“I didn’t expect Tahiti to be, well, so urban,” an American tourist says as she surveys Papeete. It’s a fact that the Tahiti of Gauguin paintings vanished years ago, and today there are traffic jams, condo complexes, even an epic skate park replete with graffiti that looks more like New York City than an isolated tropical paradise. Global trends are changing Tahiti, and chief among them is urbanisation. It’s therefore no surprise that one of the centres for the “Mission to the Cities” evangelism is Faa’a—an urban area adjacent to Papeete.
“Most of the people around here are originally from the outer islands,” notes Pastor Roger Tetuanui, president of the French Polynesian Mission. When I enquire whether it’s really likely that people will show up at the three centres for evangelism under a tent on a rainy Monday night, he replies casually, “yes, we hope.” I’m skeptical. I see all the satellite dishes on the nice homes. I see the restaurants along the way crowded with people. I look at the affluence. There’s no way people will show.
If obesity, environmental destruction, traffic jams and familial disintegration is progress, we have progress in spades across the South Pacific—even Tahiti.
Our church in French Polynesia has about 4800 members. But it’s remarkably vibrant. In a recent poll, our FM radio station was voted the most popular religious station in the region. We also have a prophecy TV show hosted by the indomitable Marcel Millaud in French, and a second program in Tahitian that is just starting. Two Adventists are ministers in the government of French Polynesia, and Adventists occupy other prominent positions in society. But it would be wrong to pretend all this activity and our high profile is resulting in rapid church growth. It’s not.
Along with urbanisation has come a growing secularisation. People are busy earning the money to buy the stuff they are told they need by the advertisements they are absorbing as they sit mesmerised in front of their TVs projecting hour upon hour of triviality wrapped in perversity. If obesity, environmental destruction, traffic jams and familial disintegration is progress, we have progress in spades across the South Pacific—even Tahiti. And it is gaining momentum.
The first meeting in Faa’a begins. The tent is near a sharp drop off with views of the city and over the Pacific Ocean. The music is wonderful, the AV superb, I’m covered in kisses from greeters on the way in, and the preaching—in French and translated with vigor into Tahitian—is enthusiastic. But the tent is largely empty. And those in attendance are, I perceive, mostly church members.
We leave discreetly to go to a second site. As we drive, I wonder aloud if public evangelism is past its prime. “It’s true,” says Roger, “that 10 years ago, we had better turn outs. But wait and see.”
We drive down the mountain to the second site. What a difference. The tent is full and the there is a buzz in the air. I catch Manuel Terai, who recently retired from his post working with the French Polynesian government, and ask him how things are going. He is measured in his assessment: “We have a reasonable crowd tonight, but we expect it to build. This location is more central than the one you visited first. We’re right by the main road. It’s very visible. That largely accounts for the difference in the turnout.”
Christine Estall, who has an administrative roll in the French Polynesian government, is registering all the attendees. She refers to her list, “we have 28 non-Adventist adults attending tonight.” There are also about 20 children from non-Adventist homes. So that is 48 non-Adventists out on a rainy Monday night. Not insignificant.
Windolina Natua, a public school teacher, is managing registration at the third site—Pamatai Adventist church. “We have 59 adults and 40 children from the community in attendance”, she reports. “But we expect the numbers to build. Our experience is that more people start coming as the series progresses. We did a build up event to this series in June of this year. And the crowds built night after night. Combined, we built up to 566 non-Adventist adults and 162 children. So we expect to grow again this time.”
“I’m realistic. Public evangelism is difficult,” says Rodger. “And we’re looking at innovative new ways to share the gospel. But on September 27 we’ll have a baptism from this series in the ocean near downtown. How many will give their hearts to God? We can’t know yet. But it will be a lot more than if we didn’t work hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit to invite our friends, family and our neighbours to give their lives to the Lord. A lot, lot more . . .”