The American Indians have at times been called "the most evangelized people in the world." In spite of this, mission work among the American Indians by Churches of Christ cannot be called really successful. In fact, except among the Navaho, this writer knows of very little serious effort at evangelism among American Indians by Churches of Christ. We need to take the Great Commission more seriously in this regard. The Indian nations are a part of the all nations of which Jesus said we are to make disciples.
When we do begin to take the Great Commission more seriously, we need to realize that there are special problems involved in Indian evangelism. The purpose of this article is to look at some of the difficulties involved in Indian evangelism and to suggest solutions to the problems which arise. This writer's experience has been limited to the Indians of the Southwestern United States, primarily to the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. In spite of this, many of the principles mentioned here are applicable to Indian evangelism all over North America.
In the evangelism of American Indians, there are two areas which present difficulties:
(1) Those aspects of the Indian cultures which are antagonistic to the gospel of Christ and (2) the faulty methods of the missionary which fail to take the Indian cultures into account. One of the barriers to evangelism which exists is the antagonism between the Indians and white men. This is more pronounced among some tribes than among others. The Hopis of Arizona, for example have a sign posted outside the old Oraibi pueblo which reads, "Warning. Warning. No outside white visitors allowed. Because of your failure to obey the laws of our tribe as well as the laws of your own, this village is hereby closed." The trust which is needed to overcome this kind of antagonism cannot be built overnight.
In some tribes there is tremendous social pressure to remain true to the old traditions and loyal to the group. One who becomes a Christian is a social outcast. This is especially true in those tribes which are group-oriented -- for example, the Pueblo tribes. And even if a tribe does present a solid front to outsiders which exerts social pressure against the acceptance of the gospel, the same tribe may have internal factions within the society which can also prove to be a hindrance. The Southern Baptists at Zuni, for example, discovered that several small groups for teaching children were much more effective than trying to have a few larger groups. The reason for this is that when the children in one faction discovered that children from another faction were to be in the Bible class, they would stay at home.
But the lack of response experienced by most missions cannot simply be attributed to the culture of the Indians. Rather, it has to a great extent been due to a failure of the missionaries to understand and appreciate Indian culture. In reporting on a recent interdenominational conference on Indian evangelism, the MARC Newsletter says, "However, it was obvious from the papers presented that the major failure of missions to Indians, particularly in the United States, has been a failure to realize that tremendous cultural differences exist between white missionaries and Indian people." It goes on to state that we have been assuming all along that they required the type of evangelism we usually use in the U.S., when in reality they needed the type of evangelism used in foreign countries. All too often, missionaries have assumed that since most of the Indians could speak English as a second language, there was no reason for them to learn the native language. But somehow English often fails to communicate like one's own mother tongue does. And the missionary deprives himself of really being able to participate fully in the Indian culture because of his failure to learn the language. In fact, he cannot even correctly understand the culture.
Many missionaries, recognizing the differences between white and Indian cultures, but not really wanting to face learning the Indian culture, have turned to the school approach as a form of child evangelism. The idea is to change the culture of the children to be more like white culture and thus make it easier to convert them. A problem with this method among the Zuni Indians is that although several children may be converted, when they reach the age to be initiated into the tribal religion, they almost always quit going to church. Even in those tribes where the tribal religion does not exert such a strong influence on the children so as to cause them to backslide as adults, the school approach often so changes the culture of the converts that they lose most of their influence with those of their own tribe. Such a "hot house approach" is not likely to lead to the spontaneous growth of a church.
A different approach which takes the culture into account is to present the gospel message in such a way as to adapt it to the culture. For example, a church at Zuni might decide to have its meetings at night in private homes. They would probably not start at an exact time. The services might well last far into the night, just as Zuni religious ceremonies do now. Perhaps at these meetings long passages of scripture which had been memorized would be recited. The singing would most likely be in a repetitive chant form. The organization of classes, study groups, devotional groups, etc. might very well be complicated in order to provide the integration to the social structure that the present religion does. In none of these things is the gospel message changed, but rather the form has been adapted to Indian culture.
It would be much better if the missionary would live among the people, learn the language, and grow to appreciate and understand the culture. He should strive to gain the trust of the people, work among the adults, and present the gospel adapted to the culture. If we are going to take Indian evangelism seriously, we need to take Indian culture seriously. And the Lord will not be pleased if we do not begin to take Indian evangelism seriously.
"Conference on Indian Evangelism," MARC Newsletter, May, 1975, 2.
by Bruce Terry, June 6, 1975
Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
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