There are five missionary organizations operating in Alberta dedicated to sharing the good news of Christ with the first peoples of Canada:³⁴ InterAct Ministries, North American Indigenous Ministries (NAIM), Northern Canada Evangelical Mission (NECM), Native Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (NEFC), and Korean Missionary Groups. These organizations all include or are based around the typical Christian missionary model: Individuals or couples who feel directed by God to engage in ministry alongside Indigenous peoples partner with the organization, who will train, send, and support the individual/couple in their mission. Each individual/couple raises their own monetary support, which constitutes their salary, and the organization provides the tools to do so along with member care. Missionaries are sent into communities where they engage in ministry with the locals, including relationship and community building, church planting, evangelization, discipleship, and practical ministry. The goal of such organizations is to see the Indigenous peoples of Canada come to know Christ.³⁵
Within the evangelical tradition, these organizations have shouldered the bulk of the responsibility for Indigenous ministry in the past 100 years. Missionaries have been planted in many locations throughout Alberta, including cities, rural communities, and reserves. Some urban/municipal areas of focus in Indigenous ministry by missionary organizations include Edmonton, Calgary, Maskwacis, and Brocket. Reserves with a substantial missionary presence include the Blood, Piikani, Siksika, Moreley, and Eden Valley reserves.³⁶ There is also apparently a group of Mennonite missionaries with an established presence in the Upper Peace River area.
Arctic Missions, the organization that would become InterAct, was founded in 1951 when a number of missionaries who had been called to serve in Alaska came together to form a mission board (InterAct Ministries, 2020a). The organization grew over the next 16 years, and in 1967, they began ministry to the Indigenous peoples in BC (InterAct Ministries, 2020a). Eventually, their reach extended to all four Western provinces. In 1980, the Mission received its charter in Canada, and Arctic Missions of Canada (renamed InterAct Ministries in 1988) was officially founded (InterAct Ministries, 2020a). According to their website,
InterAct Ministries exists to make disciples among least-reached peoples in cooperation with like-minded churches and organizations. Our desire is to see reproducing disciples impacting communities across Russia, Alaska and western Canada, an area we call the North Pacific Crescent. (InterAct Ministries, 2020b)
InterAct accomplishes their ministry through their missionaries who plant churches and engage in discipleship, and through partnering with other First Nations ministries. Previously, their primary focus was planting churches which would eventually join the NEFC. However, having noticed that churches left without a long-term missionary tend to struggle, their focus has shifted in recent years to emphasize making disciples instead. InterAct is currently in a period of reflection regarding the question of what “church” should look like in Indigenous culture.
InterAct has had a presence in Alberta for close to 40 years, in both cities and reserves, but focused more in Southern Alberta than Northern Alberta. According to their website, they have ~31³⁷ missionaries/missionary couples doing Indigenous ministry in Canada, 9 of which are in Alberta.³⁸ They currently have missionaries in the Kainai (Blood) Reserve, the Moreley Reserve, Calgary, Eden Valley, and Cardston, doing discipleship, young adults, and camp ministries. Previous placements include church planting ministries in Grande Prairie and Bonnyville. Finally, InterAct has a summer internship program located in the Calgary area, and two needs-based ministries in Alberta: Urban Fire in Calgary, a transitional housing ministry that provides practical support to Indigenous young adults coming from the reserves, and Anchored Warriors in Eden Valley, a youth ministry that provides mentorship and community for Indigenous youth.
North American Indigenous Ministries
NAIM began in 1949 as a ministry based out of a Restored WWII minesweeper boat that travelled up and down the coast of Canada (NAIM, 2020, para. 1). Teams would use the boat to get to remote villages, where they could disembark and share the gospel with the Indigenous people there (NAIM, 2020, para. 1). Eventually, they transitioned to a “community based/relational long-term ministry of evangelism and discipleship” (NAIM, 2020, para. 2). Their main tasks are evangelization and discipleship, with ministries including teaching, language, prisons, urban ministry, working with elders, and summer camps. They also have established pathways for internships and short-term missions. NAIM staff raise their own salary, and NAIM provides them the training, support, and supervision to do their ministry.
NAIM’s presence in Alberta is limited compared to other areas they are in. According to their website, the organization currently has ~22 missionaries/missionary couples across Canada, 4 of which are in Alberta.³⁹ They currently have missionaries in Brocket, Maskwacis, and Calgary, and these ministries include church planting, youth work, and curriculum writing ministries.
Northern Canada Evangelical Mission
Northern Canada Evangelical Mission (NCEM) was formed when missionaries serving the unreached Indigenous peoples in Canada’s North began to gather together at the Canadian Sunday School Mission in Buffalo Narrows, Saskatchewan, between 1939 and 1946 (NCEM, 2020, para. 6). In 1946 they realized that their informal fellowship would better function as a distinct organization, and so they established NCEM to be an “interdenominational mission board particularly devoted to reaching Canada’s northern Native people” (NCEM, 2020, para. 5). The organization was founded with 9 charter members in 3 missions stations, and has over the years grown to include 80 workers on 30 stations around Canada’s North (NCEM, 2020, para. 7). They primarily function as an organization that sends missionaries into communities to plant churches.
Although NCEM is one of the most well-established missionary organizations in Canada, their history in Alberta is short. While missionaries have visited various Indigenous communities around Alberta over the past 100 years, few ministries have actually been based in Alberta. Previous ministries include the Chipewyan Gospel Broadcast based out of Cold Lake, the Northern Missionary Training Camp in Lac La Biche, and Key-Way-Tin Bible Institute in Lac La Biche; unfortunately, these organizations are no longer running (Hodgman, 1996, pp. 39, 162-172, 180, 211). According to their website, NCEM has ~63 active missionaries/missionary couples across Canada, 4 of which are in Alberta.⁴⁰ They currently have missionaries in Maskwacis, Kikino, and Siksika, doing church planting.
Native Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
Unfortunately, NEFC did not respond to attempts to get in contact, so little information on the ministry can be reported. According to their website,
The NEFC office provides a two-fold function. As a mission agency, we presently serve ten missionary couples and two single missionaries from Quebec to British Columbia. As a fellowship of Native churches NEFC provides encouragement and counsel for its leadership and fellowships. We serve as a link among the various NEFC churches as well as a link from the churches to the Christian community at large. (NEFC, 2009a, para. 8)
There is some information on NEFC available through NCEM sources, as NCEM and NEFC have a close relationship. According to NCEM, NEFC was started in the 1950s in response to a desire among NCEM missionaries for “a loosely knit fellowship of Indian Christians from across Canada," (Hodgman, 1996, p. 223) and the first conferences were held as an annual summer gathering at NCEM’s Indian Bible School (Hodgman, 1996, p. 223). Workers also desired that it would become a missionary sending agency, and so it “received its Dominion Charter in 1970 as a nonprofit religious organization, the first in Canadian history for a truly independent and Indigenous Native church society” (Hodgman, 1996, p. 225). By the 1990s, the NEFC consisted of 20 member churches across Canada (Hodgman, 1996, p. 226).
No information could be found on NEFC’s Alberta presence, but it is assumed that there may be churches in Alberta affiliated with them.
In the course of researching this project, we became aware of a general passion in the Korean church for ministry to Indigenous peoples, although the actual organization of this force has proven hard to ascertain. Unfortunately, research on the subject is difficult due to the language barrier. We are aware of a missionary organization, Korean Missionary Groups, which may comprise most or all of this force. However, the group did not respond to communication, so information on this organization is limited. It appears that the ministry began about 30 years ago, when the American Korean church first began sending missionaries to the Indigenous peoples of Canada (Canadian Aboriginal Mission Forum [CAMF], 2019, p. 5). At some point, this seems to have led to the formation of the Korean Missionary Groups - possibly as late as 2014 (CAMF, 2019, p. 5).
There is an Indigenous summer camp ministry called Love Corps AB that is involved with Korean Missionary Groups. According to Executive Director Jay Kim, the ministry mobilizes youth from the Korean churches to run summer camps on reserves around Alberta. In addition, both Love Corps and Korean Missionary Groups are also involved with the Canadian Aboriginal Mission Forum, a nation-wide, biennial conference on Indigenous ministry for the missionaries in the Korean Missionary Groups. The website for this conference lists 37 missionaries across Canada (who most likely are the missionaries that comprise Korean Missionary Groups) two of which are in Alberta.⁴¹ These two missionaries are both located in Edmonton, and their ministries include church and drop-in centre ministries.
Inter-Mission Cooperative Outreach
Finally, there is also evidence for the existence of an interagency cooperative group for Indigenous ministry missionary organizations in Canada, called the Inter-Mission Cooperative Outreach (IMCO). According to NCEM’s officially published history, this association arose out of interagency cooperation as early as the 1950s, when the various missions agencies were already meeting together to discuss their shared work (Hodgman, 1996, p. 102). In the 60s, they began an annual conference known as the Evangelical Indian Worker’s Fellowship (Hodgman, 1996, p. 102). Then in the 70s, leaders from some of the biggest missions organizations, including NCEM, NEFC, NAIM, and InterAct, began meeting together again, and officially formed IMCO (Hodgman, 1996, p. 102). In its final form, the association was made up of ten members, including InterAct Ministries, NEFC, NAIM, NCEM, Continental Interior Mission, Indian Life Ministries, Impact North Ministries, Northern Youth Programs, Send International, and United Indian Mission (Hodgman, 1996, p. 102).
The purpose of IMCO was to promote coordination and cooperation and prevent double occupancy of a region (Hodgman, 1996, p. 103). The association also led to an interagency training program called the Missionary Development Program in 1970, and in 1973 an official IMCO conference began which would take place every four or five years (Hodgman, 1996, p. 102). However, the association was recently disbanded in 2011 (CAMF, 2019, p. 18; Woodard, 2012, Unique Accomplishments section),⁴² to be replaced by a more informal gathering called the Native Leader’s Gathering (CAMF, 2019, p. 18). Of the ten members previously mentioned, only InterAct Ministries, NEFC, NAIM, and NCEM are still operating in Alberta. Continental Interior Mission, Indian Life Ministries, Impact North Ministries, and Northern Youth Programs no longer exist or no longer function as missionary sending organizations. Send International and United Indian Mission are still functioning on an international level but have limited presence in Canada and no presence in Alberta. In addition, it is notable that, although the association operated for 40 years and involved some of the biggest names in Indigenous ministry, it was remarkably hard to find information on the association. Not a single person interviewed, including leadership from the missionary organizations involved, ever mentioned it.
Dan Woodard, who was an administrator with IMCO and had the responsibility of closing down the association, explains the disbanding like this:
After facilitating the IMCO partnership for ten years, I have the responsibility of closing down this forty-year partnership for the purpose of transitioning to the new era of First Nations initiated partnering. This is in keeping with the current world-wide movement of Indigenous Peoples assuming responsibility for ministry initiatives, including partnering. Ministry/inter-mission partnering is alive and well across Native Canada. By God’s grace, the dissolution of IMCO is a public testimony of the success of church planting and leadership development of missionaries serving among First Nations Peoples across Canada for the past sixty-plus years. (Woodard, 2012, Unique Accomplishments section)
This circumstance seems to reflect a change happening in missionary-based Indigenous ministry. In the past, Indigenous ministry was largely built upon a philosophy of doing ministry “to” Indigenous peoples. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Indigenous ministry was in full swing in the evangelical Euro-Canadian church because they felt strongly about the need to “save” Indigenous peoples. In response to this conviction, missionary organizations sent Euro-Canadian missionaries into Indigenous communities to plant Euro-Canadian-style churches and “deliver” Indigenous individuals from their “old ways”. Putting aside for a moment the problems inherent in such thinking, we can also note this historical legacy of this movement. Specifically, these ministries began to lose their momentum as we crossed into the new century. This loss of momentum coincides, not accidentally, with the entering into the age of the TRC, the contextualization movement, and increasing Indigenous self-determination. Instead, a different movement in Indigenous ministry began, where, as Dan Woodard put it, “Indigenous Peoples [are] assuming responsibility for ministry initiatives” (Woodard, 2012, Unique Accomplishments section).
Today, many of the traditional missionary organizations we interviewed communicated an atmosphere of reflection, wherein they are looking back on their models of ministry and wondering if they need to change. As the Euro-Canadian church has slowly begun the process of reflection on mistakes made and harms inflicted in the past, it is also trading out the institutions, such as IMCO, that defined its ministry. In their place, we are seeing organizations like NAIITS appearing instead, which represents the new model of Indigenous ministry wherein Indigenous people lead their own ministry and articulate their own, unique expression of Christian faith. Indeed, the very people reached by the older model of Indigenous ministry are the ones now reforming and breathing life into the field.
This transition has been far from simple or smooth, especially due to the fact that the process of addressing past mistakes and reevaluating forms of ministry is closely tied to controversial contemporary issues. For instance, institutions such as NAIITS have come under fire from certain sectors for ‘crossing the line,’ or going too far in their efforts to reform Christian ministry. Although many research participants articulated an attitude of reevaluation regarding issues like contextualization, many others did not, instead articulating a concern that the contextualization movement and such thinking was leading churches astray. Furthermore, Indigenous, Euro-Canadian, and other non-Indigenous individuals and institutions can be found on both sides of the debate - there are no clear lines of division drawn in the sand (although there are trends). Although all those involved realize the need to address this movement of change and to reconsider philosophies of ministry in light of new learning regarding the mistakes of the past, the evangelical church has yet to agree in any unified sense on a way forward.