When you catch a glimpse of movement in the corner of your eye, but see nothing that could have caused it, how do you explain it? When you are home alone and hear the sound of footsteps, what do you presume caused the noise?
If you are like most people of European descent, you will assume that it was caused by some natural phenomena, even though there’s no evidence to support your conclusion.
If you are like most tribal peoples, you will assume that you have been visited by a spirit.
Both kinds of people see, hear and feel the same things, but each interprets the cause differently.
This difference has a strong bearing on ministry. When missionaries who interpret reality as mainly “natural” seek to minister to people who interpret reality as mainly “spirit” activity, there will be misunderstanding and resulting ineffectiveness.
Suppose a tribal person expresses concern for their sick child to the missionary, and the missionary responds by offering only medical advice or service, and general prayer. The person seeking help will go away disappointed because he believed the illness was caused by an evil spirit — and the missionary did not address this concern. The tribal person (who may even be a Christian) may likely then seek help from a medicine man who will deal with the spirits.
There are reports worldwide of such happenings. Recently I completed a seminary thesis study attempting to determine if these same misunderstandings were taking place between missionaries and First Nations people in Canada.
In the process I interviewed about 30 Cree people, asking questions about values and perception of the spirit world. Almost every person I interviewed related a time when they believed they had encountered a spirit. The few who didn’t, told of relatives and friends who had. Concerning the common experience of catching a glance of something out of the corner of one’s eye, they all assumed that a spirit had passed by. When telling of hearing footsteps in an empty house, they believed a spirit was present, making the noise.
In order to effectively minister to Canada’s First Nations, the spirit world must be addressed.
Let us consider evangelism. What is it that drew you to Christ? Are these the same things that draw people of other cultures? What did Christ’s death on the cross accomplish for you and me? If you are of European descent, you will probably say that Christ died to pay for your forgiveness of sins. That is true. However, it is also true that Christ’s death defeated Satan and his evil spirits.
This second truth may be the one more attractive to people who view reality as a series of events caused by or affecting the spirit world.
The Apostle Paul presented both these truths side by side in Colossians 2:13-15:
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Of the Cree people who were asked specifically about how the Gospel had been initially presented to them, not one claimed to have heard of Christ’s defeat of spirit powers! This challenges us missionaries to include this truth in our evangelistic efforts. The spirit world must also be addressed in Christian discipleship.
Not too long ago a very distraught First Nations friend called me, telling how her longtime common-law husband had just asked her and their children to leave. She believed he had done so because a Native elder had put a curse on all of them. My friend’s relatives had encouraged her to take tobacco, money, and a piece of brightly colored cloth as gifts to a certain “medicine man” who would advise her how to rectify the situation. Depressed and despairing, she phoned me. It was Sunday, so I invited her to church, where we could talk together.
After the meeting we talked and prayed. Spirit activity was dealt with as matter of fact. She was challenged with the need to surrender her life to Christ, and then we prayed that Christ would break the power of evil spirits active in her situation. Soon after we prayed she said, “It’s gone!” The dark burden that had depressed her had lifted.
Walking outside to her car, I challenged her not to go to the medicine man, but to go only to Jesus for any problems with spirits in the future. I told her that being a Christian is like being married. Just as it would not be right to commit to marriage and then have a second man on the side, neither would it be right to commit to Christ and have another source of spiritual power on the side.
She told me that she felt free right then, but worried that the dark depression would descend on her again when she returned to her home — she had sensed the presence of an evil spirit there. Standing beside her car I took time to teach her how, in dependence on Christ, she could deal with that spirit.
Soon after, she phoned me exclaiming, “I kicked the devil out of my house!”
In this case I believe the presence and activity of spirits were dealt with biblically and effectively during evangelism and discipleship.
Could this be “the key” to many First Nations people turning to Christ and following Him faithfully? I wish I could say so, and I wish I could report that this woman is walking in victory with the Lord. The reality is that there are other issues important to Cree people which also need to be dealt with biblically. Cree culture — or any culture — is too complex to be dealt with on a single issue.
The interviews revealed the following issues also as important to Cree people, and I believe must be addressed in ministry: building a Native Christian identity that does not deny “Native-ness,” dealing with addictions and deep emotional wounds, and expanding the Native perception of sin to include not only offenses against people, but also against God.
Finally, and most profoundly, the highly relational nature of First Nations cultures must be addressed and appreciated. Pray for us!
For a copy of Denise’s thesis, available in print and electronic format (pdf), you may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #491). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.