A Church Growth Study of the Zuni IndiansRalph Bruce Terry
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Chapter 6




Christianity is not new to the Zunis. As early as 1629, Franciscan missionaries from Spain came to Zuni to bring Christianity. The Zunis continuously rejected their message, even as they continue to do so today. This thesis is a study of the culture of the Zuni Indians, the attempt of the Christian missions to introduce Christianity, and the rejection of that attempt by the Zunis. It presents suggestions which are based on the past efforts of the missions at Zuni for Churches of Christ to use in beginning a work among the Zunis.

Not only have the Zunis rejected Christianity, they have clung to their own culture. Zuni still remains a matrilineal society built around the Zuni religion. Individualism is suppressed, but diversity of opinion is widespread. Despite the inward diversity, Zuni presents a united front to the outside world. The Zuni language is very much alive in the pueblo. The Zuni religion is also practiced fervently. It is oriented around ancestor worship and sun worship. Dances, especially rain dances, and ceremonials play an important part in Zuni religion. The religion is ritualistic and objects such as fetishes, prayer sticks, and shrines are venerated. Politically the people are under a governor, lieutenant governor, and tribal council. Zuni is undergoing an intense amount of material change at the present.

The first Protestant missionaries came in the 1870's. They were from the Presbyterian Church. They left in the 1890's. In 1897 Andrew VanderWagen came to Zuni for the Christian Reformed Church. The missionaries from this church have tried to work in the Zuni language but have often demanded an exclusiveness with regards to Zuni culture that has retarded growth. Much dependence has been put on the mission school. Franciscan missionaries returned in 1921 after a hundred years' absence. They accomplished little until the mid-sixties. At that time they began to combine the Catholic and Zuni religions into a Christo-paganism. Since that time they have had good growth. The Baptists have been in Zuni twelve years but have worked mostly with children and have few faithful converts. The Mormon Church is built around the Peywa family. The Sunday attendance for the Baptist, Catholic, and Christian Reformed churches is graphed in Figure 12.

Fig. 12 Comparative Attendance at the Zuni Christian Missions - click to enlarge.

The approach that has been tried by most of the missions has centered around the church building. Since this has not worked, except in the case of the Catholics who have compromised their message, it is suggested that a more culturally-oriented approach be taken. The missionary should have training in anthropology and missionary principles.

He should learn the Zuni language and attempt to identify with the people. He might well follow Paul's example as a missionary and make use of the form in which Paul presented the gospel. He should try to understand the sociological forces at work in Zuni and plan his actions accordingly. He might well use scripture distribution to advantage, since the Wycliffe Bible Translator at Zuni has recently completed the Gospel of Mark. The missionary should not present Christianity with American patterns of worship. He should strive to introduce an indigenous church at Zuni.

The missionary cannot expect a people movement at Zuni. In fact, there are several indications that the Zunis are still very much opposed to Christianity; however, with the New Testament being translated into Zuni and the culture undergoing rapid and significant changes, Zuni may become a ripe mission field in the near future.

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