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Brief History of the Māori and Christianity
The English arrived in the late 1700s to modern-day New Zealand, bringing the message of Jesus with them. But, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the gospel began to take root in different Māori communities. It was estimated that at one point almost 60% of the Māori population attended church.
However, the growth of the Māori church was stunted by both imperial and cultural impositions. Imperially, although the Treaty of Waitangi ostensibly established an equal partnership between the British and the Māori, the reality was a stark contrast. Not long after the treaty was signed, Māori land began to be stripped from them and placed into the hands of the British. The effects of this land-loss, and a broader ill-treatment of the Māori, is still keenly felt today. Culturally, a Western-centric church also stymied the spread of the gospel. Although Māori leaders began to emerge, the Anglican Church made it clear that ascension to leadership in the church meant to toe a Western cultural line, forcing them to learn both English and Latin before being considered for church leadership.
The theme of Western cultural imposition has continued in New Zealand. Even though many Māori still attend church, in general the expression of church is largely Western in culture, leading to a collision of cultural values (i.e. the Western emphasis on individuality colliding with a Māori value on group and family). Māori have also experienced judgmentalism in Western churches, with their cultural meeting houses and ceremonies often associated with demonic influence. To many Māori, the message for decades has been clear: to be Christian is to be culturally Western, not culturally Māori.
But, recent years have shown some change. Christians who have sought to “cast out the Māori demon” are repenting of their judgementalism and seeking to honour Māori culture.
Contextualising the Gospel to Māori
Weaving the Gospel into Māori Cultural Stories
As with all cultures, there are stories used to frame their cultural understanding of the world. Churches are beginning to infuse these stories with the gospel to both honour Māori culture and point them to Jesus. A well-known cultural creation story is the “Story of the Separation”. The story involves the Sky Father and the Earth Mother being locked together in a perfect embrace with bonds so close that they grew into each other. But, in the middle of their embrace, one of their seven sons grew resentful. He pushed and separated the two, becoming the God of the Forest, ever to separate the sky and the earth.
The story has been retold in such a way as to show that the relationship between the Sky Father and Earth Mother was the type of relationship we were destined to have with God. But, humanity “pushed against” God and tore away from His embrace, separating humanity from God in the same way as the rebellious son in the creation story. Jesus is then introduced, not as the son who came to separate, but as a Son who came to bring humanity back into the perfect relationship with God.
Using Key Māori Concepts
Well-known Māori concepts and phrases are also being introduced into the sharing of the gospel. “Tūrangawaewae” is a familiar concept and is often translated as “a place to stand”. It’s a place where we feel empowered and connected, a place that is our foundation and our home. Jesus is now being presented as the true Tūrangawaewae: the foundation we build our lives upon, our home, the One in whom we are empowered and connected to the love of the Father.
Using these concepts has shown the power of language to bring truths to the heart in a new way. Māori are finding new and deeper resonance with the message of Jesus.
Writing songs in te reo Māori (Māori language)
Closely linked to the usage of key Māori concepts is the creation of te reo Māori worship songs. This is not just Western words and ideas in a Māori tongue, it is a larger movement towards the use Māori concepts, language and musical styles.
Introducing Māori whakataukī (proverbs) into songs has brought new depths of healthy pride in Māori culture and connection with the church. A song written by King’s Church Wellington uses a famous whakataukī which says “Kua hinga te Totara i te wao nui a Tāne” (The Totora has fallen in the forest of Tāne). It is used when someone of great prominence dies, with the powerful effect of that tree falling being felt across the forest, the tribe and the nation. The song is written to show Jesus as the great tree, with the impact of His death being felt throughout the the world. It’s then altered to sing that He is alive and reigning again.
Use of te reo Māori
Lastly, usage of te reo Māori in gatherings shows Māori that they are welcome, cared for and that their cultures is honoured in the church. It also speaks volumes to other minority cultures, encouraging both pride in their culture and belonging in the church.