Putting It to the Test
A look at congegrations that are aiming to worship with native forms
Next Sunday morning put on a blindfold before going to church. If you attend a Latino church you will soon know by the sound of the worship music that you are in the right place. The same will be true if you attend an African-American church, a Euro-American church, etc.But when you attend a church of Native Americans things get a bit confusing. More than likely, you will hear English hymns played on European instruments–the same cultural language used as their Euro-American counter parts. Slip the blindfold off, you will likely notice pictures of a "Euro-Jesus" and a suspicious absence of any native decor, though the homes of every native person attending will be filled with Native American art and other cultural items.
Tragically, the message carried by missionaries to Native Americans has included a theology that denigrated native culture and religious beliefs while at the same time lifting up European values and culture as superior to Native American. Missionaries have insisted that Native American drums and rattles be thrown outand replaced by organs and, later, by guitars; that the Native American circle be abandoned for a square building; that pews be installed and native songs and music style must give way to English words and melodies.
One result of this calculated cultural/spiritual genocide is that a mere 3-5 percent of all Native Americans know Jesus personally. And why should they want to? To most Native Americans, Jesus is a White man and Christianity is a White man's religion.
But wait: Enter the new millenium. In recent years a growing number of Native American churches have been finding their way through the European cultural/religious jungleto emerge "Indian-friendly," yet deeply Christian. These Native American churches enjoy a new-found freedom to return to more traditionally-Indian ways of doing thingsways, they have learned, that God has approved of for thousands of years, ways that point to Jesus Christ as the One who brings fulfillment within their culture rather than demanding the replacement of their culture.
If you walk toward the church that I pastor, the Eagle Valley Church in Carson City Nevada, (established by Baptist missionaries in 1912) you will notice right away that the steeple hails the four-directional colors used so often by Native Americans. Looking up, one parishioner commented, "We can't see the whole top of the steeple but the Creator does, and He knows what the colors mean." Just as obvious as the outside steeple is the circle of chairs inside the sanctuary with a large drum in the middle. The offering basket lies in front on a blanket with an Eagle feather staff standing beside it.
The service begins Indian timelate. Many worshippers use an eagle feather and sage in a personal prayer. A few modern songs are sung on guitar. Then the pace quickly changes to native songs about the Creator and Jesus, as the people sing with the drum. At one point young and old alike join hands and round dance around the inside the circle of chairs. Spontaneous smiles break out on their faces.
Next comes a time of personal sharing, prayer and encouragement, as the Eagle staff is passed around and individuals share what's on their hearts. Prayers are offered by some; others ask prayer for their present problems; another asks for healing; still another reads a scriptureeach in their own turn, no one interrupting.
The service culminates with the pastor's teaching/preaching exhortation from the Scriptures (paraphrased to modern Indian vernacular). The same night, they return at 5:30 p.m. for a Potluck and Talking Circle, under their outdoor arbor, around a fire. Christian Sweat lodges are also held several times during the month as well as Bible studies.
As a Native American and pastor of the Eagle Valley Church for the past six years I can testify to this: Though a contextual native worship style is very appealing to our Indian people, it has not come without a cost. Constant criticism and slander from other native churches is commonplace. Also, non-Indians' cultural misunderstandings that have split the church on several occasions have always left me asking, "Is it worth it?" But when I realize the changes that God has made in the lives of many people who would have never been reached by other styles of ministry the answer is always, "Yes!"
I know we would have never been able to reach and mature the particular native people whom we have through the old paradigm.
Riding A New Horse
Is there a mono-tribal reservation church using the contextual approach? Yes! Gabriel Ward, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe, has only been back to the reservation for two years. He took over Body of Christ Church, the first Protestant church on the reservation, located near Los Angeles, California, as they transitioned from Brush Arbor to homes to their present statusthree adjoining trailer shells. At first they could not get permission from the tribal council. But after a tent meeting, planned for one week but lasting seven, God changed the hearts of the tribe. It was during these meetings that over seventy people were baptized. Now they will begin construction this Fall, of their first permanent building on the two acres the tribe donated to the church.
Much of Body of Christ's informal service would be familiar to the dominant society, yet some cultural distinctives are noticeable. Gourd rattles, indigenous to the Cahuilla, and hand drums are employed, and songs are sung in their tribal language. "Native culture is not the enemy of the church, but rather a real key in reaching our traditional people who can relate and identify at that level," Ward says.
When the Body of Christ Church had their land dedication, they invited the traditional bird singers and dancers of the tribe. After their ceremonies the Christians responded with their drum songs and a dance to Jesus. Eventually they all joined in song and dance, celebrating this event together.
"Many of our people attended mainstream denominational churches; however, one comment that I continually hear is, 'They do not acknowledge my culture,'" Pyle says. Other concerns speak of the condemnation the people feel and receive from some Christians for attending pow-wows, festivals and for just "being Indian."
"At BOC we offer an alternative worship, not an alternative Jesus," says Pyle. "We conduct ourselves according to the context of the Scriptures as being the final authority from the Creator. However, we sing different songs, pray in a different manner and acknowledge that Jesus is alive in our native culture, and He delights in our worship of Him through the culture He gave us. It has not been an easy path to walk. The people come because they find hope and healing in the message of Christ expressed through native culture. They come because they are a part of the body of Christ and want to bring their gifts to please Him."
Invitations to minister continue to come in. God is opening up unusual opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christincluding opportunities to pray at pow-wowsrequests that would have been unlikely in the past. While the majority of Native American Christian churches may continue in the same old paradigm, a number of native churches, with more transitioning all the time, will follow the old Indian proverb: "When the dead horse falls don't beat itjust get a new one."