Seeking Revival Amid Recreation

Regional Report from Hawaii

Editors' note: When the church in Jerusalem received a report of what God was doing in other regions of the world, it resulted in praise to God (Acts 21:19-20). With a view to facilitating similar praise, as well as prayer and missional thinking, this series reports on God’s work in the areas where The Gospel Coalition hosts regional meetings. See our earlier report from Atlantic Canada.

We’d all probably enjoy a vacation in Hawaii. But what would it be like to stay and pastor a church there? How is God at work there, and what are the challenges?

Next month hundreds of pastors and other believers will gather in Kaneohe, Hawaii, for Overflow, The Gospel Coalition’s Regional Conference in Hawaii. Keynote speakers include John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Michael Oh. To explore what God is doing in this region of the world, TGC editor Gavin Ortlund corresponded with Matt Dirks, pastor for teaching and leadership at Harbor Church in Honolulu, and author (with Chris Bruno) of a new book, Churches Partnering Together: Biblical Strategies for Fellowship, Evangelism, and Compassion.

Tell us a little bit about how God called you to serve in Hawaii. Are you originally from there?

I’m originally a mainland haole (foreigner) who fell in love with the people of Hawaii. My wife and I moved from California to the windward side of the island of Oahu in 1999 to serve in a church, then we were sent across the mountains to Honolulu as church planters in 2005. Hawaii is home, and I would be disappointed to be buried anywhere else. 

What are some of the greatest challenges in ministry in your area? What particular cultural idols or areas of resistance to the gospel stand out? 

About 150 years ago, when Hawaii was still an independent kingdom, it was considered the most Christian nation on earth. Around 90 percent of the population attended church every Sunday. It started with just a handful of church-planters who came from New England in the 1820s and 1830s and introduced the gospel to Hawaii. Within just a few years, hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii turned to Jesus. The church in Hilo became the largest church in the world, with 13,000 members. 

It wasn’t just a superficial fad—this was true revival. One church planter on Maui wrote in his journal, “I have never witnessed more earnest, humble, persevering wrestling in prayer. One can scarcely go in any direction, in the sugar-cane or banana groves, without finding people praying and weeping before God.” The gospel turned the islands upside down, to the point that King Kamehameha III paid to send a team of native Hawaiian missionaries across the South Pacific so that other nations could be blessed by the gospel as well. 

This was Hawaii's Great Awakening, but it only took a few decades for everything to change. Spirit-soaked revival turned to man-centered revivalism. Pastors began to use contrived spiritual experiences to do what had been previously done by the Spirit. The result today is that everyone in Hawaii is spiritual (I’ve never received anything but warm enthusiasm when people find out I’m a pastor), but less than 8 percent of the population attends an evangelical church. 

Almost everybody in Hawaii respects Jesus, but nobody really needs him anymore. Honolulu is consistently rated among the top three happiest cities in the nation. Why do you need Jesus when you're already happy? What do you need God to provide when, even if you lost all your possessions, you could just live on the beach? Thousands of people already do.

There aren’t more than a handful of atheists in Hawaii, but there are a million “recreationalists”—people (including myself) who are tempted to worship leisure and comfort. We tend to believe that the ideal life is when we can find a job that will pay enough to sustain our recreational lifestyle, but won't be so demanding that it takes us away from our sports, hobbies, and pursuits.

Where do you see God at work in Hawaii? What encouraging trends do you see?

God is drawing many people out of “recreationalism” as they experience much more pleasure, contentment, and rest through Jesus than they ever could from waves, hikes, sports, and other me-time pursuits. 

God is raising up an army of Christ-centered, Bible-saturated, Spirit-filled, fire-breathing young local church leaders, pastors, and church planters. 

God is turning churches from man-centered pragmatism and experientialism toward gospel-driven faithfulness and ministry fruitfulness. 

God is uniting many of these churches together to do big kingdom things they could never accomplish on their own, and we're boldly praying that God would use these churches to launch Hawaii's Second Great Awakening.

Tell us about the Hawaii Regional Chapter of the Gospel Coalition. What resources does it offer? 

Our mission is to multiply gospel-centered churches across the islands and around the world. We do three things to accomplish that mission:

  • connect pastors and leaders through fellowship and networking events. We plan monthly pastors’ lunches where pastors can collaboratively explore practical issues of ministry from a Christ-centered perspective.
  • build leaders and churches through training events and conferences. We plan major conferences every two years. We partner with local churches and ministries to plan smaller conferences throughout the year on topics like evangelism, leadership development, counseling, marriage, and so on.
  • send church-planters and missionaries to launch new gospel communities, through a partnership for training, coaching, and support. We help local churches identify, equip, and send gospel-centered planters. We partner together to support these new churches in many different ways.

Tell us about Antioch School Hawaii. What needs is it designed to meet?

Antioch School is a partnership that grew out of the TGC Hawaii network. We believe that local churches must reclaim their biblical duty to proactively train gospel-centered, reproducing leaders, so a number of island churches have joined together to do so. We collaborate on one-year training residencies for church leaders and two-year residencies for up-and-coming pastors, church planters, and missionaries. Our goal is to challenge Hawaii leaders to grow not only in knowledge, but also in ministry skills and personal character in their local church context. 

Local pastors do most of of the training and mentoring, but we’ve also been blessed with guest professors like Bruce Ware and Tom Schreiner teaching intensive classes.

How can we be praying for the spread of the gospel in your region?

Three things:

  • A sense of urgency. The relaxed nature of life in the islands tends to make Christians drift into happy contentment along with our neighbors. We need to feel the weight of the sin and darkness that lies just under the physical beauty and aloha spirit of the islands.
  • An ability to lovingly offend people. There’s a small-town mentality on each of our islands that makes us hesitant to make waves. We need courage to proclaim the stone of stumbling and rock of offense.
  • A passion for the gospel. Island churches are tempted to emphasize implications of the gospel (good and necessary things like spiritual experiences, cultural engagement, social justice, biblical knowledge, and so on) more than the gospel. We need to continually proclaim Christ and him crucified as the foundation of everything we do, believe, and pursue.