A tiny band of Native Americans is supporting the work of nearly ten thousand Southern Baptist missionaries around the world. That's the way members of Dakota Baptist Church on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota feel about their contributions through the Cooperative Program.
Thirty or so Dakota Sioux participate in Sunday morning worship services at the church in the reservation town of Fort Totten. This includes two men who were led to faith in Christ eighteen months before Paul Young was called in 2006 as pastor.
"Pastor Wilbert [Robertson, who started the church in 1983] quickly discipled them and both have good leadership qualities," Young said. "The church is able to do more now because these men and their families shoulder part of the spiritual responsibilities and spiritual leadership, and the physical work of the church."
Robertson, who also started Native American churches in South Dakota, led Dakota Baptist Church (and the other mission churches he planted) to send contributions regularly to missions through the Cooperative Program. Young built on that when he led the church to start forwarding a percentage of its undesignated receipts, rather than sending a dollar amount.
"We thought that was an honest way to let God determine how much we gave to the Cooperative Program," Young said. "Since it's tied to local giving, if God wanted to increase what we give to the Cooperative Program or our local associations, He could increase our local giving.
A year after Dakota started giving an initial 6 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program, members increased the amount to 10 percent. It's been at 10 percent since 2008.
"The church got excited about hearing about different missionaries both overseas and through the North American Mission Board," Young said. "We really saw that the Cooperative Program was funding more things than we realized, and we wanted more of our missions giving to go to the Cooperative Program."
Dakota Baptist Church also gives 4 percent of its undesignated receipts to missions through each of the two associations with which it cooperates: Northland Baptist Association and First Nations Baptist Association, one of a handful of associations among Southern Baptists in which churches cooperate based on an affinity rather than geographical proximity (the First Nations Association is for the SBC's Native American churches).
"We look at churches in both associations as sister churches and we want to be ready to work with them," Young said. "We minister to the same people group in First Nations Association and [in the] same part of the state in Northland Association.
"Your money can be more effective when you put it together with other churches," he continued. "We want to be a part of what God is doing in our community, but not only in our community."
One of the church's most important spiritual weapons is having its members live for Christ on a daily basis among their Native American family and friends, the pastor said.
"The biggest challenge I see on the reservation, and in our community specifically, is spiritual bondage," Young said. "People feel enslaved by their addictions, whatever they may be. They say, 'I want to be a Christian,' but they don't get any traction.
"The best opportunity for us as a church is that the members continue to live a godly lifestyle. When the biggest challenge is spiritual bondage, people are used to seeing others fall away. Nothing is a better example than a member of the church living a godly lifestyle year after year."
About six thousand people—two thousand in Fort Totten itself—live on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, which is situated between Devils Lake and the Sheyenne River on what Young says is some of the most scenic terrain in all of North Dakota—rolling hills, wooded areas, prairie grasslands.
"We struggle with typical reservation issues," Young said. "Probably every person on the [reservation] is affected somehow by poverty and addiction; we all have a connection with someone dealing with poverty or addiction, or poverty because of addiction. As a church we try to minister as best we can."
The previous pastor's wife started a food pantry that Young's wife, Sarah, continues today. Dakota Baptist purchases food from a food bank in Fargo and distributes it to thirty or forty families each month.
"Our goal is to try to be able to minister to the families that we provide for," Young said. "There is a great need for assistance on the res, but at the same time there is only so much you can do and do well. We don't want to be irresponsible with limited space and volunteers."
Every July the community celebrates Fort Totten Days. The church participates in different ways each year to remind townspeople of their presence and their care for them. Other local outreaches include evangelistic thrusts at Easter and Christmas and an early October fall festival.
Recently, Dakota Baptist Church and the town's Assembly of God church teamed up to bring the movie Courageous to the reservation. About one hundred people participated in the event, which presented an opportunity for ongoing ministry.
"What I think God wants to do in this church is to see more men come and lead their families in the Christian walk," Young said. "We have two men and need more like them, men genuinely following Christ and leading their families to do the same.
"My experience is people in the community have a real interest in spiritual things and are interested in knowing the truth," he continued. "Coming from south Florida, I felt [there] that every time I engaged in a spiritual conversation with someone, we started on apologetics—like, 'Is there a God?' Indian people, at least in our community, are very aware of the spiritual realm. We don't find many atheists or people who don't believe in good and evil."
Some people say Christianity is a white man's religion, but others say, "My grandmother was a Christian," attesting to missionary efforts from fifty years ago, the pastor added.
"My goal is not to argue with people," Young said. "I tell them Jesus was not a white man, that He was a member of a tribe. That's one easy thing to talk about.
"My first priority is to feed the flock, to bring the truth of Scripture to the people who are members of the congregation, to disciple the members and especially the leaders of the church. I think it's my job to be an evangelist in my community, but the best evangelists are the people who have lived here longer than I have. Part of my evangelistic responsibility is to encourage them to be sharing the Gospel wherever they go. When someone [in the church] gets discouraged that a family member or neighbor isn't coming to Christ, we try to remind each other that as long as you keep living the life you were called to live, the more effective your witness becomes."
Dakota Baptist Church received Cooperative Program support when it was started. Today its annual forty thousand dollar budget—which includes a stipend for Paul and Sarah Young and their two preschoolers—is supplemented instead by churches and individuals.
"Indian people understand the importance of giving gifts." Young said. "As a church, we want our Cooperative Program giving to reflect how much we care about God's mission in this world."
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of Dakota Baptist Connections, The Montana Baptist, and the Louisiana Baptist Message. She is a member of Kingsville Baptist Church in Pineville, Louisiana.