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Pacific churches in New Zealand

by Cluny Macpherson

Freshly scrubbed faces, starched shirts and gleaming white outfits are a highly visible part of White Sunday, an annual event in the Samoan church calendar celebrating children. Churches have played a central role in the lives of New Zealand’s Pacific Island communities, often acting like a village, with the minister in a powerful role similar to the village chief.

History of Pacific churches

The first church

The first Pacific church community in New Zealand was formed in Newton, central Auckland, in 1947 to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of immigrants from Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and the Tokelau islands. At the time there were fewer than 3,000 Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.

Initiated by the Congregational Union of New Zealand – which had links with Congregational churches in the Pacific – the church was named the Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church (PICC). Within the PICC, separate ethnic communities formed basically autonomous congregations, each of which was represented in the session (the body responsible for church governance). The PICC called ministers from the Pacific to lead the church.

Other denominations

Early Pacific immigrants from other denominations were encouraged to worship in existing, largely Pākehā, congregations in central Auckland. As migrant numbers increased, the Catholic, Methodist, Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Seventh Day Adventist and Assembly of God churches moved to provide specifically for the spiritual and pastoral needs of their new Pacific members.


In the 1950s and 1960s new church communities were formed as more Pacific Island immigrants arrived. The new arrivals moved to suburban Auckland and beyond – mostly to places with a plentiful supply of low- and semi-skilled jobs, such as the forestry towns of Tokoroa and Kawerau, and the cities of Wellington and Christchurch with their factories. Well-paid jobs in freezing works and the Bluff aluminium smelter drew Pacific Island migrants as far south as Invercargill, where a church was also established.

Dressing up, dressing down

In the 1960s church members dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ – men in suits and ties, and women in dresses, hats and gloves. In the early 21st century the dress code in most congregations was more casual, with many members wearing shirts, skirts and shorts featuring Pacific patterns and prints.

New structures

Some people within the PICC wanted to follow a form of Christianity centred on Samoan traditions and language. In 1963 they formed a breakaway church, the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (CCCS) or Ekalesia Fa’apotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa (EFKS). This was a clone of the parent EFKS church in Samoa, where many had worshipped before coming to New Zealand.

Conversely, the merger of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in 1969 – which saw the PICC become the Pacific Island Presbyterian Church (PIPC) – reflected a desire for a diverse, multi-ethnic church.

The split divided Pacific church communities into those whose parent church was based in the Pacific Islands and those based in New Zealand. The latter included the Samoan Methodist Church, which was independent of the New Zealand Methodist Church.

Religious belief in the 21st century

In the 2013 census 78% of Pacific people described themselves as Christian, compared to 47.7% for the country as a whole. Forty-two per cent of all New Zealanders stated they had no religion, but the figure for Pacific people was only 16.5%. The most devout were Tuvaluans, with just 4.2% having no religion; the least devout were Cook Island Māori, 28.8% of whom said that they had no religion.

Resurrecting St Paul’s

In 2009 an arson attack on St Paul’s Trinity Pacific Presbyerian Church in Christchurch caused $1 million of damage. The 700-strong congregation was devastated. Church member Tailua Soli said it was ‘like finding a dead body. We were all born and raised in the church ... It’s a second home for a lot of us, we are here every day.’ 1 The building was condemned after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake and services were held in the church hall until a new building opened on a different site in 2018.


Among Pacific Island Christians in New Zealand in 2013, the largest denomination was Catholic (24.2%), followed by Presbyterian/Congregational (20.8%), then Methodist (15.6%). The distribution was partly a legacy of 19th-century missionary activity in the Pacific. For example, Samoa attracted both Congregational and Catholic missions. Of the Samoan New Zealanders who identified themselves as Christian in 2013, 27.8% were Catholic and 20.9% were Presbyterian/Congregational. In Tonga, Methodist missionaries predominated, and 41.2% of New Zealand Tongan Christians in 2013 were Methodists.

In New Zealand there was a greater range of denominations to choose from, and 8.9% of Pacific Island Christians were Mormons and 8.1% were Pentecostals.


Programmes and services

Church as a village

The demand for faith communities in New Zealand, and the form that they took, reflected the role of churches in Pacific societies. Island community life and personal social identity were built around three closely integrated institutions: family, church and village. This structure was recreated in New Zealand with new or existing church communities acting as surrogate villages. Those who had identified as members of a particular family, denomination and village back home could continue to do so. Within this structure the minister or pastor was akin to a village chief – the most powerful and respected figure in the church community.

First Tokelauan mass


Petone in Lower Hutt has a strong Tokelauan community. In 1985 a mass was held in the Catholic Sacred Heart Church to celebrate the first missal (prayer book) with a Tokelauan text. It was the first time the congregation had heard the Mass in their own language.


Programmes and activities

As in the village, the church became the focus of social life for many migrant families. Alongside religious worship, churches provided programmes of activities which included social and professional advice, health and educational services, sport, music and social activities for various age groups.

A sporty church


Sport is a strong feature of Pacific church communities. Many field teams in a wide range of codes. In 2009 the Pacific Islanders Presbyterian Church in Newtown, Wellington, was represented in bowls, football, netball, volleyball and kilikiti (Samoan cricket). In that year their women’s kilikiti team came fourth in the Wellington regional competition.


The range of programmes and activities varies between denominations and individual congregations. Some denominations, such as Catholics, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists, provide centralised programmes which limit local autonomy. Mormon programmes are highly structured, with activities based on age and marital status. Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches have greater local autonomy and are freer to determine the shape of their religious worship and social programmes.

Degrees of autonomy

The ways that local autonomy was exercised depended significantly on the religious and lay leadership. Churches whose parent church was in the Pacific Islands, such as the Samoan Congregational Christian Church, recreated the religious forms, governance structures and social programmes of Samoan villages. These are based on indigenous models in which power rests mainly with males. They typically favour conservative religious agendas and worship styles, and run limited social programmes. The organisation of these church communities serves those who want to maintain traditional religious values and customs.

Other congregations have established a range of new religious and social activities which respond to contemporary needs in the New Zealand context.

Inter-agency links

The most comprehensive programmes are typically in congregations where clergy have recruited younger, well-educated lay personnel into leadership roles. Their skills and social networks have enabled congregations to secure funds, advice and services from public and private agencies to support and extend their programmes. Some government agencies have looked to churches to deliver educational, health, employment and other social programmes to Pacific populations.

Healthier churches


In 2005 the Counties Manukau District Health Board gave 50 Pacific Island churches a grant as part of its LotuMotu programme to support health promotion and disease prevention. Each church received either $3,000 or $5,000 towards a programme of their choice. At the Ōtara Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Uea Tuleia introduced an exercise and healthy eating programme. He joined the exercise class and reduced his weight from 140 to 89 kilograms.


Early childhood education centres, Pacific language nests, and homework and adult education classes have been established on church premises. Some churches have co-sponsored anti-domestic abuse programmes. Others have used members’ professional contacts to ensure Pacific peoples’ voices are heard in public policy debates. A few churches have formed partnerships with research groups and community projects, providing data and information in return for advice and assistance.

Church services

Services of worship are held on Sundays, and on Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas. The form of liturgy (service) follows that laid down by the particular denomination, but normally includes the singing of hymns and praise songs, prayers, a sermon, the collection of an offering, and church notices. Catholics celebrate communion (the Mass) every Sunday; Presbyterians do so monthly. Some congregations have pipe organs and large choirs, while others make do with pianos or guitars. Most services last about an hour, but some can go on much longer, depending on the denomination or congregation.


Pacific church communities, particularly the more conservative ones, have faced challenges both externally and internally – sometimes from New Zealand-born members who found traditional church structures alienating and poorly suited to New Zealand life.


The low status of youth in village life has sometimes made it difficult for them to have their views taken seriously by church elders. This has been compounded for those who did not speak a Pacific language, as communicating with elders in English could be seen as disrespectful. Some young people felt there was an overemphasis on maintaining cultural obligations at the expense of their spiritual lives. Others felt marginalised by the strong authority of ministers or pastors and the pressure to attend church and church programmes. There was a growing number of other communities that youth could join instead, including sports clubs, school-based cultural groups, youth gangs and friendship circles outside church.

Wearing white

White Sunday or Lotu Tamaiti is among the most important dates in the Samoan religious calendar. Held on the second Sunday in October, it is the one day in the year where children host the church service, which can include singing, drama, verse and rapping. The day recognises the high value Jesus Christ placed on children; everyone dresses in white to symbolise the purity of a child’s heart; parents buy new clothes for their children and, in a reversal of usual family roles, serve them for the day.

Church finances

Church finances have also been contentious, especially in churches whose parent church was in the Pacific Islands. In New Zealand-based churches the minister’s stipend (salary) was set by the parent church and new congregations were only set up when a community could afford a minister and church. Members’ donations were private matters and limited to giving a tithe (a percentage of income), or a matter of personal choice. This enabled members to meet both their religious and their secular commitments.

Defending gifting

In Pacific-based churches it is customary for the names of donors and the amount they have given to be read out in church. The practice has been criticised for encouraging people to give more than they can afford for fear of being publicly belittled. In 2007 the head of the Samoan Methodist Church in Auckland, the Reverend Vaiao Alailima-Eteuaiti, defended the practice as ‘part of our tradition … We indigenised Christianity and that’s the way we do it.’1

Churches with a parent church in the islands often developed around a group of families and grew from there. This could place financial hardship on church members, who were encouraged to donate large portions of their incomes – beyond a regular tithe – to attract a pastor and build a church. Sometimes members were encouraged to mortgage their homes to help fund church building. Pressure for large-scale giving was then maintained so the pastor could live in a style that reflected their chiefly status. Because a pastor’s pay was determined by the size of their congregation, those in large congregations could become very wealthy.

Public criticism

In the 21st century the culture of large donations among some Pacific-based church communities was criticised by social-service agencies for impoverishing their members. Some families, ashamed at the prospect of missing a church payment, had turned to loan sharks, crime and gambling to secure funds for their church, increasing their debt levels and forcing some into bankruptcy. Critics said some pastors were grasping and too concerned with their own material comfort. While they were quick to call for money and gifts, they were slow to help families in genuine need. Church leaders agreed that some churches exploited their members.

Backing up Brian

In the 2010s Pacific Islanders made up a significant part of the Destiny Church, headed by televangelist Brian Tamaki. The church translated services into four Pacific Island languages – Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island Māori and Fijian – and boasted an impressive Samoan cultural performance group.

Migration to other churches

As financial pressures from churches grew, many young people moved to churches that made fewer financial demands on their members while meeting their spiritual needs. The Pentecostal movement has benefited from this change. The promotion of a personal relationship with God, more lively services, and less emphasis on ritual and cultural traditions have particularly attracted Samoan Christians – in 2013 they comprised 67% of Pacific Island Pentecostals.


Change and adaptation

New Zealand-educated Pacific people’s expectations of the churches’ role differ from the expectations of older people. As younger people exert increasing influence within congregations, some elements of traditional governance and organisation are changing.

English-speaking groups

With growing numbers of members who spoke English as their first language, some congregations introduced English-speaking groups and services of worship. In the Pacific Island Presbyterian Church (PIPC), the English-speaking group sat alongside the Samoan, Niuean, Cook Island and Tokelauan groups, with comparable status and rights in church governance. The PIPC leadership also realised that this group had different aspirations and gave them greater autonomy in the form and style of their worship.

Maintaining the language


In 2004 Auckland University researcher Melenaite Taumoefolau noted that the use of Pacific languages was declining in New Zealand churches and homes. She urged the greater use of Pacific languages in church services, funeral services and cultural celebrations to ensure their survival.


Other denominations have adopted similar measures to retain the interest and support of their New Zealand-educated members, from whom their future support will come.

Women in leadership

There have also been challenges to the traditional male dominance of religious and lay leadership and governance structures. New Zealand-based Protestant churches recruited and ordained women ministers from the late 1950s. The Pacific Island Congregational Church, and then the PIPC, recruited significant numbers of women to the ministry and to important lay leadership roles. The more conservative Pacific-based churches, which restrict the formal influence of women within church governance, were less willing to appoint and train women for either ministry or lay leadership.

Gay clergy

In the 1990s and early 2000s New Zealand-based Methodist and Presbyterian congregations were divided over the appointment of gay clergy. Pacific Island congregations largely opposed the move, believing it defied Christian doctrine. This put them at odds with more liberal church hierarchies.

A group of Methodists – mostly Pacific Islanders – who opposed the ordination of gay ministers formed the Wesleyan Methodist Movement in the 1990s. Many members, some ministers and several entire congregations left the main Methodist Church in protest over the appointment of gay clergy, and in 2000 the Wesleyan Methodist Church was established as a breakaway church. Perhaps to avoid such a split, the Presbyterian Church banned the appointment of gay clergy.

Higher standards

Some people have also challenged the more traditional churches’ acceptance of human weaknesses in their leaders, such as personal misconduct and inconsistent governance standards. New Zealand-born and -educated Christians have been less tolerant of such faults than older Pacific Island-born Christians.

Future directions

In the Pacific, families typically have longstanding connections with particular denominations and exert pressure on members to remain within them, but in New Zealand people are free to leave and join other denominations. Pacific church communities are likely to remain a central feature of Pacific enclaves in New Zealand, but they will continue to adapt to the growing influence of New Zealand-raised members. The high levels of participation in early Pacific church communities may decline, as patterns of religious commitment for New Zealand-raised Pacific Islanders come to resemble those of the general population.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Cluny Macpherson, 'Pacific churches in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Cluny Macpherson, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 10 April 2018