As previously noted, those involved in Indigenous ministry generally recognize the need for strong Indigenous leaders in the church. Although non-Indigenous leaders can and do engage in ministry to, with, and alongside Indigenous individuals, the most effective growth of Christianity among Indigenous peoples appears to happen when Indigenous people themselves are the ones leading. This can only happen if effective, biblically-based training is made available and accessible to Indigenous people.
Three Hills Prairie Bible Institute
One of the earliest schools that trained Indigenous leaders was Three Hills Prairie Bible Institute. Interestingly, very little has been recorded of this history. Prairie Bible Institute, now known as Prairie College, does not claim any particular history of training Indigenous students, at least publically. However, when speaking with people who know the history of Indigenous ministry in Alberta, the college comes up often as the training grounds for the workers who went on to make significant contributions to Indigenous Christianity. Indeed, the institute has been credited as a meeting place for the Inter-Mission Cooperative Outreach, the birthplace of NCEM’s television ministry, and the catalyst of NEFC founder Bill Jackson’s turning to Christ (Hodgman, 1996, p. 41, 233). Indeed, the college directly trained many Indigenous students, something that appears to have been uncommon for that time. The height of this activity seems to fall, in line with the timeline previously discussed, between 1950 and 1990.
After being trained at Prairie Bible Institute and other schools, graduates then went out and began their own ministries, including the founding of other Bible schools. However, no subsequent Bible school initiatives seem to have been quite so effective as the legacy of the Prairie Bible Institute. A number have been attempted over the past few decades, but few are still operating today. In keeping with the timeline we have previously discussed, the era between 1990 and ~2010 has been challenging for Indigenous ministry.
One of the earliest bodies to take on the need for intensive Bible training schools was the missionary organization NCEM. They founded a number of schools in the 50’s in Saskatchewan and Manitoba that enjoyed limited enrollment (Hodgman, 1996, pp. 209-210). Then in 1972 they founded their most successful school, Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute (KBI), in Lac La Biche, Alberta, which incorporated the remnants of previous schools (Hodgman, 1996, pp. 211-212). The school was “a training place for ministry, whether for full-time or for lay-workers in local churches,” and attempted to “gear [it’s] instruction to the students, [their] race and culture” (Hodgman, 1996, p. 213). Enrollment hit its peak in the early 1980s with 52 students before declining in the following years (Hodgman, 1996, pp. 213, 215). In regards to difficulties attracting enrollment, NCEM historian Rollie Hodgman (1996) muses,
Judging by the number of inquiries, there still seemed to be a high level of interest in the School [during its decline], but finances have often been a difficulty for students. Unless sponsored by their Band, many potential students have considered it impossible to attend. (p. 213)
Key-Way-Tin remains closed today, despite a desire to reopen it, and a felt need for its functioning (CAMF, 2019, p. 24).
The Aborginal Bible Academy is a PAOC distance-education discipleship and leadership training school located in Ontario. It began in 1978 as a brick-and-mortar, non-accredited college called the National Native Bible College, and its mandate was to train First Nations individuals as pastors. However, after experiencing difficulties in funding and enrollment, they changed to a distance-education model in 2005, and expanded their curriculum with seeker-sensitive material to reflect “the fact that everyone is called to ministry, but not necessarily as pastors.” In addition, their priority is still Indigenous individuals, but their material is currently non-culture specific theology, and all learners are welcome. Because they take into account English as a Second Language (ESL) factors, their courses are particularly popular with ESL groups. Aboriginal Bible Academy continues today to operate and offer training in this form.
Sub Arctic Leadership Training College (SALT College)
SALT College was founded in the 1980’s by Eva Nichol-Ziehl, a missionary with the PAOC’s Pentecostal Sub Arctic Mission (PSAM). Eva had been the pastor of the Pentecostal church in Fort Smith for 32 years, and felt that there was a need for a Christian leadership training school there. The school originally operated out of the Fort Smith church before they eventually built their own building, and they partnered with Eastern Pentecostal Bible College to provide 3-year diplomas. SALT is attended by mainly Indigenous students, who are being trained and sent into Indigenous communities in the North. The curriculum includes courses on cross-cultural ministry and Indigenous culture. Their training also follows a chaplaincy model, and aims to equip students with some kind of skill or leadership that they can offer the communities they are sent into. SALT College is still operating today, and although it is at a low point in enrollment, they are currently attempting to revitalize the college.
Native Bible Centre TRIBE
In 1971, InterAct Ministries opened a training center called Native Institute of Canada, which included both a high school as well as a Bible institute (InterAct Ministries, 2020a). The high school was eventually closed down, but the Bible institute continued operations under the name Native Bible Centre (NBC), with the focus transitioning from residential students to extension courses (InterAct Ministries, 2020a). Native Bible Centre’s website description has remained exactly the same since at least 2010:⁴⁷
Native Bible Centre exists to assist local Native churches by providing biblical resources that can be used to learn the Word of God. The T.R.I.B.E. programme is designed to give general Bible knowledge along with practical ministry skills for the Native believer. The letters of T.R.I.B.E. stand for TRAINING RESOURCES FOR INDIGENOUS BIBLE EDUCATION. The self-study courses use purchased workbooks and except for the Bible, no additional texts are necessary. Students have the option of taking courses for credit towards Certificates (upon completion of five and ten courses) or a Diploma (upon completion of 15 courses). (Native Bible Centre, 2018, para. 1-2)
In Indigenous ministry, TRIBE is often used alongside BEE (Biblical Education by Extension, an international ministry) to assist local ministry leaders in providing biblical education materials. This model is or has been supported/used by IMCO, NEFC (NEFC, 2009b, para. 6), NCEM (Hodgman, 1996, 215), and InterAct (Native Bible Centre, 2018).
In research, historical fragments pointing to the past existence of other Indigenous Bible training schools can be found. For instance, there is evidence of a C&MA training school based out of Quinte Alliance Church in Belleville, Ontario, named the First Nations Centre for Ministry (Smith, 2009, para. 7). The school was founded in 1996 by Adrian Jacobs (Twiss, 2000, 74) who was also its Executive Director until 1999, having just left his position as Academic Dean and Operations Manager at National Native Bible College (Aboriginal Bible Academy). In his thesis on establishing First Nations churches within the C&MA, Rev. David Smith mentions,
The First Nations Centre for Ministry is a newly created college-level cross-cultural ministry training centre that has an emphasis on personal wholeness. Growing out of the ministry experience and training efforts of Director Adrian Jacobs, it seeks to develop contextualized ministry efforts toward First Nations people. The emphasis on personal wholeness is the result of the need for recovery from the traumatic emotional experiences of many First Nations people. (Smith, 2009, End note 5)
It appears that the school may only have existed from 1996-1999. The reasons for its closure are unknown
Another short-lived Indigenous training school was FORGE, based out of Fairford and then Winnipeg, Manitoba. The school was affiliated with the PAOC Manitoba District, and PAOC minister Andrew Thunder was instrumental in getting the initiative off the ground. Unfortunately, the school never gained traction, and the plan was ultimately abandoned.
NAIITS (Formerly Known as the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies)
In the 80’s and 90’s, during the period where the older Euro-Canadian institutions of Indigenous ministry were beginning to lose their momentum, the contextualization movement was just starting to form. One of the causes and consequences of this movement is the formation of NAIITS, a self-described “learning community” devoted to the Indigenous contextualization of theology, and the flourishing of a distinctly Indigenous church. On their website, NAIITS describes themselves by saying,
Our desire is to see men and women journey down the road of a living heart relationship with Jesus in a transformative way – one which does not require the rejection of their Creator-given social and cultural identity… From the day of its formation to the present, NAIITS has been an Indigenous led organization dedicated to introducing change into the education and practice of evangelical Christian mission and theology. NAIITS has pressed forward believing that the Christian community had essentially written them (and their culture) out of the story since the earliest period of colonization.” (NAIITS, 2020b, para. 1, 7).
NAIITS operates as a learning institution, but instead of consisting of a literal degree-granting, brick-and mortar or distance-education institution, they instead form partnerships with already existing Christian training institutions in order to enable Indigenous students to succeed at those schools. Founding member Terry LeBlanc describes the institution as a “partnership-based consortium of people and institutions convened for training, and for dialogue” (Leblanc & Leblanc, 2011, p. 95). Through this method, they currently have five degree program partnerships offering BA, MA and Ph.D programs (NAIITS, 2020a, para. 1). This previously included a presence in Alberta through their degree-granting partnership with Ambrose Seminary in Calgary (Leblanc & Leblanc, 2011, pp. 92, 94, 96), but this partnership appears to have ceased.
NAIITS unabashedly maintains that their goal is to promote the contextualization of Christianity and Indigenous culture, and the flourishing of the Indigenous church. They reject the “false dichotomy” wherein Christian faith requires Indigenous believers to reject their own culture and become like Euro-Canadians (NAIITS, 2020a, para. 5). As articulated on their website, they do so by creating literature and dialogue on theology and contextualization:
We seek to facilitate the creation of a written theological foundation for a) the visioning of new paradigms to reach Native North Americans and other Indigenous peoples with the Good News of Jesus; and, b) the contextualization of the Good News in Indigenous communities. (NAIITS, 2020a, para. 2)
Today, NAIITS is one of the only (if not the only) operating and flourishing evangelical theological learning institutions devoted to training Indigenous Christians. However, their mandate outpaces that of their predecessors in that they are not only devoted to providing biblical training to Indigenous Christians, but also to fundamentally changing currently reigning philosophies and precepts regarding the training in Christianity by Indigenous individuals.
The Future of Indigenous Theological Training
At the 2019 Korean Missionary Groups Forum, an Indigenous ministry conference for Korean missionaries working on First Nations reserves, a representative of NCEM spoke about KBI:
Almost every First Nation person that I know who is a missionary or pastor, has gone to Bible school! . . . I know of 73 First Nations people who have been a missionary or a pastor at one time or another in their life. 90% of these 73 people went to Bible school. . . When I was the Director of Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute I researched and found that almost all other First Nation ‘full fledged Bible schools’ had closed. For these reasons I believe that a First Nation Bible School should reopen. Would the Korean church consider reopening Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute. [sic] The reason it closed was due to lack of staff. We had students, finances, and a complete campus, but we desperately needed staff. (Canadian Aboriginal Mission Forum, 2019, p. 24)
Despite the passion of such missionaries for the culturally integrated training of Indigenous Christians, KBI and other traditional biblical training schools remain closed today. In addition to the financial barriers mentioned above, there are also other complications that limit the engagement of Indigenous students in typical Bible training programs. For instance, some ministry leaders observed the obstacles inherent in asking Indigenous learners to leave their communities and enter an culturally ‘Western’ institution that learners fear will distance them from their culture. Another barrier is the highly political nature of the Indigenous/Christian relationship, and the controversial issue of contextualization, which keep many in the Euro-Canadian church from getting involved with Indigenous training and ministry. As a result, history shows that Indigenous training ministries in Canada have been under-supported, and thus under-effective in reaching their goal - even though the need is clearly high.
NAIITS is currently one of the only institutions that currently fills this gap in the evangelical sphere. Although they are generally a well-known and well-respected institution, they also experience a high degree of controversy, as is inherent in their objective. Leaders in Indigenous ministry may regard them as ‘doing good work,’ or they may regard them as ‘crossing lines.’ For this reason, leading figures in the church may distrust NAIITS and reject their vision of contextualization for the Church. In the end, however, the fact remains that NAIITS is one of the only institutions in the evangelical church providing culturally-accessible theological training to the next generation of Indigenous leaders. In this way, they play an integral role in the past, current, and future Story of Indigenous Ministry in Alberta.