Four years ago, missionary Doug Millar was frustrated by the lackluster amount of conversions in his Mayan village of Chan Chen, Mexico. Despite a steady stream of short-term mission teams, next to no one in the village had become a Christian.
Ministry partner Randy Carruth suggested a solution: Invite Native Americans.
In March 2013, after three such trips by Carruth's I Am Able Ministries, 25 to 30 Mayans attended the village's first worship service. Less than a year later, Millar's church has grown to 200.
It's not an isolated case. With many Native American communities reporting signs of revival and church growth, missions leaders are increasingly trying to send these missionaries to other indigenous groups worldwide.
"Native people typically are not unfamiliar with pain and suffering and injustice, with what it looks like to be poor," said Josh Charette, a church planter and pastor in Montana who is half Turtle Mountain Chippewa. "This gives them an incredible platform, and they are typically welcomed into a lot of places Anglo people are not."
Last fall, the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board brought together 50 Native American pastors and leaders for evangelism training in New Mexico. Similar conferences took place in February and March. These gatherings are the first of their kind, says Carruth, since they are trying not just to recruit Native groups but to approach missions and leadership development from a Native perspective.
Carruth has helped teams of Native Americans take short-term mission trips to indigenous groups in Mexico and Canada, and has requests from Chile and Australia. But they're working outside indigenous communities, too. Hundreds of Ukrainians became Christians after a dozen people from several Oklahoma tribes visited on a medical missions trip last April, said Augusta Smith, head of Native American LINK, Inc.
If they do become a missions force, it'll be an irony. "Missions to Native Americans have the most abysmal record of any other group in the world," said Keetoowah Cherokee Randy Woodley, director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. "We have been the recipients of American missions longer than any other group. The results have been really meager."
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity reports that more than 80 percent of Native Americans self-identify as Christian. But only about 10 percent are actively involved in Christian churches, says Gary Hawkins, executive director of the Fellowship of Native American Christians (FoNAC).
And even most of those who identify as Christians are completely unchurched, he says. About 70 percent live in greater metro areas, while most Native American churches are in rural settings.
It's hard to talk about Native missions without a coherent indigenous Christian community, said J. R. Lilly of Wiconi International, a Christian Native American advocacy organization. "Where are the Native theologians? Where are the Native churches and denominations? Where's the Native theology?"
Native Christian leaders say their community's experience with poverty and colonialism might open opportunities that are closed to Anglo missionaries—but they are wary of using it as a gimmick for otherwise Western approaches to missions.
"I don't think we should allow ourselves to be exploited for a [Western] approach to the gospel," said Woodley. "If we're going to leverage the fact that we're Native, we have to make sure that it actually is the Good News."
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