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Native American caucus explores bringing 'culture' into church

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The Rev. Alvin Deer
Nov. 15, 2005

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."

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

The Rev. Casey Church is the director of Soaring Eagle Ministry in Albuquerque.
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.

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."

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A UMNS photo by Linda Green

Lance Sands and Betty Admussen, members of the Native American International Caucus, discuss contextualization of Native ministry.
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.

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


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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