MicSem Publications

When the Wind Blows, the Islands will Rock

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1994 Religion

The New Religious Groups

"The Winds of Change" to which the title of Manfred Ernst's book refers have not been gentle zephyrs. With hurricane force they have lashed through the Island Pacific since the 1960s causing an enormous political and economic upheaval that has transformed the social landscape. These same winds have also carried to the islands a wave of new religious movements that have presented a challenge to the mainline Christian churches that until then had dominated the religious scene.

The sudden appearance of these new religious groups (NRG), as Ernst chooses to call them rather than using the term "sects" with its slightly derogatory connotation, is not unique to the Pacific. Dozens of such movements have cropped up in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the Third World within the same time frame. Indeed, a large literature has already been produced on the subject and was used by the author (although I must confess that I had none of it within easy reach when writing this article).

What are these new religious groups? The author has identified some 40 churches and para-church organizations, whose differences from one another are as striking as the characteristics they share. They include some recent breakaway churches from established mainline denominations (like Rhema Church in the Solomons), Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups (eg, Assemblies of God and New Apostolic Church), religions whose belief in new revelations makes them marginally Christian or non-Christian (such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Baha'i), and organizations operating outside the usual denominational structure (e.g. World Vision, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth With a Mission). Some of these NRGs have taken up work in only one or two island groups; the most widespread are the Assemblies of God, Baha'i, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists. Although often considered new arrivals, some of these NRGs first reached the Pacific early in this century as part of the "Second Age of Missions" and have been active in the islands for years. The author points out the interesting fact that nearly all the groups originated in the United States.

The "invasion" of the NRGs, as many leaders of mainline churches think of it, has posed a major threat to their congregations and thrown a cloud of uncertainty over the rapprochement with one another that the major denominations have finally undertaken. These groups as an aggregate account for about 18 percent of the total religious affiliation in the Pacific, Ernst informs us. Their expansion has been rapid; between 1966 and 1992 the percentage of the population claiming affiliation with NRGs has doubled in Western Samoa and French Polynesia, tripled in Tonga, where almost 30 percent are now adherents of these groups, and quadrupled in Fiji.

Yet, these new groups have not been equally successful. Most remain tiny congregations and some are confined to a single island group. Bukot non Jesus is a breakaway group found only in the Marshalls; Tokaikolo Christian Fellowship is exclusive to Tonga; and the Rhema Church and the Christian Fellowship Church are limited to the Solomons. Only a handful of the new churches and movements have gained a substantial following throughout the Pacific. The most successful NRGs, Ernst shows, have been the Latter Day Saints, Assemblies of God, and Seventh Day Adventists. Their adherents constitute a substantial minority in several island groups and they are present nearly everywhere in the region.

Interpreting the Growth of the New Movements

The NRGs are often perceived as introducing discord into a religious landscape that was just at the point of overcoming years of suspicion, if not outright hostility. The multiplicity of these new movements is seen as causing confusion among island people. Their appearance, while occurring long after the dawning of religious pluralism, has certainly expanded this pluralism greatly. There is now a "diversity of Christianity in the region never previously known," as Ernst points out (225). Choices now abound for those who seek a path of "salvation"-however this word may be understood.

Critics of the NRGs, however, should bear in mind that church affiliation in the Pacific, as perhaps everywhere, has always registered more than religious belief. Historically, social groups within island societies have often converted en masse to one church to distance themselves from their rivals who belonged to another. A century ago, in an incident that has parallels everywhere, a high chief on Pohnpei became a Catholic after his leading rival was promoted to a preacher in the Protestant Church. Church affiliation has always served as a mode of expressing dissent and as a convenient way of reinforcing the lines that separate one's social or political group from its enemies. The presence of the NRGs does not usher in a new age of dissent; it merely expands the options for expressing such dissent. Not all defections from mainline churches, therefore, need be seen as an expression of dissatisfaction with the church they are leaving.

Nonetheless, it is probable that the loss of membership in most of the older and more established churches today does indicate some dissatisfaction. There are personal grievances, as in the case of a land dispute or when members find themselves in conflict with their church over the failure of church authorities to promote them or otherwise grant them fitting recognition for their contributions to the church. Situations such as this can and will lead to a repudiation of former church ties. In the past, a Catholic disgruntled with his pastor over a land conflict might have become a Methodist or a Congregationalist. Today he might opt instead to join the Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists. In the past, a Protestant church leader who found himself passed over for promotion might have led his congregation out of one federation of churches into another, more benevolent one (as has happened often enough in Micronesia). Today, this sort of personal offense is as likely to bring about a full schism and the establishment of a fully independent church. Congregations in nearly all parts of the Pacific have probably grumbled for a century or more about the financial obligations that their church placed upon them. While this may be a cause of dissatisfaction, it is improbable that financial demands alone will bring a person or group to leave the church.

If the growth of NRGs today is being read, accurately or not, as an index of dissatisfaction with mainline churches, it is also sometimes construed as a measure of discontent with the government. Everywhere in the Pacific what might be called the "state religion"-that is, the religious group that, if not the established religion, is the one most identified with the island polity-has been the main source of leakage to the new movements. In almost every case the "state religion" is a Protestant denomination; the one exception, New Caledonia, shows the Catholic Church suffering similar losses, although everywhere else in the Pacific its membership seems to be holding steady. It could be argued that the loss in membership of the "state religion" constitutes an indirect political protest. One could be tempted to make a case for this argument by citing the high NRG membership rates in Tonga and the Marshalls, two countries showing an extraordinarily high membership in new religious movements and having an unusually large concentration of political power, traditional and modern, in a single leader. But if this is the case, the manner of expression chosen for this dissent is an odd one inasmuch as nearly all of the new movements eschew political involvement of even the mildest sort. Conversion to any of these movements would represent a retreat from the political arena with all its triumphs and follies. A more plausible interpretation is that the membership of the largest and most established religion is almost by definition ragged around the edges, and the many persons hanging on out of little more than convention present the easiest targets for new evangelical groups.

For the same reason, it is difficult to read the rapid growth of the NRGs as a sign of discontent with the failure of mainline churches to take up seriously the social or economic issues that are affecting Pacific life today. After all, the NRGs as a group stand for the religious message divorced in all its evangelical "purity" from the issues affecting politico-social life today. It is noteworthy, moreover, that in Tonga, where the Catholic Church has taken a strong social stand in recent years in favor of human rights and a wider distribution of political power, Ernst's figures show no significant increase in Catholic membership. In fact, the Mormons have surpassed Catholics in total membership since 1986 to become the second largest religious group in Tonga.

A Social Protest Movement?

If the rapid growth of NRGs throughout the Pacific truly represents a protest movement, it must be a protest movement of a different and non-political sort. In the third section of his book, Ernst reviews the major economic, environmental and socio-political changes that have befallen the Pacific since the end of World War II. They include political independence, industrialization and commercialization of the economies together with the correlative depreciation of the subsistence way of life, introduction of large-scale tourism in many islands, devaluation of the natural environment in favor of rapid development, urbanization and the rise of new ruling elites. The author, however, does not discuss the upheaval in the social order that is the inevitable consequence of such enormous changes. To do so in any detail might have been impractical, given the number of island societies involved, but we can summarize the main effects here.

Modernization has challenged traditional social structures, rendering some of them dysfunctional and introducing new and often competing structures. The political authority of traditional leaders has yielded, at least in part, to that of new representatives of a democratic political system. With authority systems no longer as tightly knit as in the past, the rules that long governed community behavior have changed. Superimposed on those traditional codes of behavior are new norms that flow from the nature of a monetized and democratized society. Communities no longer hold together easily, due as much to the population drain to cities and towns as to the diminishing effectiveness of the traditional controls. Meanwhile, urban areas are too large and unstructured to respond to older systems of governance. Families, too, shrink in size and no longer function as they once did, leaving parents bereft of the assistance they could call on to help in the raising of their children. As communities are dismembered, individuals find themselves without the same sense of affiliation that they enjoyed in the past. They are freer, but without the bonding and the sense of collective identity that meant so much in an earlier day. Individuals are no longer expected to act as they once did or, more accurately, they experience the tug-and-pull of competing sets of rules. Everything can appear to be falling apart-to paraphrase Chinua Achebe's title-when a society suffers the growing pains of modernization.

Ernst suggests, correctly I think, that the astonishing growth of the new religious movements must be understood in the context of this rapid and often painful modernization. He reminds us that the NRGs, without exception, have established their bases in and drawn most of their adherents from urban areas, only later expanding into rural areas. In this respect the spread of NRGs resembles that of early Christianity, which was so closely associated with the cities that village dwellers (pagani in Latin) became synonymous with unbelievers. The rapid rise of NRGs could probably not have happened without the social upheaval brought on by modernization and urbanization. In fact, it must be seen largely as a reaction to modernization.

All forms of religion offer meaning and security in a world that often appears fearfully absurd. Although cynics for centuries have scoffed at religious devotees, whether mainline Christian or any other type, as escapists unable to confront cruel reality, the desire for a lifeline and the search for something that renders the world intelligible is normal. In the case of the new religious movements, however, people seem to be turning to an especially simple set of answers in their flight from the complexities of life today. The fundamentalism shared by almost all the NRGs, with its theological certainties and its bold contrast between good and evil, stands in appealing contrast to the confusing social landscape in most of the Pacific today. John May, whose observations on Papua New Guinea are quoted by Ernst, takes accurate measure of the situation of the rest of the Pacific as well.

The picture that emerges is one of lonely, rootless and disoriented people, only too ready to believe that they are wretched sinners, clutching at the straw of a self-authenticating salvation that can be "felt" here and now. The fundamentalist mindset, as a component in this offer of salvation, dispenses them from the onerous task of pondering the actual meaning of the Bible, as originally intended, as mediated by tradition, and as it applies to the dauntingly complex socio-cultural situation they are only too glad to flee.

The explosive rise of the NRGs in the Pacific has had its parallels in other parts of the world. Following its great changes in the 1950s and 1960s, Africa has been inundated with fundamentalist and right-wing religious groups that have made a surprising number of converts. Latin America and the Philippines have seen the rise of successful Pentecostal and fundamentalist religious activity in recent years. Conservative televangelists in the United States have had a much publicized impact on a wide segment of the American population. Meanwhile, the widespread fundamentalist revival in Muslim nations in reaction to the threat of modernization is proof that this phenomenon is not restricted to Christianity.

Everywhere there are signs of a headlong flight toward a religion that offers a simple vision of life and is divorced from the troubling socio-political issues of today's world. By way of a counter-measure that would regain the initiative for them, mainline churches could mount serious programs aimed at instructing their congregations on the origin and the meaning of the social changes besetting island peoples today. Few of the churches avail themselves of this opportunity to do so, however; they offer spiritual solace but little help in understanding these changes. Thus, they do nothing to disperse the fog that modernization casts over the Pacific, while bewailing the loss of their membership to rival religious movements.

Appeal of the New Groups

The very characteristics of most NRGs that make them suspect in the eyes of mainline church leaders have an undeniable appeal for people yearning for a simple world that is no more. NRGs for the most part evangelize openly and without embarrassment; they are perceived to possess an enthusiasm that the more established religions have lost. The most successful NRGs, moreover, have rituals and conversion symbols that mark a sharp distinction between the reformed and the unreformed. These can include a distinctive style of dress, a switch in the day of worship from Sunday to Saturday, revival tent-like theatrics at youth assemblies, encouragement of emotional displays during worship. My point is not to caricature such practices but to show that these distinctive symbols can represent NRGs, even such non-denominational groups as Youth with a Mission and Campus Crusade, as radical and vital alternatives to effete mainline religions which have faded into the social landscape.

Much of the success that NRGs have experienced stems from offering the potential convert the chance to make a symbolic break from this passing and painful world. One need not attempt to integrate the harsh and ambiguous reality of life into one's religious beliefs; one must, rather, distance oneself from these realities and find refuge in faith. The more distressing the times the more appealing this solution. A few years ago I was surprised to meet a former Catholic student of mine, whom I had remembered as a rather wild teenager, dressed in his Mormon white shirt and tie as he was going about visiting houses on Pohnpei. In school he had been clearly in need of discipline, as he himself recognized, and was so impressed at meeting the well-groomed young men from a nearby Mormon campus that he cut his hair short, gave up alcohol and marijuana, and joined the Mormon congregation. Membership in the Latter Day Saints, with its distinctive badge, was a break from the past. It was a trip halfway around the world from his former days as a drifter and troublemaker.

In contrast to the mainline churches, NRGs seem to have a personal feel to them. Many of the groups send out missionaries to do house-to-house proselytism, the congregations are smaller and have a less impersonal atmosphere, and the worship is often less rigid and more accommodating of individual needs. Any number of converts to these groups have remarked appreciatively on the personal interest that they experienced from the start. They were satisfied that they had found a religious group in which they could be taken seriously as an individual and make a difference. The appeal of an evangelical personalism for those who feel that they are living on the outskirts of their world can scarcely be overstated.


The author of Winds of Change, citing the sociological work done on new religious movements worldwide, warns that no one master theory can satisfactorily explain the fast growth of NRGs. While this is no doubt true, we can try to untangle the skein of factors that has given rise to this phenomenon in the Pacific and identify one or two of the main threads. Rapid social change is surely not the only cause for their expansion, but it is just as surely one of the most significant. The climate of change in the Pacific affords more than an explanation for the appeal of fundamentalist movements in our day; it also provides the conditions under which they may bloom. In weakening the force of traditional social conformity in the islands, modernization offers persons the freedom to break the old church-community bonds that once inhibited the growth of separatist movements. The fragmentation of religious groups, although a historical fact in earlier days, was a rather rare event. This is no longer the case, as we can plainly see from the multiplicity of religious groups that coexist in all island societies today.

Is it simply a coincidence that the Pacific has witnessed this religious proliferation since the 1960s, the era of intense social change in this region? That would be very unlikely, especially in view of the forms that these religious groups take. When the winds of change blow as strongly as they have in recent years, even the religious landscape is altered.