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April 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 2 · pp. 69–70 

Book Review

People Movements in Southern Polynesia: A Study in Church Growth

Alan R. Tippett. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1971. 288 pages.

Reviewed by Paul G. Hiebert

Although in the last two centuries the church has been involved in one of the greatest mission programs in her history, there have been relatively few studies of the movement which combine a balanced view of divine activity and the human processes involved in order to learn for the future. It is a delight, therefore, to read Tippett’s study of the movements which led to the Christianization of most of the people on the island chains of Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa, and New Zealand in the South Pacific during the early and middle 1800s.

The four regions are well chosen to contrast different methods used to evangelize people. In Tonga [correction: Tahiti], missionaries from the London Missionary Society labored sixteen years with no success. They were under instructions to evangelize the islanders by civilizing them first. The first break came when the king decided to follow the God of the missionaries when he was vexed with his own gods who failed him. In a dramatic encounter he rejected his old gods to become a Christian. When others saw that the old gods did not harm him and saw the change in his life, they followed in large groups. Into this crucial situation came John Williams with a teaching ministry, instructing the new converts in the growth and sanctification of their spiritual lives.

In New Zealand the Church Missionary Society began work among the Maori, seeking to civilize them in order to bring them to Christ. After some initial success in which some tribesmen turned to Christ, the missionaries were distracted by concerns for economic development and orders that they minister increasingly to the European settlers on the islands. Consequently the tribal people never were instructed in the Bible and the processes of conversion were arrested and incomplete. Alienated by the European settlers and churches, tribal Christianity turned nativistic and ended in a weak and incomplete church.

In Tonga the Wesleyans began a work which stressed evangelism and sanctification. The results were amazing, so much so that the church spread through indigenous means and sent leaders to Samoa, which by the decision of the mission boards came under the jurisdiction of the London Mission Society. God’s moving was not confined by administrative lines of comity. In Tonga the church was strong. In Samoa denominational conflicts hindered its full development and rivalries developed between the two segments.

Using these well documented studies as a base, Tippett turns to a theoretical study of missionary methods. He shows that efforts to evangelize by processes of civilizing failed. As a Moravian mission historian pointed out, “There is no need of preparing the way for the gospel, it makes a way {70} for itself. . . .” Tippett cautions that we must understand the missionaries in the context of their time, in the colonial spirit of the day. To the extent mission was identified with colonialism it was weak. To the extent it used indigenous means and leaders it grew.

Tippett analyzes the tribal responses in social and psychological terms without detracting from the work of the Holy Spirit in and through these human structures. On the basis of the results he supports the validity of people movements—movements where people in families and large groups turn to Christ. He notes, however, that the initial turning to Christ is incomplete in itself. It opens the door to further instruction and experiences of sanctification and growth. Where these are lacking the church is weak or becomes syncretistic.

This book is worth reading by those seriously interested in missions. At times the sequence of events and persons is hard to keep straight. Nevertheless, the overall picture is clear. It should also be read by those involved in mission decision making. We cannot undo the mistakes of the past. We can, however, learn from them.

Prof. Paul Hiebert, Dept. of Asian Studies
Kansas State University

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