This is an article from the September - October 2000 issue: A New Day

That the Natives Might Lift Jesus Up

A conversation with Richard Twiss.

That the Natives Might Lift Jesus Up

Richard Twiss is the president of Wiconi International, whose vision is to see Native people find faith and life in Jesus Christ and fulfill their God-given place in the Body of Christ worldwide (

He is the author of the recently released One Church Many Tribes, Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Gospel Light/Regal Books). When we caught up with him for a telephone interview, he was in Calgary, Canada preparing for the Many Nations, One Voice Celebration 2000.

MF: How would you summarize the fruits born of the last two centuries of mission work among Native Americans?

Twiss: On the optimistic side, the Scripture says that the word of God never returns void. So, there has been the faithful effort of many missionaries who have labored intensely, sacrificially, to bring the Gospel to native people. But rarely has there been a legitimate endeavor to really contextualize the Gospel to the native context, which has then limited the fruit that might have been. So, I think the Gospel being what it is, "it is the power of God unto salvation" has brought many to Christ.

Q: You have spoken of the need to re-examine our methods and approach to bringing the Gospel to Native Americans. Please explain.

A: The statistics that most people use today indicate that somewhere from 3 to 8 percent of native people are Christian. In some native communities, it is far less than that, in some it is probably a little higher. But in world missions there is a consensus that people need to be trained and equipped for cross-cultural ministry. Many mission agencies now require that. Yet, never has that same approach been applied to the native context. I think because it is in North America, there is the erroneous assumption that we can just do it in an Anglo way.

The fruitthe percentagesrequire that we re-examine the way we have done missions because it is disproportionately low in light of the energy, time, money and resources that have gone into the native work.

Q: Do you see the mistakes made over the centuries by missionaries working with Native Americans being repeated today?

A: Yes. They continue to be made all across Indian country. Even in the larger denominational contexts, there is still an on-going, inherent paternalism in the denominational structures in many of their native works. They are still under the home missions departments of the various denominations. It is really an issue of control and government, in terms of funding, allocation of funds, self-governance, autonomy and all of those kinds of issues. In some of the denominations there is almost a systemic dependence built into the native home missions. It is sort of like a welfare dynamic, where it is easier for the native pastor to stay under home missionsit means you get money from home offices. Whereas if you were not, if you were on your own, you would have to raise your own support, your salary, that sort of deal. So it is much easier to stay within the home missions system. Which, I think, is always counter-productive in terms of talking about indigenous churches: Self-governing, propogating, supporting. Home missions does not promote that sort of autonomy. It actually creates a dependence on the home mission central office.

Q: In your view is it sufficient for whites and natives to be in agreement about the pastthat there was sin thereor is it necessary for Whites to accept personal culpability?

A: It is a relational dynamic. If you try to look at it through the eyes of politics and say "Well, those were political decisions made at the highest levels of government and they acted against people groups as they worked out government policy," then there is no sense of identification. But that is not real, it is like total escapist non-reality. It is like children who grow up with an abusive father and eventually make it into adulthood, but they carry all this stuff from that abuse, and then they marry, they have children, and then it manifests itself. Then, their childern grow up. So, now you have this sin that is being passed on from generation to generation.

At some point, some generation has to say, "Hey, where does this thing come from?"

I think the church has to acknowledge the sins of the past, and may have to do it more than once, for natives to somehow become disengaged from the bitterness, the anger, the resentment in order to move on. But I do not think it is just up to native people to sort of create that process and carry the weight of that so they can be free. I think it is a mutual thing.

Q: Has there been progress in dealing with previous sin?

A: I think there has been some progess. But, by and large, for the American church, it is an out of sight, out of mind kind of phenomenon. Unless they are presented with the reality of history and the situation, because they are so far removed from it, it is as though it never happened. I speak in churches all over the country, and, without fail, people will come up to me and say, "We just never knew that these things happened." So, I think there is just a high degree of ignorance in the American church about missions history. In large part, the church needs to be awakened to the reality for us all to move on.

But I think there has been good progress.

Q: How do you view the relationship between culture and the Gospel? Should it play a revitalizing role?

A: I think in every people group, the Gospel brings life to areas of death, it brings light to darkness. Whenever sinful man is redeemed from the power of sin and death, then that man, that woman become agents of redemption and that affects all the spheres of human existence: art, language, the sciences, medicine, architecture. And so the Gospel, by its very nature makes all things new. That very process is revolutionary in terms of human existence.

Q: As you have talked about redeeming cultures, you mention the concern of syncretism. What are some primary areas you have stayed away from? Do you have any guidelines?

A: On a personal level, we have some very basic guidelines, where we feel the Scripture is very clear. We avoid the use of any mind altering substance; we avoid the promotion or participation in any sexual immorality; we avoid any ceremony that promotes torture (self-mutilation) and any kind of ceremony or practice that was clearly anti-Christ and promoting demonic entities.

From there, what we are after is creating (in conjunction with the missions community in North America) some theological grids that native leaders can use in their own tribal context. Then they can decipher what is good for them or not good for themrather than doing the same thing that the Anglo missionaries did, which was to create one template, one cookie-cutter design and make all the tribes fit into that one pattern. So, what we are trying to do is develop theological approaches that various natives and different tribal traditions can take and use in their own context.

Q: You write in One Church Many Tribes that "the injustices and rejections in the family of God between Anglo and natives" have been the greatest challenge to reaching Native Americans. Why?

A: Well, I think it is one thing when you have sinful people behaving sinfully against other sinners. You expect [certain behavior] from a sinner. But, I think it is a whole different thing when you have the Church, the family of God, treating people in such a manner that really distorts what Jesus was after in the Gospels and what Paul continually advocated in the epistles. This was a worldview process, or a Biblically-based worldview, that said God shows no partiality, but He accepts all people equally, those who fear Him.

So in North American missions history, the church rarely treated native people in the light of Scriptural truth. Most often, it treated them from their own European, ethnocentric worldview, which always placed natives as lower than and inferior to themselves. Consequently, it distorted the image of Jesus. When Anglo people preached Jesus, I don't think native people were able to see the Jesus of the Bible. They saw the Dutch Jesus, the French version, the German version, the English version. So, I think in that context, the way that the family of God has treated native people has created a spiritual stronghold in North America that says Christianity, or Jesus, is the white man's religion, the white man's God. So, I think the church has unintentionally and inadvertantly helped to create and, over the centuries, to sustain the spiritual stronghold that the god of this world uses to blind the minds of unbelieving natives. So, the whole process of contextualization is trying to tear down that stronghold and say that Jesus of the Bible was a tribal man and He died on the cross for native people, so they could be all that God intended them to be.

Q: Could you briefly describe contexualization as you have advocated in the Native American sphere?

A: What we are advocating, as much as anything, is peeling away the Euro-American cultural garments off the Gospel so that native people can see Jesus and the Christian faith in the light of Scripture: the history of the Hebrews; the reality of the Old Testament under the Mosaic covenant; Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system; seeing Christ in the light of Abraham and Melchizideck as the father of faith and trying to follow in Paul's footsteps as he labored against the Judaizers who were trying to impose extra-Biblical or, at times, non-Biblical standards on the new, Gentile believers. In that light, what we have been advocating is the Jesus of the Biblethat is, Jesus lifted up. Our hope and prayer is that He would draw all men unto Himself. But native people should not have an image of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, suburban Jesus to be comformed into. So that is foundational for us.

Q: How have you worked to overcome their objections?

A: The main objections are, for example, the native drum, or any object that was historically used or is presently used by non-believers in some type of religious, non-Christian activity. The view is that this object cannot then be used for Christian worshipand to do so would be idolatry. You could apply that to a rattle, you could apply that to eagle feathers, to certain uses of colors and prescribed geometric patterns, certain symbols. In missiological circles, it is the issue of form, meaning and function.

So, we are trying to bring a missiological perspective to many of our native believers. Other voices within the native Christian community are saying that we are promoting syncretism, the blending of the historical Christian faith with Indian religion. Again, if a medicine man uses a drum to give honor to the spirit of the Bear and calls upon the Bear spirit for direction, they say a Christian cannot make a drum and use it in giving honor to Jesus Christ in praise and worship on Sunday mornings. They say that is syncretism.

Q: So how do you view the drum?

A: We view it as any man-made object. The problem is not in the natural materials used to manufacture a particular itemit is the intended use. You have a finished product. What is the user going to do with that thing? In the same way, any musical instrumenttrombone, viola, piano, organ, drumif the non-believer uses that drum to call on evil spirits, that has nothing to do with the Christian using that drum. As in many churches, evangelical, charismatic, non-charismatic, the prayer at the beginning of the service is, "Holy Spirit, we invite you to participate with us in this meeting and lift our eyes to see Jesus." So, we usually do it with an acoustic guitar and some praise choruses and we sing songs. But if a native Christian takes his drum and he invites the Holy Spirit to come on his drum, we don't see that as un-Biblical or compromising Scriptural truth. Nor do we see that as syncretism. We just see that it is a man or a woman that loves Jesus, who has taken a particular musical instrument and is using it to express his or her love, faith and devotion to Jesus Christbut they are doing it with an instrument that is most familiar and enjoyed by them.

Q: There seems to be some disagreement among Native Americans themselves about how much contextualization of native culture should be allowed in worship services. Do you see a growing openness on the part of Native American church leaders to embrace a more contextualized worship?

A: There is a rapidly growing awareness. But, at the same time, it is as though some native denominational organizations are drawing the proverbial line in the sand and saying, "If you are going to drum in church, then we cannot fellowship with you, because that is compromise." I feel badly about that, because there is a huge and rapidly growing North American openness and I think the spirit of the Lord is in it (in terms of missions understanding). The rest of the world has already pretty much worked through this issue a couple of decades ago. And the native community is one of the last people groups to deal with it. I think that, because it is in North America, people felt that there was no need to confront these issues. But, now we are.

Q: How accepting have non-believing natives been of native believers who worship in these more contextualized forms?

A: Our experience is that when a non-believer comes to a contextualized church servicemusically, linguisticallyit comes against the stronghold in their minds that Christianity is only the religion of the White man. And they come away saying, "Wow, we didn't know that this was possible." We were always told that it wasn't. And, in terms of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the values we're promoting are: you're faithful to provide for your family, you don't abuse your wife, you don't abuse your children, you're honest, you're moral, you're a man or woman of integrity.

We're saying that you now have the power to be all these things, which are the same values that the traditional native people are talking aboutand we can do them in the native way. But it happens through the transforming power of the Gospel.

Fast Facts on Native Americans

  • Estimates of the pre-Columbus Indian population range from 1 to 30 million, depending upon the criteria. [Conservatively, many use the use figure of 10-12 million.]
  • By 1900 there were only 237,000 Native people left in the United States.
  • In the early 1800s, there were an estimated 260,000 Indians in California. By 1900, there were 20,000.
  • Today there are nearly 2 million self-declared Native Americans. There are another 1.3 million in Canada.
  • According to the 1990 Census, 23 percent of the Native population live on reservations and 77 percent live in urban areas.
  • There are 557 federally recognized tribes or nations.
  • 220 of those Tribes are in Alaska.
  • 150 Tribes are in some stage of petitioning for Federal Recognition.
  • 30 are state recognized.
  • Approximately 200 tribes have become extinct.
  • There are 250 different languages and dialects spoken on a daily basis. [Apache and Lakota, or Navajo and Mohawk are as different as Norwegian is from Japanese.]
  • Less than 10 percent of contemporary Indians speak their native languages.
  • There are 300 federally recognized reservations in the United States.
  • Indian reservations make up less than 4 percent of the continental United States.
  • 11 million acres (20 percent) within reservation boundaries are owned by non-Indians.
  • Nearly one-half (46 percent) of reservation populations are non-Indians.
  • Each tribe claims rights as a sovereign nation, with its own agenda and concerns. The legal ramifications are a quagmire of overlapping state and federal judicial systems.

George Russell, Facts of Life: A Profile of Today's Tribes and Reservations (Phoenix, AZ: Russell Publications, 1997).


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