A Church Growth Study of the Zuni IndiansRalph Bruce Terry
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Paul's message. Note should also be made of the form that the message should take. A good example of the form that Paul's message took when he was preaching to pagans is found in I Thessalonians 1:9,10.16 First he said that the Thessalonians "turned" to God from idols.17 Here Paul is talking about the conversion that takes place when a person becomes a Christian. Part of the turning to God is belief in the Lord Jesus.18 The idea of conversion includes the death to sin and the rebirth to life that takes place along with faith, repentance, and baptism when a man accepts God's grace.19 But the Gentiles did not have a biblical understanding of the word "sin," much like the Zunis today. So Paul would give long lists of sins that the people themselves knew they were guilty of.20 Then he would ascribe these sins to their lack of knowledge about God.21 An important part of Paul's teaching on conversion was that the Christian received the Spirit of God through faith.22

Paul also preached about turning "from idols." One of his arguments was that idolatry causes immorality. The classic Jewish argument against idols was that they were powerless.23 The turning was also "to serve God." This meant that the Christian was to be enslaved to God and thus not serve other gods. These two teachings (the folly of idolatry and the exclusive service of God) would be a necessary part of teaching to the Zunis.

Paul presents God as being "living and true."24 "Living" means that God is not only alive but that He is the Source of all life--that He is the Creator. "True" means that He really exists--as opposed to idols. God witnesses to himself by sending the rain, making the crops grow, giving people food, and making them happy.25 This means that God is not only Creator but also Sustainer. Jesus is presented as being the Son of God for whom Christians are waiting. Paul used a concrete idea (sonship) to express who Jesus is. This idea would probably mean more to the Zunis than the concept of Jesus being the second Person of the Trinity. Sonship also expresses deity.26 God is Creator and Sustainer through Jesus.27 Paul taught that Jesus had been crucified for people's sins;28 thus Jesus is the Redeemer.

Paul taught the hope and expectation of being a Christian. Another aspect of Paul's teaching was about the kingdom of God.29 The Christians were waiting for Jesus' return "from heaven"--his second coming.30 That Jesus was in heaven meant that he had been exalted. Thus he has authority.31 Even the demons and spiritual powers were subject to Christ.32 So often the missionary's teaching is that demons do not exist so there need be no fear of them, but Paul's teaching that Jesus had more power is not only more biblical but also more acceptable to those who have believed in demons all their life.

Paul also taught that Jesus had been "raised from the dead." The resurrection of the body was one of Paul's main themes.33 This would seem to be one of the key doctrines that might find acceptance at Zuni, especially because of the grief that death causes.

Finally, Paul taught of the "wrath to come." Paul was not afraid to preach on the coming judgment.34 For Paul this meant that men should repent and live righteously.35

The problem. The missionary would do well to present the gospel to the Zunis in the same form that Paul presented it to the Thessalonians. The problem comes in relating specific areas to the Zunis. For example, what need can Christianity fill better than the Zuni religion? Rain is basic to the Zuni religion, but God "sends rain on the just and on the unjust."36 Thus, unless the missionary is a prophet like Elijah, there is no way to prove that it is God, not the kachinas, who sends the rain. The missionary's teaching might include the idea that God sends the rain whether the ceremonies are performed or not--that man does not force God to send the rain. Also, the biblical account of creation might have meaning to the Zunis; especially since it shows that God created the sun and the water--two very important items to the Zunis.

Another line of approach is that Jesus is more powerful than the native gods and thus you need no longer fear them. But Zuni religion is not based on fear. Although Zunis both believe in and fear ghosts and witches, they like, rather than fear, most of the kachinas. Only a few, such as the Koyemshi, the Salimobiya warriors, and the A:doshle, are feared. Perhaps the teaching could emphasize that Christians no longer have to fear ghosts and witches. Or it might emphasize that Jesus can give deliverance from alcohol, a major problem at Zuni.

Another question to ask is how does one communicate the idea of sin to the Zunis? A suggestion would be to take a related phrase and instill it with the biblical meaning much as Paul did with the Greek word for sin which originally meant "to miss the mark." Also, is there a phrase to meaningfully describe the atonement to a Zuni? The Zuni religion is not built around the idea of blood sacrifice, appeasing an angry god, or buying one's freedom. It is rather built around the idea of magic ritual. The only offering is one of corn meal. Perhaps one might say that Jesus performed the right ritual, but this seems to leave something to be desired. Justification is a questionable explanation of the atonement since there is no Zuni word for forgiveness37--a man is either innocent or guilty under the Zuni legal system; however, after a man has paid the price for his wrong, he is no longer considered guilty. This means that the idea "Jesus has paid for our sins" would have meaning to a Zuni. Also, the idea of substitution might have some merit. The phrase "He gave his life for me" probably means as much to a Zuni as it does to an Anglo. In Zuni this idea would be expressed as follows: "in my place He died." The same words also mean "it's my fault He died." Thus this phrase could be used to advantage.38

16Adapted from class lectures given by Abraham Malherbe, Mission and Expansion of the Church in the New Testament, Abilene Christian College, Abilene, Texas, April 1967. [return]

17Cf. Acts 14:15. [return]

18Acts 20:20. [return]

19Cf. Acts 18:8; and Romans 6:3-5. [return]

20Cf. Acts 18:8; and Romans l:24-32. [return]

21Romans 1:28. [return]

22Galatians 3:2, 5; cf. Acts 19:2. [return]

23Psalms 115; Isaiah 44:9ff.; Wisdom 13ff., esp. 14:12; Acts 17:24-31; 19:26; Romans 1:18-32; and I Corinthians 8:4. Paul's teaching seems to have been against idolatry in general rather than against any specific idols. Cf. Acts 19:37. [return]

24Cf. Acts 17:24-31. [return]

25Acts 14:17. [return]

26Cf. Acts 17:18. [return]

27Colossians 1:16-17. [return]

28Acts 17:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23; and Galatians 3:13. [return]

29Acts 14:33; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31. [return]

30Cf. I Thessalonians 5:2. [return]

31I Thessalonians 4:2. [return]

32Ephesians 3:7; and Colossians 1:16. [return]

33Cf. Acts 17:18, 31; and I Corinthians 15:3-8. [return]

34Cf. Acts 17:31; and I Thessalonians 4:6. [return]

35Cf. Acts 24:25; and I Thessalonians 2:9; 4:1. [return]

36Matthew 5:45. [return]

37See Chapter 2, footnote 15. [return]

38Field Notes, personal communication with C, May 1971. [return]

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