Psalm 34:18 – The Lord is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit. (CSB)
Native Americans make up of a vast number of different tribal peoples. In this post I hope to give you a glimpse into Native ministry through a bit of my own experience and by providing some information on Native American life and struggles. This is an edited transcript of a brief talk I gave for a prayer breakfast at a seminary missions conference about a year ago. I offer my limited understanding and encourage those who want to learn more to speak to Native elders in the ministry and veteran missionaries alike.
My family began Native American mission work around 1991, when I was about three years old. They moved from Ohio out to the southwest to begin working with the Navajo tribe, which is the largest Native American tribe within the United States. Today, the tribe consists of about 300,000 people. My parents’ ministry began on the Arizona reservation. We eventually ended up in Gallup, New Mexico, in a county that was 75% Native American and where most of my classmates in school were Navajo.
The community struggles were apparent to me even as a child: a traumatic past, struggles with alcohol, drugs, gangs, and broken families. Many of the struggles mirrored those of the inner-city, but with more alcoholism and suicide. But there were many beautiful things about the community too: its warmth, its art, its emphasis on respecting elders and responsibility to one’s relations.
My father ended up taking on a pastoral position at a Navajo church for several years. The church was originally begun by several Native men who were recovering alcoholics, along with their families. In many Native churches, it is difficult to find men who are around to take leadership.
I continued to stay involved with Native American ministry after graduating high school, working with Native American youth during the summers for most of the last 10 years. Much of that work has been done amongst one of the Pueblo tribes.
Native American tribes can have vast differences in culture and practice. Tribes usually have completely different languages. The traditional Navajo home dwelling consists of a single room with eight sides, they live spread out across three states, clustered into family camps. The Navajo religious system follows this nomadic spread, with local shaman providing ceremonies and religious protection. The Pueblo tribes traditionally
have dwelled in houses made of stucco and mud, clustered and stacked together much like a hive. Their religious sanctuaries consist of round underground rooms that must be entered by ladder from a building above.
Amongst a few tribes there are religious centers where outsiders are never allowed to go. These religious systems must be kept sacred and secret by their practitioners. A few smaller tribes allow only one if any protestant churches on their lands.
Amongst these more closed tribes, youth face shunning in their community if they convert to Christianity, both from neighbors and family, as well as intimidation from tribal religious authorities. On Native reservations, you may find that tribal leadership has the authority to restrict evangelism, as well as limit or even disband Christian churches.
Amongst one particular small southwest tribe, ministers have worked for several years to build up the youth ministry of the local church, which includes holding bible study twice a week, camp retreats, and Bible classes in the Christian school that take them through the Old and New Testament. Many of these youth have never traveled outside of their own county, but through the youth ministry many of them have now traveled around the country doing ministry projects in other states. For the teens struggling with keeping on track with school, the ministers have attempted to find a way to give them the extra attention and accountability they need so that they can finish high school and go on to college.
There are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone, each its own distinct people group, all having distinct cultures and customs. What may be acceptable culturally in a Navajo setting might be seen as strange or offensive amongst a Pueblo tribe. Across the country you will find a myriad of diverse languages, belief systems, customs, and worldviews. You will also find commonalities among them, like their love of deep fried bread, the shared trauma of their past, and a love of basketball.
Many Native American churches do not have trained pastors, if any pastor at all. There are exceptions, and I know of a case in Oklahoma where a group of about five Native churches would share two circuit preachers who rotate through the congregations on Sundays. In the southwest states, prosperity teaching and cultic leaders sometimes take advantage of the lack of discipleship and leadership on the Native reservations.
Overall, the usual statistic I hear regarding Native Americans is that 3% of their population have been reached with the gospel, on average, but with some being as low as 1-2%. Native people have churches, but they struggle to produce disciples. While the gospel continues to spread around the globe, Native churches still struggle along. Throughout most of Native American missions history, down to today, much of their outlook on church has been shaped in such a way that they view the church as a place to go be fed spiritually by missionaries, dependent upon outsiders, without being given the tools to take over their own ministries. Their churches need indigenous leadership and solid discipleship.
There are many who have deep wounds in the churches and communities from the past, not only the horrific genocides and forced removals of the government, but even from the church. Much of the mission work of the past would seek to do away with Native American identity, teaching the Native people to be “good Christians” – adopting all the cultural practices of the whites.
One of the Navajo elders of my church growing up recounted being disciplined for speaking his own language at a Christian school as a child. His punishment for speaking his own language was to stand in place and hold a bible stretched out in each hand for a long period of time. This type of story is all too common, especially among older generations. Today many Native tribes are still pushed around by the US government, fighting battles to have a say concerning their own property and land, and often going unheard.
Native Americans are a reached people group. They have churches. But they have been neglected, and left without leadership and discipleship. They don’t reproduce. They have hurting communities that are torn by suicide, alcohol abuse, and poverty.
Despite the difficulties, the Lord works in wonderful ways.
Amongst a few tribes, it can be difficult to keep families in the church, as one generation of a family will regularly attend and the next will return to their traditional tribal beliefs. Amongst one tribe I have worked with several years ago, there were several youth who eventually left the youth ministry for their traditional belief system. But years latter from that same group of students, there is now a college church group for the first time ever, and two students have attending bible college in in preparation for ministry. One of them now holds the youth position at that church, assisted in that leadership role by another former Native youth group student.
But you don’t have to go to the Arizona reservation or Gallup, New Mexico to do Native ministry. While most Native Americans tribes from states like Texas were driven away from their lands long ago, there are many Natives living in urban centers such as Dallas Fort-Worth. According to 2017 studies, around 1.1% of Dallas County self-reported as Native American only, so nearly 29,000 people in that county listed themselves as Native American alone. [i]
Today many Native people live in the urban areas because of former U.S. policies aimed at assimilating Native Americans into the mainstream society, especially in the 1950s. The 1956 Indian Relocation Act sought to persuade Natives to leave their reservation lands for urban areas. As of 2010, 71% of Native Americans lived in cities. [ii] Urban Natives continue to struggle with the same issues that they do on their own lands.
The Apostle Paul respected the identity of all peoples he worked with, preaching Gospel unity. He also left leaders behind to continue his work, and moved on to urgently spread the Gospel. The church in the United States has historically disrespected the identity of Native Americans and left them without their own leadership. Native communities are still in need of leadership training for their churches, and often training can seem out of reach financially. Frequently those who leave their communities struggle with going back.
Thankfully, there are small ministries working to correct those problems by offering training, schooling, and scholarships. Additionally, several Native American missions organizations to Native peoples are led by or employ Native men and women, such as CHIEF ministries, UIM international, Indian Bible College, or American Indian Missions.
Native churches are in need of better discipleship, and many in their communities are in need of counseling services as they wrestle with abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. There is a lot of healing that needs to take place from all the wrongs of the past and the present that have been visited upon Native people, and a lot of restoration of hope. There is a lot of loving and supporting that we need to provide for our Native brothers and sisters as we learn from our past and seek to love like Christ in the present as we preach a Gospel of unity in Christ.
[Editing Note: This article originally appeared under the title “Observations Regarding Native American Ministry”]
Romans 12:5– Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Mark 12:30-31 – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.”