News Articles

Mission trip to Native Americans entails
more than ‘Here we come’

CHEROKEE, N.C. (BP)–They have names like Killing Bear, Squirrel and Youngdeer, and they have decidedly clung to many of the cultural characteristics passed down through generations. And while their tribal culture is an indelible part of their identity, some Native Americans and First Nations people are claiming a new identity in a man by the name of Jesus Christ.

Merritt Youngdeer thought he had retired in 1997 after working with the federal government for 31 years. Perhaps his work with the Civil Service Corps and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was meant to prepare him for the task he has now of delivering the Gospel to the Cherokee people of North Carolina.

A Cherokee himself, he sees the native world as one community needy for, among other things, the hope of Jesus Christ. He has always had his hand in native affairs — whether out west or back east — and retirement for him meant going back to school and coming back home. He fits so comfortably into his role as pastor of Cherokee Baptist Church that you wonder if he ever really left.

Of the 60 to 70 folks who show up regularly at the church, 80 percent are Cherokee. While Youngdeer takes every opportunity possible to proclaim the Gospel and ground his congregation in God’s Word, some on the reservation have not heard or don’t acknowledge such a straightforward approach to salvation. Like other Native American and First Nations tribes, among the Cherokee are many who mix the traditional native spiritism of their ancestors with elements of Christianity.


“My view of Christ is of a being that descended in a cloud of smoke and taught us how to care for the land and live in peace,” says a man named Killing Bear.

Dressed in traditional Cherokee buckskin regalia, Killing Bear says he learned the traditional dances and the dress of the Cherokee when he was a boy, and he performs dances for tourists and church groups. He stares away as he talks, his eyes glowing beneath a black band of face paint. His wife, in a Jeep Cherokee, sits nervously by, smoking and frequently tossing her long, black hair. Soon she’ll pick up the kids from school.

These are the people Youngdeer prays to reach. He wants Killing Bear and his wife to join people like John Squirrel, who prayed to receive Christ two years ago on his front lawn, and the more than 70 other Cherokee who have accepted Christ since the Youngdeers returned to the reservation almost four years ago.

While poverty is not as much of an epidemic in Cherokee as it is in more remote areas, the reservation is still experiencing some of the same challenges troubling many other native communities. People there are still weighed down by alcoholism, drugs and, more recently, the gambling scene at Harrah’s casino. And reaching the younger Native Americans and First Nations people in Canada is becoming both simpler and more complicated than ever. That’s because many younger natives are moving off the reservations and exposing themselves to other ways of thinking — including the truth of the Gospel — while other young natives are staying on the reservation “trying to find themselves,” Youngdeer noted.


“It’s not popular for them to convert to Christianity,” he said. “There’s a mystique about being called a Cherokee, and, to them, becoming a Christian is selling out.” Still others, he said, think they’re already saved by the religion passed down through their families. However, God continues to change the hearts and minds of this nation sprawling around the Oconaluftee River, and He continues to open doors in other tribes closed off to the world by geography, culture and suspicion.

While the Cherokee first heard the Gospel nearly 200 years ago, many Native Americans and Canada’s First Nations people are only just beginning to hear about Jesus. They offer great opportunities for on-mission Christians and church groups who want to put feet to their faith.

Nearly 600 recognized tribes and bands of North America’s first inhabitants are represented on the continent. While a large number of these natives have moved to urban areas and may be in your classrooms and boardrooms, many tribal people have stayed on reservations and reserves where they speak their native language and still hold to many traditional values and practices.

An estimated 95 percent of the North American native population is unsaved, and there are still some people who could “live out their entire lives hearing only their tribal language,” said Mark Custalow, who serves with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board as Native American and emerging people groups coordinator. “Sometimes it’s really like visiting another nation.” And often, ministering to the various North American tribal nations requires the mindset of an international traveler.


So, if you think God is calling you into the harvest field of native North America, be aware that there’s more to it than piling into the church van and heading to the nearest reservation. Successfully reaching these cultures in our own backyards will require thoughtful planning and more commitment than a weeklong summer excursion.

A few pointers:

— Do not assume that all Native American and First Nations tribes are in dire need of a church group to come and “save” them. While there is obviously a great need for the Gospel among native tribes, your way of approaching this need may require some cross-cultural tuning. If God is leading you to a region or tribe, pray that He would reveal to you their needs.

Go through a Southern Baptist native association and a missionary or pastor on the reservation, and begin building relationships far in advance. For example, Youngdeer said he would prefer a group leader to come in person and spend time in the area before arriving with his group and starting Backyard Bible Clubs. “A quick phone call saying, ‘Here we come,’ is not enough for a serious ministry to develop,” he said.

Six months to a year of getting to know your contact on the reservation gives him or her enough time to understand your goals as a group, to help tailor those goals to the vision he or she has and to find the best ministry fit for you. Sharing the vision of the pastor or missionary will help rather than weigh down their ministry while also providing a more rewarding trip and long-term success for your group.

— Before heading to the reservation or reserve, learning about the culture will help you relate to the people and show them that you care for and respect them. The missionary or pastor with whom you’re partnering can provide a lot of this cultural information.

Six months to a year before your trip, begin an e-mail or telephone dialogue with your contact. Questions and concerns may arise that you can run past them. Keep a file of this information, and discuss it with your mission group during meetings. Shortly before the trip — one to two months out — try to meet in person with your contact so he or she can go over things such as tribal customs and clothing, things harder to cover during phone conversations.

— Prepare for the need. Meeting the physical needs of the tribe is one of the best ways to reach the people for Christ. While this may take extra preparation, the result could be hearts open to the Gospel. Find out what the tribe needs through your contact. If they need housing and other repairs, round up people skilled in those areas, or partner with another group. If it’s food and clothing, give them the best you can. Again, by working with your contact to assess their needs, you can determine whether some nicely kept hand-me-downs or brand new clothes would be appropriate. And you want to provide food that would satisfy their culturally specific appetites as well as their immediate need. The way you provide for a need has the potential to wound someone’s pride or lift the spirit.

— Preparing for a trip to native America means more than a suitcase full of Gospel tracts and a group eager to win some souls in the span of a week. Before piling into the church van or boarding an airliner, examine and prepare yourself for the journey — praying for both your trip to the reservation and the spiritual journey of the people you’re reaching as you guide them to the hope you have in Christ.

This means assuming an attitude of ministry more than fun. Even on a reservation such as Cherokee, where some people have heard the Gospel, they aren’t going to be as receptive if you’re just there “to have fun in the mountains and have a cultural experience,” Youngdeer said. “That’s fine if you’re on vacation, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the lives on the reservation.” The fun will come from the joy of changed lives and your personal growth.

— Prepare for a long-term partnership with your contact and a long-term relationship with the tribal people. Native Americans and First Nations groups are not objectives on a checklist; they should be on your list of long-term friendships. Go with the idea that this is going to take a while. Yearly trips are often necessary to really begin to share in the vision of the missionary or pastor on the reservation and to really make a lasting impact on the people there.

— Take the ministry home with you. This means not only following up with the people you met on the reservation, but also reaching Native American and First Nations people nearby.

If you want to reach that guy next door or that lady in the cubicle across the way, remember their cultural differences even in the urban environment. Get to know them, study their culture and focus on a long-term relationship that shows respect for their background and concern for their eternal future. Sooner or later, they will take the hope you’ve shared back to where many of their hearts are — the reservations.

“We need to remember that whatever happens on the reservations will affect the people who have lived there, even if they now live thousands of miles away,” said Russell Begaye, a Navajo and NAMB’s manager of church planter enlistment. “We need to bring the Gospel to both the cities and the reservations.”
This article initially appeared in On Mission magazine, a publication of the North American Mission Board. Reprinted with permission. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PASTOR’S COUNSEL and HOLDING TO HERITAGE.
— Visit www.nambnativeministries.org for more information on the culture, demographics and needs of native groups in North America. This site also provides a list of native Southern Baptist churches.
— Contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs at (202) 208-3711 for maps, demographics and other information regarding Native Americans. For First Nations tribes, contact Indian and Northern Affairs Canada at (819) 997-0380.

    About the Author

  • Adam Miller