This is a historical account of the mission encounter of the Churches of Christ in Christian Union and World Gospel Mission with the Nembi and Melpa people of the Southern and Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
The Nembi people experienced a violent first contact with the colonial administration in 1935 when an exploratory patrol passed through the area. In 1939 follow-up patrols had more frequent contact with the Nembi groups. The people were just beginning to accept the colonial presence when the administration withdrew from the Papuan Highlands in 1940 following the outbreak of World War Two. The process of “pacification” began anew in the early 1950s. The Nembi met the return of the patrol officers with fear and resistance, but eventually they dropped their resistance with the expectation that they would be able to acquire the material goods, power, status, and prestige that the patrol officers possessed. The administration encouraged Christian missions to begin working areas that remained closed to other outsiders because the missions had a “pacifying effect” on the people.
CUM established a presence among the Nembi in 1964 and in 1983 expanded the work to include a work among the Melpa people near Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands Province. The cultural perspectives of the missionaries and the Nembi and Melpa were on the opposite ends of a spectrum. The missionaries came from an individualistic Western society with a dualistic perspective that prioritized the interests of individuals above the interest of the group and dichotomized between sacred and secular. The Nembi and Melpa people came from sociocentric societies with a more integrative perspective that placed the interest of the group above the individual and viewed the world as a monistic whole that saw no separation between sacred and secular. The mission prioritized the spiritual over the material and expected to establish an independent self-supporting church. The Melanesian church leaders expected development to accompany the message and expected to have access to mission resources. The different cultural perceptions caused repeated conflict between the church and mission as the expectations that each side held for the other remained unrealized.