In 1999, the increasingly controversial issue of contextualization of Christian mission and theology by and for Native North Americans prompted a small group of Indigenous evangelicals to explore ways to address the matter. Evangelical missionaries, theologians, and lay people had been struggling to make sense of the issue – a problem of articulating and advancing a culturally appropriate Christian faith in which Indigenous people could express both their commitment to Jesus Christ and their God-given indigeneity. Finding little in print that addressed the theological, biblical and missiological issues at hand, this small band determined to gather a group of people together to explore and write on the issue of contextualization of faith.
And so it was that on a frosty December day in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2001, the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies [NAIITS] hosted its first Theological and Missiological Symposium. The conference was convened as a means of responding to three documents in circulation at the time. These documents decried the use of Aboriginal culture in the exercise of Christian faith. During this symposium, NAIITS supported its position on the necessity for contextualized evangelical mission and theological education in the Native community, as well as its affirmation of the potential of “redemption” of cultures through Christ. The first volume of the NAIITS journal was published as a result.
NAIITS was born in response to the inability of the Christian evangelical church to include Indigenous North Americans in a manner that affirmed who their Creator has shaped them to be. NAIITS personnel believe Aboriginal Christians have something of value to contribute to the Christian community as a whole in terms of mission and theology, but particularly to the Native Christian community.
NAIITS is unique in that its founding and management has been by Indigenous people. NAIITS board members have been and remain fully connected with local Indigenous communities. Many of its members maintain an active dialogue with global Indigenous peoples, listening to the needs of these communities with regards to Christian mission, ministry and theology. In fact, NAIITS members greatly value their commitments to their own Indigenous communities and prioritize them highly. Prior to NAIITS there were few efforts in advanced theological education. Most were birthed in the hearts and minds of the non-Native community, delivered in their way.
Native scholar Taiaiake Alfred asks,
What is “Indigenizing the academy?” To me, it means that we are working to change universities so that they become places where the values, principles, and modes of organization and behaviour of our people are respected in, and hopefully even integrated into, the larger system of structures and processes that make up the university itself.
From its very creation NAIITS has been asking a similar question, not only within the academic community, but also within the Indigenous and non-Indigenous evangelical community.
The emergence of NAIITS is also directly tied to the many years of labour invested by its board members in the Indigenous Christian community. From the day of its formation as a Native North American led organization to its development into a global Indigenous-governed entity, NAIITS has been dedicated to introducing change into the education and practice of evangelical Christian mission and theology. NAIITS has pressed forward believing that the Christian community had essentially written them (and their culture) out of the story of the church since the earliest periods of colonization. The NAIITS community knew that the Christian church continued to be ignored by Indigenous peoples and cultures – largely through its inability to understand and articulate a different way forward. The evangelical church in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and many other places had therefore, become almost irrelevant to Indigenous peoples. Desirous of introducing change, NAIITS emphasized the inclusion of Indigenous worldviews, especially as they relate to training Indigenous people in the future.
For the participants in what has now become NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, questions of culture and faith have been circulating for many years. Questions surrounding contextualization and the redemption of Indigenous culture in mission and ministry have surfaced through the many seasons of their lives. Most of the questions that drive the work of NAIITS flow directly from a community that has much invested in the answers.
In many cases, the active listening, which NAIITS board members engaged in within their respective communities, has produced “new and powerful knowledge” which has led to social action in their community contexts. Much of this “new and powerful knowledge” emerges in the academic journals that are published following the NAIITS symposiums.
Since the initial symposium, NAIITS has held sixteen additional symposiums, with a now-established rotation to its partner institutions in North America, Tyndale University and Seminary, Toronto, ON; Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD; Acadia University and Divinity College, Wolfville, NS; and, with a now annual symposium as part of its NAIITS/Whitley program in Australia as well as one initiating in New Zealand.
The eighteenth NAIITS summer symposium is scheduled for and will be co-hosted by Acadia Divinity College and University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada on June 4-6, 2021, likely in both live and virtual formats.
In March of 2017, together with Australian Indigenous colleagues, NAIITS entered into discussions with Whitley College at the University of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia about creating a similar approach to an MTS program with them as partners in Australia. In July of 2017, the first three units (courses) were offered to a good response. In the year that followed, advanced courses were offered in addition to the basic courses once again. During this time, negotiations for a formal partnership were undertaken and on April 6, 2019, an agreement was signed for the delivery of an MTS program, a graduate diploma and certificate in theology, and an international cohort-based PhD program.
The now annual NAIITS journal is produced from the presentations and papers of each symposium, with the 17th volume to be published in late fall 2020. The journal is now peer reviewed by a “reviewing circle” ensuring a continued high level of academic and practical excellence. Concerning its publication, Terry LeBlanc reflects, “For many of us the journal, and the organization it speaks for, is just another marker—though a particularly significant one—in a series of events and outcomes which have been dreamt about and hoped for and which are at last coming into being.” In 2018, an agreement was signed with ATLA to index the journal, a project that is now underway, beginning with the most recent publication, with back issues to follow.