Replanting the Transplanted Christian Churches: Missio Dei and the Twenty-First Century Diaspora Samoan Church

A well-known faife’au (Samoan church minister), the late Kenape Faletoese, stresses that “The true nature of the Congregational Christian Church in Samoa is very colourful, like a rainbow, and richly flavoured, like a fruit cake.”[1] 


I would like to challenge Kenape’s statement on two grounds. First, I do not like fruit cake and I would be more inclined to associate the descriptive words “richly flavoured” with a rich, moist chocolate cake. Second, my contention in that the ministry of the diaspora CCCS in New Zealand is missing the colourfulness of the rainbow and the rich flavour of a cake. My core question is, “Should the Congregational Christian Church Samoa (hereafter CCCS) and other diaspora Pacific churches in New Zealand adopt a new perspective or a new approach in order to be an authentic Christian witness in the global world?”

The question suggests that the authenticity of the Christian witness of the diaspora CCCS is questionable in today’s multi-faceted world. The starting point for my reflection is grounded in a missiological focus. If the study of missiology involves a critical reflection of church mission, the movement of Christianity in the world, the various processes in which the Christian faith has interacted within different contexts, and the evangelical processes within a church ministry, then my core question can be validated as a missiological question.

The missiological question raised in this article is not a new one. The lack of mission initiatives and praxis in the CCCS is one of many factors for the continuous departure of first, second, and third generations of the New Zealand-born cohort to other faith communities. Although the crux of this article is not about the exodus of the New Zealand-born cohort, it can be seen as the catalyst for this investigation and a personal quest to make sense of mission in the diaspora CCCS.

My social location as a New Zealand-born Samoan, an ordained minister of the CCCS, a former teacher of Malua Theological College in Samoa, a lecturer at Laidlaw College in Auckland, a father, a licensed security guard, a manager of a soccer team and other responsibilities, places me in a position different from other theologians and clergy. No one person can take ownership of my story, or claim to have absolute knowledge of my experiences. Yet, in saying this, many aspects of my reflection and experiences may also be shared by the stories of other people.

Furthermore, my beliefs as a theologian and as an ordained minister may not be the same as the views of other Samoan theologians and clergy. I make a claim as one of a small number of ordained ministers of the CCCS who were born and raised in New Zealand. This is significant in the context of this writing because the majority of church ministers called to serve in our parishes in New Zealand were raised in Samoa.

It must also be acknowledged that my perspectives as a New Zealand-born Samoan do not represent everyone in this cohort. Unlike many who have left the CCCS over the last forty years or so, I have chosen to remain in the church and therefore, I am writing from an emic, insider’s perspective. In addition, as a theologian, my views may differ from the views of members of the CCCS who have not studied theology. In such a task I also recognize that there is a risk of portraying myself as an advocate of fault-finding towards the CCCS and Pacific Churches, and my actions may be perceived as violating the social, cultural, and ecclesiological spaces. On the contrary, I emphasize that my views are offered with humility and because of my love for the CCCS; but more significantly, my love for God’s Church and His kingdom.

Is there a Pacific mission?

In contemporary New Zealand, there are so many social issues affecting our Pacific Island people. Many are experiencing increasing hardships, burdened with the cost of living and paying off a home mortgage.[2] As a result, some families are losing their homes and struggling to provide basic necessities for the family. Many children are being forced into the workforce instead of pursuing higher education and for those who do attend schools, there is the problem of serious underachievement at secondary school and university level.[3] Although the literature validating these viewpoints may be largely unexplored territory, the fact is, in recent years, I have observed too many Pacific Island families, including my own relatives, losing their homes and falling victim to the suffocating New Zealand economy which continues to significantly impact upon the more vulnerable. Pacific Islanders are also known as having a high suicide rate[4] and commit a high level of incidents of domestic violence.[5] Many are getting involved in crime,[6] filling our prisons, and face many other social issues. The task of seeking possible solutions to the social and global issues should engage critical conversations for the mission of the CCCS and other Pacific churches, as they strive to make the gospel message a living reality in an increasingly complex world.

As a practical theologian, I believe there should always be an ongoing conversation between the church and the world. There is a need for a space in which the world should be influenced by a church witness transformed by the message of the Christian gospel and the Holy Spirit. Conversely, the church must also adapt to the rapidly evolving world. Historically, the church has at times been critical of the world based on theological assumptions that it is synonymous with evil. However, in my opinion, the church is generally self-protective and the process is almost always one way.

I believe there needs to be a critical reflection of Pacific churches and their priorities for mission. Some things that get in the way of good theological analysis and a need for critical reflection are the assumptions that one’s own church’s way of understanding God is the best, right and most useful way.

Robert Schreiter, a well-known Roman Catholic theologian advocated various models for contextual mission.[7] Briefly summarising some of these models, Schreiter proposed the Translation Model which basically promoted the idea that the missionaries do not change the triumphalism of Western Christianity, they just translate it into a foreign language. Conversely, the Contextual Model seeks to express Christianity through existing local customs and indigenous traditions, while the Adaptation Model advocates that the missionaries should enter into dialogue with people of the local culture. However, the missionaries need to make sure that the core elements of the imported Christianity are perceived as more important in the engagement with belief and values of the local culture. The Adaptation Model is one that is rarely acknowledged but is appropriate in many evangelical endeavours because it engages the Christian gospel and the local context.

Taking into consideration the models observed, Schreiter’s Adaptation Model[8] best explains the process which connects the Western gospel with the Samoan context. It entails the planting of the seed of faith and allowing it to interact with the native soil leading to a new flowering of Christianity. The Translation Model, advocated by Stephen Bevans, reflects the initial stages and later developments of evangelization adopted by the LMS. The Translation Model stresses the importance of translating the core essence of the gospel message into the new context. Bevans notes the importance of preserving the Christian message in the process, “If, for example, gospel values and cultural values come into conflict in the evangelization process, there is no doubt that the content of the gospel message must be preserved, rather than the values and practices of the culture.”[9]

The effects of such an approach allow for Christianity to be expressed in a way that is meaningful and relevant to the culture being evangelized.

Samoan Christianity a fixed identity

As Christianity developed and the church was established, communal worship became a centralised event and all aspects of the Samoan culture, the fa’aSāmoa, socially and politically evolved around the church and Christian values. The church had become central to Samoan life, embedded into its culture by enriching and preserving the spiritual and ethical values already present.

I consider the Samoan Christian identity to be a fixed identity, preserving and safeguarding an indigenized gospel that has been formed out of the integration of a nineteenth-century Victorian era Protestant model and Samoan cultural traditions. In essence, this indigenized gospel is the underpinning of the Samoan Christian identity of the CCCS.

Significantly, when Samoan Christianity was transplanted in New Zealand by its pioneers during the mid-twentieth century, Christianity had already flourished in the host nation. What is peculiar about the transplanting of the Samoan church via the CCCS in the modern era is that it is a church introduced by an indigenous group. This idea indicates a transition from the nineteenth-century missionary endeavours which were advocated under the Western missionaries. Since the acceptance of Christianity in 1830, the Samoan people received the indigenized gospel, infused it into their culture, refined it, and transplanted it elsewhere.

For the diaspora church, it is seen as crucial that church traditions and cultural values of the homeland are preserved and re-enacted in the new land. The significance of Pacific families in sustaining transnational links with the homeland cannot be underestimated, because it is the Pacific way to preserve interconnected family relations, rather than being disconnected to non-Pacific perspectives and ways of life.[10]

To the Samoan people, their Christian identity is unique. Danny Ioka notes that the “Samoan mind reflects the influence of Samoan Christianity on Samoan cultural spirituality…to preserve the Christian spirit of culture through being wedded to the movements of the Divine spirit.”[11] He further stresses that it was upon this prophetic vision of moving under the presence of the Holy Spirit that Samoan migration took place. This prophetic dimension in the Samoan mind fostered the movement of “A Biblical Culture and a Christian Society,”[12] which has a liberating dimension for the Christian self-understanding that faith opens up the world and other cultures for the migration of a religious culture.

This signifies the importance of preserving the Samoan Christian identity, for in the Samoan mind, the conceptions of cultural and spiritual roots are outward expressions of the deeper reality of blood relations. For the CCCS, the connectedness of Samoan migrants to their homeland is a bond that cannot be disconnected; the Samoan church is to the Samoan people what water is to fish. The persistence of Samoan migrants to replicate the church as if it was a village, which portrayed the holy and sacred place of God to foreign soil, suggests a fundamental religious character entrenched in faith and faithfulness to their spiritual and cultural roots.

Prior to the impact of modernity and post-modernity, the church-centred approach of the CCCS ministry and the relaying of the gospel message were perceived as meaningful to the Samoan people. A church-centred understanding of mission as planting churches and saving souls, which was closely intertwined with colonial expansion and the missionary enterprises of the nineteenth century, is still utilized by the CCCS today.

Evangelization of the gospel message, channelled through preaching, worship, and teaching programmes remain the core mandate of the church. But I suggest that the worship practices in the CCCS have become monotonous and remain predominantly monolingual, disconnected from the changing dynamics of the community. Ironically, it goes against the principles of Congregationalism which encourages creativity and fluidity.

In addition, I see that the evangelical priority of the CCCS, as geared towards a centripetal focus, takes precedence over Christian mission and praxis. Rather than evangelizing outwards and adapting to the world, we are still evangelizing our own people. The CCCS may be focusing its priorities on establishing, developing, and maintaining its cultural, political, ecclesiastical, and pastoral infrastructures that resonate with the fixed identity. My question is “Are the practices preserved for nearly two hundred years still meaningful today in a foreign context?”

Transplanting or Transformation?

Transplanting the Samoan church in New Zealand or in any other migrant country is a challenge for re-establishing and reaffirming the Samoan Christian identity. The church community acts as a focal point for all aspects of life in the new societies, as Samoan people struggle to keep their authentic vision of a Christian society.

Yet, is the transplanting of the CCCS the best means of making the gospel a living reality in New Zealand? In the mind of many Samoans, particularly the majority of the migrants, it is. Preserving the Samoan identity of a fixed nature is perceived to be an inherent gift from God, for it characterizes their most authentic vision and version of a Christian culture.

Since the establishment of the Samoan church in New Zealand over fifty years ago, I suggest that there is reluctance by the CCCS to move beyond the indigenized gospel and spirituality even amidst the technology of the twenty-first century and the knowledge gained by the new generations. Within a preference for traditions of the past, changes for a liberal stance may be perceived as blasphemy. Taule’ale’ausumai points to the conservative position by stating, It is a comfortable niche for the church to be in. Why, therefore, should the church wish to change?[13]

A positive aspect from this is that the CCCS is preserving our language and traditions that are uniquely Samoan and adopts an essentialist view of culture and identity,[14] viewing changing social realities as a threat to their identity, thus opting for exclusion. The determination in preserving tradition can lead to essentialism and relativization.[15] Believing that Samoan culture is the best culture for Samoans, or believing that Tongan culture is the best culture for Tongans, restricts growth, I argue, because Pacific people would then view their cultural and theological heritage as monolithic and simplistic. There is no doubt that it is important for the Pacific people that our Christian identity is preserved in a global world, but there also needs to be renewal and transformation for a relevant Christian message in the 21st century.

It raises the question concerning whether the church still retains a prophetic voice. The social issues mentioned above are not secluded, sporadic problems uncommon to the church. In fact, they affect the crux of the church community; its very own people. But how can the church be a more relevant witness in these situations? I suggest that the church must first act as a community of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

There needs to be an acknowledgement that these issues require a prophetic witness and a call to mission. For this process to take effect, there also needs to be an acknowledgement of the limitations of existing traditions in dealing with new challenges, and a need for further social-theological analysis and praxis. Transformation is an act or process of change. In the context of the CCCS church in New Zealand, it stresses that the method of transplanting needs to be followed up by renewal. I believe that the consequences of renewal may have an inspiring and encouraging effect.

There needs to be a prophetic voice calling for the ministry to move forward and to be creative. The challenge is to find the balance between respect of the Christian identity and the need to transform it. For the gospel to be a living reality, it is vital for the CCCS tradition to deal with the challenge of a diverse, complex New Zealand society and a globalized world. If culture is fluid in these contexts with new questions and challenges, tradition must have a means of affirmation and renewal. Traditions need to be in motion and need to incorporate innovation and weave it into a culture’s identity.

If theology is static in a Christian culture that is focused on preserving traditions, determined by the spirit of the people of the past and to an extent the present, then the CCCS loses its founding nature as a mission church.[16] The Christian message is about change, repentance, salvation, and an eschatological reality hoped for. The challenge would be to find the balance between respect for the Christian identity and the need to transform it.

I wonder if the mission of the CCCS and other Pacific Island churches needs to be renewed as a witness to God’s love. I suggest that there needs to be a transition from a mission that is church-centred to a God-centred mission. The church is reminded that its mission is to be a witness of God’s kingdom on earth, and the church is God’s instrument for advocating His kingdom, not the centre of its mission.

My conviction that the Samoan diaspora church needs to reconnect with its roots as a mission church is supported by the life and ministry of Jesus on earth, who gave hope to the marginalised and the poor, whose teachings were grounded on the Basileia tou Theou - the Kingdom of God as a present reality on earth. Loyalty to a Samoan worldview of cultural priorities and relational spaces has in a sense, contributed to the social issues affecting its very own people. This worldview has been transplanted, rather than being transformative and renewing in a new context. Of more concern, in my opinion, is the fact that some of the church decision makers have chosen to be ignorant to these problems by doing little in terms of church praxis.

The church is therefore not called to be a silent supporter, but to adopt a revolutionary option under the mandate of the gospel. For the church, a God-centred mission can be fully realized by tending to the marginalized of the community, offering greater support systems to those who need jobs and education, tending to the sick (mental and physical), up-skilling our leaders including ministers, providing financial advice to families, sharing resources and time, being aware of those who are considered “at risk,” especially taking care of wholesome family relationships.

In twenty-first century ecumenical theology there has been a shift to understand mission as an attribute and activity of a Trinitarian God. Participation in God’s saving activity, or Missio Dei,[17] is understood as bearing witness to God’s love towards all people and working for the promise of God’s reign. The theological concept brings to the fore a call for justice in systems of injustice. If Christian theology brings forward the belief that all aspects of our life, the spiritual, physical, and psychological, are all subject to God’s love and grace, then the ministry of the CCCS must be in line with God’s vision.[18]

Mission is ecumenical because it has the universal Christian community as its horizon, through which God wishes to demonstrate his love and justice to all nations. The world is recognized as the horizon of mission. This opposes the prevailing notion of the church as owning mission. The primary aim of Missio Dei is the realization of the full potentialities of all creation and its ultimate creation and unity in Christ. Therefore mission is not primarily about church planting but about generating and nurturing shalom.

The concept of shalom has multiple meanings, but the common element describing its fundamental component is the implication of right relationships with God and between people.[19] The goal of mission is the promotion of the Kingdom of God and of the church as its symbol and servant. Indeed, “The church is not the ark of Salvation, but a dynamic community that is called and sent to serve God in God’s own mission of building up God’s reign in the world.[20]

According to the biblical story, Jesus’ mission, particularly His ministry, was grounded in love and justice. Christian mission is to bring life in all its fullness. The nature of God’s mission can be understood in His Kingdom here and now that we hope for a consummation of God’s reign in terms of love, justice and equality for all humanity. The objective of Christian mission is to carry out the responsibility for promoting hope, justice, and peace in situations of political, social, and economic injustice. If traditions are diverted from this, then there needs to be change.

Conclusion What must the CCCS do in order to be an authentic witness? 

I suggest that for the CCCS to be colourful like a rainbow or richly flavoured like a fruit cake, it demands creativity and innovation. To be a vital, colourful church, the CCCS may consider changing its approach and continuing to re-evaluate the relevance of its ministry in time and space. We need to be reminded of the concept of Missio Dei which is an ongoing process of God’s self-revelation, of the active liberating presence of God in the World. It is not our mission, but God’s.

Terry Pouono  is a New Zealand born Samoan raised in Massey, West Auckland. He holds a Bachelor of Theology from Malua Theological College in Samoa, a Masters of Ecumenical Studies degree of the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and the University of Geneva for which he received a scholarship from the World Council of Churches to undertake. After this, he taught in the Practical Theology Department at Malua Theological Studies for six years before being granted leave to pursue a PhD in Theology at the University of Auckland, which was completed in May 2017. Terry is currently a Lecturer at Laidlaw College's Manukau Campus. Terry is married to Toese and they have four children. 

[1] Kenape Faletoese, “Congregationalism in Samoa,” Pacific Journal of Theology, no. 10 (1993): 95.

[2] Hulita Fe’iloaki ‘Ofa-He-Lotu Tauveli, “Poverty, home and belonging among two Pacific families in Auckland” (MSc thesis, University of Auckland, 2015). See also PAC-Pacific Islands Broadcasting Association, 25 June 2008, “Pacific states in danger of backsliding into deep poverty: NZ FM”. General OneFile, Accessed 8 June 2017.

[3] James Luke Mather, “The anti-deficit approach: reassessing the notion of Pasifika academic achievement” (MA thesis, University of Auckland, 2013).

[4] Jemaima Tiatia, “Reasons to live: NZ-born Samoans young people’s responses to suicidal behaviours” (PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 2003).

[5] Susan J. Wurtzburg, “The Pacific Island Community in New Zealand: Domestic Violence and Access to Justice,” Criminal Justice Policy Review 14, no. 3 (2003): 425.

[6] Julia Ioane and Ian Lambie, “Pacific youth and violent offending in Aotearoa New Zealand,” New Zealand Journal of Psychology 45, no. 3 (2016): 23.

[7] Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (New York: Orbis Books, 1985), 9-10.

[8] Ibid.,  9-10. Adaptation means the adjustment to environmental conditions or the modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.

[9] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology: Faith and Cultures (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002), 41.

[10] Ilana Gershon, “Viewing Diasporas from the Pacific: What Pacific Ethnographies Offer Pacific Diaspora Studies,” The Contemporary Pacific 19, no. 2 (2007): 474.

[11] Danny Ioka,Origin and beginning of the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) in Aotearoa New Zealand” (PhD thesis, University of Otago, 1998), 130.

[12] Ibid.

[13] FeiloaigaTaule’ale’ausumai. “Pastoral Care: a Samoan Perspective,” in Counselling Issues and South Pacific Communities, ed. Philip Culbertson (Auckland: Accent Publications, 1997), 233.

[14] Emmanuel Clapsis, “The Challenge of a Global World,” in The Orthodox Churches in a Pluralistic World: An Ecumenical Conversation, ed. Emmanuel Clapsis (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004), 48.

[15] Roland Robertson, “Globalization and the Future of Traditional Religion,” in God and Globalization: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life, ed. Max L. Stackhouse and Peter J. Paris (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000), 59-60.

[16] Ioka, “Origins,” 126. Samoa is known as the “Antioch of the Pacific”- no island group maintained a larger or more continuous tradition of overseas service than the Samoans.

[17] James A. Scherer, “Salvador Bahia 1996: What will it mean?” International Review of Mission 84, no. 334 (1995): 226. The theme for the 1952 CWME Conference in Willingen Germany was “Mission under the Cross” and Missio Dei was a term that opposed the church-centred approach to mission, and stated it as a mission that belongs to God.

[18] Nicholas Lossky et al., Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 2nd Edition (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002), 840-41.

[19] Steven Schweitzer, “The Concept of Shalom in the Book of Chronicles,” in Struggles for Shalom: Peace and Violence Across the Testaments, ed. Laura L. Brenneman and Brad D. Schantz (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), 104.

[20] Michael Amaladoss, “Mission,” in Dictionary of the Third World Theologies, eds. Virginia Fabella and R.S. Sugirtharajah (New York: Orbis Books, 2000), 144-45.