A noticeable feature of the Samoan landscape that always catches our Palagi visitors’ attention is the plethora of churches in Samoa. Depending on your perspective this can be either a good thing or not.
It is rare that a guest from offshore will not make mention of Samoa’s remarkable infatuation with big, bright and expensive church buildings.
Please let it be known that I love church architecture, the majesty of towers rising to the heights, the glorious sounds of church bells in the distance and the enormous efforts of a village to show their capacity to conceptualise, work together, fund and produce such amazing structures.
I do love the beauty of stained glass windows and always enjoy the musical and spiritual charm of a hymn. For me, any hymn will do! I enjoy studying the various ceilings and wondering what construction techniques the builders used to hold the building in place. I’m told that in times of inclement weather, people will take refuge in them, and for that I am also appreciative.
I love seeing people united in purpose and working for a common goal such as a new church construction. I understand full well that a village and a Pastor receive a real sense of satisfaction from having a large and imposing church structure, for show. I certainly understand how this can be very important to many Samoan people.
But I too share the thoughts and feelings of certainly the majority of our guests who find the presence of a multi-million tala constructions incongruous in the midst of simple Faleo’os, aging houses and a people in the main appear to be to our guests only poor subsistence farmers in an emerging third-world country.
Experienced travelers all mention that it is always in the poorer countries where the human efforts excel at church construction. It’s almost as if the absence of wealth in a society opens the door to extremes of expenditure on religion – and not only the Christian form at that, I might add.
While there may be social reasons; some aesthetic reasons and perhaps even some practical spin-off benefits for developing a large church building, I struggle to see scriptural justification for this practice. My bible tells me that while the first Christians had communal values and lifestyle perhaps with similarities to the Samoan lifestyle, they completed the bulk of their work in the first century without church buildings (nor in deed from within any church denominational system). This is a world away from what has become standard practice in Samoa.
If the Lord did miracles throughout the first century sufficient to “overturn the known world” without any physical churches, one wonders what He could and would do if we didn’t build churches in Samoa but instead practiced what the early Christians did.
I venture to suggest that with a reduction in church construction, debt eliminated and church building expenditure removed from our equation, people would, just like the first century Christians did, find other better ways to meet, fellowship, worship and do good things.
In summary, I will say that the practice of church building construction, while normal church practice, admirable in some ways and apparently beneficial in others is neither based on direct scriptural instruction; nor implied within scripture; nor condoned by God in practice since. Instead, the scriptures report to us the enormous power, effective preaching and global evangelising efforts that arose from the early believers without the presence of church buildings.
While I’m certainly happy to enjoy the presence of churches in Paradise, wisdom, (defined her as determining the heart and mind of God in any given situation), fits more naturally with the Palagi perspective, that a multi-million tala construction in the middle of a third-world country (especially when saddled with burdensome debt) is simply not smart, nor biblical.
Dennis A. Smith (www.dennis.co.nz) is a Samoa-based author, blogger and CEO of the SWAP Foundation, home of Samoa voluntourism.