Photos: [Head] Author, Phillip Zamagias, handing over MC responsibilities for the Katherine Convention to Ms Lisa Mumbin; [Above] Pastor Jerry Jangala OAM who has led the church at Lajamanu NT for more than 30 years; [Below] Aboriginal elders offering prayer at the Katherine Christian Convention.  

In recent times, the short-term mission trip has become very popular with western churches. While there is potentially great value in these trips, they aren’t always undertaken purposefully and with sufficient respect for the host culture and church.

Over the past four decades working with and amongst indigenous Christians, I have seen certain errors repeated by the most well-meaning, but ill-prepared people who want to minister to our first peoples. Here are seven things that people sometimes fail to realise about the spiritual life of Indigenous Australians.

1. The Gospel has already reached Indigenous Australia!  

The idea of proclaiming the gospel to those who have not yet heard of Christ is heady. But in the Top End, missions have been in operation for more than 100 years. There are churches (gatherings of believers) operating in almost every community you can identify. Some may be just within a single family, but many have lay and ordained pastors ministering faithfully 24/7.

 For these Christians living in small communities, it is impossible to hide their allegiance to Christ when so much of their life revolves around their world-view. Their practices will reflect their beliefs and have significant ramifications.

2. Indigenous Christians have their own church leadership

A well-meaning mission group came to the community I was living in during the late eighties and nineties and proclaimed it  ‘A virgin mission field.’ What a shame they had not done their research. They would have discovered that the Church Missionary Society had begun the mission in 1926 and that there was an ordained indigenous minister currently serving in that church.

If you wish to be helpful, seek out local leaders and work in with their vision and needs. That way you will get better co-operation and leave behind a lasting legacy rather being a flash in the pan. Ask them what their needs are and how you may assist them to achieve their goals. This is a process that could take several visits and should come with a commitment to support the initiative for the long haul; perhaps 5 years as a minimum.

3. English is not their first language

It is commonly held that all indigenous people are functionally literate in English. This is not true. While many remote area people can get through the basics in life using English, comprehension is limited outside of the necessary day-to-day transactions. Consider your high-school language learning. Can you deal with complex theological issues in that language? Probably not.

The same is true for indigenous people. Communicating complex issues to them in their fourth or fifth language is a tall order. People may nod and be polite but whether they have understood is another matter. You may even get a 100% response to the question ‘Who would like to become a follower of Jesus?’ but that is more likely to be a response to please you than a considered decision of the heart.

4. Their situation and needs are different from yours

Countless times I have picked up the phone and heard something like this: ‘Hi Phil, I’m from church X and our youth group would like to go on a mission to Arnhem Land. We have a great youth program which has been hugely successful and we’d like to bless the Aborigines with it. Can you arrange a visit for us?’

My first response is an inward groan. Programs that have been successful in middle-class white Bible-belt suburbs in major cities are not necessarily going to connect with indigenous people living in remote communities. Often these programs are dependent on resources which are not available in communities and highlight the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Even scripture materials are unlikely to be available in the host language.

Too often with these programs, the visitors have a good time and go home to report what a wonderful time of ‘ministry’ was had by all—while the host church is left wondering what it was all about.


5. They have their own forms of worship

All churches have a form of liturgy whether it be formal or informal, printed or memorised, planned or improvised.

A major error for a visiting mission team is to model a worship style that is used in their culture and building an expectation that this is how ‘it should be done’. Worse still, criticising the established patterns of the host church can lead to much confusion and angst.

In the more traditional churches, a legacy of the ‘Mission era’ may mean that clergy wear robes or that ‘old-fashioned’ hymns are sung. These are not bad things in themselves and do not indicate a lack of life or vitality in the church. Westerners might like variety, but some cultures value tradition, consistency and predictability to anchor their faith in the ever-changing world around them.

Some visitors have strong views about whether traditional musical instruments can be used in worship. Baptism might not be conducted in the local river due to the risk of being eaten by crocodiles. Alcoholic wine might not be used for communion because it is a prohibited item in that community. 

My point is that by helping people understand the Scriptures for themselves, local elders should be allowed to determine what the local practices for corporate worship will be. Trusting local leaders to do this is a mark of respect and empowers them to minister in a way which visitors cannot achieve.

6. Their culture is different.

It’s all too easy to put up your defences when visiting a culture that is vastly different your own. Culture-shock alone can do strange things to our sense of right and wrong.

Before declaring something to be ‘biblical’ or not, take the time to understand what is happening and what may be the background to a practice. Many visitors to indigenous churches feel affronted by the seating arrangements. Some still segregate women and men. Some people cannot sit near others for cultural reasons.

Rather than trying to ‘save people’ from these seemingly outdated practices, seek to understand first where they come from and why. Many indigenous churches have not undergone a ‘reformation’ of their own because they don’t have access to the whole Bible in a form that they can understand.

7. They don’t think about youth like westerners do

When considering cultural issues, this is perhaps one of the more serious errors.

Most cultures value age and wisdom over youthful exuberance; especially in matters as serious as spiritual issues. To be an elder, a respected teacher of important things, you must be a well-known and experienced person in the community.

Rites of passage are put in place for indigenous people whereby they ‘graduate’ through stages of life. The important things in life are progressively revealed to young people in stages. Leaders are those who have achieved the status of ‘Old Man’ or ‘Old Woman’.

Western culture puts a use-by date on our old people and relegates them to the sidelines depending on their capacity to produce. Western culture elevates children and youth in a way which is totally foreign to indigenous cultures.

Sending a youth group to a community to teach the people about deep spiritual matters is a bit of an affront. That is not to say young people can’t help but the context must be managed well. Sitting with the youth in a community and sharing about living as a Christian in their respective communities can be a very helpful interaction.

There should always be clear leadership from older people in any mission team and a respect for the elders and traditions of the hosts.Finally: Show respect to earn respect

Prior Planning and Preparation, Prevents Poor Performances. Better than that, meaningful engagement with indigenous churches that results in a strengthening of the local leadership is a win for both the visitor and the host.

Do some research on the area you are about to visit. Seek out local missionaries or recently returned ones to get a better understanding of the issues you will face. Read books about indigenous mission.

Most importantly, go as a learner, a fellow–traveller—not an expert who is going to dump your knowledge (or program) on others. Remember that indigenous culture is built on defined relationships. An outsider can, and will, be welcomed once some credentials have been established.

Those credentials are a genuine desire to engage with people for the glory of God. That will require a commitment to see the relationship as a long-term partnership and not a one-off Christian tourism adventure.