When famed 15th-century explorer Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to the New World, he really, as we know, was heading right toward a very old one. At the time of his discovery, around 12 million Native Americans were living in what are now the contiguous United States. But by the year 1900, that population would be decimated to just 237,000.
History reveals why and how this happened, and it’s dark and bloody. So perhaps some of the outcomes we see today should be no surprise: 75 percent of Native Americans are affected by alcohol-related issues; 60 percent live on reservations, below the poverty level; and they suffer a suicide rate five times higher than the rest of the population.
For Christians, another statistic is key: Less than 1 percent of Native Americans claim to be born-again believers. But perhaps this, too, should be no surprise. After all, it was a combination of both governmental officials and clergy that made agreements with tribal groups early on—and then broke them. Additionally, early conversion tactics were insensitive, barbaric and sometimes even cruel. Most Christians today don’t realize how all of this plays into ministering to Native Americans. In fact, it’s safe to say, most believers probably never even think about this suffering population at all.
Foursquare’s Jack Lankhorst is one man who does think about it—every day. He and his wife, Jane, pastor Christian Life Center (Arlington Foursquare Church) in Riverside, Calif. A major focus of their ministry endeavors is called Restoration, whose slogan is “Reaching America’s oldest cultures with practical acts of God’s love.” Their service centers on the traditional Hopi people, who live in villages atop the three Hopi Mesas in northern Arizona.
“Because of our invasion of their land, Native Americans have a deeply imbedded mistrust for the dominant culture (European Americans), in particular a gospel based on the Anglo interpretation,” Jack told Foursquare.org. “We have been able to do what many missionaries have been unable to do. Deep differences in worldviews greatly complicate the communication process. Failure to separate these views from the gospel will result in a foreign message that fails to meet the need within Hopi culture.”
The approach of Restoration is to reveal Christ’s love through acts of loving service. Volunteers come alongside Hopi leaders and villages to help them accomplish their goals and objectives. Sometimes this means repairing homes for the elderly. Other times it’s building a new porch with handicap access or a basketball court. The ministry also sponsors a Family Fun Night, which brings people from all three of the Hopi Mesas together. More than 4,000 traditional Hopi people attended the most recent Family Fun event.
Restoration’s list of service projects is long. And it’s having an affect spiritually.
“We have been told by many that we bring joy to their (oppressed) villages,” Jack excitedly shares. “Therefore, the villages are completely open to Jane and me to do whatever we want. This is extraordinary!”
It’s a process of relationship building that has taken years of dedication. But it’s absolutely worth the patient diligence.
“Tribal leaders have sought us out for direction, clarification and insight,” Jack says. “And we’ve even seen a few accept the Lord!”
Considering the history, that is definitely cause for celebration.
Reaching Mormons Through Love and Compassion
Foursquare Pastor Eric Van Rhee is another example of sensitively conducting effective ministry among a hard to reach or misunderstood people group. His scenario is vastly different from Jack’s, however—Eric and his wife, Jodi, pastor The Adventure (Draper Foursquare Church) in Utah, the bastion of Mormonism.
One might wonder why, 10 years ago, a young couple with four children would pack their belongings and relocate out of state to a city about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. Eric’s answer is simple and clear: God told them to.
“We have always been very attracted to truth and apologetics, and we have a real heart for the lost,” Eric explains. “God called us here. Our passion for the Latter Day Saints (LDS) is to see them experience the true and living God in Jesus Christ, and to be set free from a spirit of religion.”
That spirit of religion is binding—but understanding it is the key to reaching Mormons. Eric strongly asserts that they will not be convinced of the gospel via argumentation. What they do understand, and even crave, he says, is the “language of love and compassion.”
“In the LDS church, there is a constant standard of perfection being held up, which no human can attain,” Eric explains. “Therefore, many Mormons feel unworthy and rejected. What they need to hear about is what Christ has done personally for us as believers, and our real testimonies of how He has changed our lives. Like everyone, they need to know they can be forgiven and set free.”
He notes it is crucial as believers that we not assume we know what they believe and force our opinions of that upon them. Rather, he says, we should inquire about their personal beliefs, listen, and get to know them as lost yet sincere seekers.
The Adventure, which has an average attendance of between 600 and 700, has planted five churches in surrounding cities. The congregation conducts many outreaches to the local community.
They feed 1,000 working poor and homeless people in downtown Draper each week. Two former Mormons who are now part of the church developed a class that is regularly taught called “Understanding Mormonism.” The goal of the class is to help Christians reach LDS friends and family as well as those coming out of Mormonism who want to understand and identify the differences between Mormonism and biblical Christianity. The Adventure, whose list of ministry outreaches is extensive, also supports a ministry called “Holding Out Hope,” which helps polygamists leave that lifestyle.
In fact, one of the nieces of Warren Jeffs—the infamous leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS)—received Christ and now is a big part of the ministry at The Adventure by brining those who have been hurt and broken by the spirit of religion into a relationship with Christ, Eric says.
Ministry in Utah isn’t easy, and Eric notes that spiritual opposition is a constant. But the struggle is well worth it.
“The greatest encouragement we have had is former LDS people who tell us, with tears in their eyes, ‘Thank you for coming to Utah and showing us what true Christianity is all about.’ There is no greater gift, and it is that which sustains us, even in the hard times.”
This is Part 3 of a 4-part feature:
- “Whatever It Takes” Part 1: Skate Church
- “Whatever It Takes” Part 2: God at the Truck Stop
- “Whatever It Takes” Part 4: Hip-Hop and Biker Cultures
By: Bill Shepson, a Foursquare credentialed minister and freelance writer in Los Angeles.