Mission to North America’s (MNA) church planting ministry hopes “to see people coming to Christ from the many diverse communities and people groups of North America.” It just so happens that Native Americans comprise over 1,100 distinct people groups, and that only 2 to 5 percent of these indigenous Americans are Christians. It’s encouraging, then, that God is opening doors for the PCA in a variety of settings, including the Yakama Nation reservation in southern Washington state.
Grinding poverty and hopelessness have spawned serious social problems on the reservation, including neglect and abuse of children. PCA pastor Chris Granberry, while leading a team from Oak Mountain PCA on a mission trip to White Swan, a small Yakama community, was devastated by the plight of the boys and girls he met there. On the flight home, he prayed for the Lord to bring change. He prayed specifically and fervently: “Send somebody!” never expecting who that “somebody” would be.
Granberry and his family arrived in White Swan in June 2003 and almost immediately founded Sacred Road Ministries. Today, the Sacred Road team leads children and youth ministries, engages in economic development and mercy ministry, sponsors summer internships, and hosts short-term mission projects. They now routinely serve as many as 230 teens, 250 children, and 50 adults.
In 2012, Granberry became the organizing pastor of Hope Fellowship Church; today the church’s average attendance is 140. After 15 years, Granberry is now so immersed in the community, White Swan residents call him “Mool Mool” — Yakama for “Bubbling Spring,” because he and “his people” overflow with Jesus’ love.
Native Ministry in the City
While we generally associate Native Americans with reservations, the 2010 census revealed that 71 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas, such as Billings, Montana. That’s where Josh Charette, a Billings native of Chippewa lineage, pastors Great Plains Gathering (GPG).
The 2010 census revealed that 71 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas
Charette says he first felt called to pastoral ministry during high school. The “feeling” was quickly affirmed when his youth pastor told him, “I think God is going to use you to pastor Native people.”
At Covenant Seminary this calling began to crystallize. In 2010, the Charettes returned to Billings, and with support from the PCA’s Rocky Mountain Community Church, gathered a core group and began worship. In August 2015, they acquired a building. That’s an important step, Charette says, to convey permanence to the Native community.
Growth is slow but healthy, Charette says, and it’s been based on a strong community that’s open to non-Christians. “When I’m preaching I’ll often say, ‘Not all of us here are Christians, but if you are here for any length of time you will come to trust Christ, because you can’t be a part of a community where Christ is present … without discovering the truth of God’s grace.’”
Come Like a Servant
Not every PCA church plant serving Natives is exclusively Native; Amazing Grace Community Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, is one example. Many residents of the Blackfoot Reserve, which borders Lethbridge, move back and forth between the reserve and the city. “We weren’t planning to plant a Native church,” says Amazing Grace pastor Rowan Crown, “but we were praying that God would help us reach all kinds of people in our community, and God put us in a place where there was a concentration of First Nations people.”
“For 500 years the church has neglected Native American people,” said Ronan Crown. There’s virtually no trust.
While approximately 10 percent of those attending Amazing Grace are Natives, the church’s most extensive ministry to Natives is through their Amazing Kids children’s ministry and their Amazing Youth ministry to teens. Approximately 12 Native children and 100 Native teens are involved in these ministries.
Crown compares the effort to nailing Jell-O to a wall. “For 500 years the church has neglected Native American people,” he says. There’s virtually no trust. “We must come as a servant like Jesus Christ,” Crown says, “and journey alongside them for a long time.” That’s what it will take to build new bonds.
Jeb Bland, MNA’s Native American / First Nations Ministries coordinator, hopes that stories like these will multiply in the years ahead. “We need to plant more churches to bring Christ to Native people on reservations, in cities, and in rural areas,” he says.
Bland envisions local church-planting networks developing through existing works like Great Plains Gathering and Sacred Road, which can train church planters for expanded Native ministry. He also hopes to see reconciliation between PCA churches and Native American Christians, particularly in light of their historic oppression at the hands of “Christians.”
“As we think of the great call of Scripture to love our neighbor,” he says, “how can we fail to love our first neighbors?”