A Church Growth Study of the Zuni IndiansRalph Bruce Terry
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Chapter 4




This chapter contains an analysis of the factors aiding and hindering the Christian missions at Zuni and an evaluation of the present mission methods being used in the light of the growth analysis and contemporary missions theory. The information used in the analysis and evaluation comes from library research and class notes. An analysis of the data presented in Chapter 3 is first, followed by the evaluation of current mission practices.


Early Catholic growth. Apparently when Figueredo converted the whole village of Hawikuh in 1629, and then suffered the setbacks of having an almost complete reversion, he was experiencing the same sociological forces which bring about the so-called "group conversion" in a people movement. Due to the shortness of the period of their faithfulness, however, it is probably more descriptive to call this a "group decision for Christianity" rather than a "group conversion to Christ." There was probably a great lack of understanding on the part of both the Zunis and the Catholics. Exactly what forces entered into this decision is hard to say. But apparently some sort of village rivalry between the three major villages played some role. Although the Indians most certainly remembered the defeat by the army of Coronado, it is doubtful that the presence of the three soldiers accompanying the friars had much to do with this movement. Apparently the village priests understood the processes of Zuni group decision much better than the Catholics, for they were soon able to influence the people to return to them as their spiritual leaders. This may indicate too much emphasis on the organization of the church and too little on post-baptismal teaching on the part of Figueredo. Let it be said on his behalf, however, that he was not afraid to learn the Zuni language and that when the harvest appeared ripe, he harvested. It is extremely doubtful that a delay in baptizing when the people were ready would have produced any better results.

It is evident from what Hodge saysl that after this setback and the killings of Letrado and Arvide, the Catholic friars tried a half-hearted effort that produced what is known as "rice Christians," i.e., people who are Christians just for what they can get out of it. When the economic value of the church failed and the corruption in the Spanish governors grew to be too much,2 the Indians responded with the Rebellion of 1680. Evidently the missions had made some favorable impression on the Zunis, however, for they preserved the sacred furnishings of the mission. This may be merely saying, on the other hand, that the Zunis had a naturally high regard for any sacred object. Their acceptance of Christianity after the rebellion seems to have been due to the army of Vargas rather than any real conviction, for they did not give evidence of leaving their own religion.

General considerations. The rejection of Christianity by the Zunis is probably not primarily due to the methods of the missionaries, although they leave much to be desired. The social structure of Zuni, which was built around their religion, appears to be the strongest single force that has prevented the conversion of the Zunis. While a Christianity clothed in Western garb would probably be unacceptable to the people, there are some qualities about the socio-religious structure of Zuni that are directly opposed to Christianity. For example, the Zuni religion is magical in nature, holding that there is power in ritual, secrecy, and sacred objects. The Zunis believe that religious power is to be found in secrecy rather than in teaching. In referring to the missionaries one Zuni has said, "They throw away their religion as if it weren't worth anything and expect us to believe it."3 This attitude prevails because the Zuni religion is traditional. Its adherents are neither interested in another religion, except as an addition to their own, nor find reason to interest others in their religion. Christianity, on the other hand, is prophetic in nature and thus has an exclusiveness.4 Thus, in any consideration of a Christian approach to the Zunis, it must be remembered that the culture must yield in areas where it conflicts with Christian principles before true conversion can occur.

Presbyterian failure. The Presbyterian effort seems to have directed almost totally toward a school approach. The missionaries did not try to identify with the people, but to teach them the American way of life. Since the missionaries rejected the Zuni ways, the Zunis rejected the white man's religion.

Christian Reformed growth. Due to a great extent to the social structure of Zuni, the Christian Reformed Church has experienced relatively slow growth in the seventy-three years it has been working in Zuni. Probably the greatest number of Zuni Christians, who are not also Christo-pagans, belong to this Church.

Despite his lack of results, Andrew VanderWagen apparently got off to a good start. He saw the need for learning the Zuni language and translating the Scriptures into Zuni. In eight years he had at least twelve people interested in becoming Christians. The purchase of the Z. I. Ranch for an industrial school would seem to indicate that he felt the Indiana would have to change their entire way of life.5

Apparently Fryling brought the same attitude with him. He spoke of Anglo clothing and household goods as being "civilized" as compared to Zuni clothing and furnishings and looked forward to the time when the Zunis would be able to speak and read English.6 To this end he began the mission school. His provincial outlook is also shown in the fact that the parsonage he had constructed was not of the Spanish architectural design found in New Mexico but the Dutch architectural design of Michigan. Zuni interest in church seems to have dropped during Fryling's time, but the first Zuni converts were made during this period.

Also, the usefulness of the government boarding schools for conversion became apparent. Much of the early success of the mission came from holding the converts made at Albuquerque Indian School. This was the purpose of the YMCA at Zuni. It was during this period that several cases of individuals being baptized before death appeared.

When Hayenga came the work began to pick up. The school enrollment more than doubled. Few conversions resulted, however. Brink came during the depression. The work suffered setbacks, and there were only two conversions in this period, but school attendance still grew, although the rate of growth was slower.

In the early forties, George Yff took advantage of one of the best avenues of church growth--the family. The wives and children of two families were baptized; both husbands had been baptized at Albuquerque Indian School. School attendance began once again to grow. A couple of families and several individuals were baptized while Kuipers was missionary. Several people transferred their membership from Rehoboth where they had been baptized while at the Christian Reformed School there, but most of them were suspended in 1954 for lack of faithfulness. Many converts have been made at the schools away from the reservation, but most of them have fallen away once they returned to Zuni. In 1954 a drop in school attendance was desired by the Mission Board in Grand Rapids and was brought about by a rise in tuition.7 While Haven was missionary, Rex Chimoni and his family were baptized.

The year 1964 was the best year for the mission. In that year, while Rex Natewa was in charge, there were six adult baptisms, four infant baptisms, two professions of faith, and a Sunday School enrollment of 75 to 100. During the last two years there have been seven adult baptisms, six of them since Don Klompien arrived. Most of them were kin to members. All seven of these responses were women. This strongly suggests that the Zuni religion has a stronger tie to the men than to the women. In fact, referring to death, Bunzel states, "There seems to be no clear idea of what becomes of people without ceremonial affiliations--women and children, for instance."8

With the destruction of their building complex by fire, the Christian Reformed Church has come to a point of decision. They have hired a youth director and have decided to construct an all-purpose room. Presently services are being held in the basement of the parsonage. The questions of whether they will build another church building or simply use the all-purpose room and whether they will rebuild the school still remain to be answered.9

Family ties have both worked for the mission and against it as well. At least two women have had to wait until their husbands died in order to be baptized, but generally family ties have worked for the mission. New converts have had previous ties with the mission either through having members of the family who were Christians, through being employed in some secular way by the mission, or through having attended the mission school.

Perhaps the most disastrous policy in terms of growth is the feeling that Christians should not associate with other Zunis--that one should cease to be a Zuni in order to be a Christian.l0 Of course, this also works the other way. The Zuni Christians are looked down upon. For real growth to occur by natural means, the channels of communication between Christians and non-Christians must be left open. As McGavran points out:

The hard fact of history is that most sizable movements to Christ have begun with the conversion of an individual--or at most a few families....right from the beginning the lone convert who starts large group decisions deliberately continues on as one of his own folk. . . . He continues to love his people, identify with them, serve them, spend as much time with them as possible, proving to them that though he has become a Christian he is still a good member of his society--indeed, a better member than he was before.l1

Thus the idea that the Christians should no longer associate with their pagan friends lest they be corrupted has probably served to also retard church growth at Zuni by hindering the Christians' witness.

Later Catholic growth. Since the policy change in the mid-sixties, the Catholics have enjoyed a much greater growth rate than the other missions at Zuni. Before that their growth was slower than the Protestants'. The increased growth rate is due to several factors. For one thing, the Catholics have adapted to the culture much better than the Protestants. They are presenting a much more ritually-oriented religion than the Protestants and this appeals to the Zunis. They have tried to substitute Catholic festivals for Zuni festivals. For example, after the Zunis have Shalako, in which the Shalako houses are blessed, the priests have a house blessing in Zuni to honor the visit of the three wise men to the infant Jesus.l2

This adaptation to the culture is dwarfed by the larger adaptation to the religion. The attempt to combine the Zuni and Catholic religions is the most important single factor in producing growth for the Catholic Church in Zuni. Does this produce Christian converts, however? Often followers of a traditional religion will accept new worship forms as useful supplements rather than as substitutes. Nock terms this "adhesion," in contradistinction to "conversion."l3 This process is known as "syncretism" and produces a "Christo-paganism" that Louis J. Luzbetak, a Catholic missiologist, terms as "theologically untenable."l4 There is some evidence that conversion occurs in a cursillo but this is a conversion to Christo-paganism rather than to Christianity. Perhaps the Indians see this as being a meaningful way to preserve the Zuni religion. Thus the main factor in Catholic growth is probably doing more harm than good for the cause of Christianity.

Another factor in the Catholic success is the approach to the Zunis in family units. Since this is the economic unit in Zuni, this would seem to be sociologically sound. The parents in the households that respond are mostly between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five. Experience has shown that those who are younger have a tendency to backslide.l5

Baptist growth. The Baptists organized a church out of adults who were already members. Most of their converts have been children. The Baptists have had an advantage by meeting in Zuni homes and Zuni buildings. A serious hindrance is the fact that none of the missionaries have ever bothered to learn the language. Other disadvantages have been the fast turnover in missionaries and the disputes with the Tribal Council. Some of the lack of attendance at the present is due to the fact that the present preacher has a Southern oratory style of preaching which does not appeal to the Zunis.l6

Mormon growth. Mormon growth is centered around the Peywa family. Most of the members are friends of relatives of Bowman Peywa, the president of the local church. The Mormons are not well accepted in Zuni.

1See Chapter 3, footnote 7. [return]

2Frederick Webb Hodge, History of Hawikuh New Mexico (Los Angeles: The Southwest Museum, 1937), p. 126, footnote 211. [return]

3Ruth L. Bunzel, "Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism," Forty-seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1929-1930 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1932), p. 494. [return]

4Cf. A. D. Nock, Conversion (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 2-6. [return]

5See Chapter 3, footnote 33. [return]

6John Dolfin, Bringing the Gospel in Hogan and Pueblo (Grand Rapids: The Van Noord Book and Publishing Company, 1921), pp. 323, 325. [return]

7Zuni Local Conference minutes, July 6, 1954. This tuition rise may have been only threatened. Presently there is no tuition charged. Field Notes, personal communication with H, April 1971. [return]

8Bunzel, op. Cit., P. 517. [return]

9Field Notes, personal communication with H, May 1971. [return]

10Cf. Cornelius Kuipers, Zuni Also Prays (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Board of Missions, 1946), pp. 31, 41. The passage in II Corinthians 6:17 is quoted in this regard. [return]

11Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 207. [return]

12News item in the Zuni Tribal Newsletter, January 14, 1971. [return]

13Nock, op. cit., p. 7. [return]

14Louis J. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures (Techny, Illinois: Divine Word Publications, 1970), p. 239. [return]

15Field Notes, personal communication with I, May 1971. [return]

16Field Notes, personal observations, April 1971. [return]

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