Archive for February, 2005

So Sioux Me: What The Church Needs to Know from Native American Religion

There’s no doubt many Christian settlers and present-day European Americans have treated Native Americans harshly. I don’t wish to go into the politics of the long-standing tussles between the white man and the “red man.” I do believe, however, that the body of Christ can learn something from the original inhabitants of our continent. First, Native American religion can only be spoken of in broad terms, as many different belief systems exist among many tribes and tongues. Several general principles will guide us, however, as we look at what we can learn from their religious practices.

Native Americans have always de-emphasize organizational structure to emphasize nature and personal religious experience. In our terms, they prefer spiritual formation over institutions. Need I say more?

For Native Americans, every activity in life is spiritual. From cooking, to tree-chopping, to hunting, to menstruating (seriously!), the Native Americans see even the most mundane daily activities and occurences as connecting in some way with the spirit world or the Great Spirit. What would happen if Christians began seeing each daily activity through the lens of spirituality? This doesn’t simply mean making ethical decisions at work, though ethics are extremely important — it means seeing each moment as a gift from God (the “Great Spirit”) and each activity as an opportunity to serve Him. This principle could really make cleaning bathrooms interesting, huh?

Third, Christians can learn a lot from the Native American concept of the “Vision Quest.” As you may know, tribal adolescents are sent away from the tribe to live alone until they receive a vision, which is often accompanied by several days of wilderness survival and fasting. This activity is communal in the sense that each member of the tribe is concerned for the “spiritual maturing” of the adolescent person. What would this look like in our churches? Well, we wouldn’t send kids away when they are ready to be a disciple of Christ, but we would go to the ends of the earth to ensure that they grow spiritually. Spiritual formation would be at the core of our existence, which means holding baby Christians accountable for their lives and actions long after they make the “initial decision.” This kind of thing would have certainly occured in Native American tribes, as “vision-seeking” was at the core of their religious life.

Native American religions are remarkably free of a priesthood. Protestants say they believe in a “priesthood of all believers,” but in reality, a clergy-laity system is pretty firmly in place. The Native Americans believe that each person could connect equally with the spirit world, and prayers, dances, songs, and visions are all performed by every member of the tribe, according to each person’s need. This principle touches on several aspects of the Christian life: who can “do stuff” within the body, how we view leadership, and the constant communal strain toward connectedness to God through Christ.

The Native Americans also apparently have very little fear of death. We can learn from this principle daily as each of us walks a little closer to our final home, Heaven.

Finally, nearly all Native Americans treat both the spiritual and the physical when dealing with illness or disease. Medical doctors work by day, while medicine women and men perform traditional healing rituals. The church can learn greatly from this characteristic of our neighbors. We have a tendency to see everything through modern, Western eyes — headaches are cured with an Advil, schitzophrenia calls for a few visits to a shrink, etc. — you get the picture. I would assert that we live in a physical world that is NOT reality — the spiritual world is our reality as believers. Through this lens, we see the potential for and solution to spiritual oppression as much as we see common “psychological disorders.” We begin to see that we are, in fact, opposed in this spiritual war, and we begin to pray like it.

Many aspects of Native American culture and religion do not transplant well into our faith — the use of tobacco and peyote for connecting to the spirits wouldn’t go over real well at our Wednesday night prayer meetings. We can, however, see several characteristics that should peak the church’s interest at least a bit, for Native American practices are peaking the interest of many non-natives in our culture today for many of the same reasons.

Our language betrays us, doesn’t it?

Mike Cope’s blog community has been discussing “missional churches” from a number of angles. Two comments in that discussion stood out to me.

Fajita said, “…so that they will be unlikely to attract ‘normal’ people.”

Don said, “…really they are just reaching out to different/diverse groups…”

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Is our commission to “attract” (or not attract) people to what we’re doing? (or is it to go…and be Christ…)

Are we “reaching out” from behind tall, thick, stained-glass walls?

Do we really believe that our hearts are now God’s home, His Temple?

Consider this passage from a splendidly simple little book, Jesus With Dirty Feet, by Don Everts:

Jesus walked.
Jesus was a man with dirty feet.
He spent most of those three years walking around with people.
He invited folks to become his intimate followers.
Everywhere he went great crowds gathered around to listen to him, to be with him, to see what he would do next.
As Jesus led his twelve closest followers they would walk along the dirt roads together.
They went to parties together.
They ate meals together.
They worked together.
Jesus walked as a human among humans, brushed elbows with politicians and outcasts, went to parties with sinners and criminals, and embraced as his own family those he met on the street.
Jesus floated on no pristine clouds.
Jesus was no aloof elitest.
Jesus was no odd hermit.
He preferred the world of dirt and friends and handshakes.
He embraced this relational life on earth more passionately than anyone ever had.

How does the church today, as it stands, measure up to this?

Our language betrays us, doesn’t it?

Mike Cope’s blog community has been discussing “missional churches” from a number of angles. Two comments in that discussion stood out to me.

Fajita said, “…so that they will be unlikely to attract ‘normal’ people.”

Don said, “…really they are just reaching out to different/diverse groups…”

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Is our commission to “attract” (or not attract) people to what we’re doing? (or is it to go…and be Christ…)

Are we “reaching out” from behind tall, thick, stained-glass walls?

Do we really believe that our hearts are now God’s home, His Temple?

Consider this passage from a splendidly simple little book, Jesus With Dirty Feet, by Don Everts:

Jesus walked.
Jesus was a man with dirty feet.
He spent most of those three years walking around with people.
He invited folks to become his intimate followers.
Everywhere he went great crowds gathered around to listen to him, to be with him, to see what he would do next.
As Jesus led his twelve closest followers they would walk along the dirt roads together.
They went to parties together.
They ate meals together.
They worked together.
Jesus walked as a human among humans, brushed elbows with politicians and outcasts, went to parties with sinners and criminals, and embraced as his own family those he met on the street.
Jesus floated on no pristine clouds.
Jesus was no aloof elitest.
Jesus was no odd hermit.
He preferred the world of dirt and friends and handshakes.
He embraced this relational life on earth more passionately than anyone ever had.

How does the church today, as it stands, measure up to this?

The State of the Church Address

The Church in North America is on life support.

This is a fact which few of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals,” recognized by Time Magazine last month, know, preach or write, and something many leaders in Churches of Christ have not accepted.

The United States is now one of the three most secular countries in the world.

Wait a minute, you say: What about the 2004 election, which highlighted voters advocating traditional, Christian values? And with Christianity blitzing the media, movie theaters, and malls, Christianity just has to be flourishing in the West, right?

Not so fast.

We’re living in what’s being called the “Post-Christian Era.” Christianity in North America has been on a steady decline for the better part of a century, with the most staggering drops occurring in the past 25 years. Christian statistician and church consultant George Barna reported that over the past decade, three million people have been leaving churches every year in the United States.

Closer to home, half of Abilene’s 120,000 residents do not attend one of the roughly 150 churches in town.

You wouldn’t read these stats in Time or hear them on American Family Radio, however.

Christian media organizations talk like the only work to be done on our soil has to do with Constitutional amendments, and Time seems convinced that evangelical Christians are running the country. These are just the kinds of lies the Enemy would have us believe, though.

The actual center of Christianity in the world today is highly debated, but experts agree it lies in one of three places: Latin America, Africa or China. Some have estimated that China, which had only 700,000 Christians at the beginning of the Communist rule in 1949, now has between 60 and 100 million believers, most of them meeting together in large, underground house church networks. Africa now boasts nearly 400 million Christians, but that number is expected to eclipse 600 million by 2025.

This kind of rapid, exponential growth simply is not happening in the United States, which now has the third-largest un-churched population in the world. The rumors are true, by the way: Missionaries from African and Latin American countries are now moving to our continent to work among the lost North Americans.

The question of how we got to this point isn’t nearly as important as how we will get past it. The message and commission Christians have simply is too important to ignore this glaring problem. Many have ignored it, however, to the detriment of their hearts and the faith.

One solution to the problem will need to come in the form of a paradigm shift-a change in methodology or theory-regarding the nature and role of the church. The technical definition of the word “insanity” is repeating the same action and expecting a different result each time. This definition often describes Christ’s church to a T. Churches will need to take a hard look at the Great Commission-“Go and make disciples”-and then formulate strategies to best accomplish this commandment.

Here’s a clue, though: It’s probably not going to look anything like what most churches have been trying in recent decades. “Attractional” Christianity, which attempts to bring in the un-churched with dynamic worship, flashy programs or the best preacher in town, has been the strategy of choice for churches for much too long, and research is indicating that the post-modern unbeliever isn’t falling for it anymore.

If churches take the Great Commission seriously, though, one word ought to stick out: Go. Christ went when he became the incarnation of the living God on earth. The apostles went upon receiving the Holy Spirit, first to their hometown, then to the world. And our responsibility is the same in our neighborhoods and cities in the United States.

The second phrase that should stick out in a fresh reading of the Great Commission is “make disciples.” Baptism certainly is what happens at the initial decision to be a disciple, but it doesn’t magically spawn a disciple. True discipleship literally means “spending time with Jesus” and requires relationship, accountability and lots of latitude. “In-process” disciples make lots of mistakes, but that’s OK-that’s why Christ came. Mature Christians must see that Paul’s vision for growing Christians in his young church plants-sanctification-is carried out in contemporary congregations. Sanctified Christians no longer run back to their old muck and mire but strain forward, pursuing righteousness and nurturing new disciples of their own.

The Western Church does itself and the Kingdom no good in denying that it has a problem. It is hemorrhaging because it has emphasized the phrases “baptizing them” and “all nations” to the detriment of the three most important words in the Great Commission, “go” and “make disciples.” If North America is to see an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and if Christians desire to delight their Creator, the Church will need to wake from its slumber and dive headlong into God’s mission.

All North American disciples of Jesus are missionaries, after all-now more than ever before.