Area Studies

What can we learn by comparing practices and customs in different societies around the world?

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A History of the Gospel in Papua New Guinea: Factors in Faulty Discipleship

Chris Brittain and his wife have served since 2016 as the Australian coordinators for Simply Mobilising International (SMI); a ministry affiliated with World Outreach International. He recently completed the MA in International Development with William Carey International University.

Chris Brittain and his wife have served since 2016 as the Australian coordinators for Simply Mobilising International (SMI); a ministry affiliated with World Outreach International. He recently completed the MA in International Development with William Carey International University.

WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic

January 14, 2019

by Chris Brittain

In Papua New Guinea, biblical discipleship has been handicapped by the way the gospel was presented to the people by early missionaries. In the past it seemed rare for missionaries to be aware that they had interpreted the gospel through their own cultural lens and that there were serious distortions as a result. They assumed that their task was to get natives to abandon their heathen culture and exchange it for theirs. As a result, the church they planted was not a truly indigenous church because tribal peoples were discouraged from finding answers to their own questions that arose from their animistic worldview. Instead Bible teachers encouraged them to adopt the values and arbitrary customs of Westerners with regards to music, dress, worship patterns etc. As a result, there is a need for a “Missional Discipleship Movement (MDM)” within the church to help believers to discover for themselves what it means for the “Word to become flesh” in the PNG setting.

The Prosperity Gospel & Cargo Cults in PNG

In more recent times the corrupted message of prosperity, or health and wealth, gospel has found fertile soil in the animistic worldview of PNG and wider Melanesia. Cargo cults and their belief in treasures arriving from the West has been a platform for the growth of this false teaching.

This has led to a spiritual dichotomy among many believers, allowing the “cargo cults” and the “prosperity gospel” to take hold in the unaddressed animistic worldview of PNG.

Papua New Guinea has been fertile ground for false gospels that pedal cheap grace and a discipleship that is devoid of sacrifice. One phenomenon in particular is that of the Cargo cults which are actually indigenous to Melanesia. The most obvious characteristic of Cargo cults is the focus on the acquiring of large quantities of material goods. This is part of a deep seated myth in Melanesian culture that interestingly has biblical echoes. Albert Tucker explains that according to this myth, in the distant past there existed an idyllic state that was lost or destroyed by the failure of their ancestors and arising from this is a longing for this idyllic state to be restored (Tucker 2000, 163).

The promises of the prosperity gospel resonate deeply with the cargo cult mindset reinforcing a discipleship that is devoid of following Christ at any cost.

The Failure to Plant a Truly Indigenous Church

In addition to these promises of prosperity, early Western missionaries to PNG brought with them other tendencies that also undermined the gospel. The concept of Christendom, or the sovereignty of the Christian religion, was alive and well in the Western church. Christianity and westernization were frequently perceived as synonymous and missionaries, even if unintentionally, exported western culture with the gospel.

With this, there was a strong tendency to dismiss everything in pagan culture as worthless at best and demonic at worst. Missionaries in this era have been accused of of destroying cultures or at least seriously disrespecting the peoples they came to minister to. The Christianity that was preached was unashamedly wrapped in Western clothing ensuring that the gospel came garbed in forms more similar to Europe than to the tropical climes of PNG. Paul Pierson comments; “There was a blind and too easy assumption that Western culture was both Christian and superior, and that all other cultures should become like it” (Pierson 2009, 241).

This meant converts were encouraged or even required to abandon their tribal names, music, dress, architecture, etc. in favour of western substitutes. Without doubt the church that resulted was not an indigenous church planted and flourishing in local soil to reflect the culture of the people. Instead this was a transplanted church one which was very open to the charge of being foreign.

The problem with a foreign church is that it contradicts Biblical faith which has never been tied to a particular culture. From the beginning God sent a clear message that the faith be expressed in ways relevant to the local culture. The Council of Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15, made a watershed decision when it said that Christianity should be untied from its Judaic roots. Although Jesus, the disciples and many of the early church leaders were Jews it was decided that being culturally Jewish was unnecessary for right standing before God. Faith in Christ alone was sufficient for that.

Cultures where Christianity enters as a foreign religion suffer then from a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. To some extent the gospel can take root and win the allegiance of the people but it never really penetrates to the underlying assumptions and presuppositions that underpin a person’s and a culture’s worldview.

As a result, it’s very possible for Christians to be, as one skeptic commented to me, “attending mass on Sunday and a massacre on Monday.” Or put another way, someone could be a faithful church member but still be accepting bribes and perverting justice in “real life.”

Failure to Build a Biblical Worldview and Dismantle the Animistic One

Further compounding the situation was the failure to dig down to the roots of the way the people thought. Scripture itself tells us; “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is” (Proverbs 23.7a). The failure of missionaries to come to grips with the basic assumptions of the people of PNG has created serious issues.

The worldview of almost everyone living in PNG prior to the arrival of the missionaries would be described as animistic. Robert Priest explains the term animism: “Religious belief focuses on spirits that interpenetrate the physical material world and religious practice is characterized by attempts to manipulate the physical world by recourse to spirits” (Priest 2000, 63). Thus in animism the spirits control all of life. There certainly is no separation between the so called sacred and secular. Since this is the case spirits must be appeased or placated. The spirits are frequently those of dead relatives and ancestors. The spirits are capricious and hence life is unpredictable. Mediums such as witch doctors and shamans have a special link with the spirit world and have power (mana) to manipulate the spirits in favour of the devotee.

For anyone with basic Bible knowledge it’s obvious that this differs vastly from the worldview presented in the Bible. Certainly spirits exist but above and over all is Jehovah/Yahweh. He is the uncreated God who does not change (Malachi 3.6, Numbers 23.19, James 1.17, Hebrews 13.8) He is altogether Holy and always acts in accordance with his righteous character. (Exodus 34.6-7 Number 14.18; 23.19, Deuteronomy 32.4, Revelation 15.4) God cannot be bribed or coerced and that rather than controlling Him we are called to surrender our entire lives to him and be filled with and led by his Holy Spirit.

However cross-cultural gospel workers with a Western education and mindset have frequently been poor at replacing the animistic worldview with a biblical one. A major reason for this is that the Western worldview has been permeated by a profound secularism. Whereas animists see the world controlled by myriads of angels, demons, spirits, ghosts etc. Westerners have been raised to dismiss these as myths and fabrications. Consequently matters of the utmost concern to an animist such as “why is my child always sick?” or “who stole that money?” and “how do I guarantee my business will succeed?” are usually ignored by the missionary as he/she has no satisfactory answers. However to the animist finding answers to these questions is vital. Consequently he or she will seek those answers with diviners, soothsayers, witch doctors etc. unless alternative explanations are found.

The failure to address these concerns and the worldview that underpins this is described by Hiebert as “The flaw of the excluded middle”. The “middle” being the realm of spirits, angels, demons etc. Below this is the realm which humans inhabit and above where ultimate spiritual deities reside. Western trained missionaries have frequently ignored this middle section and advised that people from animistic backgrounds do so too. However in PNG as all over the world this approach is doomed to fail. To ignore this realm is to introduce a truncated Christianity. It is a faith that can answer life’s ultimate questions but frequently has little to say to everyday problems and issues.

Failure to Value the Contributions of Local People

In addition to the failure to address the animistic worldview, another factor that has hindered the spread of the gospel in PNG has been the failure to adopt the attitude of a student so as to learn from the native people where God is at work among them. Paternalism was frequently a characteristic of western colonial missionaries. Endowed with all the advances and sophistication of western civilization, these workers fell readily into the temptation that everything of their culture was good and virtuous, while everything among the “primitive people” they ministered to was either insignificant or demonic. Often missed was the recognition that all cultures bear evidence of God’s common grace and that all humans created in God’s image know something about Him. Invariably overlooked therefore were the opportunities for dialogue, mutual respect, and a posture of learning on the part of the missionaries.

The church of PNG has discoveries to make through their reading of scripture and the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit that will be of great benefit to the whole body of Christ and in the success of missional discipleship movements. Missionaries who thought otherwise not only stunted the growth of the indigenous church, they also robbed themselves of these valuable insights. This arrogance and failure to engage in mutually respectful dialogue has been a contributing factor to the faulty discipleship in this country.

Working Towards Missional Discipleship Movements (MDMs) in PNG

This faulty discipleship is the root problem of a weak church, and this in turn is traced to a faulty worldview. What we now have is a better recognition of our own cultural blindness. Hence, igniting missional discipleship movements (MDMs) will require the dismantling of old paradigms and the construction of biblically accurate ones. There is both a tearing down as well as a building up, akin to what Jeremiah was told; “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).

Training courses with a proven track record in the Philippines at “tearing down and building up” include “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” and a simpler derivative course, “Kairos: God the Church and the World.” Both of these have demonstrated effectiveness in shifting believer’s worldview to one that has a biblical foundation. Both courses are potential key tools to establish Missional Discipleship Movements in PNG. An effective way of getting a discipleship movement started in PNG is by exposing pastors to the Kairos course in combination with leadership development. For a missional discipleship movement to prosper in PNG it will need to be truly indigenous—self governing, self supporting, and self propagating.


Pierson, Paul E. 2009. The Dynamics of Christian Mission: History through a Missiological Perspective. Pasadena: WCIU Press.

Priest, Robert J. 2000. “Animism”. In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, edited by Scott Moreau, 63-4. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Tucker, Albert F. 2000. “Cargo Cults.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, edited by Moreau, Scott, 163-4. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.