Why the Pacific Islands Are 90 Percent Christian

It wasn’t only because of missionaries from the West, says a Tongan Australian theologian.

Christian overseas missionaries were more successful in Oceania—the region spanning the Pacific Islands, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand—than anywhere else in the world.

In particular, people in the Pacific Islands (which include Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, and more) were receptive to the gospel because “their ancestors’ strong beliefs in a divine presence and in the afterlife made them very open to Christian faith,” wrote Jacqueline Ryle, a contributor to the 2021 reference volume Christianity in Oceania.

Tongan Australian theologian Katalina Tahaafe-Williams says her research reveals the same: The growth of Christianity in the region was not because of white Europeans but rather due to Indigenous missionaries who translated Christianity in a way that made sense to locals.

Tahaafe-Williams, who lives in Sydney, served as the Indigenous coeditor for the book alongside prominent global Christianity scholars Kenneth R. Ross and Todd M. Johnson.

“Our goal was to recruit Indigenous writers from all over the region to contribute to this volume,” she explained. “It was my task to connect with potential authors, theologians, leaders, and church members from the Pacific Islands … we were very committed to finding, however challenging it might be, authors who were part of that particular culture, thereby making the work very authentic.”

CT Global books editor Geethanjali Tupps spoke with Tahaafe-Williams on why Christianity flourished in the Pacific Islands, how migration patterns have impacted the church, and why the region shouldn’t serve as the poster child for climate change issues.

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