Native Americans take lead in outreach

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Friday, April 26, 2013 (one year ago)

HOUSTON (BP) -- When Native Americans and those interested in Native American ministry gather for the June 10 meeting of the Fellowship of Native American Christians, they'll be hearing about a paradigm shift and new strategy taking hold across the United States.

Lac du Flambeau, Wis., is one example; Denver, another.

"It's important for Native people to become empowered and for us to help each other," said Gary Hawkins, FoNAC's executive director. "God keeps showing Himself strong."

The Fellowship of Native American Christians was established in 2008 to advance Southern Baptist ministries among Native Americans. Hawkins was elected as FoNAC's first executive director during its 2012 annual meeting in New Orleans.

FoNAC's upcoming meeting will take place in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention's June 11-12 annual meeting at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center. The FoNAC meeting will begin at 10 a.m. Monday June 10 in Room 361B of the convention center.

"We're encouraging people who presently partner with Native Americans and those seeking ways to partner with them to be present," Hawkins said. "We are asking God for His direction on how best to reach each individual tribe. There are many commonalities among all tribes but there also is a host of diversity. There is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to contextualizing the Gospel for each unique tribe."

With language, lifestyle, culture and traditions varying among the 550-plus Native tribal groups across North America, Hawkins noted that FoNAC has a dual purpose in developing a network of people, places and partnerships.

The aim: to help partners understand the uniqueness of each Native tribal group's worldview and, with that understanding, better equip Christians in their respective tribes to become leaders who multiply themselves.

The Lac du Flambeau example of a new way of Native American ministry can be traced to an inductive Bible study process that works well with the oral learning style of Native Americans.

Bill Earl is the Anglo pastor of Lac du Flambeau Bible Baptist Church, a Native American congregation on an Ojibwe reservation who had been without a pastor for five years until Earl's arrival last August. The reservation is one of five in northern Wisconsin.

Earl took a church member with him to a workshop last fall to learn about Bible study methodology based on oral learning.

"He [the member] said, 'God has led me to go back and teach my people; not just my tribe, other tribes,'" Earl said. "So he brought it back to his tribe in Lac du Flambeau, and to another tribe in Menominee, and to the Mayans in Mexico. So part of what God is doing is, He has equipped members of the church and they're sharing what they're learning. They're always inviting someone to church.

"It's so refreshing and encouraging to see these guys," Earl continued. "They've got this new hunger for studying God's Word and they just want to tell somebody; they just want to share. It's really a blessing to see how God has taken these folks who were crying out to Him and answered their prayer. It's an explosion but it's solid, lasting discipleship, and that's what God is doing."

Natives reaching their own is a new paradigm, said Emerson Falls, FoNAC president since its inception. He's also pastor of Glorieta Baptist Church in Oklahoma City and a past president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

"As Native people we know our Native work always depended on someone else," Falls said. "We believe that is a poor missiology; a better missiology is to develop indigenous leaders. ... What we hope to see is a work that is going to be sustained by the people who live there. We think that will be a lot more successful; we'll see it as their ministry, not ours."

In Denver, at least 42,000 Native Americans live across the metro area, but no viable evangelical ministry was apparent among them. Falls heard about this at a chance meeting and cited it as an example at a Native American conference some months later.

A Native member of the audience approached Falls afterward. He has now moved his family to Denver and, working bivocationally, is building a core group among Native Americans toward establishing a church, some of whom were found in a survey of the area by FoNAC last year.

"We're not going to put any long-term money in Denver," Falls said, speaking for FoNAC. "They're going to have to figure out how they're going to have church in Denver. ... We're not just sending teams to Denver and then go away, and we're not going there and building a church for them. I think what we're not doing is significant. That has hindered Native American work in the past....

"We want to do across the nation what we're doing in Denver," Falls continued. "We're looking at areas with a large Native population and not a lot of evangelical work. We're trying to establish indigenous leadership since we have learned over time that if the resources and leadership come from outside, we don't see progress."

The assistance of non-Natives on reservations and in urban areas will continue to be a valuable support system, Falls said, but with a difference. Rather than swooping in for a week or two, groups/churches/individuals are being asked to provide more continual contact with more in-depth training so that the mission teams "can work themselves out of a job" at one location in time and move on to another.

"If we develop indigenous leadership it doesn't matter if we go away; they know their culture," Falls said. "What they need is training and encouragement. We're asking people to invest resources in developing local leaders and helping them until they're able to develop their own ministries."

Falls said God is moving among Native people from the Seneca in upstate New York to the confederated tribes in Washington; the Cherokee in North Carolina; the Navajo, Pueblo, Hopi and Apache tribes in New Mexico and Arizona; and across the nation. FoNAC is a resource that can be tapped to learn of the greatest needs and best opportunities, he said.

"We need to keep Native work visible in the Southern Baptist Convention, and keep the Southern Baptist Convention visible to Natives," Falls said. "At the FoNAC annual meeting in Houston, we're going to show some videos of the strategy and unveil our national strategy for reaching Native peoples.

"We'll be identifying key locations and talking about vision," Falls said. "Everyone who wants to tap into what God is doing among Native peoples in North America is invited."

Hawkins added, "Lac du Flambeau and Denver serve as two examples but they are not the all-inclusive examples of ways Native people ministry can be accomplished."

For more information about ministry to Native peoples in the United States and Canada, check online at www.fonac.org.


Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, newsjournal for the 1,600 Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana.