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47. Is the missionary really to decide?

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In chapter 26, Sven explains how he from the beginning of their work in Papua New Guinea made sure that the merging Pentecostal Church in Mount Hagen formed a board consisting of local people. For Sven, it was important that the local people had both the formal and real authority of governing the church.

Sven speaks: In the beginning of our work we were of the opinion that each local church would be a completely self-governed unit, no outside controlling body. You could say that it was a ‘heritage’ that we had brought with us from Sweden. (This principle was glorified by the Swedish Pentecostal churches throughout the 20th century and is a view still widely held in Sweden although in 2001 a loose steering committee was formed, called, "Pentecostal free congregations in cooperation."(Author's note)

As each new church was formed and established, a local governing board was formed consisting of local members only. No missionaries could hold any position in these church boards. The missionaries therefore had no formal power but only a spiritual authority. In order for this authority to be exercised, the missionary had to build up a trust. If there was no trust, the missionary would not have any influence. It was thus very important for missionaries to earn the confidence of the nationals.

When a missionary is involved in "building” a Church Movement, it is important that they do not build a foreign owned movement. I think a common mistake many missionaries have done is to attempt to create churches with a form and expression that are kept very similar to what they are used to at home. Of course there are some basic Biblical principles that are universal, but other than that the culture and customs of each country have to affect the design of the church and its worship.

Even when we, Marianne and I, started our work in Papua New Guinea it was clear to me that there could never be a question of creating either a Swedish or Australian church movement, but rather a Papua New Guinean Church movement. For this to work properly, it was very important that the local people were part of the decision-making and were given responsibility from the very start. They needed to understand that it was their work and not the missionaries’. For only then would the church members be willing to make the sacrifices needed for the congregation to grow and develop further. If they did not take this responsibility, the work would always be Swedish, Australian or American and always be dependent on external support. If there was a problem there would always be a foreigner to solve it. I am glad we managed to get the principle of the nationals taking responsibility for their own church work to operate among the Pentecostal Churches we established in Papua New Guinea. This principle is equally important in all missionary work today, regardless of country or culture.

An Australian pastor, from a different organization, was some years ago put in charge of the work of his organization in the South Pacific islands belonging to Papua New Guinea. He discovered that there were problems but did not really understand what they were due to. He asked me to come and talk to his board in Papua New Guinea. I went there and helped him as an interpreter. I explained to him how the nationals thought and that he had to go behind their words. In this way, I helped him to ask the right questions.

When we left Papua New Guinea, the Australian pastor asked me what my opinion of their work in Papua New Guinea was. My response was that it was clear that these people thought they were working for their Australian organization and that they had not accepted the ownership of their Papua New Guinean Church movement. They had not understood that it was their Local Church Movement and that they themselves were responsible for the work and were therefore not prepared to make the sacrifices needed to move the work forward. In the long run, this situation was unsustainable since they were not originally asked to take the full responsibility for the work themselves.


The church in Keminga, in April 2012. In the background is the old church building.

A missionary must not try to force his own culture on the nationals of a different culture. I know a missionary who tried to get the Papuans to sing Swedish songs in Swedish, which is a good example of what not to do. You can do this sometimes for the fun of it, but not as a serious attempt to plant the Swedish treasury of songs in the Papuan environment. Most often it does not even work to translate the songs since the imagery is quite alien. This won´t be something that these people can claim ownership of, Sven says.

"How have the spiritual songs of Papua New Guinea emerged?" I wonder (Leif)

"A lot of English songs have been translated into Pidgin." Sven says and continues: "But Kundi Pok, among many, has also written some Christian lyrics to traditional Papuan music. Such songs have been a great blessing."

Sven continues: When we started the Vocational Training Centre in Mount Hagen the lawyer who helped us with the legal registration of the Centre, advised us that the law of Papua New Guinea required the board to be 75% local. His advice was that we should have a small board of four people where I could represent the 25 percent. So we did. All decisions regarding the Vocational Training Centre were made by the board. Just like in the churches, it was important that the nationals were originally given the responsibility. Sometimes, the three Papuan directors had a different opinion from me. I then had to accept the decision of the majority of the board.

What I am saying is that we must trust that the Holy Spirit works in the nationals in the same way that he works in us. If you believe this, it is not hard to let them take responsibility and make important decisions.

There is a related problem area. Sometimes aid workers are sent to mission countries to assist with a specific social development task, and are referred to by their home church as missionaries. This sometimes leads people to think that they are suitable for leading people spiritually in the developing countries, whilst this would never be the case in their home countries. The following story illustrates this quite well.

For a period of time, we had an Australian car mechanics teacher working in the Vocational Training Centre. When he and his wife came to Papua New Guinea, they had only been saved for three years. Once, he came to me and said: "Sven, a few weeks ago I had a Sunday lunch with Pastor Allan Lepa (back then, the Senior Pastor of the Filadelfia church in Warakum, Mount Hagen). I told him what I thought he was doing wrong in his church work and what he needed to change. When I expressed what I thought, Allan always replied 'yes, yes' but he has not changed anything of what I told him to change."

"You do know that Allan is your Senior Pastor now that you are here in Mount Hagen, right?" I replied.

"Yeah, I know." the teacher replied.

"When was the last time you had lunch with your Senior Pastor in Australia and told him how he should conduct his church work?" I continued.

He realized that he had made a mistake and never repeated it again.

This principle, to treat the nationals as equals, was something that we tried to apply at all levels. For example, our home was open to anyone who wanted to visit us, but this was not the case in all missionary societies. It was obviously hard sometimes, especially for Marianne who often cooked for many people, and it created a trust between the nationals and us. Our influence on the development of the work, except from the first church plantings, did not depend on our positions as missionaries but on the fact that the nationals trusted us, Sven says.


Church Service in Keminga in April 2012. Sven is preaching.

I, Leif, ask Sven if this attitude and keeping their house open was a unique thing to do?

Sven continues: It is of course impossible for me to judge, hopefully there were more missionaries who shared my attitude in all of this. But it might be interesting to note what Lakoo Minson told me after the service we had in Keminga a couple of weeks ago (in April 8, 2012). First, he said that he was impressed by the service, but then he added: "Not in any other evangelical mission in Papua New Guinea have I met the open attitude with which Marianne and you received us, nationals." As an example of this, he mentioned the fact that they were allowed to visit us in our home. He, who nowadays does not belong to the Assemblies of God, also said that his assessment was that the second strongest church in Papua New Guinea today after the Catholic and Lutheran Churches were the Assemblies of God Churches. (Read more about Lakoo in Chapter 29).

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