Barriers to Christianity: From Without and From Within
There are a variety of barriers that Native peoples in the US and Canada face that can make it difficult to accept Christianity as the way to living a hope-filled and fruitful life today, tomorrow, and for all eternity. Barriers from without are caused by the mistakes by those representing the Christian community going back many generations. Barriers from within may include barriers to Christianity that are shared by all people until God sovereignly opens the eyes of their hearts to his existence and infinite love and mercy toward those who believe.
Barriers Native Peoples Face When Presented with the Christian Message
1. Spiritual Forces: As with all people, there are spiritual forces that work against Native peoples’ ability to believe the message of Jesus Christ. See Ephesians 6: 12, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Romans 1:25.
2. Paternalism: A belief called “Manifest Destiny” was used to rationalize the oppressive, and in many cases, brutal acts of genocide on Native peoples of North America, by dominating Westernized governments. Related efforts by the dominant culture to eliminate Native culture e.g., to “civilize” Native people, were often supported by churches during the 1800’s and early-mid 1900’s. Such counter-productive involvement by churches distorted the message of Jesus Christ and still causes unnecessary resistance among many Native peoples to Christ’s good news of unconditional love, forgiveness, and eternal salvation.
3. Conflict Among Christian Denominations: On most US reservations and Canadian reserves, the existence of multiple Christian denominations results not in cooperation but in conflict. Such unbiblical competition among Christian groups is also counter to Native values of community harmony and unity. As a result, conflict among denominations has created another unnecessary hindrance to Native peoples’ acceptance of Christianity.
4. Breakdown of Family and Community: Alcohol, drugs, and suicide have torn down otherwise healthy Native values of family, community, and related traditional lifestyles. Learned patterns of alcohol abuse are often passed on from generation to generation.
5. Lack of Men in Church Leadership: In churches on most reservations and reserves, low church involvement by men has resulted in women assuming a disproportionate burden of leadership.
6. Few Indigenous Pastors: Not only do many churches attended by Native peoples lack a Native pastor, many were founded under, and are still unnecessarily influenced by western culture. In this regard, many Native churches are still dependent on leadership from Anglo-American church and para-church institutions. This prevents maximum integration of Native culture with Christian beliefs and general practices e.g. of worship and service. This, in turn, prevents effective church planting efforts among Native peoples, according to Craig Smith*. Also, in this regard, Ralph Winter** stated that most Native tribes are still “unreached” in that few churches attended by Native people are truly indigenous i.e., self-supporting and self-expanding.
* Craig Smith, Whiteman’s Gospel
**Ralph Winter was the Founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission and coined the phrase “unreached people groups”. See: Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 1999, p. 364. Note: Currently, only about 1-3% of Native Americans call themselves Christians.
7. Self Sufficiency/Self-Satisfaction: Native Christians who are satisfied in their own abilities to meet their own needs may become complacent and lack the motivation to take the steps required to grow in their faith.
8. Compromising Christian Walk: Some self-proclaimed Native Christians may continue in activities that, while acceptable in the general culture, are in conflict with the teachings from the Bible. Such activities include gambling, mixing non-Christian beliefs with Christian beliefs, and drinking to excess.
9. Limited Financial Resources: Native churches and para-church organizations like, Overcomers Ministries, often lack the financial resources to sufficiently support ministry activities among Native peoples. In addition, churches with missions budgets rarely view Native peoples as an “unreached people group” with the same priority as they view unreached people groups located overseas. As a result, churches often allocate relatively few dollars to support missions efforts among Native peoples. Also, while over 60% of Native American’s now live in urban areas, US churches still allocate more dollars to reservations.
How to Minister to Native Peoples
The following is written for Christians who lack knowledge about the history and culture of Native peoples. However, the information can generally be applied by Christians who want to share their faith with anyone from another culture or background.
Given the significant barriers that Native peoples may have to Christianity (see the page ‘Barriers to Christianity’) it can be difficult to know where to begin in sharing ones faith. While it is true that we, of course, want to treat others the way we want them to treat us, doing this cross-culturally can be much easier said than done. For this reason, we offer the following suggestions.
Pray to God for a humble heart and to expose and remove any hidden feelings you may have of arrogance and superiority toward Native peoples. Be strong and faithful to your conviction in Biblical truths, but be humble and kind, remembering that you are a messenger. Also, a Native person’s barriers to Christianity may be so deep that the only way to be fruitful in conversation is to rely, primarily, on constant and heartfelt prayer.
Read and Learn
To more effectively relate to, and share the gospel with, Native peoples, learn their history and both current cultures (urban and reservation) and past cultures. Also, become informed about how the US and Canadian armies committed acts of genocide against Native North Americans*, and avoid the tragic mistakes of past Christian missionaries.**
* See ‘Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee’, by Dee Brown. A definitive history of genocide against Native peoples in North America in the mid-late 1800’s.
** See the following to leverage cross-cultural understanding to effectively share the gospel:
1. Paul’s appeal in Acts 17 to those who worshiped an “unknown god” in Athens
2. White Man’s Gospel, by Chris Smith, a Native American Christian
3. The Grieving Indian, by Art Holmes, a Native American Christian
4. A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby K. Payne
5. Eternity in Their Hearts, by Don Richardson
Listen and Learn More
When you meet Native Americans, don’t necessarily be the first to share what YOU believe; rather, LISTEN to their stories and personal experiences. You will of course be more able to understand and empathize with their stories if you have already read about their history, culture, and values.
Sharing the Gospel with Interested Native Americans
As Native Americans teach each other through stories, you can share stories from the Bible. Stories about the persecution of the Jews from the Bible’s Old Testament may be the most accessible scripture to Native Americans because of their many persecutions.
When sharing the gospel, speak the truth in love and acceptance and avoid a judgmental attitude. Let the Spirit do the ultimate work of convincing, convicting, and saving while you humbly share Jesus’ message, including his infinitely valuable promise of eternal life.
While sharing Christian beliefs, personally relate them to how they have given you great hope. However, while sharing with others, do not compare and contrast Christianity with the Native religions as such efforts will direct attention away from Jesus Christ.