Pacific Island Christianity in New Zealand and the Pacific


It was news of Captain Cook's voyages which sparked British and European interest in the Pacific, and a set of mixed responses as to whether unknown peoples were "noble savages" - whose sparse clothing suggested either pre-Adamic innocence or vivid evidence of the universal Fall.

The London Missionary Society founded in 1795 in August 1796 sent the ship Duff with 29 missionaries to the Pacific and early work began in the Society Islands (Tahiti). Many missionaries could not cope with the realities of warfare and open sexuality, but some did. Traders, missionaries and Pacific Islanders had different interests and their interaction was complex. When chiefs saw victory in battle as a sign of the power of the missionary God, and their own behaviour moderated, Christianity and literacy gained in credibility. European missionaries were often dependent on local Christians for translation, and Pacific Islanders were themselves the missionaries of the Pacific. Denominational and international political rivalry complicated conversion and development.

Colonisation by Britain, France, the United States and Germany, and then by Australia and New Zealand contributed to economic exploitation, a failure to establish sustainable governments, and migration in search of employment and opportunity.

Migrant Polynesian Christians in New Zealand from the late 1940s and especially from the 1960s created their own churches and revived denominations associated with the early missionaries, including Congregationalist and Methodists. In 1969 union with Congregationalist churches in New Zealand brought thousands of Samoan, Cook Island Niuean and other Pacific Islanders into the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. The PCANZ, struggling with its theological identity after the Geering controversy, and with its organisational identity after the failure of Church Union negotiations with Anglicans and Methodists, sought to accommodate Pacific Island culture, but found it difficult to modify its Scottish and Western heritage.  It faced similar difficulties in its relationship to Maori and unlike Methodists and a lesser extent Anglicans, was unwilling to prioritise a bicultural journey over the multicultural one, though in the end it recognised the necessity of doing so formally at least. In practice it was the goodwill and toleration of both Maori and Pacific Islander which enabled pakeha/palagi institutional forms to muddle through and then face the further challenge of Asian migration.

Pacific Island migrant churches have followed a similar pattern to other migrant churches. The church is strengthened initially by its role as a cultural haven for migrants struggling to navigate the challenges of the new land and culture. It attracts others from the culture and growth in faith is nurtured by the support received in surmounting economic and practical difficulties. Almost inevitably some migrants stop seeking to adjust and the church becomes a museum of a cultural era. Relationships with children can become extremely complex. Children adjust more readily to the host culture and act as cultural brokers for their parents, translating, handling money, navigating how things are done in the new land. Parents feel a loss of authority over their own children, they have difficulty interpreting the moral landscape, and they may be dependent on their children. Children feel caught between cultures, not sure how to succeed in both if that is possible, under pressure from the parental generation to keep the faith in the way it used to be kept, and from their peers, inside and outside their ethnic group, to conform to other standards without an informed parental framework.

The Congregationalist and Presbyterian experience in New Zealand may suggest that where migrant churches have their own space at a congregational level, they are as a whole better able to navigate relationships with the wider church and culture even though generational cultural tensions probably replace denominational ones. Cultural change and cultural conservation take place at their own pace, and different groups and different individuals do it differently. Neither precipitate assimilation nor cultural ossification would seem to be appropriate. Timing is important which is another way of saying it is not easy to get it right, but if the social role of the migrant church is from the beginning a cultural bridge and a means of witness, then those roles can take different forms at different times and yet both continue. Despite the communal nature of Pacific Island processes, the host culture facilitates decisions by families and individuals. Some make cultural adjustments by intermarriage, some by moving into palagi churches as worshippers or leaders. Guilt and a sense of rebellion are not the best frameworks for working through human and social processes which Christians should seek to understand as being of the nature of the case.

Despite the struggles the importance of the contribution of each generation to the future church cannot be underestimated. Pacific Island migrants had experiences not unlike some of the early European settlers which their descendants had forgotten. Their experience of recent migration is relevant to new migrants who continue to come to New Zealand, not only from  the Pacific, but from Asia and from around the world.

Pacific Island Christians brought back into New Zealand a worldview that encompassed the spiritual in a way which had been almost lost in the palagi church before the Charismatic renewal. Pacific Island youth leaders who survived the personal and political challenges of their own churches facing the pain of ongoing cultural and generational adjustment frequently bring a leadership and pastoral edge into palagi churches where their ministry has proved itself widely acceptable.  

John Roxborogh


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Forman, Charles W. "The study of Pacific Island Christianity: achievements, resources, needs." International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 1, 1994. 

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Tiatia, Jemaima. Caught between cultures. A New Zealand born Pacific Island perspective, Christian Research Association, Auckland, 1998.