The Gospel for People Who Don’t Need Much: Ministry in Hawai’i

Photo by Braden Jarvis on Unsplash

Whenever I’m at a conference on the mainland, I always hear the same thing after someone sees my nametag. “Honolulu? Really suffering for the Lord, eh?”  It’s usually “eh?” because the Canadians are most envious.

I’m tempted to respond sarcastically, but then I remember that the friendly trash talk is partially deserved. After all, I wear shorts almost every day of the year, even to preach. And my meetings and counseling sessions often take place on a surfboard.

But the relaxed nature of life in the islands also makes Hawai’i a challenging ministry climate. According to a survey published last year in USA Today, Honolulu is the third-happiest city in the United States. That means it’s a great place to live but a difficult place to proclaim the gospel. 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.

“Ainokea.  I do what I like.” That’s what a popular T-shirt around here says. Ainokea sounds like a Hawaiian word, but it’s actually pidgin English for “I don’t care.” Sound it out. Ainokea sums up our overall approach to life. Each of us in Hawai’i devours an average of six cans of Spam every year, even though heart disease is the leading cause of death in the islands. Ninety percent of us haven’t bothered to install $1.00 hurricane straps on our houses, even though a direct hurricane hit would leave us homeless. Ainokea also sums up our spiritual convictions. For most of us, God is superfluous. He might be a nice guy, but he’s unnecessary for everyday life.

In spite of the challenges, there are some encouraging signs of God’s work in the islands. Hawai’i is the only state in the nation where overall church attendance is growing faster than the population. There is an expanding network of gospel-centered churches that are faithfully proclaiming and living out God’s glory and grace. I’ve even seen a few T-shirts around town that say, “IDOkea. I do what HE like.”

But the evangelical population in Honolulu is still only 7.8 percent. That’s lower than many countries in Africa. We only have one church for every 3,383 people. Compare that to Mississippi, which has a church for every 754. Clearly, we have some work to do.

Our first obstacle is the tendency of Christians to drift into the same kind of happy contentment as their neighbors. If we don’t feel any urgency to save our own homes from hurricanes, why would we feel any urgency to see our neighbors saved from God’s wrath? There’s also a small-town mentality, even on an island of almost a million people, that makes us hesitant to offend anyone. The result is that we’re friendly in freeway traffic—the guy who wants to get into your lane is probably related to someone you know—but also that we’re afraid to talk to the guy next door about the stone of stumbling and rock of offense.

Another big hurdle is widespread lack of theological training. Currently,  pastors in Hawai’i have three options for theological education:

  1. Go to a local Bible college, which is fairly expensive with limited options;
  2. Go to a mainland seminary, which is expensive and usually takes leaders out of their ministries for four to five years; or
  3. Get an online degree, which means little or no personal contact with teachers and fellow students.

Many pastors, especially those on neighbor islands like Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, have decided that none of those options work. The result is a preponderance of leaders who have no serious theological education, and therefore struggle to accurately communicate the biblical gospel to their churches and communities.

That’s why I’m extremely encouraged that God is leading a growing number of local churches to reclaim their biblical duty to proactively train gospel-centered, reproducing leaders, rather than outsourcing the work to others. We believe this is the priority Paul exhorted Timothy to uphold in the church of Ephesus: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

A partnership of churches across the islands is working together to form a church-based theological training program. Modeling ourselves after the influential church of Antioch, we’re calling it Antioch School Hawai’i. Centered in The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement and theological vision for ministry, the program will offer rigorous theological education in the context of ministry apprenticeships in local churches. Pastors and church-planters will make up the faculty, and the knowledge students gain in classroom discussions will be assessed not through exams, but through ongoing ministry assignments. In addition, through our association with the Antioch School of Church Planting and Leadership Development in Iowa, students will even be able to earn accredited bachelors and masters degrees for their studies. In our kick-back culture, students are motivated to work harder when they know a real degree is hanging in the balance.

Churches and pastors are starving for serious theological education. When I was explaining the program to a native Hawaiian pastor on Maui, tears came to his eyes. He exclaimed in choked-up pidgin, “You saying I can get one real seminary degree? No need drag my family across the ocean? I never thought that possible!”

A few years ago seminary president Al Mohler said,  “My hope is that we can put the [seminary] institution out of business.  What I want to see is more godly, biblically grounded, gospel-driven local churches begin to prepare pastors, because it’s in the local church where that should primarily take place.” We’re stoked that God is accomplishing that, even in the most geographically isolated island archipelago on the planet. May he multiply healthy churches by multiplying healthy leaders across the islands and around the world for his glory.

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