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Island Fever?

Thursday, 9 December 2010  | Danny Bell

When it comes to evangelism, it is right that we remember those far-off places where the Gospel has not been preached. It is good that we endeavour to provide badly needed resources for the continuation of evangelistic work.

The Pacific Islands have been a mission focus for over a century and now the ratio of ‘non-churched’ to ‘churched’ nationals is lower than in western countries like Australia. While there are outlying villages still clinging to traditional practices, the impact of the gospel on the Islands has been extensive and significant. This was recognised even a decade ago when a PNG political reporter noted, “The place is overrun with churches.”

Given this situation, wouldn’t it now be time to start concentrating on other ‘mission fields’ where there has been less success? Yet large scale missionary journeys are still being undertaken to the Islands from all denominations, all seeking to make their mark in the Pacific. Many are organised by retired Island missionaries who can’t seem to “let go”. There seems to be a stampede for the Islands that might even be described as feverish.

Participants in these Island trips often return with wonderful stories about their encounters with Island locals, yet there are good reasons to wonder how many of these involve true conversions. They have been working with locals who are already culturally Christianised. When missionaries enter outlying villages, there is already a deep religious aspect present and poverty often leads locals to adopt anything that looks better than what they have. Is our desire to head to the Islands more fuelled by wanting to feel like a ‘true missionary’ than by a deep concern to extend the reach of the Gospel?

Why do the Islands, usually considered a thoroughly ‘harvested’ field, still attract Christians young and old when so many other areas are neglected? Could it be that it is easier to go on trophy hunting tours and come back with success stories than to evangelise our own society? Could these trips be more about tradition or having an experience than reaching the unreached? What about the much more difficult and challenging work of winning those around us?

We know how hard it is to reach the average Australian, who often has no background in religion and has been brought up with a presumption of secularism and often a distrust of Christianity. Much more effort is required to communicate the gospel and call people to discipleship. In the Islands, everyone is so friendly and welcoming: in Australia, people are suspicious and distant. In the Islands, people join in willingly and efforts to help are appreciated: in Australia, getting people to help often feels like extracting teeth and our efforts are received with ambivalence. In the Islands, we see buildings erected and filled on the same day: in Australia, we see too many church buildings emptying.

Maybe it’s time to turn our focus to this tougher mission field. Maybe we need to think of Australians as “unreached people” as much as others in places that seem exotic. We must not let the excitement of far-off ‘spiritual safaris’ lead to neglect of the mission field right under our noses. God still calls some people to distant places, but most of us are called to mission right where we live, as difficult and sometimes uninspiring as that may be. Ellen White set forth this challenge: “We need not go to Nazareth, to Capernaum, or to Bethany, in order to walk in the steps of Jesus. We shall find His footprints beside the sick-bed, in the hovels of poverty, in the crowded alleys of the great city, and in every place where there are human hearts in need of consolation. In doing as Jesus did when on earth, we shall walk in His steps.”

Next time we are thinking about what to do for God, spare a thought for a very large Island whose population is mostly ignorant of what Jesus has done for them. Working for our own local community may not have the “Getaway experience” of heading for the Islands, but the rewards will be just as special. Let’s pay tribute to those missionaries who work in one of the most challenging environments on the planet – Australia.  


December 14, 2010, 12:06PM
When I did a 2 month stint in the Solomons 20 years ago, the same type of comments as Danny presents were around then. Before I went, I was told by an Australian not to go as the islands were Christian and I was wasting my time. Since I had been invited by islanders, I went. What I encountered perturbed me.

First, there was an element of 'adventure seeking' with some of the mission 'outreaches' to the islands. Also, some islanders were happy to cater for groups coming from Australia as it meant cash flow for them. However, I thought that overall it still provided benefits.

Second, despite being told that 90% of people in the Solomons were Christian, my observation was that multitudes may go to church as a religious activity but that was as far as it went. What distressed me the most was how Western culture was being imposed on locals as being part of the 'Christian package'. Some local Christians were the most faithful and amazing believers in Christ but even they spoke of highly influential church leaders who were in it for position not calling. There was still massive need for missionaries but not paternalism and not multiplying of Western culture.

Third, everywhere I went, I found an incredible need for building up the locals to value who they are and what they can do. I saw heart-breaking drift away from their own culture to Western as if their culture was 'bad'. Sure, cannibalism is not good but there was heaps of other stuff they are losing but to their detriment. For example, in one village eating with locals, they served food to us on plastic plates. In their mind, this was their 'best' crockery. Their beautiful coconut-frond woven plates were considered inferior (yet they were sustainable, compostable, renewable). When my wife asked to be taught how to make the local woven plates, the locals were shocked. In turn, we were shocked to find it was only some old women who still made them, young people had no interest and did not know how. Yet, when my wife sat with some old ladies and talked and learned the weaving, some young ladies joined in. They thought maybe if the white lady thought it was valuable to learn then maybe they should be involved.

Maybe it is different now to when I was there but I suspect the same problems are occuring. In summary of my long winded response, I believe appropriate cross-cultural activities are still required. On the basis of God giving differing gifts, Australians can build up Islanders as self-supporting believers who are not inferior to those from the West and Islanders can contribute according to their God-given gifts to Australian churches. Even if it is reminding us that mission trips are not ego trips and real mission involves reaching lost Australians.
Mark Wilkinson
December 15, 2010, 10:45AM
I have never been to the Pacific Islands so can't comment specifically about those experiences, however I have been into Asia numbers of times. I am an advocate for Aussie Christians to get out of the "western mindset" and let their poorer brothers and sisters challenge their thinking and view of God. Mostly I have found people return from these experiences better equipped to live missionally in Australia.
December 16, 2010, 9:22PM
Thanks Danny - excellent insight! I spent time in PNG & Tonga and have been guilty of calling these "mission trips". Getting people to consider the neglected, unreached areas is really what the Great Commission is all about!
Norm Tong
December 18, 2010, 1:51PM
I agree with you on many points, but as a retired pastor who served in Australia for many years, My wife and myself have been to Fiji where we ttained locals to do a better job and bring the church and Bible College into the 21st century.
Note we were their only 2 years preparing locals to take responsibility. We believe this still a role needed in the Pacific.
This year we spent a month in PNG my wife working in a college library and myself teaching in the Bible College. The local chuch has over the years sent a numbrer of people oversseas to train and take over the college, but when they return they demanded very high salaries way above what carrier missionaries are paid.
We still want locals to do the teaching in the college but at present this is not possible.
Hopefully the 2 being trained for this role now will be able to take over in a few years time.
Here in Australia we are involved in planting a shop front church and drop in centre, working with street kids, Bikers, Domestic violence etc.

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