Growing movement seeks to take Gospel to Native Americans

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Wednesday, February 09, 2011 (3 years ago)

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)--Two major events for Native Americans and First Nations scheduled for this spring indicate a surging interest among Southern Baptists in ministering to the people groups.

"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 Glorieta Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

The first event is called The Gathering, set for March 2-4 at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Native American Christian leaders will discuss more effective ways of reaching Native Americans with the Gospel and will interact with International Mission Board representatives who work among tribal groups.

Also at the conference, leaders will hear about Bible storying and the ways God appears to be already at work among Native Americans.

Meanwhile, the North America Native People Summit is scheduled for April 27-28 at the Springdale, Ark., campus of Cross Church. The networking event is designed to bring together Native American Christians in the United States and First Nations Christians in Canada as well as believers everywhere who are interested in ministering alongside them.

With this surge of interest, the methods for reaching Native Americans and First Nations are changing. Previously, Christians went to reservations and carried out their own plans for reaching the people. Now they plan to ask the people groups how they can best help reach others among them.

Author Richard Blackaby agrees that "something seems to be afoot" among Southern Baptists related to Native Americans and First Nations.

"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," 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,'" Blackaby added. "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."

While signs of God's stirring have emerged throughout the past decade, what is new is a growing urgency among Native Americans to be used in building God's Kingdom, an eagerness among Southern Baptists to be part of ministry with -- rather than to -- Native People and an acknowledgement that work on reservations for the past century has been mostly ineffective, leaders say.

Henry Blackaby, author of "Experiencing God," is among those leading the surge in ministry to Native People. The son of a banker, Blackaby was classmates with First Nations in his hometown of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, before he became a pastor.

"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."

Falls, an Oklahoma pastor, also is leading the movement. He is a member of the Sac and Fox tribe as well as president of the Fellowship of Native American Christians and immediate past president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

"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," Falls said.

The theme for The Gathering is "From Barriers to Bridges," with John 4 as the text and contextualized biblical storytelling as one of the key discussions.

"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."

This year's North America Native People Summit emerged after a network of leaders in the last two years began seeing a fresh movement of God.

Randy Carruth of Forest Hill, La., was among those spurring the initial phone calls. In 2005, he was a disabled electrician with time on his hands and 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.

Nearly four years later, Carruth woke with her words ringing in his ears and asked God what He wanted him to do. Carruth talked with New Mexico Baptist Convention leaders, a plan took shape that Carruth shared at an associational event in Louisiana, and within one week of that, he had helped organize 15 of an eventual 44 revival mission teams.

A team ministered in October 2009 in each of New Mexico's Native American 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. All but six of the 44 teams committed to a long-term, multiyear partnership with each of the churches where they ministered.

"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 said. "We believe He has chosen Southern Baptists for the beginning, to go in and engage people, 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 multiyear 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.

A group of men from several states and Canadian provinces convened twice last year in Louisiana to plan the North America Native People 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 versus change; equipping instead of meeting needs; telling the Gospel story through the heart language; and calling out versus 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 onsite practical application. More than 300 Native American and First Nations leaders have expressed interest in participating in the summit and in visiting one-on-one with others who would like to minister alongside them.

If spiritual awakening occurs, the summit planners said, it will be only because God causes it. All human activity does is prepare the way, as John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, they said.

"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."

Donny Coulter, an advocate for First Nations with the Canadian National Baptist Convention, agreed. At the summit planning meeting, he shared how he had a plan to start churches in several areas and then 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, [when he stopped spending so much time away from his family] 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 summit planning event last fall.

"As Emerson [Falls] 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."

Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention, said God has been at work among Native Americans for a long time. Fourteen federally recognized Indian reservations are in the Dakotas, and at least two more aren't federally recognized.

With three adopted Native American children, Hamilton has a personal interest in the summit.

"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 said. "I don't want to miss that kind of dialogue and insight."


Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. The Gathering begins with registration at 1 p.m. March 2 and goes through the evening worship service March 4. Preregister by sending a $25 check with name, address, church and contact information to The Gathering, Central Baptist Church, 829 Northwest 8th Street, Oklahoma City, OK 73106. For more information, contact elindsey@bgco.org or emersonfalls@hotmail.com.

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