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Through God’s Eyes: Reframing Ministry on the Reservation a Priority for the Wardells

 In All Church of God, Central, CHOG, Global Strategy, Home Missions

By Carl Stagner

Given the fuzzy picture and, therefore, widespread misunderstandings, of cross-cultural ministry, much of Western Christianity could benefit from a prescription for corrective lenses. This reality is especially vivid on the reservation where, for too long, a colonial mindset has often clouded the way the church sees Native Americans. Tim and Kim Wardell have learned by experience on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota the promises and pitfalls part and parcel to what has historically been known as home missions. Conversation with the Wardells reveals the hearts of a Global Strategy missionary couple determined to show a beautiful culture the love of Christ.

“God was here on this reservation long before white men came.” Tim Wardell’s provocative statement is true, of course, but its implications are where the rubber meets the road. He explains, “The shallow, Western ‘gospel’ causes us to look at them and say, ‘They’re a bunch of heathens.’ A lot of things have done more damage than good by ‘the outsiders.’ I want people to know that the revelation we are all having out here is that we come from a colonialized, non-native Western cultural mentality that there’s the Creator, there’s us, then there’s everybody else.”

Tim and Kim Wardell

That’s a false picture, certainly. But Tim reflects on the prevalent emphases of his early exposure to evangelism and discipleship approaches. “I’ve been raised that it’s my responsibility to save people,” he explains. “What this ministry is teaching Kim and me, as well as Rob and Kari Cotten, is that we have absolutely no control over who does and does not believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead.”

Taking a reframed approach to ministry on the reservation, Global Strategy missionaries in South Dakota stress the priority of building meaningful relationships. A “ministry of presence” is of paramount importance to the work they do, as are “helping without hurting” and “partnering to reach others.” They know that ministry is not ultimately about numbers, but about real people with real struggles. To truly make a positive impact, they’ve got to build trust. Kim speaks to the vitality of such trust in an interview with Global Strategy. “I’ve never changed my mind about anything in my life because someone I didn’t know told me something,” she reflects. “I’ve only ever changed my mind about anything important because I trusted the person who was telling it to me.”

Instead of charity that offers temporary solutions, they seek ways to equip and resource their neighbors to be empowered, not dependent. “This place has a way of taking God out of a little box and changing your narrative,” Tim reflects. “We put God in a box and conform others only to the attributes of God that fit our narrative. God sent us here more for us than for the Lakota—to show us, through them, that he’s much bigger than we make him out to be. Cross-cultural ministry forces you to stop and re-evaluate your perceptions of God.”

In fact, work teams that spend a week with the Wardells learn the value of such perspectives on God, on life, and on ministry. Tim and Kim encourage each one not to leave behind their fervor for mission, but to take it back with them to their home churches, to their own communities, and keep serving. Short-term mission trips to Pass Creek Church of God in Allen, South Dakota, may only last a week—but those who go must remember they’re on mission for God at home the remaining fifty-one weeks of the year.

Tim on guitar at Pass Creek Church of God (credit: Donny Von).

Communicating the real Jesus Christ matters to the Wardells. Underhanded and harsh methods of evangelism and suggestions of a hateful deity have no place in their work. Instead, Tim and Kim Wardell stand as a consistent, trusted source of love as they walk hand-in-hand with their Lakota neighbors through the challenges of life. Their story, in brief, is captured in a recent podcast interview recorded for Global Strategy’s A World of Good. Listen here.

“For us, this is one of those marathon ministries,” Tim explains. “It isn’t, ‘Let’s go do a tour here or there, and move on.’ Really for us it’s a lifetime commitment. We’ve bought a home here, renovated it, given burial plots on top of the hill in a native graveyard. It is a lifelong commitment. We are one-way missionaries. We didn’t pack our luggage cases, we packed our coffins, and we have become part of the culture.”

Learn more about the ministry of the Wardells and how you can come alongside their work at https://chogglobal.org/team/tkwardell/.

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