My name is Rachel Charles, co-founder of 5 Small Loaves. This is the fourth article in a series that addresses the short-term missions model that typically comes to the Navajo reservation from American churches. I do not speak as one with expertise on missions but as one who is living in a cross-cultural setting and has observed thousands of outside missionaries pass through.
Assimilation does not work for the church
Near our house, there is a mission compound that was established over 100 years ago. They set up many large buildings for various functions, a hospital, church, dormitory, etc. The outside denomination has carried on the leadership of the church and the compound ever since then, but now 100 years later they want the local Navajo congregation to assume the leadership of the church and responsibility of the cost and operation of these old buildings. But the church membership is small and struggling even after 100 years of outside help pouring in. The dilapidated buildings are burdensome and challenging on this small congregation, and these buildings do not reflect the culture that surrounds them.
Even the church that I attend was built to look like a typical American Mid-western church with stained glass and a very high ceiling. But every winter the church struggles with the financial burden of heating such a large and useless ceiling space. In contrast, a Navajo hogan, where most traditional ceremonies take place, is a small round log dwelling with dirt floors and a mud roof. It naturally stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Our church with its high ceiling demonstrates the belief of the American church, which thinks that what works and is sacred for them, will also be meaningful and practical for others.
These two examples demonstrate the model of assimilation at work in the church and through missions. As missionaries set up churches on the Navajo Nation many decades ago, they simply replicated what they understood and made sense to them. Now we must also recognize that there were other factors at play given the political climate of America particularly in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, namely that government’s agenda was to make the Natives into American citizens in order to strip them of their native identities so that they would no longer be a threat to the American agenda of westward expansion. This agenda and mindset was pervasive in the collective American culture and led to much racial hierarchy and disparity. So it makes sense that building American structures with no admission of the native culture would be the mode of operation, even in the church.
But what about today? The American government and churches are no longer collaborating together in schemes of conquest; that agenda was accomplished. Yet the mindset of assimilation is still quite pervasive in the American culture, and it has affected our churches as we seek to minister beyond our communities and borders. We tend to make assumptions that our styles of worship, Christian education, church buildings, models of ministry, etc. are effective across cultures. Some even dangerously assume that we are a part of a “Jesus culture” that transcends across people groups and is absent of cultural characteristics.
However, missionaries need to understand the people and culture they are going to, and they need to understand who they themselves are. The “one size fits all” approach does not work across cultures. The American value of assimilation is not a Biblical value. And when we assume it in our cross-cultural ministries it highlights our narrow-mindedness and arrogance.
Instead, there needs to be understanding that we need to learn from other people and humility in order to allow them to make decisions for ministry in their own context.
Other cultures have store houses of worldviews and practices that lend to an even greater understanding of God’s rich character that he bestowed onto each people group as a reflection of himself. But when we don’t take a moment to try to learn what the other cultures have to offer and throw at them materials and models that make sense only to us, we do such a disservice to the many cultures that we go to for missions and to the name of the church itself as it spreads throughout the globe. We aren’t giving communities and countries opportunities to make the church into sustainable ministries that they can operate without outside help.
Based on my observations and experience as a white person living among Navajos, I have some thoughts on how to proceed.
First, Americans, and especially white people, tend to take over and lead in most situations. This has been true throughout American history all the way to today; it’s our nature. But one approach that my husband and I took upon moving to the reservation is this. Even though my husband is Navajo, when we moved we made sure that we did not come assuming we would be leaders. Instead, we made it a point to live like them, among them, and just learn. This went on for several years. Since then, God has shown us the specific ways that He does want us to lead in, and now we have more integrity to step out and do that.
Second, we can present the gospel according to the Bible, not according to our cultural practices, and then allow the local people to decide how they will live out the commands of the Bible in their own communities. They will have much better judgment for effective outreach, methods of worship, church buildings, etc. because they know how their own people think and operate. They know what is sacred in their contexts and what will help their own people understand the gospels. It may look very different from our American ways, but God will be glorified. Ultimately, we need to strive for His will to be done, not ours.
For more on the series of Mission Models That Empower, see the following links: