07 Sep, 2021 Why and how church leaders could engage better with local Māori

Why and how church leaders could engage better with local Māori 

I believe it important for local pastors to engage with local kaumatua. This article explains why – and how to start. It has three points, each of which has significance to the topic.

So it is noted, not all pastors will be gifted to relate well to local Iwi, or called by God to this task. However, I believe it to be necessary for some in each place to engage as representatives of the wider Christian community. There is only one Church in each city and town, and I believe this kind of connection to be necessary in each city and town.


1. There are things you don’t yet know you don’t know 

It is probable that most people in most communities in this nation do not yet know the story of the land they live upon. This applies to church and non-church people alike.

Knowing the story of the land is the basis for understanding with local Māori. This is why it is important. (Having an understanding with local Māori is important because of Te Tiriti o Waitangi is important. We will summarise this and other points on the ‘why’ question later in this article).

The challenge is that many of us do not know what we don’t know. Awareness of this reality is therefore an important starting point.

I suggest there are stories, and histories, we don’t know that it would good to know. But they are taonga – and not easily released. There are reasons for this. How then could we learn to better connect with local kaumatua, to develop deeper empathy with the land we live upon (so we can serve God better upon that land)?

I have found that the way to connect with local kaumatua is by taking a selfless interest in their story, while at all costs avoiding talking too much! It’s like any other relationship, and it is built one conversation at a time. But not talking too much (while asking good questions) is particularly important for this one!  (It’s a cultural thing, and an historical thing!)


To illustrate

I met one kaumatua to hear some of the story of the land in a place – as it related to a story we were telling through one of our platforms. Upon first meeting at a historic site, he did not engage with me in small talk. It was awkward. There were big silences. I asked questions – and he left me hanging, without replying, and for as long as one full minute at a time. I have rarely seen or been engaged in a conversation as slow as this.

  • Points he initially made were not all related to what I asked.
  • Some questions were simply ignored.
  • From a Western point of view, it was rude.
  • From a Māori point of view, it was a test! What was happening?

There were cultural differences in play! In his own way, he was begging me to interrupt him. He was begging me to start talking – to fill the silences, and to tell him everything I knew. And why? Because, if I did that it would confirm I was no different to most of the other ‘know-it-all’ Westerners, and that would have given him permission to spend just 1 hour with me and go about his daily business.

I did not interrupt. I ‘endured’ the silences (in truth I was quite comfortable, as I’ve done this a few times, and lived cross-culturally in Asia for 9 years – have have plenty of practice in putting my foot in my mouth cross-culturally already ;-).  I refrained from speaking – other than to ask yet another thoughtful question. I was genuinely interested. We drove to another related historic site. The same pattern continued, but he spoke a bit more freely.

We drove 30 minutes or more to another related historic site – and it was then that he began to open up about a few more of the real matters, the land loss, the 1929 public works act and the taking of millions more acres of land with that law as an excuse, the theft of water ways, the desecration of Urupa, and the destruction of villages.

After about 2.5 hours we had covered a range of material loosely related to the story I was enquiring about – and I had a ‘chest full of treasures’ from the histories he had shared. He had been a generous host! However, I wasn’t done. I wasn’t there only for the agenda or purpose. That’s the European way. I was there to know him, and to understand.

(To make an important point, there is nothing insincere in those statements. Were he to decline permission for our use of the story as it related to his ancestors – I’d have left accepting that, and without arguing it. There is much I could say on this point – and this has happened before, where things needed more time and trust – but for the sake of brevity I’ll let the gaps speak).

We then drove to another location – and sat to talk. We talked 6 hours in total. To note the progression, for him it wasn’t until about 4 hours of talking that he really freed up. Trust was established incrementally. We were later able to openly discuss spiritual things – and the journey of his people in this area. By the last hour of our conversation we were discussing the promises of the Scriptures in relation to local matters – because he was deeply spiritual, even though he hid that from me through most of our conversation.  He was a shepherd to his people. He truly, truly cared!

This is how you get to know what you don’t know – and it builds a bridge!

Put differently, Māori feel Pākehā have spoken for 150 years. They’re waiting for us to stop talking – and there are treasures to be discovered if we will go onto their turf, and sit under their tikanga / protocols, and listen!


2. Local church leaders need to engage – as there are roles local church members cannot fulfil

While the above is a sufficient for an article, the next two points are directly related and on topic – so I’ll continue.

Māori culture is a respect culture. I have concluded that, as church leaders, we have ability to engage with local Marae to build bridges in a way that our church members cannot. This isn’t to say engaging is easy, or to criticise anyone’s character or abilities. The point is instead that, even though our members are good people, we, as church leaders, represent the Church. This is how it works in a respect culture! It is only through our engagement that any sense of relationship, trust and partnership with the wider Church as a whole can develop!

(So it is noted, our consistency, and longevity in the place, are also factors. To partner with people who are committed to the land on which their people live, you’ll need to be quite committed to the land yourself!)


To illustrate

One particular visit to a Wānanga at a particular Marae convinced me of this. There were other Christians present. I’d been invited, to have the chance to hear and understand what they were doing. The kaumatua who invited me didn’t end up even being there – so I had to make my own path, connecting with people. I knew two people out of a crowd, and didn’t see them until after the event as they were running the kitchen and hangi. (I enjoyed excellent conversations in both of those places. It’s where the real action was takes place :-).

As people discovered that I worked in Christian ministry there was some tension. I could feel it. People subtly tried to work out why I was there, as I wasn’t known to most. I explained that a particular kaumatua had invited me – and maybe shared some short stories to express why I personally believed in the importance of what they were doing. I was there without agenda – other than to learn, and as they discovered that, I suspect they were surprised. (And I’d love to go back, if invited).

By the time I left that hui, I had the feeling everyone knew who I was – as the whispers had done the rounds. I felt a bit embarrassed too. I represented ‘that group’ that they didn’t talk about (the church). They would say karakia – and often in the name of Ihu Karaiti, but in their hearts they remained deeply wounded by ‘that group’, because they didn’t stand sufficiently with them when their lands were being taken!

  • Even the Marae we were meeting on was not technically their land. It was a native reserve.

Not every hui is like this – but I realised that I wasn’t just ‘Dave’ when at that hui. Because I am in church leadership roles and have history in the land in the place, I was viewed as a representative of ‘the Church’. I could also see that a bridge for trust was strengthened by my being there. In addition, it was this occasion that convinced me that ‘regular’ church members couldn’t fulfil this ‘function’, or build this kind of bridge, – because there were other Christians present!

Local church leaders have a role to play – because it’s a respect culture.


3. The power of story – as a bridge

I will cover this final point just briefly – as it directly relates to our topic. I will then write more on it on another occasion.

In all conversation trust is built through discovering the things we share in common. By intuition, we learn how to relate to different people, to build basic trust.

I have found that the quickest way to relate in the Māori context is to ‘out’ myself on what I think through simple story. I believe deeply in the importance of bicultural understanding; I have deep empathy with the theft of land; I stand proud of our Christian ancestors – Māori and Pākehā, for all they achieved for good in this nation; I grieve the enormous injustices that exist in our history for Māori; I also stand proud of our Government’s efforts to address these past wrongs – as messy as it all is!

…However, when I meet someone new, I’m just another skinny white guy.

In this context, the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, impart values. In contrast – trying to sound wise, while stating various ‘deep opinions’ and thoughts and talking a lot, can sound arrogant and make you look like a ‘know it all’.

So, tell story about something you believe has value in history – which you think they might also connect with. Then stop yourself from talking too much or from trying to sound wise. And you’ll be liked!


An example

I remember once meeting a school friend at a hui. We hadn’t recognised each other as we’d both changed a bit since we were 15 years old. She’d also now identified more strongly with her Māori culture, including moko and a name change.

When she realised I represented te hāhi (the religion), I could see the awkwardness. So within our conversation I shared brief story, to ‘out’ myself – like described above, so she could know why I was there and where I stood as a Christian on some matters that I knew would be important to her. Through simple short stories a lot of ground can be covered quickly – and trust grew. She then shared some stories too – like being taken as youth to stand on a hill, while being told how they legally owned all the land she could see in all directions, but because of some legal technicalities possessed none of it. It turned out that in her work she now took on various Government contracts related to Māori welfare, and had 40 staff. She was hugely successful, and in various places of influence (on boards and trusts). By the conclusion of our conversation, there was mutual respect – and she was certainly intrigued by our conversation, as she liked me as a person, even though I’m quite sure she still didn’t trust the wider Church.

The world is won one conversation at a time, right?


Why is engaging with this journey important?

As noted in prior articles, there are a numbers of important reasons for strengthening our relationship (as churches) with local Māori and Marae wherever we are based.

  • GOD: For many of us, we’ve engaged because we felt THE HOLY SPIRIT prompting us todo so. I’ve found this to be true for many Christian believers through the length of this nation across this past decade.  This is an important reason – but there are others:
  • JUSTICE: This is important in recognition of justice and reconciliation issues where our Government – on our behalf, failed to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi, thereby becoming the perpetrator of gross injustices in our history. Research the Gibeonites in the Bible. It is right to try to address something of these injustices.
  • JUSTICE: This is also important in recognition of justice and reconciliation issues where the Pākehā Church – despite many amazing efforts by missionaries and others, also eventually failed to stand with Māori through the injustices in the past, and allowed herself to then become absorbed into the Colonial view.
  • BALANCING UNFAIR PERSPECTIVES: This is important for in recognition that there is a heightened negative perspective amongst many Māori (and the public in general) toward the Church because of stories that are told by media and education in an unfair or unbalanced way. I believe we are facing genuine religious prejudice here, and we can only address it by engaging the conversation (which is best done through learning and telling the stories).
  • THE GOSPEL: Because the gospel matters, and people’s view of the gospel can be profoundly altered when they hear certain stories.  It is therefore important that we are present to learn those stories, so we can then tell tnem. The religious prejudices of our nation will leave various important stories that relate to both the Christian faith and our national identity and values as a nation, untold – unless we choose to learn, stand and tell them!
  • FREEDOMS – SPIRITUAL: The bicultural dynamic in our nation might yet connect with some significant freedom matters in our nation. As a simple example, where we could no longer ‘pray’ because we were being religiously secularised by our ‘secular’ (and mostly white) leaders, we are now able to have ‘karakia’ anywhere because the wairua/spiritual is intrinsic to life in Te Ao Maori, and this bicultural dynamic is being recognised and giving prominence.
  • FREEDOMS – A WIDER VIEW: In pondering about what God has been doing amongst us as his Church in NZ the past decade in this area, I’ve often wondered if there might not be more to it. Might something be coming our way as a nation in the future for which a healthy Iwi-to-Church partnership will prove to be vital? (I haven’t been able to shake this thought – because I feel there has been an urgency in the way the Holy Spirit would put his fingers on this within his Church). As I understand it, Iwi are recognised as ‘sovereign nations’ by the UN. This is no small detail. To consider just one of many possible implications, if a different day were to come in which personal freedoms, or even land rights, were lost or over-ruled in our nation, might Iwi (with their lands possibly protected) be able to serve as protectorates for others who they know and trust, who retreat to sit under their care? This is speculation, but we are also in fast-changing times. What if God was working with purpose in his Church with more than one things in view?

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that the Wairua Tapu has put his finger on this matter.

  • By one means or another, many Christians across our nation have sensed a prompting to engage in a ‘bicultural journey’, to better understand our past, and to face it.
  • The result has been a desire to better understand, know and be connected with local Māori – in recognition that our identities together define something of who we are.


An example of this being put into practice

I had the privilege of facilitating some meetings in a place between a local kaumatua and the local pastors. I felt prompted to do this after discussions with a local kaumatua on other matters. In the process I discovered there was a monthly church service that they had run in the region, unbroken for 130 years. Local churches did not even know the gathering existed. This seemed profound to me. Two meetings were organised. So you understand the process, the ground rule I put into these meetings with the pastors was (a) that I was in charge and (b) this was because, if they interrupted the kaumatua to tell stories or show how wise they were, they could be sure that I would interrupt them. I smiled while explaining this – but I was also serious. I knew that, if they talked – he wouldn’t! Their role and privilege (and mine), was to listen – not to talk. 

It’s that simple. We have to understand our cultures are different. If we talk too much, and try to sound wise – which kinda is the Western way, Māori won’t talk. So, do you want to know the story of the land you live upon?



It remains a reality in many places that a dividing wall still exists between Māori and the wider Church (even though many Māori are also Christian).

So, let’s engage. Let’s be proactive to connect – to listen -and to understand.

Practical tip: There are kaumatua in most places who are gifted with an interest in the history, and an ability to remember vast amounts of detail related to it also. In times past, many of these would have been the Tohunga.

> Let’s find these people, connect, and then submit to their mana with the attitude of a learner!


Reflection questions for local church leaders

  • How could you connect with your local kaumatua better? Who knows the story (a) of the land and (b) of the Christian faith on that land?
  • Do you understand the local story – or do you yet need to hear it?
  • Is there a divide between Māori and the wider Church in your area?
  • How could you be a peace-maker, building relational bridges across which this could be addressed – enabling a healthier path into the future together?



An easy-to-read option to educate yourself, elders, children’s and youth leaders – and then all members (children, youth and adults)

  • Consider the illustrated novel series: ‘The Chronicles of Paki – Treaty of  Waitangi Series’. These can be found at BigBook.nz. View a blog with displaying some of its endorsements here.


Waitangi weekend sermon outlines (free)

  • ‘Three Treaties’ (Gibeonites, Waitangi and Jesus) from Dave Mann is (word doc) here, with power point here
  • Waitangi Weekend sermon – ‘Leaving a legacy’ – edited – with thanks to Keith Harrington (word doc)  here
  • Waitangi Weekend sermon – ‘Joshua and the Treaty (five treatise)’ –  edited – with thanks to Keith Harrington (word doc) here


The Te Reo Pulpit Challenge


DAVE MANN. Dave is a creative communicator with a vision to see an understanding of the Christian faith continuing, and also being valued, in the public square in Aotearoa-New Zealand. He has innovated numerous conversational resources for churches, and recently coordinated a 5th nationwide multimedia Easter project purposed to help open conversation between church and non-church people about Christianity take place, including regarding the specifically Christian origins of many of our nation’s most treasured values. Dave is the author of various books and booklets including “Because we care”, “That Leaders might last”, “The Elephant in the Room”, and available for free on this site: “The What and How of Youth and Young Adult ministry”. Married  to Heather, they have four young boys and reside in Tauranga, New Zealand.  

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