Before getting into the actual historical account of Indigenous ministry in Alberta, it will behoove us to address some of the philosophical and even controversial elements that form the undercurrent of the current and past tides of ministry. When looking to begin ministry with Indigenous peoples, there are two main issues that one must work through and decide their stance on: The contextualization of Indigenous Christianity, and the task of responding to the TRC. Regardless of one’s opinions on these issues, understanding them is important to understanding the past, present, and future story of Indigenous ministry, as such themes form the path of the narrative.
The Discussion of Contextualization
When getting involved in Indigenous ministry, there is one main debate which every worker must be aware of: the discussion surrounding the contextualization of Indigenous culture into Christian ministry. The basic question of the debate is this: Can and should Indigenous culture be brought into or provide the basis of Indigenous expressions of the Christian faith? The discussion often ends up being phrased in terms of whether elements of Indigenous culture/spirituality, such as smudging and the usage of drums, can be used in church. There are two basic approaches to this issue: those who are for the practice, and those who are against it.
Those who are pro-contextualization argue that contextualization is a basic part of missions work. They would point out that, in any other country, contextualization of the Indigenous culture into Christian worship is a common and accepted practice. For instance, in a Ghanaian worship service they might use bongos and cowbells, and in Nepalese churches they may use the gyumang and madal (Cohen & Rivers, 2019). Proponents of contextualization argue that the drum is simply an instrument, and may be “redeemed” by Christ and used in Christian worship. Similarly, smudging is a practice used in praying to the Creator (Robinson, 2018, para. 3), and so it can be used by Indigenous Christians to pray to God in the same way. Doing so simply makes worship contextual for Indigenous people, and removes a barrier for them to participate in worship. Proponents of contextualization argue that blocking Indigenous culture from the church is a religious guise for racism, and the still-prevalent colonial attitude that exalts Western Christian culture and demonizes other cultures. In this mindset, the job of those doing Indigenous ministry is to share the gospel in a way that makes sense and is relatable to those in the Indigenous culture.
Here is an example of an argument from someone who is pro-contextualization:
People come into the centre, and they smell something [burning sweetgrass], and they ask what that smell is because it reminds me of their grandma. And we tell them about it and ask if they know what Grandma was doing when she burned the sweetgrass, and they say no, so we explain that she was praying. And this opens the door to conversations about spirituality, and it leads to a faith journey with the Creator. Indigenous people aren’t animistic. They don’t believe everything has a spirit, they believe there is spirit present in everything. That’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is always present in and around creation. First Nations people have just always recognized this.¹⁶
In contrast, those who are anti-contextualization argue that elements such as drums and smudges are not simply neutral cultural practices that can be brought into Christianity, but spiritual practices that connect the worshipper to something other than God and are totally opposed to Christianity. These people would believe that those who convert to Christianity are being delivered from the demonic influence of traditional Indigenous spirituality, and that converts must leave its associated elements behind. Thus, the combining of these elements into Christianity is not contextualization, but syncretism, which must be rejected in order to protect correct theology and practice in the church. In this mindset, the job of those who work with Indigenous people is to offer the gospel as deliverance from traditional Indigenous spirituality.
Here is an example of an argument from someone who is anti-contextualization:
People say that we contextualize in other countries, but even in Africa they don’t use drums in their services, because the drums are part of the old demon worship. In my experience, services that incorporate the drum only bring oppression and terror, and I want nothing to do with smudging. People who didn’t grow up ‘traditional’ are the ones who want to ‘reclaim their culture’. Especially people from the Sixties Scoop - later in life they decide they want to ‘reconnect with their Indigenous identity’, but when they say they want to reclaim their ‘culture’ they are really reclaiming that false ‘religion’.¹⁷
Position of the Evangelical Church
At its core, the argument here is whether Indigenous culture can be a legitimate expression of Christian faith and worship, or if Indigenous culture must be transformed by Christ. There is also the question of what extent racism, unconscious or otherwise, plays a role in the issue. Unfortunately, because of the charged and highly political nature of the debate, it has largely divided the world of Indigenous ministry, and it also seems to serve as a barrier to many in the Euro-Canadian church getting involved. Indeed, while an equal number of ministries researched in this project held a strong pro- or anti-contextualization stance, a larger number claimed “no position” of the ministry on the issue, even while sometimes demonstrating an obvious inclination to one side or the other.
Within the evangelical church, tendencies lean towards the anti-contextualization position. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) notes that “the practice of contextualization of Indigenous ceremonies in Christian worship remains a matter of controversy in some evangelical circles” (Jacobs et al., 2019, p. 9). Few evangelical organizations would claim outright hostility to contextualization, likely due to societal pressure, but they are also unlikely to embrace it. Contradictions to this rule of public declaration in the evangelical tradition include the ministries of the EFC, the Mennonite Church of Canada, and NAIITS in embracing contextualization, and the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission in strongly opposing it.
Regardless of what position one holds, the fact remains that both the pro- and anti-contextualization positions are an important part of our collective story. Taken together, this debate speaks to the topic’s centrality in the story of Indigenous Ministry in Alberta, and it has far-reaching implications in both the past and the present.
The State of the Indigenous Church
An underlying issue related to the contextualization debate is the state of the Indigenous church in Canada. While interviewing Euro-Canadian participants, there was a unanimous conclusion that the state of ministry to or with Indigenous people in the Euro-Canadian church is quite poor. At the same time, a theme also emerged among some participants in debating whether or not an Indigenous church exists. It was generally felt that the Euro-Canadian church had failed to fulfill its duty to establish an Indigenous church. Participants provided one of two explanations as to why, based on their position on the issue of contextualization. Those who were pro-contextualization said that there is no Indigenous church because the Euro-Canadian church failed to properly contextualize the gospel for them. Meanwhile, those who were anti-contextualization said there is no Indigenous church because the Euro-Canadian church contextualized the gospel too much, and never allowed Christ to actually transform Indigenous culture.
Interestingly, instead of picking one side or the other when asked about this debate, Indigenous individuals tended more so to take issue with the question being asked in the first place. Rather than debating whether the Euro-Canadian church has succeeded in establishing an Indigenous church, well-known expert in Indigenous ministry Cheryl Bear-Barnetson (2013) simply argues that the church needs to actually give and leave the gospel with Indigenous people, so they can establish their own church and their own contextualized expression of faith (p. 66). Similarly, in response to the question of whether or not an Indigenous church exists, Ray Aldred, a leader in the Indigenous church, gave this perspective:
Maybe not one what white people can recognize. What is there doesn’t take the same shape as the non-Indigenous church, but there’s been a 200-year pattern: Indigenous believers gather together every Sunday afternoon, they pray together, they eat together. Then every once in a while, some denomination tries to send someone in to form them into a Western-style church, and it all blows up, and then they take off and leave the Indigenous people alone to do their thing again. . . Indigenous faith will just never look “Catholic enough” or “Protestant enough” to the church.
In making statements about the state of the Indigenous church, wisdom advises that those from outside the Indigenous community should be cautious. It is valuable to listen to the perspective of Indigenous people themselves as to what the state of their church is. As far as the role of the Euro-Canadian church goes, it is widely understood that Indigenous ministry is not being committed to as much as the situation actually calls for - participants strongly felt that the church has a responsibility to do more. However, neither should the church see itself as having a duty to “save” or “establish” Indigenous peoples. Rather, the responsibility of the church appears to fall somewhere between these two realities.
Residential Schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Another current issue impacting the story of Indigenous ministry in Alberta is the legacy of the TRC. To provide an entire background on this commission, the factors that led to it, and its effect on the church is outside of the scope of this paper. To learn more about the commission, and to access its resources, visit http://www.trc.ca/ . For a brief explanation of the commission as it relates to our project, see the definitions for “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, “Reconciliation”, and “Calls to Action” in the Terminology Guide.
In the eyes of many involved in both Indigenous ministry and the Indigenous community, the actions and understandings presented in the TRC Report and Calls to Actions serves as the best framework for reconciliation available. These understandings are based around the need to acknowledge and repent of current and past wrongs inflicted against Indigenous peoples, and a commitment to intentionally move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation.
The evangelical church has had a mixed response to the TRC. Because of their late arrival in colonial Canada, they were largely uninvolved in the Residential School system.¹⁸ As a result, the evangelical denominations are not directly addressed by the TRC Report and Calls to Action, which were based on the legal case involving the denominations that ran residential schools. However, this does not mean that the evangelical church was blameless in their actions and attitudes towards Indigenous peoples during the same period.¹⁹
In addition, the TRC Calls to Action include calls that are directed to the church outside of the denominations that were party to the Settlement Agreement, including,
48. We call upon the church parties to the Settlement Agreement, and all other faith groups and interfaith social justice groups in Canada who have not already done so, to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UNDRIP] as a framework for reconciliation. This would include, but not be limited to, the following commitments:
i. Ensuring that their institutions, policies, programs, and practices comply with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
ii. Respecting Indigenous peoples’ right to self determination in spiritual matters, including the right to practise, develop, and teach their own spiritual and religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies, consistent with Article 12:1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
iii. Engaging in ongoing public dialogue and actions to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
iv. Issuing a statement no later than March 31, 2016, from all religious denominations and faith groups, as to how they will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
49. We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. (TRC, 2015b, p. 5)
Notably, evangelical denominations have largely not responded in full accordance with these calls to action. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada,
Some evangelical communities have supported Indigenous rights to self-government in public support for the TRC’s Call to Action #48 to uphold the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation. The reality is, however, that broadly speaking, evangelicals are similar to the general population of Canada in their ignorance of and indifference to solemn their treaty responsibilities. (Jacobs et al., 2019, pp. 8-9)
Individual denominations vary wildly in whether or not they have formally and publicly adopted UNDRIP, engaged in reconciliation initiatives and dialogue, issued formal apologies or statements regarding past mistakes, or repudiated the concepts behind European sovereignty. However, they may engage in missions to Indigenous peoples outside of the framework of the TRC, according to guiding theological principles such as evangelism and discipleship.²⁰
Contemporary Issues as Barriers to Engagement
Unfortunately issues such as the contextualization debate and TRC responsibilities can serve as significant barriers to churches taking on the responsibility to reach out to their Indigenous neighbours. One research participant explained that churches have a difficult time navigating their response to the TRC because “it’s a political issue, and a very charged one. But it’s also essentially a relational issue. And the two can’t be separated.” Such a dimension makes the normal ministry of the church, which is intensely relational, into a political minefield that individuals may not feel equipped to navigate. Another research participant observed that,
For a lot of people, Indigenous ministry is just unknown - this is very common. There’s also a fear of it. Fear of not doing it the right way. Fear of not knowing what to get involved in and what not to get involved in. Fear that it might cost too much. But there’s also a growing awareness that something has gone wrong, and that something has to change.
The evangelical church as a whole is far from having a confident and unified response to these controversial issues that can guide them into meaningful ministry that takes responsibility for the past and strives to move forwards in healing and reconciliation. However, as the aforementioned research participant observed, there is an awareness that something needs to be done, and that what is currently being done needs to be done better. The individual elements in which the evangelical church is currently attempting to do so will be examined in the next section.