The Christian worker made his way round PNG villages that had called for his help and advice. These villages had heard and responded to the gospel during the last 50 years.
Like the church at Thessalonica, their parents and grandparents had ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The first converts had happily destroyed all the paraphernalia of traditional religion, but now a new generation were trying to revive some of the old ways and also to fit in new ideas.
They struggled with the elders who were adamant that the true God could not be worshipped using the musical instruments of traditional culture.
In the same village the marriages of Christians were being severely tested as wives denied husbands conjugal rights, arguing that they were holy women and could not defile themselves.
This same group of women claimed spiritual experiences transcending that of many of their contemporaries. This often led to them calling out in services and challenging things being taught by the appointed speaker, who was attempting to preach from the Bible.
Church members were facing one another other in civil court because the process of church discipline had failed them.
In another village they had not celebrated communion for about three years. No one had been appointed as deacon so there was no one to administer the elements.
Church leaders came to confess struggles in their personal lives, including wrong relationships and misuse of church funds.
Others were so steeped in their traditional culture that even though they professed the Christian faith they were not prepared to humble themselves to obey biblical teaching. They had developed their own set of laws and these were given priority over the clear teaching of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.
Anyone breaking their rules would be put out of the church and would not be free to even enter for public worship until the leadership agreed.
In yet another village the majority of church members lived in fear of spirits, seeing them as an evil force as strong as God. At times of sickness and trial they often resorted to the help of the local spirit-man.
Without too much trouble it would be possible to put each of these situations into the context of either a New Testament letter or a scenario from the Book of Acts. Each, however, is a real situation that I have experienced in my own ministry as a cross-cultural missionary at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The church leadership in these villages, I believe, had a genuine desire to do the right thing as Christian leaders, but felt totally inadequate. Some, but not all of them, would own a full Bible in either English (the language of government) or the trade language.
In some cases they would have the New Testament in their own mother tongue. Few if any would have formal education beyond primary school, and theological or biblical education would almost always amount to little more than a few months (at most two years) at a village Bible school.
These facts challenge much contemporary missiological thinking that suggests that once a church is planted with its own leadership, then the missionaries are honour-bound to move on.
I am not a pioneer missionary, but have the privilege and responsibility of serving the church in PNG in the second or third generation. The need remains great. We came to PNG at the suggestion that the church needed ‘experienced Bible teachers who could give a few years Bible teaching to the young church’.
Twelve years later we face ‘a need that, undiminished, rebukes our slothful ease’.
‘Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore to send out workers into his harvest field’.