It was a typically hot and humid Sunday in a small aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. The minister rang the church bell once, to let people know it was time to wake up, another time to let people know they should make their way to church and a third time to announce that church was about to start.
As I made my way to the building in which the service would take place I was painfully aware of what my guests would be thinking: “Where is everyone?”
Inside the building there were approximately six women, two men and many more dogs! The minister greeted everyone in his native tongue and commenced a somewhat familiar pattern of service that anyone with a passing knowledge of the Anglican Prayer Book would recognise.
After the service, one of my guests remarked “Church here is a bit dead isn’t it!”
I have been privileged to see the dedication with which aboriginal Christians go about their ministries … most of us would not be aware of it.
I did my best not to bite but it caused me to think about what shape ministry takes and what it looks like. Is it just what happens in ‘church’? Is it just what ‘the minister does’?
In this particular aboriginal community, as in many more throughout Arnhem Land, you have to wonder why the main church services are still held inside buildings at around 10am on a Sunday. With the outside temperatures in the forties and humidity often steady at 98%, you can’t help but think of the proverbial ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’.
It’s also worth asking whether the number of people present at a Sunday morning service is a good indicator of the spiritual health of the local church?
Dedicated Ministry in Arnhem Land
Having lived in worked in aboriginal communities across four decades I have been privileged to see the dedication with which aboriginal Christians go about their ministries. The surprising thing is that most of us would not be aware of it. Much of the ministry happens in homes, schools, remote settlements (outstations) and public spaces.
Not just Sunday
While most western Christians are happy to reserve an hour or so on a Sunday to ‘go to church’, many aboriginal Christians prefer the daily ‘fellowship meeting’ which happens in the cool of the evening, usually in the middle of the community, lasting for several hours.
Imagine what a great witness it is in these communities when Christians gather around an illuminated cross to pray, to listen to the Bible being read (what little they have of it in their own language), to have it preached, to sing and to dance in praise and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ and to encourage one another in their walk with Jesus.
One of the wonderful things to observe over a long period of time attending such gatherings is the gradual progression of people from sitting in the shadows when they are tentative in their faith to moving closer to the light as they understand the gospel and wish to identify more with Jesus.
Even more gratifying is the multi-generational approach that aboriginal Christians prefer. It’s an all-in approach where children learn how to minister to others by observing, and being taught by, their elders. Children are not ‘sent out’ to their programmes while the adults stay ‘in’ as has become common in western churches.
Ministry by aboriginal people is not a formulaic gospel presentation ending with a set prayer. It is a gradual unveiling of gospel truth lived out by their kinfolk who share their lives transparently in the community on a day-to-day basis.
Sadly, aboriginal Christians don’t have many paid ‘ministers’ to care for them. Even the large denominations rely on volunteers and retirees to run churches. There is no ‘career path’ available to young people who would like to train for full-time ministry. However there is an encouraging number of faithful believers who attend to the spiritual needs of their communities 24/7.
One major difference in their approach to ministry is that there are no strangers in aboriginal communities. All people are related to each other by a complex kinship system and there are obligations, as well as privileges, in belonging. People visit the sick, care for the widows and orphans and generally are aware of what their neighbours need. It’s quite a challenge to our western individualism.
What would ministry look like in our communities if we recognised our relationships in Christ this way? What would ministry look like if we re-imagined the gathering of God’s people?
Learning from Indigenous Ministry
There is, of course, a place for the weekly meeting in a purpose-built place of worship. But should that be our main focus? How much effort is spent on making the weekly service slick and professional, sometimes at the cost of reaching out to the community?
Modern western thinking likes to reduce all endeavour to measurable outcomes. It’s as if ministry is equated with manufacturing where outputs are directly related to input multiplied by process. More input or better process equals better results. But what are the results we want to see from Christian ministry? How long should it take to show a satisfactory result?
I have for many years argued that ministry isn’t easily quantifiable. Where do you start?
I once had an illiterate aboriginal man come to me wanting to study the Bible. I had no way of knowing ‘where he was at’ spiritually. How could I measure it anyway? He spoke and understood little English and there was little scripture available in his language. He carried around an English Bible but it was more of a talisman than a resource.
I heard him muttering as he walked away; “God, ’im light. No darkness”. He repeated that refrain many times until he was out of my earshot.
What could I do for this man? How could I help him in his relationship with Jesus?
Knowing how much fear of evil spirits is present in aboriginal communities I took him to 1 John 1 with its themes of incarnation and the contrasts of light and darkness, sin and forgiveness.
The man nodded appreciatively as I pointed out what I thought were significant truths in the text. After prayer, we parted.
As I wondered what he got out of my feeble attempts at cross-cultural ministry, I heard him muttering as he walked away; “God, ’im light. No darkness”. He repeated that refrain many times until he was out of my earshot.
Twenty five years later that same man is still following Jesus and looking forward to having the New Testament available in his language so that he can have a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ’s saving work on the cross.
And yet, he’ll probably never really understand how Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. He is unlikely to ever have access to the Old Testament in a language he can understand.
Without access to the whole counsel of God, it is quite unreasonable of us western Christians to evaluate the aboriginal church using western tools and methods. How much has this man’s level of spirituality or Christian understanding increased in 25 years? How much improvement have you seen in your spiritual life or in the lives of those around you?
Looking for fruit
Given that western Christians have an abundance of resources to draw upon, countless Bibles, Christian books, evening lectures at Bible Colleges, sermons and other resources online, surely we should be rapidly approaching Christian maturity!
As we think about how effective ministry is carried out in a variety of contexts, perhaps we can step back a bit and consider what scripture exhorts us to look for. Is it numbers? Is it buildings? Is it large staff teams where everyone has the title ‘Pastor’?
Or do we need consider afresh that the root of the gospel is the finished work of Christ. As we stand firm in the gospel and appropriate it in our lives and ministries, we can then look for the fruit that God desires, and produces, as detailed in Galatians 5:22–23:
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’
Once we have our priorities aligned with God’s we can evaluate ministry as he does. Where we see the body of Christ displaying the fruit of the Spirit we can be reasonably sure that effective gospel ministry is taking place. We can also put aside any personal pride while giving thanks to God for the work of his Spirit amongst us.