Converting the Missionaries Among Us: Lessons From Jesus in Luke 4 by Randy Woodley

25 “Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a  foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.”

We must now ask ourselves what Jesus was saying? And, why he would conclude a perfectly good sermon by pointing out the ethnocentrism of his own people?

Duplicity has accompanied the dominant White cultures’ past practices of mission, especially as it has been applied to indigenous peoples. It has been the kind of double-mindedness that says Jesus loves you just as you are as long as you are like us. Although individual missionaries often attempted to do mission in more humane ways, they, being a part of the dominant society and its influence, primarily did mission from a place of power and presumed superiority. Without regard for viewing others as equally human, there can be no real mission. Not Christ’s mission anyway.

Mission, by its nature, demands a sense of equality for all. Jesus came to all humanity, emptying himself of his superiority over us, while he became one of us. The influence from the dominant Euro-American society prescribed mission from a place of Euro-American values. Author Jerry Mander confesses, “Our assumption of superiority does not come to us by accident. We have been trained in it. It is soaked into the fabric of Western religion, economic systems and technology. They reek of their greater virtues and capabilities” (Mander 1991, 209).

Contemporary missionaries may be tempted to view themselves as immune from the sense of entitlement and superiority that their historical counterparts exhibited. People tend to look at the past as moving from less progressive to more progressive, especially if they are the ones writing the new progressive history. Perhaps this is part of the myth of civilization. Says John Mohawk,

For the most part, contemporary historians have proceeded from the presumption that modern people are different from and superior to those who came before–especially those designated as “primitives.” Distortions and incomplete and even dishonest renderings of the past are found in many modern accounts of ancient peoples and contemporary “primitive” peoples; these accounts serve to reinforce the sense of difference and to distance moderns from unflattering legacies of the past (2000, 260).

Unfortunately, these Western utopian ideas were also couched in Christian mission.

The fact remains that in the midst of continued centuries of harmful mission policy, indigenous people are still fighting for our survival today. This is true physically concerning health and welfare, but it is also true in the realm of public perception that still affect mission. Racism, stereotypes, mascots and hate crimes are just a few of the attitudinal pressures today that indigene continue to face. American Indian mascots are just one example of prejudice by the dominant culture while Indians are victims of hate crimes at a rate that is out of proportion to our numbers (Grand Forks Herald).

The pattern of disregard for Native North American values by the dominant Euro-American society is evident.[1] As a result of these policies, mission practices among indigenous peoples continue to show little regard for indigenous values. Despite the long history of mission among Native Americans from a place of colonial values, our aboriginal cultures still reflect our core Native North American values. Says one Mohawk activist,

No one can deny that our cultures have been eroded and our languages lost, that most of our communities exist in a state of abject economic dependency, that our governments are weak, and that white encroachment on our lands continues. We can, of course, choose to ignore these realities and simply accede to the dissolution of our cultures and nations. Or we can commit ourselves to a different path, one that honours the memory of those who have sacrificed, fought and died to preserve the integrity of our nations. This path, the opposite of the one we are on now, leads to a renewed political life and social life based on our traditional values. (Alfred 1999, xii)

Colonialism and colonial missions have introduced and reinforced systemic changes among colonized Indigenous peoples that have replaced traditional values. This supplanting has occurred at the most basic levels of society but we, as indigenous people cannot simply blame the White man. We must be the agents of our own change. But caution is warranted for any proposal of mission renewal. Even when the current paternalistic missional systems are replaced with indigenous forms, they can remain laden with the values of the dominant society. This merely prolongs the oppression.

In spite of our bereaved history, ill health, poor education, inadequate housing and marginalization, we Native Americans have a residual set of values that are a repository of true wealth. These values, if utilized properly, may have the potential to produce mission models resulting in true well being for indigene. For such a model to find footing among Indigenous people, a missional paradigm shift must occur.

An old Indian joke describes the paradigm shift needed: One day Coyote (the Trickster) was asked to visit the President. The President and Coyote strolled along the Rose Garden together and finally the President asked Coyote if he could give him any advice on “the Indian problem.” “Sure,” Coyote said, “what’s the problem?”

The reality of the joke suggests that Indigenous people are primarily viewed as a problem to be solved by the government, and I would add, by the modern American church. Indigenous people are not usually considered to be an asset by either agency. This prevailing attitude in America has a long history and is tied into the legacy of colonialism. According to Maori author Linda Tuhiwai Smith, “Problematizing the Indigenous is a Western obsession” (1999, 91). Says Smith,

Concern about “the indigenous problem” began as an explicitly militaristic or policing concern.…Once indigenous peoples had been rounded up and put on reserves the “indigenous problem” became a policy discourse which reached out across all aspects of a government’s attempt to control the Natives.… Both “friends of the Natives” and those hostile to indigenous peoples conceptualized the issues of colonization and European encroachment on indigenous territories in terms of a problem of the Natives. The Natives were, according to this view, to blame for not accepting the terms of their colonization.…The belief in the ‘indigenous problem’ is still present in the western psyche. (1999, 91-92)

In summary, while today’s mission models clearly are a more humane approach than in the past, they do not make enough room for the possibility that Native Americans are people who are gifted by God and have something to teach the dominant society. The church continues this discussion on both a spiritual and pragmatic level. After over 400 years of active mission efforts, including untold millions of dollars invested, and untold human hours sacrificed, very few Native Americans claim to be a part of the Christian church.[2] Even more discouraging is the overall health of these few existing Indian churches.

One measure of a successful indigenous church credited to Rufus Anderson and Henry Venn is the idea of healthy churches as self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Later, David Bosch suggested that self-theologizing be added to the three-self concept. To utilize the four-self model as a valid measurement of Native American churches would find a gloomy incongruous reality. In my own experience our Native churches are most often characterized in their respective denominations as being small in numbers, poor in giving, divisive, mixed in denominational loyalty, non-ministering, non-reproducing and embarrassingly dependent upon the denomination’s funding, leadership and approval.

Perhaps the current ill state would correct itself if denominations and other mission sending agencies were to strategize mission efforts among Native Americans in mutual partnership with the Native communities and by using Native American core values as a basis for new models of mission. New attitudes, robust with true humility and an appreciation of indigenous cultures are needed. New appreciations of the gifts and necessity of the marginalized other is mandated.

Past models of White missionaries speaking up for indigene are deeply appreciated but they only went so far. I believe in our day the dominant sending agencies are being called to give up their theological and missiological strangle holds along with the decision making power they possess, and then they must turn over the “keys to the kingdom,” in whatever form that takes, to the people they are trying to reach. This is the first conversion that must take place in mission. This is what I believe Jesus is addressing in Luke 4:25-27. 28 And the crowd became furious…

I consider the cultural over-confidence of the Western missionary enterprise to be a symptom of a greater problem of the West. This presumed superiority is ubiquitous in America, affecting everything from the way we do mission or structure our churches; to the wars we enter; to domestic and foreign policy making concerning areas such as economic trade, politics and civil rights, etc. It leaves me begging the question: What is Jesus saying to us as people of faith in a country exercising so much of God’s prerogative?


Alfred, Taiaiake. 1999. Peace, power, righteousness: An indigenous manifesto. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Mander, Jerry. 1991. In the absence of the sacred: the failure of technology and the survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Mohawk, John C. 2000. Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World. Sante Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.

[1] An April 11, 2010 internet search of 11 major denominations under the broad subject of Native American mission and policy changes yielded no statements concerning methods of mission that included the incorporation of Native American core values. Policies were mostly justice oriented towards affirming Native rights, statements of repentance for wrongs done and statements of full acceptance of Natives into the mainstream of denominational life.

[2] It is difficult to determine how many Native people are Christians. In a personal conversation, Art Everett at the U.S. Center for World Missions (circa 1996) told me he did a survey and determined that “5% of Native Americans attend church.” Everett’s project doesn’t say how many are Christians. In my experience I have found that many Natives, especially older people, are Christians but don’t attend colonial church and may not choose to be called a Christian in traditional Christian terms. Still, the theme holds true, Native people, whether Christian or not, do not feel welcome in colonial church structures.

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7 Responses to Converting the Missionaries Among Us: Lessons From Jesus in Luke 4 by Randy Woodley

  1. Will Toms says:

    Thanks Randy. For me looking at the indigenous situation in a number of locations I see that it was not just the Europeans who devastated natives. Those with power seem to have often used it against those who had less, even fellow natives. Nonetheless, today the primary responsibility can usually be laid at the feet of the Western Europeans in many parts of the world. I am so blessed to be following Jesus, the one who could tell the Samaritan woman in Sychar that it was safe to not be in the dominant culture, but that the Father is simply looking for those who will worship in spirit and in truth. It seems she and her people recognized Messiah before many Jews.

  2. jerry mcclure says:

    i am a member of a southern baptist church,
    in lexington,ky. enroll in a shawnee tribe,and also choctaw.
    i am a native storyteller for 18 years,and they do not like it went i miss because
    i doing storytelling or attending aburial of a veteran
    i am a navy vet.
    this is not the first church that has this problem

  3. siyo!

    Well I believe the “keys to the kingdom” will have been “turned over” only when we STOP sending missionaries and summer mission groups and start supporting the native / indigenous leaders and people, allowing them to do the work that needs done instead of micro managing ministry- truly setting ministry free– when we can “let go” of the so called “purse strings” and trust the people we are sending it to – that they will be good stewards and will use that gift for what needs to be done, not just what looks good on a power point presentation at the next church stewardship drive

  4. Gabriel Jarkowsky says:

    well the dominant church “system” is just a partial form compared to the Hebraic rooted and New Covenant reality of our Fathers body and our function. Where are the elders and the five fold ministries these are plural terms for people in council like teams; that work together in community, for a KIngdom in the power of the Holy Spirit and His continual Baptism and effect. Kinda like a tribe. Yet from where we stand now I see the only sure course of lasting value and survival is moving into 24/7 worship, prayer ,villages of light; apart from all the subtle falling away; “come out of her my people” His people will be the ones that come out and stay out. Places where the land is alive , the people on fire, and the first commandment lived out. First love is found and grown ; so as a people called by His name we together hear Him and move as one. Villages of light ,like a Kibutz, like a militarycamp, like a universesity, like a walled monestary, like a new thing, For the Lord my God will vindicate me in His presence !

  5. blima dziza says:

    The presumptuousness of chrstian missionary! Astounding!

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