Doing effective Christian ministry for the native peoples of the Americas seems virtually impossible. At rousing Christian rallies, native people don't rally. At evangelistic meetings they are resistant. They have a hard time focusing on explanations of biblical truth. In church they feel boxed in and disdained.
As in many situations around the globe, this resistance has understandable historical roots. For centuries Europeans considered native people savages and their cultures valueless, even abhorrent. During much of this time Christian leadership was a convenient and effective agent for government policy which controlled native territory and aspirations. Together the church and government have prevented native self-education, self-government, and self-sufficiency. Chief Sitting Bull said, "It is not necessary that eagles should be crows." No honest view of history can deny Christian culpability in the unwarranted decimation of native cultures.
Reasons for native distrust
Any dislodging of this unholy alliance of the Christian church with government coercion has come only within the past few decades. It should be no surprise that native peoples are skeptical when the church now proclaims new insight into native cultures and professes purified motives. The evidence of genuine repentance is sparse. From the native perspective, Christians are doing their denominational ministry in much the same old way.
Another valid reason for distrust is the disparity between the average Christian's life and the average life of a native person The life expectancy of a native is 12 years less than that of the average nonnative Christian. Violent death is three times more likely. Suicide is six times the national rate. Unemployment in a native community may be 50 to 70 percent. Heart disease is twice the national average. In many native communities as many as 50 percent of homes have no plumbing, sewage disposal, or electricity. Half of all deaths are alcohol-related. In some areas in Canada, native inmates comprise up to 40 percent of the prison population, even though they make up only about 6 percent of the Canadian population. In very recent times only about 60 percent of eligible native children attended school, and only 6 percent of those who did go to school completed high school.
Radical cost of discipleship
The term dispossessed is well chosen. An effective ministry to native people demands a radical cost of discipleship. The person who would be a pastor must be dispossessed of most of the possessions that identify him or her with Caucasian middle-class Christianity. There must be a genuine incarnational giving up of the niceties that surround most Christians in their society, in exchange for a very earthy experience. Effective native pastors must be earthy in the sense of sometimes being itinerant wanderers, sometimes homeless, usually broke, because the poor are always near. They will often be dependent on the help of friends and strangers, the associates of drunks, the uneducated, the coarse, and various assorted sinners. Theirs must be a life something like the one Christ undertook for you and me. Such thoughts bring admiration for the pioneering Jesuit missionaries who left the comforts of Europe to live out their lives and their faith among "savages."
Among North American Native people, as among other similar peoples, effective ministry is impossible until we care enough to learn their language and their ways. When we come with our ethnocentric assumptions, we make it impossible for them to hear us. The way we listen ensures that we will never hear them. The way they are always late annoys us. The way we make them sit all day in class facing the teacher closes up all their avenues of learning. Our authority devolves, theirs evolves. Their traditions are oral, ours written. Things that are important to us are of minor consequence to them, and vice versa.
It is an impossible environment for traditional ministry. The more we intensify our efforts, the less they can hear and respond. When if they are ever provided an opportunity to express themselves, we have little ability to hear them. So we are always responding in ways they did not seek or desire.
Christians do religion. They use it, speak it, manipulate it to satisfy personal or corporate motives (deliberately or unwittingly). Some ministers do not live it, and after enough time, the paltry motives become apparent to native people. In many cases the denominational objective is to teach natives the dogmas and a procedure for being religious. The curriculum is how to use religion, to put it on at least once a week, to capture the magic and to ritualize the teaching. It is often far removed from the lifelong commitment to the law of respect for God, for all people, animals, and creation, which is at the heart of native spirituality.
Hardly anywhere is there a Christian non-native pastor willing to commit to all the necessary hardships to live incarnationally among one of the innumerable native nations. It is even more rare to find denominational support for such a pastor, who must be allowed to work without the imposition of short-term goals. Quite possibly the only ministry that can be successful in this context is one in which the life of Christ is lived out slowly and quietly, reflecting God's caring and character to a native community.
People around the world, among them Native Americans, have long been waiting to see Christ's life wholistically demonstrated to them; Christ Himself integrated into their whole life and culture. They long to know a Christ who is not above their culture, dictating foreign terms of engagement and entitlement, but in their culture. Christ is all they dream of being, living out their hope of glory.
Genuine native ministries by modern Christian ministers are virtually impossible because our history is too suspect, our motives overly denominational, and our methods too quick and too demanding. The time allotted to spend among the people is too short for learning their way of talking, listening, and being. The full, lifetime commitment is not present. The minister tends to answer to church structures rather than to Christ.
In North America today there are about 400 native nations left (some have been entirely obliterated). Each has its own distinct history, language, culture, and customs. Christ's commission to reach every nation is awesome in the face of such diversity. These nations are almost entirely unentered in terms of effective Christian ministry. Will we ever live down the history, the disparate lifestyle, and the non-communicative methodology of traditional Christian ministries?
The most promising possibilities in ministry center on the engagement of native ministers to live out Christ's life in their own communities. Natives should be educated for native ministry rather than simply through conventional seminary curricula. Natives should be trained by native pastors in native territory. The ability to tell a good moral story in the longhouse circle is as valuable and honored as any ability to support a doctrinal proposition.
Such ministry is a fearful prospect to many, because our own Christian ethnocentricity demands control. We are afraid of the emergence of a native Christianity one that may not fit comfortably into some of our rigid boundaries. Native Christianity is likely to be more foundational, more experiential, less scholastic, and more practical than Euro-American expressions of Christianity. Its theology may be more oral than written. Its authority may be more consent-oriented than ecclesiastical. It will be more all-encompassing and less fragmented, with its boundaries less identifiable than those of traditional churches.
The test of sacrifice
Letting this Christian way emerge with our blessing may be the sacrifice that will test the church's recent claim to repentance and its longstanding commitment to freedom of conscience. Native ministries by native pastors may even have the audacity to look for the support of fellow Christians while finding their own voice and vision.
Columbus and other European explorers vowed to Christianize the savage lands they discovered, but after hundreds of years it is obvious that in North America, the mission has all but failed. Maybe God is calling us now to let go so He can approach His native children in North America and elsewhere with a voice they can hear and a face they will recognize.