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A Brief History of GCI in New Zealand

In the beginning ... For a description of the founding of Grace Communion International (then known as the Worldwide Church of God), its theological roots and its early history before coming to New Zealand, click here.

The Beginnings in New Zealand

The first evangelistic effort by the church into New Zealand came in the form of Readers Digest advertisements and a short wave radio broadcast out of Sydney, Australia in 1957. Although radio reception was often poor, it drew requests for the literature advertised from many parts of the country. The Plain Truth, then the flagship magazine of the church, had been published in the USA since 1934 and was at that time being produced at the church's headquarters in Pasadena, California. The first New Zealand members of the church were baptised in 1958 but it wasn't until 1962 that ministers of the church were sent from Australia to visit the small but growing number of interested readers.

In the course of that first tour a group of 18 were baptised, with more being added in two subsequent visiting tours (1964 and 1966). In 1967 the first minister (Graemme Marshall) was posted to New Zealand, which was a great encouragement. With the greatly improved service to the membe

rs here, a number of small groups sprang up. The initial meeting of the church in New Zealand was a Bible study on the evening of September 7 of that year, drawing 33 people. The first church service at which Wayne Cole, the Regional Director based in Sydney, spoke was held in Auckland on 28 October, immediately following that year's Feast of Tabernacles (regionally held then in Blackheath, NSW, Australia). The first Festival in New Zealand was held in Taupo in 1969 with an attendance of 333.

Congregations and Office

Expansion in those years was rapid with congregations opening in:

  • Wellington (1971),

  • Hamilton (1972),

  • Nelson (1973),

  • Christchurch (1974),

  • Dunedin (1974),

  • Tauranga (1974),\

  • Palmerston North (1975),

  • Whangarei (1975),

  • New Plymouth (1976),

  • Hawkes Bay (1979),

  • Invercargill (1979) and

  • Rotorua (1981).

With the church growing significantly from the outset both in New Zealand and the South Pacific, a regional office was opened in Auckland with New Zealand's first minister as Regional Director. He was joined by a small team of staff gleaned from the Sydney office to get things started to which were added graduates from the church's Bricket Wood campus of Ambassador College. Graemme Marshall was followed by:

  • Bob Morton (1975-1980)

  • Peter Nathan (1980-1988)

  • Raymond McNair (1988-1993), when the New Zealand region was re-joined with the Australian region under:

  • Rod Matthews (1993-2002) but with an office retained in Auckland.

In 2002 the church in New Zealand, which had from the outset been legally an extension of the headquarters church in Pasadena, CA, USA, was restructured under a governing Trust Board. In the early days of the church in New Zealand a proportionally substantial number of young Kiwis went to Ambassador College from this country. Many of these young men and women returned to take up a variety of roles in the ministry of the church here.

The earliest students went in 1963 and the last (when the college closed) in 1996. Under the leadership of founder Herbert Armstrong, the church grew steadily till about the time of his death in 1986 at the age of 93. Growth continued under his successor, Joseph Tkach, but began tailing off from its peak of about 1400 in weekly church attendance around 1990. This was due partly to a migratory move that saw many New Zealand tradespeople heading to Australia, and partly by the repercussions of doctrinal revisions happening at the time.

Beginning as early as 1987, a theological review had been undertaken that examined the church's beliefs on such things as the meaning of "born again" and the nature of God, resulting in several elements of doctrine being revised and altered towards orthodoxy. Subsequent changes proved even more significant, leading to a review of the church's core practices and denominational distinctives in 1994, and bringing the church into an essentially orthodox evangelical position. While this drew praise from many other denominations, it also precipitated the departure of some church leaders to form new denominational groupings intent on holding onto the church's earlier theological positions, and membership declined accordingly. Joseph Tkach died in 1995 after a short battle with cancer and the baton passed to his son, also Joseph. With much of the essential doctrinal revision work done, the pace of change has slowed dramatically.

In recent years those areas of controversy that have been broached have been questions that are being wrestled with by many denominations within orthodoxy, the latest of which has been the place and role of women with respect especially to pastoral roles within the church.

Into the New Millennium

The greatest of the fallaway was finished by about 2000 and while growth in many parts of the world since then has not been startling, attendances have been relatively stable (although in parts of Africa and Asia there is significant growth as our fellowship comes into contact with groups aware of our literature or the story of our recent journey).

One very clear motivation within the church in New Zealand is an increasing desire to find our place in our local communities and to serve our neighbours as opportunity arises. A good number of our members are involved in parachurch organisations (e.g., Drug Arm, Samaritan's Purse, World Vision, Radio Rhema, etc.), community organisations (e.g., Cancer Society, Red Cross), prison and hospital visitation and chaplaincy, helping in schools, etc. -- living and sharing the gospel in the communities where we have been placed.

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