First Indian Baptist Church Committed to ‘Natives Reaching Natives’
by Karen L. Willoughby
Teaching Native American skills is one of the many outreaches First Indian Baptist Church does to serve its local community. Photos provided by First Indian Baptist Church.
One recent Sunday, Pastor Shaun Whitey asked the Phoenix-based First Indian Baptist Church congregation to write down their tribal affiliation.
People from nearly every one of Arizona’s federally-recognized tribes were represented in the church that day, twenty-two people groups in total, which is typical, Whitey said.
The good news is that the church reaches a broad cross-section of tribal groups, with the assignment of carrying the Gospel to all the state’s reservations, the pastor told SBC LIFE. His continuing challenge is to adequately prepare disciples who multiply other Christians.
“There are several reasons why Native people come to the city: work, school, or other opportunities,” Whitey said. “But there’s still the draw for folks to go back home: family, emergency conditions. That makes it difficult to get things like discipleship started.
“For Native people, family is probably the greatest influence and highest value,” Whitey continued. “Second would be the love for their people, their tribe.”
Evangelicals interested in ministering among Native Americans across North America participated in a two-day conference entitled “Dimensions to Native Ministry.” The conference, hosted by the Southern Baptist Fellowship of Native American Christians (FoNAC) was hosted by and at First Indian Baptist Church on the Saturday and Sunday prior the SBC annual meeting in Phoenix.
The purpose of the conference, FoNAC’s Executive Director Gary Hawkins said, was to “Discover people, places, and partnerships; Develop networks, resources, and ministry teams; and Deploy prayer warriors, volunteers, and leaders.”
According to the US Census Bureau’s 2010 estimation, 2.4 percent of the population—or about 110,000 Native Americans—live in the 4.6 million metropolitan Phoenix area. North Phoenix Baptist Church started First Indian in the 1960s as a mission to better reach them.
Their decision was an early awareness of the need for Natives to reach Natives, Whitey said, a concept that in recent years has grown into a new missional strategy.
“We realize we have many Native churches that are small and struggling, for many years depending on lots of help from the outside,” said Tommy Thomas, church planting catalyst for five associations in northern Arizona.
“Over time, these have become inundated with western, Anglo, culture,” Thomas continued. “We want Native churches led by Native leaders. We want to respect the culture . . . to have sound, solid biblical doctrine, preaching, and teaching by indigenous leaders.”
Men from several Native American churches gather to pray prior to an evangelistic crusade service for the twenty-two tribal groups living in Arizona.
FoNAC independently came to the same missional strategy when it was started in 2008. Ministry among Native people in North America has changed over the last few years from “going to” to “working with,” Hawkins told SBC LIFE.
“We saw the need for a new paradigm, of understanding versus change, equipping instead of just meeting needs, telling the Gospel story through the heart language, and calling out versus sending in,” said Hawkins, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. “We encourage the support of non-Natives to partner with those utilizing this missional approach, to ultimately establish healthy, reproducing indigenous churches.”
What Native American Shaun Whitey and Anglo Josh Hodges have developed is a good example of the effectiveness of that missional strategy, Hawkins said. Whitey is mentoring Hodges, a replanting pastor since last September of Indian Baptist Fellowship in Mesa, Arizona, which First Indian originally started in 1995. Hodges, in turn, is mentoring Troy Butler, a Navajo Hodges sees as having the giftedness and calling of God to become a pastor.
Josh Hodges is one of at least three Anglo pastors and three returning International Mission Board missionaries in Arizona with a similar story: each recently came to the state, inexplicably and individually called to Native ministry. They are now immersing themselves in the culture of the tribe or tribes in which they’re ministering.
“We’re so sparse with Native leadership that somebody’s got to come and spend time with these [Native] guys on their terms, and that’s what Josh and others are doing,” Whitey said.
“Josh is meeting with people in their homes, on their terms, on their reservations. Building a culture of trust takes time and consistency. This is one of the most challenging things to do in our fast-paced, results-based world.”
Shaun Whitey, pastor of First Indian Baptist Church in Phoenix, is a board member of the Fellowship of Native American Christians and has served two terms as a vice president of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.
Time is an essential component to the spread of the Gospel among Natives, Whitey said. “Josh spends time with new believers in Christ, by just going out there every week, and he is able to help them understand foundational truths of the Bible.”
He does so, Hodges said, by “trying to be their friends, to learn from them and not just tell them what we know. Our mission is to come alongside and equip and train and send people out, and not just do the work ourselves. . . .
“The narrative of Christianity among Native people will only change when it comes through Native people,” Hodges continued.
Foundational truth is another essential component of ministry to Natives, Whitey said. He, Thomas, Hawkins, and others spoke of the problem of a “Christianity-plus-Native-religion” syncretism, which becomes a divisive influence affecting many Native churches nationwide.
“All the churches I’ve been involved with to some degree have a tribal undercurrent that must be reconciled with the Gospel,” Whitey said. “There is always the tribal way and the Jesus way.”
Some cultural elements that might seem fascinating to a non-Native, such as eagle feathers and Native drums, have spiritual connotations that can confuse people, Whitey said.
“You just have to be very careful and ask, ‘What’s the meaning behind this?’ There are cultural elements that people can still be part of, but you must always discern the spiritual content,” the pastor continued.
An ongoing battle is the lasting effect of wounds caused by mistreatment of Native peoples in Native history. While the higher road is desired—to forgive—the lasting impact to the Nations remains, so it is extremely difficult for Native people to forget, Whitey told SBC LIFE.
All this Hodges and the other Anglos ministering to Natives in Arizona are learning. For First Indian Phoenix, with Whitey as a bivocational (electrical engineer) Navajo/Seneca-Cayuga pastor, growing and nurturing disciples is a challenge in a place that has people continually in transition between reservation and city, plus a mix of more than twenty tribal cultures, as well as the church meeting place moving locations three times in the last ten years.
“Relationships are key,” Whitey said. “You cannot speak into a Native person’s life without a relationship. The relationship cannot be forced and is best when sustained over time.”
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