Interest increases in Native American ministry
by Karen Willoughby
Two major events for Native Peoples coming this Spring attest to a groundswell of Southern Baptist interest in ministry among and with Native Americans and First Nations.
The Gathering, set for March 2-4 at Oklahoma City, Southern Hills, is to be a national conference of Native American Christian leaders discussing more effective ways than ever before of reaching Native Americans with the Gospel.
The North American Native Peoples Summit April 28-29 at one of the Cross Church campuses in Springdale, Ark.—invited by Pastor Ronnie Floyd—is to bring together Native Christians from the United States and Canada with those interested in ministering with Native Christians.
“When I met with leaders of this group, I felt compelled to do whatever we needed to do to come alongside of them to help them,” Floyd said in explaining how he got involved.
“Something is happening in North America that I can’t explain except to say that God is at work, and it is happening among our Native American churches,” said Emerson Falls, pastor of Oklahoma City, Glorieta, president of the Fellowship of Native American Christians, and immediate past president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.
“Something seems to be afoot,” concurred Richard Blackaby, firstborn son of and coworker with Henry Blackaby of Blackaby Ministries International. The elder Blackaby is author of Experiencing God, an interactive Bible study that has sold more than seven million copies since it was first published in 1990 and revised in 2007 by Richard Blackaby.
“The fact that so many state conventions are being drawn to work together in this project is one indicator that God is the Author of this movement,” Richard Blackaby said. “The fact it’s among such a forgotten group is further evidence: When God wants to do a great work, He often does it with people like this.
“Anytime you see something happen in the character of God—when you start to see people open to the Gospel who were closed—you say, ‘that’s God doing something,’” Richard Blackaby continued. “When you see state conventions all wanting to participate, even those who have never had such a ministry before, that’s God, causing people to do the unusual.”
Signs of God’s quickening have been emerging over the last decade. What’s new in 2011 is a growing urgency among Native Americans to be used in building God’s Kingdom, an eagerness among Anglos to be a part of ministry with (rather than to) Native Peoples, and an acknowledgement among Anglos that the ministry that has been done on reservations for the last 100 years or more has for the most part been ineffective.
Others are quick to point out that today’s Native Christian leaders are among those who were not-so-ineffectively reached in the last 30-50 years.
Three names seem to be associated with what some suggest might be a movement of God among Native Americans in North America: Henry Blackaby, Falls and Randy Carruth.
Henry Blackaby was a banker’s son who was classmates with the First Nations people in his home town in British Columbia, before he became a pastor and internationally known discipler across the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond. Experiencing God has been translated into at least 45 languages.
“God gave me a tremendous burden for First Nations people,” Henry Blackaby said. “He takes the weak, despised, rejected and uses them for His purposes. I’ve told them God could use them to bring revival to America.”
Henry Blackaby has been sharing that sentiment where Native Americans have heard it since at least 1987, and his words have spread like a freshening wind across reservation lands. Today, Native American Christian leaders are taking a page from Blackaby’s Experiencing God and “seeing where God is at work and joining Him.”
It’s about time, says Falls, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe.
“My conviction is that God can use Native Americans just as well as others,” Falls said. “This movement is something different, something that empowers us. We should have been doing this all along.
“We’re going to bring in people for The Gathering who have broken the missional code with tribal people around the world, and . . . discover what it’s really going to take to break through and reach Native Americans.”
Theme for The Gathering March 2-4 is “From Barriers to Bridges,” with John 4 as the scriptural text. Contextualized biblical storytelling is one of several discussions planned.
“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,” Falls said. “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.”
The Native American Christians will have eight weeks between The Gathering and the Native People’s Summit to determine their strategy to reach other Native Peoples so they can say to those who want to work with them, ‘This is what we believe will work in our specific cultural context.’”
The North American Native Peoples Summit came about as telephone conversations and e-mails among men seeing a fresh movement of God grew into conference calls and then into two-day meetings in the spring and again in the fall of 2010.
From the first telephone call, Carruth of Forest Hill, La., was at the center. He has become the acknowledged leader of what some are calling a movement of God, or of activity that could lead to a movement of God.
Carruth was a disabled (since healed, he says) electrician with time on his hands who started doing mission work. While distributing school supplies to Native Americans in New Mexico, one of the Navajo women told him her prayer was that God would use Native Americans to bring revival to America. That was in 2005.
Nearly four years later, Carruth inexplicably woke with her words ringing in his ears, and asked God what He wanted him to do. Within one week, 15 of the eventual 44 simultaneous revival mission teams had already confirmed.
A team ministered in October 2009 in each of New Mexico’s Native American Christian churches, plus a few in Arizona and Oklahoma because there were more teams than there were Southern Baptist Native American churches in all of New Mexico.
During the simultaneous revivals, 89 people made professions of faith and 150 others rededicated their lives to God, but that wasn’t the end. All but six of the 44 teams committed to a long-term, multi-year partnership with each of the churches they were assigned to.
“Most of these churches have gone back at least once,” Carruth said. “God is using (people’s willingness to minister to Native Americans) to do some mighty things. . . .
“We believe God is already speaking to the hearts of His chosen people all across this nation,” Carruth continued. “We believe He has chosen Southern Baptists for the beginning, to go in and engage people and develop relationships that will result in a nationwide revival and spiritual awakening.”
With commitments from a growing number of state conventions to send hundreds of teams to develop multi-year relationships with churches on the United States’ 310 Indian reservations, and Canada’s 630 First Nations communities, the move toward trampling spiritual darkness has begun.
Pivotal to the activity swirling around Carruth, a group of men from several states and Canadian provinces came together twice in 2010 in Louisiana to plan the April 27-28, North American Native Peoples Summit.
After several hours of intense, transparent discussion during the October meeting, Stan Albright, director of missions for the Baptist Convention of New Mexico, summarized the conversation.
“We’re trying to address four things with this Summit,” Albright said. “Understanding vs. change; equipping instead of meeting needs; telling the Gospel story through the heart language; and calling out vs. sending in.”
Woven throughout the discussion was an awareness of the limitations of the planning committee, and even of the Summit, which is designed to be an inspirational event with on-site practical application. More than 300 Native Peoples leaders have indicated interest in participating in the Summit, and in visiting one-on-one with others who would like to minister with them.
However, the men at the Summit planning meeting said, if spiritual awakening takes place, it’s only because God does it. All human activity does is prepare the way, as John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus.
“Maybe we don’t have all the answers,” Falls said. “Maybe all the things happening are to call us to pray as never before. Maybe we’re never going to get it (spreading the Gospel) done if God doesn’t do it.”
Coulter said he agreed. He’s national advocate for First Nations of Canada with the Canadian National Baptist Convention. He had a plan to start churches in several areas, he shared with the men at the Summit pre-planning meeting, when he realized God had given him an assignment with a higher priority: his family.
“If it’s God’s vision, He will accomplish it,” Coulter said. “Since then, the doors have opened in Manitoba and all those places I had planned to be. . . . When we get out of the way, God says ‘Ahhh; now it’s My turn.’”
Wayne Sheppard, partnerships coordinator for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, facilitated the Oct. 27-28 Summit-planning event.
“As Emerson said, where this begins and ends is that we seek God and pursue what only God can do,” Sheppard said. “The gathering of people around this table, laboring together, this is a good thing, but I do not want us to strategize God out of this.”
The men nodded their heads in agreement.
“We can’t make a spiritual awakening happen,” Falls said, “but God is obviously at work.”
Henry Blackaby rearranged his schedule to be able to speak at the North American Native Peoples’ Summit. Other headliners include Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention, who has ministered among Alaskan natives, and who has three adopted Native children.
“God has been at work in the Native American peoples for a long time,” Hamilton said. “This summit could bring attention to how a predominately Anglo culture who sets the ‘norms’ in the church culture of North America, can spot God’s activity among Native Americans.
“This summit could initiate a level of self-awareness and God-awareness that seems to be missing in our attempt to reach Native Americans for Christ,” Hamilton continued. “I don’t want to miss that kind of dialogue and insight.”
Karen Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal for Louisiana Baptists.