December 12, 2017

Reaching the Pearls of the Pacific for Christ

David Utter

Travel posters and calendars mesmerize us with beautiful scenes from tropical islands scattered across the Pacific. Decades ago, Robert Louis Stevenson gave the designation “Pearls of the Pacific” to the Marshall Islands. God has truly displayed His capacity for lovely creation in many of these remote places. Yet that beauty is often marred by the sinful lives of those who are unsaved. The needs are great and the challenges numerous, but many islands of the Pacific are in great need of those who will bring the liberating truth of the gospel.

One challenge in reaching these areas is logistics. The Marshall Islands are spread out over a 700,000-square-mile area in the middle of the Pacific about halfway between Hawaii and Guam. Yet the total land mass is barely 70 square miles. Small islands with relatively small populations are far apart, and the transportation to most is not entirely reliable or predictable. As a result of their remoteness, many islands have rather “primitive” lifestyles on them.

Another factor confronting the potential evangelist is that of the languages. The language of all the Marshalls is Marshallese. This contrasts to some of the other island groups in Micronesia where there are multiple (but related) languages in the same group. While the languages of Micronesia may not be difficult grammatically, the problem is the acquisition of these languages. For the most part, there are no language schools and few books from which to learn, so the missionary must do it on his own. Because the use of English varies, it is necessary to learn the local language.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in reaching these islands for Christ is the syncretism which has taken place over many decades. Missionaries first came to the Marshalls in the mid 1800s. Today, the nation considers itself Christian and even has a nation holiday called Gospel Day to celebrate the coming of the first missionaries. Nearly every speech at political and education events begins by thanking God. It is common to hear people speak of the light which has come to the Marshalls.

However, the same people who express thankfulness for what they term “the gospel” also go to diviners when they are sick to see who cast a spell on them. Some preachers go to local medicine practitioners for treatments to make them more popular among the people. Bible pages are wadded up and pinned to infants’ clothing to keep away evil spirits, and Bible pages are inserted in empty bottles hung from trees for the same purposes. The animism that controlled the lives of the people decades ago is still very much alive.

Immorality is rampant. Many believe that it is better to live in fornication than to marry and risk the possibility of divorce. This contrasts with the outward mere conformity to religion as evidenced by the general modesty in dress and the taboos regarding public displays of affection even by those who are married.

In dealing with people here, we often come up against three challenges. First, there is a tendency for the people to say yes and give the answer that they believe the speaker desires. This may stem from a desire to be kind, but it can be misleading to the evangelist. Second, there is a confusion of terms. “Repentance” and “belief” are well known to the nationals but have become imbued with different meanings from those of Scripture. Third, there is a tendency for the people to join a cause for perceived benefits even when those benefits may be considered minor by American standards.

Given this situation, this is a place where missionaries are needed who will commit to learning the language, living among the people, and communicating the gospel clearly, cogently, and compassionately. Quick trips and evangelistic rallies are probably not the best means for reaching these people, who have such wrong beliefs ingrained in their thinking. However, God desires and is able to reach those in small remote groups as well as those in large urban areas. Only two of the inhabited thirty Marshall Islands have gospel-preaching works, and much of the rest of the Pacific is in similar need with scattered islands needing those who will commit their lives to making disciples of Christ in remote places.

David Utter is a missionary from Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina to the Marshall Islands.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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