because of growing numbers,” he says, “and in places like the informal settlements around Khayelitsha in Cape Town, our numbers have grown exponentially.”

Another trend he notes is “a significant shift towards multiracial congregations as a result of emerging middle class communities amongst people of colour.”

This, says Jurgens, is a trend across the church-going community in the country as a whole.“Many more independent churches are springing up in South Africa,” he says, “especially as the middle and upper classes become characterised by all racial groups.”

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This is the question mainstream churches grapple with as they look at how to attract young people.Says Katie Apleni of the Zion Apostolic Church in Gugulethu, Cape Town, “Young people might be members but they don’t commit to coming every Sunday like we do.”

For Professor Kobus Schoeman of the Dutch Reformed Church, decline in interest has resulted from a youth culture that is characterised by social networking and globalisation.

“The youth of the new millennium are very different from before,” he says, “and formal church membership is much less of a priority.”

And, says Robert Rogerson, provincial treasurer for the Anglican Church in the Western Cape, “the teens are a difficult group to hold onto. Admittedly, other churches do offer more vibrant youth clubs than we do, and at that age, peer association dictates.

You’ll go somewhere because your s friends are going there but your family might worship somewhere else.”For some, it is worship style that dictates, but the choice isn’t as simple as it might seem.

Nthabeleng Nkomo, who lives and works in Johannesburg, attends a Rhema-affiliated church which is frequented by upper-middle class members of all races.

“The ministry is young, the congregation is energetic, and the preaching is modern,” she says, adding that some of her friends are also attracted to the church’s technology like a plasma screen and state-of-the-art air-conditioning.

“However,” she says, “I actually prefer the old Fora church in the ‘location’ of the semi-rural farming town in the Free State where my mom lives.

The services are conducted in my own language, it is more intimate, and I feel a much stronger spiritual connection there. My mom has always gone there, my grandparents worshipped there, and I feel connected to it.”

She says she also doesn’t “gel with the subtle pressure to give money”, whereas a friend who recently moved to Johannesburg from Nelspruit has found her spiritual home with Rhema.

“My friend’s husband gladly hands over 10% of his salary to the church,” she says.With all these dynamics at play, the onus is on

churches to find ways to attract and keep young members.

One area that, according to Professor Jurgens Hendriks, needs a lot of work is at the level of training.

“The trends in training are not changing fast enough,” he says. “Everyone is aware of globalisation and the rapid spread of information over the last 50 years.

Some of the churches are adapting, but there is still a lot of homework to be done. It is only when churches start losing members that they realise they need to do something.”

He says that seminaries or faculties of theology have been slow to adapt, and that that is why the independent churches are flourishing.

“They are fast movers and are doing their own thing,” he says.For Vuyani Nyobole, general secretary of the Methodist Church of South Africa, it is through their evangelical programme and revival services that a change should be made. He recently circulated a call to action and said, “the challenge for us is to re-imagine new ways of being.

“Both now and into the future, ministers are called to inspire congregations to stretch beyond the familiar. All ministerial leadership should be related to congregational transformation.”

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