Story: Pacific churches in New Zealand
Freshly scrubbed faces, starched shirts and gleaming white outfits are a highly visible part of White Sunday, an annual event in the Samoan church calendar celebrating children. Churches have played a central role in the lives of New Zealand’s Pacific Island communities, often acting like a village, with the minister in a powerful role similar to the village chief.
Full story by Cluny Macpherson
Main image: Gospel singers from the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa
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Early Pacific churches
The first Pacific church in New Zealand was set up in Newton, Auckland, in 1947. Numbers of Pacific migrants increased and spread around the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Churches were formed to cater for Pacific peoples’ needs within many of the mainstream churches.
Pacific churches in the 2000s
In the early 2000s Pacific people were quite religious compared to other New Zealanders. In the 2006 census more than three-quarters of Pacific people said they were Christians, compared with just half of all New Zealanders. Only 13% of Pacific people said they had no religion.
The largest Pacific denomination was Catholic, then Presbyterian/Congregational, then Methodist.
Role of churches
In the Pacific Islands, community life was built around the family, the church and the village. In New Zealand, churches acted like villages. The minister was the most powerful and respected person – a role similar to the village chief.
Churches became the centre of social life for many Pacific families. As well as religious worship, churches provide health and education services, and sport, music and social activities. Some government agencies work with churches to deliver programmes to Pacific people. Early childhood centres, Pacific language nests and adult education classes are run on church premises.
Young people’s low status in village life has made it difficult for them to have their views taken seriously – especially if they only speak English. Some young people have rebelled against the strong authority of church ministers.
Some churches expect members to donate large amounts of money. Members have got into debt, or even turned to crime or gambling, to pay the donations. Some ministers have been criticised for getting rich, while not helping families in need.
As Pacific people who were educated in New Zealand grow older and have more influence in churches, some things are changing.
- Some churches have set up English-language groups and services.
- Women are playing a greater role in some churches.
- There has been debate over whether gays and lesbians can become ministers.
- People have become less tolerant of bad behaviour from ministers.