The more I know … the less I know.

The joy and challenges of being an Australian Lutheran in Papua New Guinea.

Of the 25 years he has been a Lutheran Church of Australia pastor, Greg Schiller has spent 22 of them in Papua New Guinea, in a diverse range of settings and circumstances. The lessons and insights gained over these years prepare him well for the next season of ministry, as he becomes advisor in the Evangelism department of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea (ELC-PNG), based in Lae. Greg shares some of his story and insights into PNG life and culture, which has helped to shape who he is.

Born in Angaston, South Australia, in January, 1960, Greg was baptised into God’s family at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Light Pass. During the ensuing years, he was nurtured in the faith. Greg’s life was based around the family property, and he worked weekends in the vineyard. For Greg, everything centred on the small village of Light Pass and he didn’t venture much beyond it until after high school.

Greg continues with his story, in his own words…

Growing up in this community, people at church and Sunday School encouraged me to think about being a pastor. I remember in my early years I didn’t want to be a pastor and I used to react strongly against those suggestions. I was reserved and nervous as a teen and couldn’t see myself in that role. Yet, when I started year 12, I felt a compulsion to apply to study at Luther Seminary (now known as Australian Lutheran College, North Adelaide). After year 12, I began my studies at Luther Seminary in 1978. In those days, the course went for seven years! In 1982, I deferred and worked as a teacher support at Good Shepherd Lutheran School, Angaston. In 1983, I returned to the seminary and eventually gained my BTh, graduating in 1985.

At the seminary, I made many close friendships with international students who were boarding. I had never met anyone from another country before; my world had been Light Pass! From those friendships I realised it came naturally to me to be with, accept, and enjoy the company of those from different nations. The great times I had with my friends from Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea stirred my interest in cross-cultural ministry. I learned a lot from them and these friendships contributed significantly to who I am today.

I was always known, at seminary, as the friend of the international students. I often took them home to Light Pass. My family was great, always ready to look after another international guest and often getting them to pick grapes as well. Added to this, I was additionally encouraged in the direction of cross-cultural ministry when I visited Ceduna and Yalata during one seminary holiday field trip. There I observed the ministry of Mark Thiel, Murray Thomas (now Rev), and Rev Robert Winderlich (now deceased). I saw these people grappling with the task of understanding a community quite different to any I had experienced, and communicating Christ into that context. I came back from that trip with a new enthusiasm to learn more.

When I was ready for vicarage in 1984, an opportunity in PNG was suggested. I jumped at this, spending 12 months, supervised by LCA missionary pastor Rev Cecil Logan (Bulolo and Siassi) and others. That year confirmed God was guiding my life and experiences for a cross-cultural ministry.

While originally positioned in PNG for one year as a vicar, I remember consciously thinking I’m going to be living here, not just breezing in and out. I had to live within the context of this culture and country, as best I could. So I was thorough in learning Melanesian Tok Pisin. I appreciate Cecil didn’t just let me tag along, following him around everywhere. He used to drop me off somewhere with some people and I’d spend all day, every day, stumbling through the language. We would learn, swim, eat and share the day together, without another white person in sight. It was the best thing for me. I quickly felt at home and bonded with local people.

Following graduation I was called to PNG and, from 1986-1990, worked with the ELC-PNG Jiwaka District. I was based at Banz as a pastoral advisor –quite amazing, as I was only fresh out of seminary! Between 1991 and 2001, I served as lecturer at the Highlands Seminary, Oglebeng, a role which also included dean of studies, treasurer, vice-principal, and acting principal.

Following this season I returned to Australia and, for three years, served as pastor in South Australia’s Nuriootpa parish. I returned to PNG in 2005 to serve as lecturer and dean of studies at Martin Luther Seminary, Lae, until the end of 2010.

The Papua New Guinean people are very relationship -oriented, whereas we Westerners are generally very individual-centred. I am naturally a solitary person, so PNG brought me out a bit. Therefore, I had to risk myself more in relationships. I learned the importance of relationships, and social interaction – how people support each other and work things out together. At the same time, this can cause problems, as people cover up for each other and don’t address problems/issues, in order to not to disrupt relationships or cause shame.

In PNG, people learn more by doing than by reading or analysing. I found modelling the pastor’s life and the Christian life very important and that actions speak louder than words. I’ve also discovered Christian clichés aren’t helpful, so have had to think through things, often in a different language, or ask others to think things through to understand how the message is coming across.

PNG has a strong lay participation in the church. People are keen to be involved and contribute – even young people! Papua New Guineans are great at celebrating and feasting. I think this would be a good thing for Australian Christians to adopt!

Over the years, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of LCA members serving in PNG. Because of the relationship orientation of PNG people, they have wondered what has happened to the Australian Lutherans.

At the same time, it is right and high time for PNG Lutherans to own programs and serve in their church with their gifts and local resources. What is sad is that we (Australian Lutherans) stopped visiting PNG, appearing as if we no longer cared. Australian Lutherans should know they have friends in PNG from who they can learn and experience, instead of always thinking the only reason for us to come to PNG is as experts showing how it’s done.

I’m often afraid of the word “partnership” but, too often, it ends up as “sponsorship”, resulting in people developing an unhealthy dependent mentality. As much as we try not to be, (me included), we do communicate a message that we are the ones with the resources, money and knowledge. Subsequently, Papua New Guineans feel they don’t have anything to contribute.

Sadly, this mentality develops from some “partnerships” and keeps the local church from being what it can be with God-given gifts and resources. There are ways for all to contribute meaningfully in a partnership, but it takes a lot of wisdom (and not always money). One of the major challenges is for PNG to locally own, resource and operate church/mission programs.

PNG’s people already have strong beliefs in spiritual powers. Often, a Christian veneer covers the continuing fear of, and activity with, the demonic. Some “Christian” teaching seems to reinforce animistic belief, and doesn’t point to Christ and His message. The whole area of spirit powers, as well as health and healing, need to be dealt with. Linked with this, I also see the health/wealth/prosperity preaching picked up by itching ears as some preach it as the Word of God.

People connect a misfortune or sickness to something wrong that they have done. Similarly, success and blessing must be linked to something good they have done. These issues are not thought through enough. There are some pastors taking up the challenge to combat this teaching and thinking, but more needs to be done. The church’s pastors and leaders must address many issues relevant in PNG, to ensure the gospel is clearly proclaimed and church practices correspond to the gospel message.

In all regions, PNG Lutherans have written and continue to write their own songs – traditional tunes and words. I see local and indigenous theology, people thinking through the word of God and what it means to them.

The longer I stay, the less I know! So I have to stay longer – to learn more! I’ve never felt like an expert here and have learned a lot from many. I thank God for my friendship with many PNG people and their willingness to share with me – especially my friendship with Penga. I never could have stayed so long without he and his family’s love and acceptance of me.

My hope and prayer for the ELC-PNG is it becomes a Church confident in using its God-given resources. That it not be dependent on others, but seek what it can contribute beyond its own borders.

I also hope the ELC-PNG would clearly communicate the Good News in relevant ways that touch people where they live. ELC-PNG began as an evangelistic church, evangelists sent into new regions with the support of local Christian congregations. I pray for a revival in that evangelistic zeal to bring the Good News in fresh and relevant ways, to communities all around PNG.

This story was also published in the June 2011 edition of Border Crossings, the magazine of LCA International Mission.

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