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Ten Things I Learned About Native Ministries

The following Top 10 List was presented by Ray Levesque at Northwest University in Kirkland Washington on September 12, 2010, describing the unique cultural challenges encountered when ministering to Native Americans.

1. Jesus is "the Word of God."

Any questions? See John 1:1. Don't try to make the Bible into a replacement for Jesus the Person. Missionaries can bring the Good News to people without the written Bible if they bring the real Jesus. The Bible does not save us - Jesus saves us. The Bible is His Story, but does not replace Him.

2. All Christians carry the baggage of Church history.

You don't get to choose otherwise - you have no say. Genocide happened. Slavery happened. Colonization happened. Relocations happened. Reservations happened. Residential schools happened. Commodities happen. It's not fair, you didn't do it but if you are following Jesus, you inherit the baggage of His Bride the Church. Don't whine - deal with it! Then walk in ways that show that the actions of the past were wrong and we have learned "What Not To Do."

3. The worst thing you can do is leave.

While denominations measure conversions, baptisms and tithing, native believers measure you by your presence. If you are there, it had better be to stay. Native spiritual leaders don't change jobs every 18 months like the average church pastorate. If you want to be a native spiritual leader, you better plan on staying. And the natives don't care how many attend and how much is in the plate. If you want to truly succeed, learn to measure by native standards not denominational ones.

4. Natives are the most over-evangelized but under-reached people in the world.

North American Indian reservations are the laboratory for every missionary society there ever was. Most natives speak English and you don't have to fly anywhere to find us. So we get the cheapest missionaries with the least training. (Why learn our culture or languages like foreign missionaries do? Since we're in America, shouldn't we be speaking English anyway?) Many natives are Christians, including Catholics and Anglicans. But church attendance is lower because the church persistently brings the Gospel in Western regalia and native regalia/culture/customs are always suspect. This still needs to change.

My theory is that the church have a low view of the Gospel - that the Gospel is too weak to survive a confrontation with native culture, so instead, natives get a Westernized Gospel. Instead of planting the "seeds" of the Gospel, they plan entire, mature trees - and say "See? we are planting the seed of the Gospel Workshop." Sad how they deceive themselves.

5. Other cultures have a lot to teach us, even while we are bringing them the Gospel.

We need to be open to that so that we continually avoid the tendency to believe that our own culture is superior. The Ingaricos have no word for cancer since it is unknown. They have no notion of "law" and conduct themselves without courts, lawyers or violence. They cannot conceive of "prostitution." All these concepts came out in a time of Bible teaching as we translated an American preacher's message from English to Portuguese to Macuxi to Ingarico. And each Ingarico village rises together to pray at 3 or 4 in the morning when the birds begin to sing. Everyday. It sorta makes our notion of "devotions" somewhat pathetic.

6. Don't expect much money if you are going to be in native ministry.

Denominations routinely close churches or elect to only plant churches on casino reservations where tithing can actually be expected to pay for their services. Most people in ministry I know have regular jobs and serve the people just for free. Which is how traditional spiritual people have always operated - never charging for services like some sort of dentist or lawyer might do. Have your finances in order if you're going to be in native ministry - it will only get harder, not easier.

7. In the US there are plenty of native spiritual traditions.

If you become a native minister, you will be expected by the native community, to get along with them and cooperate when called upon. Your other choice is to lose all your credibility. Our local traditions include:

8. The "talking circle" is a great way of engaging with natives compared to pulpit preaching.

If you learn how this works you will believe me, but those who are trained to preach are quite offended at the notion that everyone should get a chance to be heard. It doesn't mean that teaching does not happen, but it isn't going to look like or sound like what normally happens in a Western church setting.

9. Education is nice but remember it is narrow.

Just because we focused on something for 4 years doesn't mean that others are not as educated or more educated than we are - but in different ways and areas. This might not make sense to people in academia, but if you stay in native ministry, you will see that it is true.

10. Insider leadership is a sign that a seed of the Gospel has been planted and has born fruit.

Beware of any movement that is run, controlled, and authorized by outsiders. I know of one mission agency to natives did not have a single native leader for 50 years and still have very few. Please take a look at those in authority in spiritual leadership and consider the insider/outsider balance. Is it improving?

Reprinted with permission from Ray Levesque.

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