The PNG Church Community and Its Networks


Some 130 years ago, the first missionaries arrived in the coastal areas of contemporary Papua New Guinea (PNG). They came as part of the expansion of the British Empire on the southern shores of the main island, and with German rule in the northeast. In the context of French colonial activities in the Pacific, there had been attempts to bring Catholicism to the country as early as 1845, but these failed due to logistical problems and the hostility of local tribes. It was only after a second attempt in the 1890s that French missionaries were able to establish a presence through permanent missions. This first missionary wave, which lasted into the early years of the 20th century, thus had a British-Anglican and Methodist, a German-Lutheran and a French-Catholic character.

During the second wave,which terminated with the end of World War II, many conservative evangelical and fundamental Christian missions penetrated, along with the established churches, the more remote parts of the country, along with the established churches. The Highlands region, with more than one million ‘pagans’ or ‘lost souls’ (as they were perceived in those days),was explored by Australians and missionaries only in the late 1920s, and became a fierce battleground for different denominations competing for religious followers. The third wave, after 1945, brought many Pentecostal churches to the then UN trusteeship under Australian control.

The stronger presence of Evangelical-Lutherans in the east, and of Anglicans, Baptists and United in the south, can be traced back to colonial times. Catholicism spread throughout PNG between the 1920s and 1950s, facilitated by a hierarchical church structure and support from Europe. New or smaller church communities, such as the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) or some Pentecostal groups, took advantage of the inaccessibility of the country, and the many ‘blank areas’ to be explored, and from the traditional regular splitting or breakdown of communities due to conflicts or tribal disputes. The new fragments of these communities then took on new beliefs and helped to nestle the newly arriving church groups within regions that had already been converted by the main churches, such as the Catholics, the Anglicans or the Lutherans. Information about the economic base of earlier missions and today’s churches is scarce, but it is known that some missions purchased or acquired customary land and set up plantations. Some of these covered huge areas of land, such as in the Gazelle peninsula in East New Britain. Today, PNG is a Christian nation; the preamble to its Constitution pledges ‘to guard and pass on to those who come after us our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now.’

A Myriad of Church Communities

PNG has a very diverse landscape of religious communities. Some 96-99% of the population identify themselves as Christians, and the rest belong to a handful of other religions, including Muslims and Baha’i. According to the 2000 census, Papua New Guineans belong to a wide range of religious communities.

ReligionPercentage of the Population
Roman Catholic29%
Evangelical Lutheran20%
United Church12%
Seventh Day Adventists10%
Evangelical Alliance5%
Salvation Army<1%
Other Christians9%
Other religions1%
Source: PNG Census (2000)

According to Gibbs (2004) the church sector consists of four separate blocks. He distinguishes the larger, ‘mainstream’ churches, including the long-established Lutheran, Catholic, United and Anglican denominations, which are reasonably well organised and pro-active partners of the government in social service delivery. They also speak out on issues relating to good governance in PNG society and influence external relationships, such as those with the government. While they cooperate amongst themselves in many areas and constitute the base of a modest ecumenical movement in PNG, they are themselves composed of different streams. The United Church, founded in 1968, for example, builds on the work of the former Methodist missionaries, the London Missionary Society and the Presbyterians. The current Lutheran Church represents the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Gutnius Church and the Lutheran Melpa Church, founded in 2000.

Second, there is the Evangelical Alliance with missions and churches such as the Baptist, Liebenzeller, the Nazarene and the Salvation Army, which are all part of the larger Evangelical Alliance of the South Pacific Islands. The Evangelical Alliance is a member of the Churches Education Council (CEC) and a number of Evangelical groups are active in the Churches Medical Council (CMC). However, while they subscribe to the principles of good governance, the Evangelical churches are not active participants in debates,movements or advocacy activities supporting good governance in the country.

The third group is made up of the growing number of Pentecostals that function under the National Council of Pentecostal Churches (Wagner et al., 1989). According to Gibbs (2004), they do not appear as a formal bloc in public discourse. The group includes relatively smaller entities such as the Christian Revival Crusade, Christian Life Centre and Four Square Gospel Mission. Some Pentecostals are members of the CMC. One of their churches, the Assemblies of God, is a member of the Community Coalition against Corruption (CCAC).

Fourth, the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church constitutes a separate block as they have kept a distinct profile throughout their nearly 100-year-presence in PNG. They did not join the former Melanesian Council of Churches, founded in 1965 (now known as the PNG Council of Churches, PNGCC), out of a concern that they would be drawn into political debates and have to adopt positions not in accordance with their faith. While they have joined the CMC (for funding reasons, as one observer assumed) they are still not a member of the PNGCC. They run their own primary schools and do not participate in the CEC. Gibbs (2004) sees the SDA as a church with political influence in PNG. Stein-Holmes (2003) suggests they have some political influence in Parliament since one-third of MPs are members of this church (1998 figures), but this research did not reveal any evidence in support of this contention.

Despite this diversity, there is an ecumenical movement among a number of the larger churches, which has led to mutual agreements and joint initiatives such as the PNGCC and the Melanesian Institute at Goroka, a research institute supported by Catholics, Lutherans, United and Anglicans.

Key characteristics of the church sector

Regional division: As noted previously, the Catholic Church is the largest church community in PNG, with some 1.5 million members in 19 dioceses. No other community is so well represented throughout the country. Approximately 50% of church-run health facilities are operated by the Catholics. Other churches have a strong regional focus with a substantial presence in particular provinces. In the southeast province of Milne Bay, for example, 62% of the population are members of the United Church, while in the province of Morobe in the Momase or Northern region, 72% are Lutherans.

Organisational structure: Church communities also differ significantly in terms of organisational structure and the location of their headquarters. Some – like the Catholics and Anglicans – have national representatives in Port Moresby, while others – such as the Lutherans, and the SDAs – run their affairs from Lae, the capital of Morobe, PNG’s largest province. The bigger churches – in particular the Catholics, the Lutherans and the SDA – have relatively strong coordinating offices. Contacting the diverse and widely spread group of Evangelicals and Pentecostals, despite their grouping into alliances, is not an easy task, so less is known about their structure and organisation.

Different development agencies and divisions: Another factor that distinguishes the churches is the form and function of their development and service delivery agencies. Some have a variety of related entities, while others carry out functions, such as social services, through a single organisation. The Catholic Bishops Conference, for example, works through Caritas PNG, which engages in justice, peace and development activities. The Catholic Church also has agencies for education, health and family life. The Anglican Church, for its part, has the Anglican Health Service, the Anglican Education Division, the Youth Ministry and Anglicare – a trust of the Anglican Diocese of Port Moresby that engages in HIV/AIDS-related activities. The SDA operate through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA PNG), which sees itself as a development agency operating independently of the church (Nichols, 2003). Other churches, like the United Church and the Lutherans, provide services directly under their own name.

Weak management: Church-based organisations are valued for the reliable services they provide, primarily in health and education, and they enjoy a solid reputation for high standards and efficiency compared with those provided by the government. However, church-based organisations now recognise that they need to address internal management and organisational issues, in particular since they started to accept funding from external sources that require meticulous progress reports and financial accounts. In response, churches have started to strengthen their capacity with management and policy manuals for use in training sessions, meetings and day-to-day operations. But they have a long way to go to improve on this front, partly because performance-based management is still not part of their organisational culture. As one respondent commented during an interview: ‘We are not professionals,we are church workers and our strength comes from faith and motivation’.

Secular versus spiritual orientation: The character of the churches’ involvement in social development varies widely, from spiritual and gospel activities among some of the Pentecostal communities, to spiritual, community development and social service provision by the more established congregations. The Catholic Church, which has the largest presence and breadth of initiatives, is engaged in spiritual work, social and community development, training of lay and professional leaders, peace and reconciliation, as well as anti-corruption and other advocacy campaigns. The role of church leaders in politics is another issue. During the 2002 elections, the churches tried to maintain their neutrality by banning all types of support that might suggest political ties. Priests who campaigned for a seat in parliament were suspended, but attempts at neutrality have not always been easy to sustain (Gibbs, 2004).

Attitudes towards Melanesian identity and culture: The churches have worked intensively in and with local communities for many years. This has led to the ‘localisation’ and indigenisation of their operations, or, as theologians refer to it, to ‘inculturate’ their work. Similarly, PNG cultural traditions have been adapted to include Christian values and beliefs, resulting in a synthesis of ‘PNG and Christian ways’ that is reflected in prayers, mission statements, songs, religious music, etc. On the other hand, and despite broad acceptance of this dualistic approach, some ‘old practices and behaviour’ continue to exist. Baloiloi (2001), for example, notes that ‘negative attitudes towards indigenous cultures still remain in some churches in PNG today, who still hold on to outdated modernist beliefs which view western ways as superior ways. Many see indigenous values as unchristian and paganistic’.


Churches and church-based organisations interact through a variety of formal networks and informal consultative mechanisms. This section highlights some of the most relevant exchange and networking mechanisms.

The PNG Council of Churches (PNGCC): Formed as a national ecumenical council in 1965, the PNGCC includes seven Christian churches: the Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelical Lutheran, Gutnius Lutheran, Catholics, the Salvation Army and the United Church. In 2003, a resolution was passed mandating the PNGCC to promote development and to engage in activities to foster peace and justice. Despite its potentially strong role in facilitating coordination among church organisations and promoting policy dialogue, the PNGCC still has to prove itself as a viable mechanism in these areas. The PNGCC is also a member of the Community Coalition against Corruption, but there is little evidence that it has adopted a particular stance on ‘peace and justice’, corruption or policy dialogue with government or donors.

The Churches Medical Council (CMC): The CMC was established in 1972, and now has 27 members. The Council was set up to coordinate the health work of the different churches and to ensure that while maintaining their individual identities, they speak to government with one voice. The CMC is an important mechanism, as churches run about half of the country’s health services, as noted above, as well as six of the nine training schools for nurses and 14 training schools for community health workers. Most of the financing for church-run facilities originates from the state. But churches and church-based organisations manage health facilities on their own in terms of financial and human resources management, and regularly engage with the government on policy and operational issues.

The Churches Education Council (CEC): The CEC functions under the umbrella of the PNGCC. The member churches are the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical Alliance, Four Square and United Churches. The CEC constitutes a platform to discuss education issues of concern to church-run schools (most of which are financed by the state) and teacher training colleges. It provides an interface with the National Department of Education (NDoE), but it does not have a secretariat in the NDoE, as the CMC does in the National Department of Health (NDoH). The CEC is discussed in more detail in section.

Christian women’s associations: Of the various Christian women’s networks, the United Church Women Fellowship, founded in 1968, and the Catholic Women’s Federation, formed in 1984, are the most prominent national bodies. Both are part of the PNG National Council of Women. While their original goals were to promote Christian ideals and values, they have incorporated issues such as women’s rights and social development.

Consultations and informal exchanges: There are a number of consultation circles on church and religious affairs (not related to governance), as well as various informal exchanges amongst PNG church leaders. A more regular mechanism is the Ecumenical Dialogue, in which Catholic and Anglican leaders participate (the Lutherans are gradually joining the dialogue), and the Ministers Fraternal, where the Pentecostals have taken a stronger lead.

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