|Native American caucus explores bringing 'culture' into church
Nov. 15, 2005
The Rev. Alvin Deer
By Linda Green*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- Should Native Americans deny their
cultural practices in order to be Christian and to make their churches
effective and vital?
For a group of Native American leaders in the United Methodist
Church, this question provided a starting point for discussing how
native culture can be brought into the church. The resulting dialogue on
"contextualization" or "contextual ministry" took up a good portion of
the Native American International Caucus directors' Nov. 10-12 meeting.
Contextual ministry gives Native American communities the freedom to
use cultural items and worship practices in the church, said the Rev.
Alvin Deer, caucus director. If the caucus is to continue its mission of
advocacy for the 19,000 Native American United Methodists, then it
should understand contextualization in ministry and in theology and the
role the caucus must play, he told directors.
"How does the gospel itself relate to each native community?" he
asked. "We believe the intent of Jesus Christ in the first place was to
meet people where they are."
Conservative Native American Christians, he said, are adamant that
culture should not be brought into the church, while more
liberal-thinking Christians "feel it is imperative that we look at
Christianity from a native perspective if we are going to impact those
Native Americans who feel marginalized by traditional Christianity."
Some Native American congregations incorporate activities from
traditional powwows into their worship services, Deer noted. "They say
we are relating to God in our native way, yet many of our people did not
come out of a powwow culture." Though not all native tribes have held
powwows historically, more and more tribes are beginning to accept them,
creating a "pan-Indianism culture and not a tribal-specific culture
that is coming into the church," he said.
|A UMNS photo by Linda Green
The Rev. Casey Church is the director of Soaring Eagle Ministry in Albuquerque.
Deer would like a church agency or the caucus to conduct
consultations churchwide to increase understanding about contextual
ministry and contextual theology. Caucus directors suggested that the
issue is to understand the best way to present the entire worship
experience through native eyes.
"I believe that native ministries are at a crossroads," Deer said.
"We are in danger of becoming insignificant to the church and the church
insignificant to Native American communities."
Comparing the condition of Native American ministries to the imagery
of children in Third World or starving countries, Deer said, "it may not
be so physically, but it certainly is so spiritually."
"There is no place in America where Native American ministries are
thriving," he said. "In some places, when they hold status quo, they
claim victory. And yet, Native Americans continue to be the youngest and
one of the fastest-growing races in America. "
The United Methodist Church needs to be intentional in ministry to
Native American communities, Deer said. "Because we are the least, we
are the last."
To enable the caucus to understand contextual ministry, the Rev.
Casey Church of Albuquerque, N.M., provided insight into "Soaring Eagle
Ministry," a contextual ministry learning center that he designed to
develop emerging leadership.
Church, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi of southwest Lower
Michigan, told the gathering that he discovered a dichotomy in his life
when he asked, "Why do I have to be different to be Christian?" He said
God told him in 1992 that he did not have to take himself out of his
culture to be in another.
"It is about Native Americans being able to express themselves in
authentic Christian worship from their native context as opposed to
expressing themselves in what we have done for centuries from the
European understanding and expression of Christianity."
Contextual ministry is important, Church said, because with "more than
450 years of evangelism to Native Americans, less than 7 percent claim
to be Christian. Not very good results," he said.
|A UMNS photo by Linda Green
Sands and Betty Admussen, members of the Native American International
Caucus, discuss contextualization of Native ministry.
To reach post-modern, urban and reservation people, the gospel should
be presented in a package unique to who they are rather than the way it
has been presented and packaged for centuries. This package, he said,
would include the total worship expression that is used today --
rituals, music, ceremony, the building and its construction, the way
people sit in the pews and with the pastor alone providing leadership.
Directors also learned the caucus is partnering with the National
Indian Women's Health Resource Center and will receive $35,000 for three
years in a program called "Circle of Positive Churches."
Through the program, six Native American churches and communities
will partner to provide training curriculum for youth development,
helping young people gain skills and knowledge to improve their lives.
The selected communities are in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cherokee, N.C.;
Lapwai, Idaho; Tempe, Ariz.; Tahlequah, Okla.; and Millsboro, Del.
Caucus members also:
- Met with staff executives from the Division on Ordained Ministry at
the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry to discuss
contextualization and native theological education.
- Heard from the Rev. Kirby Verret in the Louisiana Annual (regional)
Conference about hurricane damage and devastation to the Houma Indian
community in Dulac, La.
- Received updates on faith-based initiatives.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rev. Casey Church: "We need to present the Gospel unique to who they are."
The Rev. Alvin Deer: "There's no place where Native American ministries are thriving."
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Native American caucus awarded faith-based grant
Native American International Caucus
2004 General Conference-Native American News
General Board of Global Ministries