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New Strategy Gives Hope To Affiliating Samoan Churches

by Rev. Sepulona Tanuvasa

     An old African proverb holds that “it takes a village to raise a child.”  In the case of the Samoan community’s affiliation with United Church of Christ, it takes two “villages” to nurture a church – their own and that embodied in the goals and values of the Church & Ministry process.

     While it currently takes up to five years for a newly affiliating church in the Southern California Nevada Conference to become a member of the UCC – and up to eight years at the national level, Gary Roberts, Associate for Church Development & Renewal, reports a newly adopted Church Development Strategy is to be able to complete the process in less than three years.

     That strategy, designed to assist newly affiliating churches and newly forming churches navigate the Church & Ministry process, is the result of a February 9, 2010 meeting between the Church Development Implementation Team and the Chairs of the Church & Ministry Committees from each Association.  Also present were the Association Moderators and other key Conference leaders.

     The challenges of affiliating a church are greatest when that church is from a culture other than the prevailing one.  It takes time for the members of both to comprehend the other’s interpretation of shared vocabulary.  While they use the same words to express covenant, polity, theology, community and stewardship, their understanding of them often differ. 

     The Fa’a-Samoa (the Samoan way of life) is very community oriented.  From early childhood a Samoan is trained up in the cultural ways of the community.  Everyone is expected to participate in the life of the community and to put the community before self.  Thus the community defines the individual, not the individual the community.  This is why it is rare to find a Samoan who is not part of the church: the church is central to the Samoan community.

     Covenant, which is sacred and revered in the Samoan culture, especially in the life of the church, holds the community together at all levels.  Covenant signifies the highest respect between two individuals or individuals and a community.  For example, ordinary folk are bound by covenant to their tribal chiefs, giving them honor, respect and loyalty.  In the Samoan church, a similar covenantal relationship exists between pastor and congregation.

     Samoan polity is both congregational and Presbyterian – congregational in that each village is autonomous; Presbyterian in that all village pastors report to one Elder.  Samoan theology is practical and incarnational – practical in that the integrity of scripture is maintained but applied to the Samoan way of life; incarnational in that the gospel is given form by the community.

     Samoans work to maintain their culture and church.  Transparency is highly valued, exuberance at the core of everything they do.  Giving in the Samoan community is a time of great excitement and sacrifice.  The entire community comes together to celebrate their faith through stewardship, to bring forward their offerings, to celebrate together.

      The Samoan Ministries is one of the fastest growing in the Conference.   While immersion into the prevailing culture is beneficial in broadening understanding and creating harmony, its purpose is not to adopt or adapt to that culture, to encourage Samoans to surrender their cultural identity.  Culture is a gift to share.  It is through our diversity that we enrich our mutual experience of God.

     This sharing makes it very exciting to be a part of the SCNC’s new Church Development Strategy which, seeing cultural differences not as the enemy, but as a blessing, takes into consideration the unique differences among the various cultures of churches seeking affiliation and invites all to share in the richness of God’s gift of multiple cultures.

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