Jesus said, “I will build My church and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Mt. 16:18). The church began at Pentecost, just 10 days after Christ ascended back to heaven. The Holy Spirit came to indwell believers and Peter preached a powerful sermon about the death and resurrection of Jesus and some 3,000 Jews became believers that day (Acts 2). Many others also believed and were added to the church in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. Soon, a very religious Jew, Saul of Tarsus, came to faith in Christ and was chosen by God to be the missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). Saul (also called Paul) along with Barnabas, Silas, Timothy and Luke, took the Gospel throughout Asia minor and then over to Europe. Others spread the Good News about Christ’s suffering on our behalf to Africa.
It is fascinating to follow the building of Christ’s church as it has spread (as Jesus predicted) to the “remotest parts of the earth” (Acts 1: 8). As new converts grew in the faith and were trained in Scripture, they usually sent out missionaries to yet unreached areas. In 1884, for example, Christian missionaries from Europe went to Pyongyang, North Korea which became the center of Christianity in Northeast Asia until about 1942 when communists took over. In fact, Pyongyang became known as “The Jerusalem of the East!”
On August 24, 1830, Rev. John Williams and other missionaries from the London Missionary Society, aboard the schooner Messenger of Peace, anchored at Savaii, Samoa in the South Pacific. With their arrival, Christianity came to the island and spread quickly. The receptivity of the people to the gospel was rooted deeply in their respect for the political structure of their culture in which the religious leader was the top authority in all matters concerning the moral life of the village. God had been at work—as He always is—preparing the people for the arrival of the “Good News.” Only 14 years later Malua Bible College was established to train young men as village pastors and missionaries to other Pacific Islands including Fiji and Tonga. Before long, the native Samoan religion had been replaced by Christianity.
Although European whalers and traders started to arrive at the Samoa Islands in the late 1700’s, by far the most important agents of change in Samoa were the Western missionaries, bringing the Gospel of Christ, which converted the majority of the population from belief in gods of the sun, earth, heavens and sea to the one true God. More than 90% of all Samoans in both Samoa and American Samoa are professing Christians and more than 90% of them attend church at least weekly.
Now, fast forward to the National NCAA football championship game in January. Alabama had a stunning come-back victory over Georgia that was fueled by freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa who came into the game in the second half, replacing the starting quarterback, and led his team to an exciting victory. In a remarkably humble interview after the game, especially given what he’d just accomplished on national television, Tua said: “I would like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. With Him all things are possible.”
Tua was considered the best high school football player in Hawaii, playing quarterback at Honolulu’s Saint Louis High School. Many compared him to another alum from Saint Louis High School who was also as quarterback, and the one Tua patterned his game after–Marcus Mariota, who took his Oregon Ducks to the national championship game against Ohio State. Mariota also won the Heisman Trophy in 2014 and now plays for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. Marcus is also follower of Jesus Christ and is quick to give God the glory for his accomplishments.
So what do these two Christian football players from Saint Louis High School in Honolulu have to do with the evangelization of Samoa? (Glad you asked!) Tua and Marcus share a Samoan heritage, a heritage that includes the passing on of strong faith in Christ. Sports Illustrated did a story about Tua Tagovailoa and his family back in 2015. The article is filled with Bible verses and tells readers that the entire Tagovailoa clan gathers “every evening for prayer and teaching,” and to sing a Samoan hymn that “asks God to be present in everything they do.”
Samoa and American Samoa, despite their small population, produce a disproportionately large number of world-class athletes. By one estimate, “a Samoan male is 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than an American non-Samoan” (Breakpoint Jan. 12, 2018). And the majority of those who do are Christians. You may recognize some other names like: Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, Marques Tuiasosopo and Mosi Tatupu.
In addition to football players, Samoa has produced numerous well-known rugby players, wrestlers (Dwayne Johnson, for example!), and many in the mixed martial arts.
Little did those missionaries in the 19th century know what an impact they would have world-wide one day by bringing the gospel to those beautiful islands in the South Pacific. Christianity’s influence on Samoan life and culture is hard to dispute. This legacy and heritage are on display in stories like that of Tua Tagovailoa and Marcus Mariota. The missionaries who brought Christianity to the Polynesian world wound up transforming an entire society (or, more accurately, the message they brought did.) Paul the Apostle got to witness that same exciting transformation of lives and cultures. No wonder he wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Ro. 1:16), and: “Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold new things have come” (II Cor. 5:17). You won’t change a culture through political or military domination. Culture can only be changed through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Don’t be ashamed to share it with your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Only God knows how far it may spread from there.