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Native American-focused event examines ways to remove barriers to Gospel

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Native Americans from 15 states and First Nations people from three Canadian provinces participated in “The Gathering,” a March 2-4 conference in Oklahoma City aimed at removing barriers to bringing hope to native peoples across North America through faith in Christ.

“We came from Nebraska expecting something miraculous because we need a miracle,” said Ron Goombi, a North American Mission Board missionary to Native Americans in Nebraska and Kansas.

Goombi brought people from eight tribes in the two states. “Our suicide rates are so high the tribe doesn’t know what to do. The water system is breaking down,” he said. “We need to live beyond the barriers we have.”

A platform decorated simply with an Indian tepee, two feathered headdresses and a native drum set the stage at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City for the event that underscored:

— the effectivenesss of telling stories, rather than sermonizing, in reaching native peoples.

— being true to the Gospel while at the same time seeking to understand the worldview of Native Americans and First Nations peoples.

— use of in-home groups, not just church buildings, to draw native peoples to the Gospel.

“It pretty much confirmed what I had come to the conclusion of, concerning work with Native Americans,” said Richard Delores, a member of the Pueblo Laguna tribe and pastor of Laguna Acoma Baptist Mission in Budville, N.M., who brought four members — new Christians — to The Gathering.

Oklahoma City pastor Emerson Falls, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe who was among The Gathering’s organizers, had noted prior to the conference: “A lot of our Native American pastors learned to preach the western model that the missionaries taught us, which is good and effective and God uses it. But it’s not culturally relevant because our people are an oral people, and we are storytelling people, so it just doesn’t make sense that we use three points and a poem in our Native American churches, and everywhere else, they use stories.” Falls is president of the Fellowship of Native American Christians and immediate past president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

The Gathering was punctuated by native music by participants from both the United States and Canada, led by Tyrone Smith, a Creek Indian from Oklahoma. Goombi’s wife Alpha, a Kiowa/Apache, provided a dramatization during each evening’s worship service.

Among the featured speakers, who framed their messages within a cultural context, were Grant Lovejoy, an orality specialist with the International Mission Board; Jay Jackson, a former missionary with New Tribes Mission in the Philippines who now leads a cross-cultural training ministry named Global Empowerment; Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary; and Bill Fudge, an emeritus IMB missionary in East Asia who served 34 years with the mission board.

The Gathering’s emphasis on a shift from ministry “for” Native Americans to ministry “with” Native Americans” resonated with Chief Alex Sunrise, who pastors several congregations in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

“It was good [to hear the] messages, also to meet many other Christian leaders, pastors and lay workers, and … knowing most of all that we can listen to each other, the great ones to the small ones,” Sunrise said. “[Though} we’re all from different places … I believe God has given us an opportunity to work together, and I think that’s kind of my highlight from it, how we can help each other, work with each other and to go forward as believers.”

The First Nations chief said it didn’t bother him that the speakers were neither native nor Canadian.

“I don’t look at it as white people or Indians, but who is presenting the Word [of God],” Sunrise said. “I believe it was the beginning of [the white people] really speaking to us as people the same as they are.

“They had a different outlook from the way we’ve done it in the past.”

The Gathering was the first of two national events this spring focusing on fresh ways of reaching Native Americans and First Nations people. The North American Native Peoples’ Summit, April 27-28 at Cross Church in Springdale, Ark., with Henry Blackaby among the featured speakers, will aim at connecting Native American leaders from across North America with non-Natives who want to work with them.

At The Gathering, Lovejoy noted in a message on Bible storying that Scripture is the story of God relating to His people. “Let’s reclaim the story quality of the Bible,” he counseled. “Stories have an appeal to people who would never listen to a sermon.”

People across the world speak nearly 7,000 languages, but only 450 have a complete Bible, Lovejoy said, noting that the only way the others are going to hear the Gospel is through spoken communication within the context of their oral cultures.

Lovejoy warned against an insistence on sermonizing, saying, “We’re like King Saul, who said, ‘Wear my armor’ to David. David used what God gave him, and that was more than enough in the hand of God.”

In Bible storying, Lovejoy said, care is taken “to build an ethos to protect God’s Word,” using principles and techniques “that help a storying group preserve biblical accuracy as they retell the story, with the Bible serving as the final authority.”

Jackson, in speaking on cross-cultural communication of the Gospel, noted that one’s witness “is entirely dependent on my understanding of the person I’m talking with. We take for granted when we share the Gospel that the hearer shares our understanding of the nature and character of God….

“It’s not how well you know your topic; it’s how well you know your listeners and how well you adjust to their thinking that determines the degree of communication,” Jackson said.

Iorg, in his message at The Gathering, said biblical truth and fellowship will be buffeted by false teaching, sinful choices and frivolous rationales.

“The fundamental challenge,” Iorg said, “is identifying convictions and holding them without compromise while at the same time demonstrating patience and grace with other believers who have differing commitments and preferences.”

Convictions define the Christian faith, are non-negotiable and worth dying for, Iorg said, while commitments define key issues for Christians yet they vary among believers and are the basis of fellowship within denominations. Preferences, meanwhile, involve changing tastes, cultural background, regional biases, political persuasions and generational experiences, Iorg continued.

“The most explosive doctrinal conflicts among Christians occur,” Iorg said, “when an issue is given more weight than it deserves — when a commitment is treated like a conviction, or a preference is treated like a commitment or conviction.”

Fudge explained a discipleship approach called “Training for Trainers” (T4T) that has been used in East Asia for a number of years involving home Bible studies both for evangelism and for multiplication.

“Invite people to your home. People speak truth in homes,” Fudge said. In T4T settings, attendees receive training in sharing a Gospel presentation, in prayer and other facets of the Christian life so that they can nurture new home groups.

“Train as many as you can,” Fudge said. “Don’t become the only trainer or you won’t see multiplication.”

Pandora Watchman, a Navajo who attended The Gathering from Gateway Community Church in Window Rock, Ariz., said the Native American context in which she lives can be daunting. “[People] feel like if they go to any kind of church — we have a lot of churches on the reservation — they’re Christian,” she said. “Even the drunk on the street will say they’re a Christian.”

The Gathering “was a lot to chew on, to think about, to pray about, but it was good; it was excellent,” Watchman reflected, saying she would be returning to the Navajo Nation “asking the Lord, ‘What do You want me to do with this?’ He’s already showing me. I’ve been talking more boldly about the Gospel with people.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, Connections (Dakota Baptist Convention) and The Montana Baptist.