128 years in Papua New Guinea

It was a warm morning in Lae, slightly muggy but with a blanket of cloud guarding us from the hot tropical sun. People were waiting around under the trees talking amongst themselves. Everything was due to begin an hour ago, ‘PNG time’ people laughed apologetically, personally I found it rather refreshing not to be chained to a watch.

With increasing frequency, buses and trucks full of people were pulling up and the waiting crowds grew exponentially. By now the beat of a kundu drum was sounding through the air as a group of Kåte singers from Finschhafen, dressed in colourful traditional dress, began dancing and singing joyfully. Soon a column of people began to form with the dancers at the head and banner bearers behind them. A police car flashed its lights, the traffic along the busy Basu Road stood still, and a joyful procession made its way down the road to Martin Luther Seminary (MLS).

Nobody could tell me exactly how many people were at MLS that day, but over 2000 people would be a rather conservative estimate. They were gathered to celebrate the annual celebration of the Lutheran church in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Dubbed ‘ELCPNG Sunday’ (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea Sunday), this celebration marks the arrival of Missionary Flierl to Simbang on 12 July 1886.

Although ELCPNG Sunday is commonly marked by Lutheran congregations throughout PNG, the scale of these celebrations in Lae was quite unprecedented. Why something so big for the 128th Anniversary? Why not wait two years for a nice round number like 130?

For the organisers of this event, the number of the anniversary was immaterial. What they wanted to give the church was a show of solidarity; Lutherans gathering together not to celebrate an arbitrary number, but rather to remember the real gift that Flierl brought to PNG that day – the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And the story of the Lutheran church in PNG is one that is worth telling. In actual fact, the Lutheran church in PNG represents the biggest Protestant mission effort anywhere in the world; since the time of Flierl more than 600 missionaries, both lay and ordained, have worked in PNG.

Now, built on these foundations, a church of about 1.2 million people is standing. For 128 years God has been faithfully working through Lutherans in PNG; and that work is far from over. With ELCPNG today you don’t need to look very far to see how this immense institution is facing a myriad of challenges: financial concerns, conflicts and divisions, crumbling infrastructure, the once solid business arm of the church is floundering, and the once seemingly indestructible entity, Lutheran Shipping, is now facing voluntary liquidation.

The organisers clearly had these issues in mind when they settled on the theme for the celebrations, inspired by Esther 4:12-14: ‘My church, my day, my time.’

Talking to people, and listening to what they had to say, there was an unmistakable mood of optimism for ELCPNG Sunday. The question was asked time and again: ‘What are our true foundations as a church?’ The responses were encouraging: ‘Do we really need the business arm of the church to do God’s work?’; ‘How much longer are we going to rely on our overseas partner churches to prop us up?’; ‘The greatest gift the missionaries brought to us is the gospel of Jesus Christ.’; ‘We have God’s Word, we have the gift of his Holy Spirit: the time has come for us to stand firm as God’s church, built on his foundations!’.

Nobody denies that there is a very long road ahead for the ELCPNG, and the challenges they face are very real. What can we do? Perhaps the greatest gift we can give our sister, the ELCPNG on her 128th birthday, is the gift of prayer. Let’s pray continually for our Lutheran brothers and sisters in PNG. Let’s ask God to pour out his Holy Spirit upon them, so that they can walk the road before them in his grace, peace and wisdom. Then, let’s wait with joyful expectation, to see how God continues this work.

Many of our partner churches are working in new territory for the kingdom of God; therefore, spiritual attack is their everyday reality. As a member of a congregation, school, or family, or a couple or individual, you are invited to commit to praying for our partners in mission. For regular prayer point updates, go to www.lca.org.au/international-mission/act-now/pray

Read more stories about our partner church in Papua New Guinea at http://www.lcamission.org.au/category/stories/international-partners/papua-new-guinea/