With approximately four million people representing more than 200 nationalities, the Australian city of Melbourne is truly multicultural and diverse. A Bible Belt exists in the east-to-southeast, where most churches are found, a greater amount with a Caucasian European/ Australian heritage. In the early 1990s, Samoan pastor Eddie Erika helped facilitate the first Samoan church in this Bible Belt. Four years later, a North Melbourne group developed. After eight years in New Zealand, Eddie returned to Melbourne to pastor the Samoan churches.
Today, there are seven Samoan churches or fellowships (Carrum Downs, North Melbourne, Pakenham, Craigieburn, Melton, Sunshine, and Werribee), with two others about to launch. A unique feature of this multiplying network is that Eddie is the only conference-employed pastor. This is unusual for such a wide spread of churches across a city—with some more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from each other. It is also unique because in the Samoan setting, the cultural expectations indicate that pastors head the structures of each local church. Even with minimal supervision from employed pastors, Eddie believes this network will continue to grow.
Some may wonder whether the pastor is creating a “little kingdom,” a Samoan conference within the Victorian Conference. Might this stoke the pastor’s ego? What is the relationship with the wider network of churches? “It is a good story that needs to be heard,” says Pastor Darren Croft, executive secretary of the Victorian Conference. “At the last two elders’ conferences, the Samoan local leaders have been a significant presence, and their energy and positive attitude have been infectious for others. Statistically, the Samoan churches are one of the significant church growth stories within the conference.”
How has this network developed? Two decades ago, Pastor Eddie Erika and I worked together and I was able to observe his pastoral skills and depth of thinking. Recently, we spent some time together. I wondered, Where did this vision of a multiplying network of churches crystallize? And, how does it work?
“It started when I left the church!”
As a young man Eddie joined the many young people voting with their feet—and left the church. To him, church was a performance-oriented system in which most attendees were not involved spiritually. “I felt ordinary, alienated at the base of an organizational and cultural hierarchy,” he says. “It’s a mind-set: two controlling cultures—church and Samoan—in which your performance gives you a lift in status. Young people go to church because they are told to, and, ‘it’s a meeting place.’ ” Eddie explains that one day when a pastor (who represented the top of the hierarchical church system) thrust an Avondale College application form in front of him. He filled it in, went to Avondale, and trained—and then, as a pastor, found himself at the top of the hierarchical pyramid and “very uncomfortable.” He says, “There is a Samoan saying that blessings flow from the top, but as pastors we expect blessings to flow up—for we are at the top, to be served.”
“It changed when I found Philippians 2.”
It was early in his ministry experience that Eddie found Philippians 2, and the realization dawned that our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant [slave]” (Phil. 2:5–7, NIV). “Because not many understand this scripture, I needed to bring myself back from the pinnacle of the hierarchical structure to the bottom—and proactively exalt others,” Eddie observes. “This was really threatening to others in the system.
“If I stayed at the pinnacle, all were comfortable, for they could maintain their positions as expected in the church system. It was a question of, ‘Where have you gone, Pastor? We don’t want status reversal.’
What have you done to foster status reversal?
“First,” Eddie explained, “as a minister to all, there were barriers to be broken.” In his context, he chose to dress down—wearing jeans and a jacket to church, dressing neatly but casually, avoiding stereotypical power dressing. His actions were deliberate, intentional, challenging, and at times, confrontational—both breaking barriers and building bridges.
Second, “it’s not about me,” Eddie affirms. “It’s about the team. That’s huge. That’s what we do.” But his next step was more radical.
“We didn’t have a nominating committee meeting for four years.” Eddie was not doing away with the nominating committee process. Rather, he “wanted all to learn to think of gifts and talents, to all come and share what they have—not to vie with each other for positions.” Elders became a team with each one serving as the team leader for two to three months at a time. “The idea was to break the concept of hierarchy,” Eddie explains, “to move away from a structure that everyone was trying to climb.” Elders learned that “others can lead, I don’t have to be at the top, others have gifts.” Now that they have come back to the nominating committee system, they are asking about the talents of each person, and every elder is also the leader of a small home group. Elders now regularly (at least weekly) report back to each other with all asking each other, “Is there anything we need to do to help your group?” All are encouraged to enjoy little things rather than trying to maintain status and formalities, and not to compare themselves with others. Good soil “produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matt. 13:23, NIV).
Discussion and Bible study were used to equip members and leaders undergirded with prayer. At 5:00 A.M. every weekday morning for three years, a group of members from the mother church, Carrum Downs Samoan Church, met in the entrance foyer of the public hospital for 30 minutes of prayer. “We had to go back to really foundational things,” explains Eddie. “There was a lot of conflict and dysfunction. We had to do radical things to cultivate status reversal. On Sabbath and Sunday mornings, we met at the church.” In each church in the network, members now gather at 8:30 or 9:00 A.M. for 30 minutes of prayer, often followed by breakfast, before Sabbath School and worship times.
Eddie also observes that the Lord’s Supper is a perfect opportunity to cultivate status reversal. “I tell the story of Jesus, and the young people and children catch on,” Eddie explains. “When I was a child, I had my hand slapped if I reached out to participate, but Jesus affirmed the faith of the ‘little ones.’ ” Eddie fosters an environment of participation: deconstructing hierarchical images by not always dressing formally, cultivating team work, temporarily removing the forums where some vie for power, ensuring prayer is normative, and constantly reflecting upon the status reversal of God in Jesus, powerfully illustrated in the Last Supper. The result? The path is cleared for involvement—and consequent growth.
The next generations are returning to church, involved and coming up with their own systems and ideas. They are becoming the leaders of new groups and have a special heart for many typically alienated by churches: women, youth, and innovators.
But, how do you maintain “organizational order” while fostering status reversal?
Is it possible for such a radical process of status reversal to maintain healthy and harmonious synergy within the wider denominational hierarchical system? Some consider the pastor to be at the pinnacle of the local church structure, but Eddie says, “I function from down at the bottom.” While there is a conference expectation that he controls what is happening, he says, “I just cannot and do not see myself at the top. It’s unscriptural.” However, conference leaders have become comfortable with these systems he has in place.
- The churches are in clusters: two in the southeast of the city, two to the north, and three in the western suburbs. These clusters combine at least once each month for Sabbath worship services: Sabbath School, worship, and youth meetings around a fellowship meal. Eddie attends the combined days but takes a low-key role. Each church takes a turn in hosting the day. Youth are very involved in planning and coordinating with lots of music and participation. The churches share what they are doing, and each learns from the other.
- The pastor gets to most elders’ meetings, but the churches care for board and business meetings themselves. There is a strong commitment to empowering each other.
- Groups become churches. People who are not yet members are invited to be involved in small groups, leading group activities, and these groups become the basis of new churches. A new church started in Melton (Samoan West), and soon after, the church discussed starting a new group in Sunshine (another western suburb). An open invitation was given to the whole group: “If there are some who would like to be involved in planting a new group in Sunshine, join us.” One of those who attended was a believer but not yet a member. He stepped up and, within a short time, was baptized, and a new church is now forming.
What does ministry look like for a pastor of an ever-expanding network of churches?
“My role has changed,” Eddie explains. “As overall team leader, I equip, mentor, and encourage. My task includes building others up—to equip people to build their teams. I work from home a lot, and spend most of my time in study and preparation for the role of equipping others.”
“It has been a long-term project for things to arrive where they are, with some significant challenges along the journey,” observes Darren Croft. “God’s working through Eddie and his team over that time has been remarkable.”