The Indian People and Churches of Northeastern Oklahoma
...as they relate to the ministry of Phil and Linda Benedictand United Indian Missions
Oklahoma has the largest Indian population of any state except for California. There are approximately 265,000 Indians living in Oklahoma. The biggest concentration is in the northeastern part of the state. The center of the Benedicts ministry is in Tahlequah, which is the capitol of the Cherokee Nation.
There are about 175,000 Indians living within 100 miles of Tahlequah. According to the Censes Bureau, thirty-nine percent of the Indians in Oklahoma are under twenty years of age. That means that there are about 68,000 Indian youth under the age of twenty living in this area.
The majority of Oklahoma Indians belong to one of the "five civilized tribes", which are the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee (Creek), and Seminole. However, overall there are members of some 45-60 different tribes living in Oklahoma. The Cherokees are the largest tribe in Oklahoma.
The word "Oklahoma" is a Choctaw word meaning "home of the red man".
In the early 1800's many Indians were forced to move to Oklahoma from their native lands in the southeastern part of the United States. The infamous "Trail of Tears" in the late 1830's is one example of such a forced move.
Some Observations About Oklahoma Indians
1. Oklahoma Indians are more integrated into society as a whole than are many other tribes. There are no Indian reservations in Oklahoma. The Indians live in "normal" housing and they work at the same kinds of jobs as everyone else. Many are very progressive and are overcoming problems of the past and doing well.
2. The fact that they are more integrated into society than many other tribes does not mean that they have lost their identity as Indians. They have their own tribal government, their own schools, their own hospitals and clinics, their own holidays and their own cultural programs. They also have their own churches. They are committed and are working hard to preserve their own language, heritage and culture.
3. Although many individual Indians are doing well, as a group, they still live hard lives. In the past they have been abused and demoralized. Still today, things such as alcoholism and other drug addictions, poverty, tragedy, suicide, pain and hurt are more common in many Indian homes. Many homes, families, and marriages are broken.
Some Observations About Northeast Oklahoma Indians, the Gospel, and Indian Churches
The Cherokees and other tribes have had the gospel for over two hundred years. There have been many churches established. However, one major problem is that there were never strong Indian leadership training programs established. The result is that today the pastors are poorly trained and many have poor concepts of ministry. As a result, many of todayís churches are weak and struggling. The numbers of growing new Christians is lagging far behind the population growth and many Indian churches are losing ground that has been gained in the past.
The vast majority of Indian people do not regularly attend any church. It has been estimated that out of the 175,000 Indians in this area, less than 5,000 are in any church on any given Sunday. Of the 68,000 Indian youth under 20, it has been estimated that, at the most, about 1,500 are in church on any given Sunday. This indicates that there is a mission field of some 170,000 Indians who are not in church. Of these, there are at least 66,000 who are under the age of twenty.
Most Indians prefer to attend their own Indian churches. Currently there are some 70-80 Indian churches in northeastern Oklahoma. Most of these are very small. Less than ten have an average Sunday morning attendance of more than fifty.
In many of these churches there are regular new professions of faith and other thrilling accounts of God at work. However, there is almost a total absence of programs designed to help new Christians grow. Most of the new converts do not continue to attend or serve in any church.
Most preaching is evangelistic in nature. There is a major need for solid Bible teaching in many of the Indian churches. There is a great deal of doctrinal confusion in the churches.
Indian churches are not all alike. There are very traditional churches where the people speak, preach and sing in Cherokee. These churches tend to be small and most of those who attend are older individuals. Not many young couples or youth attend these churches and there is a shortage of pastors or laymen to lead them. In all likelihood, in the next 15-20 years most of these churches will either become English speaking Indian churches or they will fade out of existence.
Most of the Indian churches use English. Some will have classes in both Cherokee and English. Overall, individuals attending these churches tend to be younger than those in Cherokee speaking churches. However, in many of these churches there is still a striking absence of young couples and youth.
Some Observations About Indian Pastors
Many of the Indian pastors have a real heart for the Lord. They serve under much more difficult circumstances than do the pastors of most White churches. Many of the churches are very small and cannot contribute much to financially support their pastors. The vast majority of Indian pastors have full time jobs to financially provide for their families. It is difficult for the pastors to work full time, take care of their families and often extended families, and still have time to effectively serve as a pastor of their church.
Few Indian pastors have had adequate training or Bible study in preparation for the ministry. There are some who have taken or are taking night classes offered in Tahlequah through Oklahoma Baptist University.
Some Observations About Indian Teachers
Educational ministries such as Sunday schools, youth ministries, and childrenís church tend to be small and not well organized. Many of the teachers do not have a very good concept of their role as Bible teachers. Many view their role as baby sitters or keeping the kids occupied so the adult services will not be interrupted. There are also some who are very capable and anxious to do a good job.
Ministries Needed Among Northeastern Oklahoma Indians
1. Training Indian Pastors
Pastors are the key to the direction a church will go. This is true of all churches, including Indian churches. Ministries in Indian churches will be limited if a pastor does not have a vision and does not whole heartedly promote and guide church ministries. Training Indian pastors is a key to establishing strong Indian churches in the future.
Two things make training Indian pastors a difficult ministry. One, they are very busy with employment and family responsibilities, and finding time for training is difficult. Two, many pastors simply do not see the need for training. To have an effective training program, the attitudes of many of the Indian pastors will have to change.
In spite of the difficulties, training pastors must be a priority goal if Indian churches are to be effective in doing the work God intended them to do.
2. Training Teachers
Teachers also need to be taught the value and the importance of teaching the Word of God. Many need to learn good teaching techniques. This is another very important need in Indian churches.
3. Solid Bible Teaching
Right Bible teaching leads to right living and being equipped to do the work of God. Without good teaching there will be fruitlessness and defeat in a Christianís life. In spite of the doctrinal confusion, many Indian Christians want solid Bible teaching.
4. Youth Ministries
According to some reports, Native Americans are the fastest growing minority in the country.
Although there are many older Indian people, overall the Native American population is a young population. The vast majority are not Christians and Christianity is not keeping up with the population growth. It seems as if an entire generation of Native American young people is being lost. They know far more about alcohol, drugs, sex, crime, tragedy, and hurt than they do about the Lord Jesus Christ. If this trend is not changed, the future of Indian churches is not very good.
5. Training in Evangelism
Many seem to feel that it is the job of the pastor to lead people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Even though most messages are evangelistic in nature, many people do not really understand the plan of salvation well enough to correctly explain it to another person. There is a need for teaching and motivating individuals to talk to others about the Gospel.
6. Developing Ministries to Encourage New Christians
There are regular conversions in many of the Indian churches; yet, few of those who are saved seem to stay with it. New convertsí classes and discipleship training programs are badly needed.
7. Developing Biblically Based Alcohol and other Drug Recovery Ministries
Alcohol and other drug addictions are destroying great numbers of homes all across the country. The numbers are even greater in most Indian cultures, including the Indian tribes of northeastern Oklahoma. If the church is going to reach Indians where they are, we must be ready to guide individuals in recovering from addictions and leading them to a productive walk with God.
Ministry Activities and Goals of Phil and Linda Benedict
In determining our goals and the course of our ministry, we have carefully done each of the following:
1. We have made sure that all our service was squarely in line with solid Biblical principles.
2. We have sought to determine the leading of the Spirit of God.
3. We have sought to accurately determine the spiritual needs of the Indian people in our area.
4. We have tried to correctly determine our own spiritual gifts and abilities.
5. We have discussed the ministry possibilities and sought the counsel of men in our mission.
6. We have sought the counsel of other Godly pastors and veteran missionaries.
7. We have sought the counsel of native pastors and others here in Oklahoma.
8. We have carefully evaluated our present and past ministries to determine what God is blessing and how He has worked through us in the past.
9. We have attempted to look into the future and determine what kind of ministries will have a lasting impact.
10. We have also determined not to "force" a ministry. If there are not clear indications from the Lord of His leading, then we would not try to force open a ministry door.
11. We have had to recognize that we are only one couple working alone. We have human limitations.
1. Active Ministry in Local Indian Church
This teaching ministry involves teaching an adult Sunday School class which is designed to teach adults the foundations of the faith and how to study and absorb the Word of God. We teach a childrenís class on Sunday evenings on basic Bible truths, and regularly fill in on Sundays and Wednesdays when the pastor is gone. Phil leads a menís group designed to help the men be good leaders in their homes and in the church. He is also leading a teacher training program designed to develop teachers in the church.
The pastor of Elm Tree Baptist Church, DJ McCarter, has a vision of using Elm Tree Baptist Church to help smaller struggling Indian churches to strengthen and develop their churches and their ministries. He is counting on Linda and I to play a major role in that ministry, and we are looking forward to seeing his vision become a reality.
Elm Tree Baptist Church is beginning to construct a new church building. I am planning to assist with construction as time permits.
2. Teaching Solid Biblical "Seminars" in Indian Churches of Northeastern Oklahoma
Each seminar is six to eight teaching sessions on a fundamental Biblical truth. I am developing and writing these sessions especially for the Indian churches. By this fall (2002), I hope to have three series written and ready to teach. The first series is on the Bible itself, the second is on God, and the third is on man. After completing these studies, I am planning to develop seminars on "Walking with God", the family, and the church. These are all topics that badly need to be taught in most of the Indian churches.
Going along with the seminars, we are writing study guides to go along with each lesson. These guides are designed to further develop each participantís understanding of the lesson taught and to get them to think about what is being taught. Each guide has far more information and Scripture than can be taught during each teaching session. These guides have proven to be in demand by those who have attended these sessions. This summer (2002) we gave out over 400 study guides in the five Indian churches in which I taught.
Indians love music and love to sing. Along with the seminars, we also present a special music program that reinforces the topic being taught.
3. Teacher Training
We are just beginning to develop a teacher training ministry in other churches. A key individual that I have worked with has committed himself to setting up sessions with teachers from various Indian churches so they can be taught Biblical principles of teaching. This is an exciting opportunity that is badly needed.
4. Drug and Alcohol Recovery Ministries
For over ten years I have had the opportunity to teach the Bible or Biblical principles to men who want to get victory over alcohol and other drug addictions. Recently this ministry has expanded to include women as well. This ministry has been exciting and productive. Over 100 men have made professions of faith and many more than that have been helped to get back on track with God. There have also been several women who have made professions of faith in the Lord Jesus.
Long Term Ministry Goals
1. To continue and expand our ministry at Elm tree Baptist Church, especially to work with the pastor in developing ministries to struggling Indian churches.
2. To continue developing the teaching seminars, writing study guides, and preparing special music for each lesson.
3. To significantly increase the teacher training ministries.
4. To continue the drug and alcohol recovery ministries at their current level.
5. We are praying that God will open the door to begin developing a pastor training ministry.
6. We are praying that there will be effective youth ministries developed.
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