Pacific church communities, particularly the more conservative ones, have faced challenges both externally and internally – sometimes from New Zealand-born members who found traditional church structures alienating and poorly suited to New Zealand life.
The low status of youth in village life has sometimes made it difficult for them to have their views taken seriously by church elders. This has been compounded for those who did not speak a Pacific language, as communicating with elders in English could be seen as disrespectful. Some young people felt there was an overemphasis on maintaining cultural obligations at the expense of their spiritual lives. Others felt marginalised by the strong authority of ministers or pastors and the pressure to attend church and church programmes. There was a growing number of other communities that youth could join instead, including sports clubs, school-based cultural groups, youth gangs and friendship circles outside church.
White Sunday or Lotu Tamaiti is among the most important dates in the Samoan religious calendar. Held on the second Sunday in October, it is the one day in the year where children host the church service, which can include singing, drama, verse and rapping. The day recognises the high value Jesus Christ placed on children; everyone dresses in white to symbolise the purity of a child’s heart; parents buy new clothes for their children and, in a reversal of usual family roles, serve them for the day.
Church finances have also been contentious, especially in churches whose parent church was in the Pacific Islands. In New Zealand-based churches the minister’s stipend (salary) was set by the parent church and new congregations were only set up when a community could afford a minister and church. Members’ donations were private matters and limited to giving a tithe (a percentage of income), or a matter of personal choice. This enabled members to meet both their religious and their secular commitments.
In Pacific-based churches it is customary for the names of donors and the amount they have given to be read out in church. The practice has been criticised for encouraging people to give more than they can afford for fear of being publicly belittled. In 2007 the head of the Samoan Methodist Church in Auckland, the Reverend Vaiao Alailima-Eteuaiti, defended the practice as ‘part of our tradition … We indigenised Christianity and that’s the way we do it.’1
Churches with a parent church in the islands often developed around a group of families and grew from there. This could place financial hardship on church members, who were encouraged to donate large portions of their incomes – beyond a regular tithe – to attract a pastor and build a church. Sometimes members were encouraged to mortgage their homes to help fund church building. Pressure for large-scale giving was then maintained so the pastor could live in a style that reflected their chiefly status. Because a pastor’s pay was determined by the size of their congregation, those in large congregations could become very wealthy.
In the 21st century the culture of large donations among some Pacific-based church communities was criticised by social-service agencies for impoverishing their members. Some families, ashamed at the prospect of missing a church payment, had turned to loan sharks, crime and gambling to secure funds for their church, increasing their debt levels and forcing some into bankruptcy. Critics said some pastors were grasping and too concerned with their own material comfort. While they were quick to call for money and gifts, they were slow to help families in genuine need. Church leaders agreed that some churches exploited their members.
Backing up Brian
In the 2010s Pacific Islanders made up a significant part of the Destiny Church, headed by televangelist Brian Tamaki. The church translated services into four Pacific Island languages – Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island Māori and Fijian – and boasted an impressive Samoan cultural performance group.
Migration to other churches
As financial pressures from churches grew, many young people moved to churches that made fewer financial demands on their members while meeting their spiritual needs. The Pentecostal movement has benefited from this change. The promotion of a personal relationship with God, more lively services, and less emphasis on ritual and cultural traditions have particularly attracted Samoan Christians – in 2013 they comprised 67% of Pacific Island Pentecostals.