OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (BP) – SBC Statesman Emerson Falls has developed a missiological strategy for reaching Native Americans with God’s life-equipping gospel of Jesus.
He has done so with wisdom acquired from a lifetime as a Native American, from more than 50 years walking with Jesus, and from nearly that long ministering among his Native people,
In his final weeks before officially retiring as the full-time Native American Ministry Partner with Oklahoma Baptists, Falls talked with Baptist Press about the four essential elements of the strategy he has developed.
- Express the gospel in ways Natives can understand
- Equip Native disciples for spiritual growth
- Empower Native churches to be self-sufficient
- Emphasize the benefit of all God’s people working together for His glory
Southern Baptist work with Native Americans is weaker than it was in 2011, when two major events related to Native Americans took place within six weeks, Falls said in mid-November.
The visions and goals of The Gathering and The Summit withered in a malaise of reasons that date to the first encounters of missionaries and Natives. The removal of Natives from their homeland, and the removal of their children from their homes, where efforts were made to strip them of their culture, language and worldview, Falls said.
Contextualize the gospel
“As a result, the message of Christianity did not ring true in the eyes of those being displaced,” Falls said. “A minority of Native people did receive the gospel and we are grateful for the early-day missionaries. However, these missionaries did not understand the principles of good missiology. As a result, Native people felt they had to choose to either be Native American or be Christian.
“That background is important,” Falls said. “One of the challenges for us is to contextualize the gospel so they don’t have to choose being a Native or a Christian. They can be both at the same time.”
One example of contextualization is an evangelistic tract with a picture of fry bread on the cover. Fry bread is eaten in most Native cultures, though it can be prepared differently and taste differently in Arizona than in Alaska. The tract makes the point that just as we need bread for physical life, we also need bread for spiritual life. Jesus is the bread of life.
In 2015, Falls began serving with the Circle of Life Native American Fellowship in Oklahoma City. The word “circle” is an important element in most Native cultures, he said. For people seated in the circle, everyone is equally important and can see each other face-to-face, rather than the back-to-face and raised-podium look of western church seating.
Many Native people are involved in powwows, which usually take place on weekends. Circle of Life started with Tuesday evening services so Powwow people could attend church.
Powwows got a bad name from early-day missionaries who thought dancing, drums and singing were pagan rites, but powwows celebrate Native culture, and are “one of the few ways Natives today can maintain what little culture we have left,” Falls said, especially for the 87 percent of the nation’s 8.75 million Native Americans in the United States who do not live on reservations.
Circle of Life members attend powwows to celebrate their heritage and start friendships that in God’s timing lead to gospel conversations. They also cook dinners, entertain youngsters with balloon animals and face painting, and pass out Bibles and “Fry bread” tracts to parents and others who show interest.
“For us, powwows are a mission field,” Falls said. “We go there, build relationships, participate with them, the same things you would do to go in and reach your community.
“I think it would be a shame for us to not try to reach the indigenous people from our own country, particularly the way they’ve been treated,” Falls continued. “I believe the true measure of Christianity is how we treat “the least of these.” Native people have experienced their share of suffering. It is time they experience the joy of the Lord.”
Discipling new believers requires a discipler being one-on-one with the disciple, involving discipline, accountability and trust that comes from honesty, integrity and genuineness.
“Much of what we [Christians] do is done inside the four walls of a building,” Falls said. “Real discipleship is done in the community. Jesus went to ‘all the towns and villages.’ He saw that the people were like ‘sheep without a shepherd.’ He told us to ‘pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.’ I pray for workers to labor among Native Americans.”
Churches that establish long-term connections with Native people result in relationships that nurture disciple-making, he said.
Life often is very difficult for Native Americans. Whether in a city and estranged from their reservation community, or entrapped by reservation life, Native Americans often struggle.
Nearly every tribe offers college scholarships for graduating high school students, but “It’s a real sacrifice to go into ministry, so what we have is a ‘brain drain’ from the church, and we just don’t have a large pool of people to begin with,” the Native leader said.
“If we’re going to see any progress among Native Americans and reaching our people for Christ, it’s going to take good leadership.
“Just as Natives are learning to succeed in business and gain independence from government assistance, Native churches must learn to succeed in ministry without a steady stream of assistance from outside churches,” he said.
“We need to get to know each other with a ministry of presence, not doing stuff for people but going and helping people with what they’re doing, not doing church for them but being a friend and when we see a need, minister to that need,” Falls said. “As we minister among them, the opportunities to share the gospel will open to us when they know us.”
Best practices for a non-Native church is to establish a multi-year relationship with a Native church that includes repeated in-person and telephone/email contacts throughout the year, Falls said.
“Learn what they need so you can give them a hand up rather than a handout.
“Maybe the community needs plumbing work done on a shower house. Maybe a bad storm destroyed the powwow’s pavilion. Maybe the school needs painting. Work with – not for – the community. The volunteers you train might turn their newly acquired skills into an income stream.”
Leadership leads to longevity in ministry, Falls said.
“We’re asking people to invest resources in developing local leaders and helping them until they’re able to develop their own ministries. By demonstrating Christ-like love, we – and they – can earn the right to share the gospel.”