Recently I had a good conversation with a missions pastor concerning where Native American ministry fits in missiological categories. Does it fit under domestic/home/local missions category or does it fit under international/global missions? Knowing that the whole planet is actually the mission field, these categories are somewhat artificial, but that does not mean they are illegitimate. They help us map out our mission endeavors and strategies. As church mission committees seek to be obedient to the Great Commission (Mat 28:18), they will look to Acts 1:18 for guidance. Jesus told the disciples that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria, Judaea, and the ends if the earth. Today we usually understand that to mean that we start at home and work your way out to every tribe, tongue, and nation – to the ends of the earth.
So where does that leave Native America from the perspective of the “American” church? Is it domestic or international? If we must use our categories, the answer is yes to both, with an emphasis on international.
Native Americans are essentially dual citizens. There are over 500 recognized tribes (nations) in this country. Native Americans were only granted citizenship in 1924 under the Indian Citizenship Act. Each tribe is considered a sovereign within a sovereign, each with its own identity, history, land, language, culture, government, and challenges.
As I write this post from within the Qualla Boundary, I am the tourist, a welcomed guest. I have no “right” to be here. If the Cherokee were to ever ask me to leave their land, I have no recourse with the governor of North Carolina. This is their land, their home.
To consider Cherokee or any other tribe as just another town in the U.S.A. would be a failure to recognize them as a people. To consider them as another ethnic group, which emigrated here would be even worse. After 500 years of missionary endeavors and only 3% professing Christians among them, it is time we reconsider how we minister to them.
The first thing to do is to recognize them as a people, something they have been asking for for centuries. Today that begins by recognizing their sovereign nation status and honoring what remaining treaties are left.
Secondly, but no less importantly, we obey Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. We GO! Building a church in a neighboring town waiting for them to come off the reservation to attend church will not do. After centuries of literal and cultural genocide, we must earn their trust and go to them as true emissaries of peace.
There are a number of Native American pastors and missionaries who believe that Native America is a sleeping giant awaiting to be awakened by the gospel and serve in missions themselves, and not just to other reservations, but worldwide to other indigenous tribes and wherever God will send them. I believe that is true, and I pray the Lord will use us in that awakening. Perhaps he wants you to be a part of that, too.
I hope this brings more clarity to the overall picture of Native America for you. If we must see things through different lenses to focus our vision for missions, please see Native America through the “international” lens. “Domestic” communicates they live in our “house,” which is true of nearly half of the Native American population living off the reservation. Yet there are many others who choose to remain on their reservations, their land, their home, among their family and friends. The invitation has been extended and the door is open to the gospel. Let’s go.