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Although I have lived all my life on Indian Reserves (Reservations), since I was 17 years old, except for the time I spent in college, I am just now understanding the relationship…of the cultural authority of elders concerning spiritual matters, to the acceptance and practice of Christianity in the Native community. I also feel that many Indian Christians have not truly understood that this spiritual authority applies equally to the Christian arena, as well as traditional religious matters. I believe that God has entrenched this concept in their culture, and as such it is important that we use it to our benefit.
In the Indian culture the Elders have the special authority to define religious matters. This includes the responsibility to be the historical reference for the past, describing specific beliefs and how they relate to today, and even changing beliefs and or practices as well as accepting or rejecting other religions or religious practices. Yes, it is true that their authority is just as valid to adopt another religion, as it is to preserve past traditional beliefs. Such things have happened, and I believe it has always been the Elders who lead in this. Many examples can be given.
It might help to remind us all of the Jewish culture as portrayed in Bible times. Jesus himself didn’t preach His first sermon or begin any kind of public ministry until He was 30. Even then He may have been seen as a very young participant in the arena of spiritual leadership. The occasion for what was perhaps His first public act of spiritual leadership was while he was reading the Bible in a religious service. In those days, we aren’t even sure if all the priests could read, and even today, few have the gift or ability to be truly captivating in reading aloud to a crowd. Jesus was obviously all of this and more, and so was in demand as one who would read aloud to the congregation, none of who would have had their own copy of scripture, and evidently had been doing so from a young age. This may have been an occasion for Him to push the bounds of cultural correctness concerning age in relation to spiritual leadership. At any rate, in that culture a person had to reach a certain age before they would be recognized as having authority in spiritual matters. A priest had to be a certain age before he could perform the duties of a priest, and so forth. The North American Indian cultures are closely related to such Eastern cultures, and there is a huge difference between these and Western European-American culture.
Since ‘White’ cultures have a Bible that is inspired by God, they have a false perception that they do not delegate spiritual authority to a special class of people as defined by age, education, or anything, to define spiritual matters. However, in reality most people believe what they are taught or influenced by. There is unlimited competition as to who or what shall be the dominant influence. No particular group, such as elders, are delegated this authority.
In the Native community the process is simplified. The Elders decree, by word and example that the community follows the Christian religion. The church then works within this acceptance to bring people into a heart relationship with God. In Western cultures various complicated influences work to bring people into a denominational (or so-called Independent) structure. Then much work must be done within this structure to bring these people into a heart relationship. After people are converted, it is very important for them to come into a spiritual fellowship, or church group. Although in today’s world most people are saved outside of the church, spiritual authority for evangelizing and formulating doctrine comes from organized Christian religion. This is general principle for how it normally works.
In the early days of evangelism among the North American Indian people, there were notable examples of success among Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal & Anglican, and others. Eventually, these denominations degenerated into dead forms. Modern efforts in evangelizing have worked totally outside the age-old structures and cultural realities, specifically the authority of Elders in religious matters. Please understand that I am not referring to the modern movement of ‘syncretism’, which is bringing aspects of spirit worship into Christianity. I am only addressing the cultural aspect of the authority of Elders. By attempting to bypass this ancient structure within the Native culture, much frustration has resulted. Ignorance of the dynamics of Native culture certainly has been a factor. Others have simply refused to acknowledge that such a principle is valid, and as such can be ignored under the credence that ‘Truth must prevail’. In certain instances, monumental efforts have been directed totally toward the ‘youth’. Bible Schools have been set up to educate young people from grade one through college. These youths are then sent back into a culture where they are completely marginalized, with no authority, and little influence. Very few have survived. This writer is unaware that ‘any’ serious effort has ever been made in the last 50 years to focus on winning over a base of Elders support to the cause of Christianity. If such schools had been set up to work with the Elders, and serious work done to bombard them with Christian kindness, I really believe we would have a very different spiritual landscape in the Native community today. An entire book could be written on this point. Perhaps God has designed this cultural aspect as a key, which if fitted and turned would open the door, and we have missed it. It requires a mind that is experienced in observing the realities of Native culture over time to understand this. Those who have studied Don Richardson’s “Eternity in Their Hearts”, will recognize that God has carefully provided critical tools which work effectively in reaching cultures that have been isolated from the Gospel.
Please understand that I am not suggesting that the normal spiritual practices of prayer, preaching, witnessing, sacrificial Godly living, etc. can be bypassed, and something else substituted to reach souls. Successful missionary efforts from the beginning have interacted in some way to such cultural aspects as God has allowed or designed to facilitate winning people’s hearts. This is only common sense.
In the Northern communities, we are seeing Elders who are recognizing their potential to lead their communities in the Christian faith. I could relate exceptional examples of this. What they are finding, is that the Church is so geared toward training and equipping youth, there is nothing in place, and little insight that there should be, toward facilitating them, as Elders. Their needs are very different from the youth.
We are aware that our greatest influence in seeing Christianity established in the Native communities, would be to set up Elders training camps. This would bring Native Elders together for leadership training, encouragement, and spiritual endowment. The Elders would use their influence to truly open specific Native communities to the ministry of God’s people to see revival and people’s hearts won to God.
At present we have experienced Native missionaries who understand this and are willing to work with us in this. In Canada, the Band administrations will often finance their member’s expenses to attend such training camps. Right now we have the opportunity to step in and fill a very neglected void. Please help back us in your prayers for God to lead as we pursue this purpose.
NOTES: The definition of an Elder in the Native community may vary somewhat from one place to another. Some communities, such as Old Crow have a significant number of people over one hundred years old, while other communities have few over 60. So this would affect the age of the most influential Elders. I don’t think this is important for definition. I feel any mature adult who has demonstrated responsible actions, and has earned credibility in their communities should be recognized as candidates for training. Certainly those in their 40’s and 50’s would be influential. I don’t believe that on a certain day they cross the line from zero influence to total respect as an Elder. But rather it seems to be a gradual process of increasing influence and adding categories of influence as a progressive thing. As well, a person who may not yet be considered an Elder, could certainly be trained and groomed for the job, and encouraged to use their influence for the Lord regardless of such identities. The people themselves would define the role of participants. I’m not suggesting we ignore the power and influence of a Christian testimony because of their age, but simply that we recognize this powerful key and focus an effort toward using it.
Update: November 2015. Since this concept was originally published, we have not been able to achieve our goal of moving forward with the initiative as we hoped we could. The reason being that we have not had the resources, or support necessary to do it. Staff would also be a key factor. The need will not go away by being ignored! I am more convinced than ever this concept is an important key to opening the door of Christian discipleship among the Native people here in Alberta.