Indigenous Christian Worship Resources: Where to Start
Many congregations are beginning to realize that they live, work, and worship on land taken from Indigenous people. Learning about First Nations and Native American Christians can help worshipers from other cultures see the gospel with new eyes.
Mark L. MacDonald, now an archbishop, became Canada’s first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in 2007. He has served First Nations and Native American parishes in Alaska, Minnesota, Navajoland, Ontario, and Wisconsin. MacDonald has written, edited, or recommended many of the resources below, most notably the Gospel Based Discipleship material and the list of academic books—to help you start to address and include Indigenous issues and gifts in Christian worship.
Perhaps you’ve attended an event that began with an acknowledgement of the local pre-colonial people. These maps show who was on the land first in the places now called Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, the United States, and elsewhere in the Americas.
Use or adapt this InterVarsity Native Ministries protocol for opening with a prayer that acknowledges the original people of the land.
Doctrine of discovery
North American schoolchildren learn how explorers discovered and pioneers settled land. But, as author and activist Mark Charles often says, “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.” He and Soong-Chan Rah wrote Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Their book shows how an unjust concept embedded white supremacy in Western legal systems. They focus most on how this doctrine still infects cultural narratives, theological imagination, churches, politics, and Native communities in the U.S.
To understand how the doctrine of discovery did damage outside the U.S., read the book Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies, by Robert J. Miller, Jacinta Ruru, Larissa Behrendt, and Tracey Lindberg.
The doctrine of discovery is built on papal bulls (edicts or decrees) by Pope Nicolas V in 1452 and Pope Alexander VI in 1493. It gave European explorers and missionaries permission to colonize and claim land outside Europe that was not already inhabited by Christians. The popes said that if native inhabitants refused to convert, they could be displaced, enslaved, or even killed.
Two documentaries explore the effects the doctrine of discovery: The Anglican Church of Canada produced The Doctrine of Discovery, Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts (67 minutes). There’s no charge to watch it online, download it, or print out study guides. You can buy a copy of The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code (60 minutes), directed by actor and filmmaker Sheldon P. Wolfchild and co-produced by Shawnee-Lenape scholar and author Stephen T. Newcomb.
The Doctrine of Discovery website, run by an international Indigenous collaborative, offers current news about matters such as recent legal cases and faith communities that have repudiated the doctrine of discovery. However, as Mark Charles said in a Faith & Leadership interview, denouncing the doctrine isn’t the same as giving back land acquired because of the doctrine.
Gospel Based Discipleship
Mark L. MacDonald, the Rev. John Robertson of the Lower Sioux Reservation, and the Rev. Canon Ginny Doctor of Six Nations helped develop the Gospel Based Discipleship concept in the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church in the U.S. “Institutional churches were pulling their resources out of Indigenous communities,” MacDonald says. “We needed a way to allow small communities with meager resources to gather and engage the gospel. Gospel Based Discipleship (GBD) is similar to lectio divina, though we follow a slightly different process, and we use the gospel of the day from our church’s lectionary of readings.
You can freely download copies of A Disciple’s Prayer Book, produced and updated by the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples. It explains how to become a worship community that puts the gospel in the center. Congregations sometimes use GBD in place of a sermon or homily. They also use it to structure other gatherings, consultations, and church governance meetings.
Rather than separate such meetings into “devotions” and “business,” people sometimes call for the day’s gospel reading to be read again before they make difficult decisions. “When the gospel is called for, it is often quite helpful, setting the tone for all parts of the gathering and, more often than not, shaping and inspiring the work that is undertaken,” MacDonald writes in ”Indigenous and Anglican: A Truly Native Church Emerges in the Anglican Church of Canada,” a chapter in The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, edited by Ryan K. Bolger.
The chapter explains that, in contrast to Western colonial models that see credentialed ministers as having special access to God’s truth, GBD trusts Jesus’ promise to be present where two or three are gathered. “The key element was not the technique of GBD, but the sense of spiritual authority from the Word of God discerned in community. The authority of the circle, so critical to traditional [Indigenous] governance, was recovered in a Christian context,” MacDonald writes.
This spiritual movement—a gift from North American Indigenous peoples—has grown beyond First Nations Anglican communities across cultural, national, and denominational borders. You may know the practice as “dwelling in the Word.” MacDonald traces the trajectory of GBD blessing the whole church in “The Surprising and Improbable Mission of God among the Indigenous Peoples of Canada,” his essay in Green Shoots out of Dry Ground: Growing a New Future for the Church in Canada, edited by John P. Bowen.
For an easy way to introduce the concept in your community, download this two-page document about GBD from the worldwide Anglican Communion website.
Books and Authors
Consider reviewing or buying books for your church and school library. Some would make good textbooks or supplemental sources in college or seminary classes. Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, by Richard Twiss, is probably the easiest for non-academics to read.
The Chant of Life: Inculturation and the People of the Land, edited by Mark L. MacDonald, describes “God’s work among the People of the Land, despite the barriers.”
Coming Full Circle: Constructing Native Christian Theology. Editors Steven Charleston and Elaine A. Robinson say they gathered chapters from various tribes and denominations to “present a proactive assessment of Christianity as a positive religious expression for Native people to claim for themselves.”
The Heavens Are Changing, by Susan Neylan, documents encounters between Tsimshian people and Protestant missionaries in nineteenth-century British Columbia. Neylan explains how the Tsimshian forged Christian identities without sacrificing their culture.
Introduction to First Nations Ministry, by Cheryl Bear-Barnetson. The author is an artist, pastor, educator, and Nadleh Whut’en from the Dakelh Nation and Dumdenyoo Clan (Bear). The book is part of the Centre for Pentecostal Theology Native North American Contextual Movement Series.
The Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion, by Michael D. McNally. Protestant missionaries translated hymns into Ojibwe to root out native culture. Yet Minnesota Ojibwe elders created distinctive hymn singing as a way to preserve their culture and ritualize hope.
The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life, edited by Peggy V. Beck, Anna Lee Walters, and Nia Francisco, introduces readers to traditional and contemporary concepts of religion, the sacred, and worldviews among First Nations and American Indian people.
James Treat, an enrolled member of Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma, says he grew up as ‘a typical Baptist preacher's kid.” While teaching religion and native studies at public research universities, he edited several books, including Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era; Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada; and Writing the Cross Culture: Native Fiction on the White Man’s Religion.
Richard Twiss (1954–2013), a member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, was part of the American Indian Movement’s “Trail of Broken Treaties” protest in 1972. He and his wife, Katherine Twiss, cofounded Winconi International to follow Jesus in a culturally contextual way. Winconi is the Lakota word for “life.” Twiss’s best-known books are Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way and One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You.
Randy S. Woodley is the director of intercultural and Indigenous studies at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon. He is a Keetoowah Cherokee and an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church. His most recent books are The Harmony Tree: A Story of Healing and Community and Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision.
Connecting with Youth and Scholars
Martin Brokenleg coauthored the book Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future. It explains the Circle of Courage educational model he codeveloped. It’s based on how Indigenous and traditional cultures educated children without coercive discipline. Read Brokenleg’s many essays and articles online.
InterVarsity Native Ministries offers free online resources, such as “Start Something Native,” a booklet that answers questions about terminology, history, connecting with Native students, and a simple protocol for opening prayers.
NAIITS (formerly known as North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) is an Indigenous learning community. In partnership with university schools and seminaries in North America and Australia, NAIITS offers non-resident master’s degrees. NAIITS sponsors an annual symposium.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous People. Indigenous people may participate in the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII); connect on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media; apply for internships and fellowships; and more.
Many churches use designated Sundays or months to begin including Indigenous issues and gifts in worship. Sometimes they host counter-celebrations on holidays that honor colonizers, such as Australia Day, Columbus Day, Canadian Thanksgiving, and U.S. Thanksgiving.
The United Methodist Church in the U.S. observes Native American Ministries Sunday on the Third Sunday of Easter.
Australia observes National Reconciliation Week from May 27–June 3. Find online worship resources for this week from National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Catholic Council.
Canada observes National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, so some congregations celebrate Indigenous Day of Prayer the Sunday before or after June 21. The United Church of Canada and Christian Reformed Church in North America have relevant worship resources.
The Mennonite (USA) Heritage Sunday is on the last Sunday of October. In 2018, these worship resources focused on lament in response to the doctrine of discovery.
The U.S. observes November as Native American Heritage Month. On any November Sunday, churches can use worship resources from the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Lutheran Indian Ministries (includes children’s ministry ideas), Southwestern Washington Synod (Lutheran), and United Methodist Church (communion celebration).
The Reformed Church in America has designated the first Sunday in November as Native American/Aboriginal Awareness Sunday.
Creation Justice Ministries (CJM) suggests any of these days: Earth Day Sunday (nearest to April 22); World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation on September 1; or October 8, the Sunday before Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day. CJM’s website has excellent resources on the doctrine of discovery, Indigenous worship resources, denominational statements of apology, videos, and news clips.
Mark L. MacDonald says that using Indigenous music styles can help modern people receive the gospel message in music. “Sadly, not much of this is directly available online. Some Indigenous communities do not allow their sacred music to be recorded,” he says.
Terry M. Wildman is a pastor, author, and musician. He and his wife, Darlene Wildman, form RainSong, a Christian music duo. Some of their CDs and songs have won awards at the annual Native American Music Awards.
The best-known hymn texts or tunes composed by Native Americans or other Indigenous people are probably these:
- “Heleluyan, heleluyan (Hallelujah, halleujah),” a Muscogee chorus.
- “Ah-ho, Daw-kee / Song of Thanksgiving,” a traditional Kiowa hymn.
- “Dawk’yaw towgyah thawy báhtawm / Take the Saving Word of God,” a Kiowa call to worship.
- “Many and Great, O God,” also known as “Dakota Hymn.” The Hymnary website explains that thirty-eight Dakota prisoners of war sang it as they were led to execution by hanging at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862.
- “Tama ngakau marie / Son of God, Whose Heart is Peace,” based on a traditional Maori melody.
S. Curtis Tufts, a United Church minister, composed “This Path We Walk Through Joy and Tears” for the thirtieth anniversary of the denomination’s “Apology to First Nations People.” It’s set to the tune O WALY WALY.
Native American Calling, a public radio streaming station, aired a program in 2014 about Western hymns that have become favorites among Native American Christians (start listening at 6:10). Featured singers include Oneida Hymn Singers of Wisconsin and Cherokee National Youth Choir.
Hear samples from the Smithsonian Folkways recording Beautiful Beyond: Christian Songs in Native Languages.
Prayers, visuals and other worship elements
Listen to a brief YouTube clip of this Mark L. MacDonald prayer to God the Creator.
Our Mob, God’s Story features more than 115 paintings by sixty-five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across Australia. The Bible isn’t yet available in every Aboriginal language, but these images help tell the Bible’s most loved stories. Bible Society Australia published this award-winning book in 2017. Learn more in this blog post on Paul Neeley’s Global Christian Worship.
The Indigenous Jesus blog “explores the intersection of Indigenous visual art and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It’s a good source for images from Aboriginal and First Nations Christian artists. Don’t miss this post on John Giuliani, a Catholic priest who depicted Christian saints as Native Americans to honor them.
The Jesus Question blog has a seven-part series on Native Christian art in coastal British Columbia, including work by painters, printers, and woodcarvers.
Safina Stewart is an Indigenous Christian painter in Australia who sells her work online.
Use or adapt these calls to worship by Jeff Ramsland, who pastored Cherokee United Methodist Church in Cherokee, North Carolina.
If you're preaching from the gospels, Acts, or Ephesians, considering using Walking the Good Road, the First Nations Version (FNV) of the New Testament. It uses Native concepts and storytelling styles while remaining faithful to the original language of the New Testament. Terry Wildman founded the First Nations Version Project.
“Richard Twiss: The Biggest Problem” is a powerful two-minute video clip by the late Richard Twiss about what he saw as the greatest need for Indigenous people in America.
Find complete orders of worship in the denominational links listed above under Worship resources: Appropriate dates.