Native American young people lack history in church

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United Methodist Church leaders are seeking ways to involve more Native American youth in leadership and the life of the church.

The reason for a declining attendance among younger Native Americans is unclear, said Nocona Williford, an Oklahoma Comanche and layperson in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Even though most Native youth believe in God, the observer at General Conference 2016 said, many do not want to be involved in The United Methodist Church.

“A lot of Native people my age haven’t been raised in the church, and we don’t really have many young adults,” Williford continued. He attends Hunting Horse United Methodist Church in his hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma. Of the approximately 40 members who attend Sunday services, three are young adults.

One General Conference delegate believes that best way to address the declining number of racial ethnic members, especially youth and young people, is to focus on nurturing more clergy of color.

Martha Banks, a neuropsychologist and delegate from the East Ohio Conference, submitted petition 60543-CB-R9999 titled “Effectively Recruiting and Retaining Young Clergy of Color.” It calls for each annual conference to determine strategies to recruit and retain more diverse clergy and report those in their respective journals.

“I’m very frustrated with how few clergy of color there are. I’m very discouraged with the shrinking churches of color,” Banks said. “It makes no sense in the United States where the majority of people will soon be people of color.”

Banks believes if The United Methodist Church can develop more clergy from diverse backgrounds, more people of color will remain and join.

Leadership within the church recognizes the need for more youth involvement and are working to determine the root of the problem. The Native American Comprehensive Plan, first adopted in 1992 and updated in 2004, includes a directive to involve more Native American youth and young adults in the church.

Williford, however, is unsure about the future of his conference and of the church. “If we don’t have youth, we don’t have a future,” he said.

The Rev. Mike Ratliff, staff executive with the Division on Ministries with Young People of Discipleship Ministries, attributes the lack of youth and young adult members to a decreased emphasis on the importance of being a member.

“Having a sense of community and a sense of belonging is a key issue for young adults,” Ratliff said. “That’s more important than whether my name is on the membership roll.”

The Division on Ministries with Young People works to involve young people by engaging them in spiritual and leadership development activities, but Ratliff notes that involvement in local churches is the best way to reach youth and young adults. 

“It doesn’t start from the general church down,” Ratliff said. “What we do through young people’s ministries is seek to enhance, strengthen and resource the ministries that are happening where young people live.”

Watson is staffing the Native American desk for United Methodist News Service at General Conference 2016. Contact him at [email protected].

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