The relationship between the evangelical church and Indigenous people in the area that we now call Alberta has historically been fraught with difficulties, and even today is marked by hesitancy, confusion, and controversy. However, as to the future, this relationship is uniquely poised to enter a new era marked by learning, reconciliation, and partnership.
This relationship differs from that of the Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations, which are distinct from the evangelical church both theologically and in terms of acknowledged corporate responsibility regarding their relationship with Indigenous peoples. Although the Catholic and mainline protestant denominations have been held to account by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and their role in the residential school system, evangelical denominations have been able to get by without doing as much in the way of reflection and reconciliation, though history and society call for such a response. Rather, the story of Indigenous ministry in the evangelical Euro-Canadian church revolves around the energy evangelicals poured into missions “to” Indigenous people in the 1950s to the 1990s. As we crossed into the new decade, this energy waned, as the contextualization movement and the reconciliation movement began to bring this philosophy of ministry into question.
These two topics, the debate surrounding contextualization and one’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, present two of the most controversial issues currently affecting the current landscape of Indigenous ministry. These issues are highly involved with the development of the Indigenous church, meaning the Christian tradition and community that is uniquely Indigenous-founded, led, and “owned”. The two issues are also highly involved with the development of any ministry or relationship with Indigenous individuals that the Euro-Canadian church undertakes. Because these two activities are so involved with the controversial debates, their accomplishment has become complicated. There is a clear sense in which this entire matter is enmeshed in the concept of relationship, while at the same time being inherently political and controversial; this makes engagement difficult. Euro-Canadian evangelicals find themselves avoiding the relationship due to feeling unequipped to navigate this political minefield, or due to an hesitance to abandon tradition or compromise their beliefs.
Today, Indigenous ministries exist, but they are often underfunded, undersupported, and disconnected from each other. They tend to take one of two forms: practical-type, ministering to individuals to help meet physical or spiritual needs and relying on older models of ministry, or advocacy-type, working in ideological means to change understandings and operating more in the realm of controversies and introducing new ways of thinking.
Regional denominational bodies vary in their level of established Indigenous ministry. The TRC has called the church to engage in intentional reconciliation, but most evangelical denominations have not started specific initiatives to do so (with some notable and important exceptions). In many cases, history, momentum, and past willingness to engage have been lost to staff turnover and political challenge. Rather, missionary organizations remaining from the 1950s heyday of Indigenous ministry comprise most of the story of evangelical Indigenous ministry. These ministries are passionate about the need to share the gospel with unreached Indigenous communities, but are currently undergoing a time of reflection and possibly change regarding their methods and philosophies of ministry.
There are also some stand-alone practical-type ministries, which do important work, generally in urban areas, to meet physical needs resulting from the legacy of intergenerational trauma in the Indigenous community. In the same way, there are some stand-alone advocacy-type Indigenous ministries that work to create awareness and spur the Euro-Canadian church to change, especially in areas where the evangelical church is sluggish in accomplishing its due diligence regarding its Indigenous neighbours. Finally, Indigenous theological training institutions, particularly their philosophies and the understandings they teach, play an important role in the story of Indigenous ministry in Alberta. Although these institutions face difficulty in accomplishing their ministry, they train the next generation of leaders who will write future chapters of the story of Indigenous ministry.
The current state of Indigenous ministry in the evangelical church in Alberta is marked by controversy, hesitancy, and a lack of understanding. However, both history and contemporary voices call on the church to do more than it currently is. Generally speaking, the church itself hears this call and realizes that the need is at their doorstep; however, it does not yet know how to accomplish what is needed. The relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian church has gone through intense growing pains in the last few decades, and as a result, we are undergoing a period of transition regarding the role of the church. If the church desires to take charge of their future story, it is important that they learn from their past story, and use it to put time, effort, and resources into determining what their relationship with Indigenous peoples will look like in the coming years. By genuinely seeking reconciliation in humility, committing to reflection on our past and future, and intentionally engaging in relationship, we can carve out a story side-by-side with our Indigenous neighbours that is marked by mutual growth and equal partnership, together in Christ.