PNG is a land of contrasts – the lowland jungle, mountains five kilometres high, white-water rivers and huge meandering waterways snaking their way to the ocean.
A nation of 10,000 tribes, more than 700 distinct languages and numerous dialects, its five million people are found in cities, towns and countless stone-age villages, scattered throughout the countryside.
Evangelical missionaries first came to PNG in the late 1800s, but its highland interior was only significantly penetrated after 1945. Today, church buildings can be seen at the centre of almost every tribal village.
It is not uncommon for a village of 300 people to have two, three or even four different mission groups represented. It is a similar situation in the towns. In a township of 5,000 people near us, there are about 25 churches, representing 20 different denominations.1 PNG is one of the most intensely ‘missioned’ countries on the planet.
Yet PNG is a country in serious trouble. Armed hold-ups, murders, tribal wars, rape, drug abuse, sorcery-related deaths and payback killings, violence against women, and countless other crimes are epidemic. Prostitution, adultery and unchecked sexual promiscuity make for frightening HIV statistics. Something is very wrong.2
When I think of the situation in PNG, two words spring to mind — confusion and unbelief. Many churchgoers remain in false belief and, therefore, unbelief. ‘Churches’ are brimming with people, but few know what the gospel of Christ is about.
As I meet different people in villages and towns, and even in the capital city Port Moresby, the constant refrain I hear is: ‘When Jesus comes, he’ll weigh up our deeds. If our good deeds outweigh our evil deeds then we’re in, but if our evil deeds outweigh our good deeds, then we’re lost’.
Ask where Jesus Christ fits in and the reply is, ‘Oh yes, he did a good thing dying on the cross for our sins, but…’ Then they emphasise again their own good deeds. For many in PNG the distinctives of their mission or church are the essential criteria for salvation. For example, many say that without keeping Saturday as the Sabbath there can be no salvation.
Others believe that the act of baptism washes away sin and is necessary for salvation. Others mistakenly think that keeping the Lord’s Day or attending church meetings (or doing any number of religious things) earn saving merit.
Traditional animism is alive and well too, but with a ‘Christian’ twist. People once did whatever was necessary to keep bad spirits off their backs and good spirits onside. But now they just add whatever the missionaries or church leaders tell them to do — to keep God off their back (avoid his wrath) and keep him onside (have his protection and blessing). There has been outward change, but no heart change.
No doubt there are exceptions around the country.3 Nevertheless the ‘gospel’ for so many Papua New Guineans is not the gospel of the Scriptures. They know about Christ dying on the cross, but it is not Christ they ultimately trust in.
So what is to be done? In a country full of lookalike ‘gospels’ there are many challenges facing Reformed missionaries and the churches they plant. Let me mention two. Firstly, we must keep on track. It takes a long time to undo weak and wrong teaching but it is worth the long, hard slog.
To see people when they catch on to Christ’s imputed righteousness being the gift of God, or the wonder of election or the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit; to see them realise that salvation is secured because Christ has secured it; to see them marvel at Christ’s faithfulness in the face of their own unfaithfulness — is wonderful beyond words and honours God so much.
The goal of the gospel is making God known in and through the work of Christ to the glory of God. What better missionary ‘results’ are there than hearing heart-felt prayers, full of God and his wonderful works in Christ? It’s worth hanging in there for that!
The second challenge is to patiently train indigenous men for leadership within the churches. If we want the flock to know the depth and richness of the gospel, then any who aspire to leadership must know these riches for themselves.
This takes time. Indigenisation is good, but too often missionaries, in their desire to indigenise the newly-planted churches, rush into appointing men who turn out to be unsuitable.
We must be willing to take the time to teach and mentor men; to see if they have gifts that could be nurtured to fruition, before making them formal leaders within the churches. Remember, the churches will only be as good as their leaders.
It is vital that the churches know God through Christ and the gospel of grace. This will mean long, hard work, and the blessing of God — while others may seem to race ahead, doing this and that.
It will mean taking care to ensure that only capable and spiritual men come into leadership. We will need our home churches to be supportive of this long journey.
It will be worth it in the end — to see God truly glorified, as the gospel, which exalts his Son, is preached and believed