September 12, 2014

My Tahiti Trip Finds a New Challenge in Sharing Jesus

, communications director for the South Pacific Division and
editor of South Pacific Record

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 urbanization. It’s therefore no
surprise that one of the centers for "Mission to the Cities"
evangelism is Faaa — an urban area adjacent to Papeete, the capital of French

James Standish, pictured in 2010. Photo: ANN

“Most of the people
around here are originally from the outer islands,” notes Pastor Roger
Tetuanui, president of the French Polynesian Mission.

When I inquire
whether it's really likely that people will show up at the three centers for
evangelism under a tent on a rainy Monday night, he replies casually, “Yes, we

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.

Our church in French
Polynesia has about 4,800 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 urbanization
has come a growing secularization. People are busy earning the money to buy the
stuff they are told they need by the advertisements they are absorbing as they
sit mesmerized 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
Faaa 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 that 10 years ago we had better turnouts,” Tetuanui
says. “But wait and see.”

We drive down the mountain to the second site. What a difference. The tent is
full and 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 role in the French Polynesian government, is registering
all the attendees. She refers to her list and says, “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

Windolina Natua, a public school teacher, is managing registration at the third
site — the 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,” Tetuanui says. “And we’re looking at
innovative new ways to share the gospel. But on Sept. 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
neighbors to give their lives to the Lord. A lot, lot more.”