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Woodlands Gathering Launches Worship & Preserves Native Culture

After several years of outreach, events, and Bible studies, Woodlands Gathering officially launched Sunday morning worship on November 27, 2022. During this first service, the church also held their first baptism.

Woodlands Gathering's First Baptism

Greg Baney, planting pastor, said, “The vision of Woodlands Gathering was born in the fall of 2018. We spent about two and a half years primarily on building relationships. Two years ago in January, we started a Sunday afternoon Bible study. Last year, I did three teaching series on what is the gospel, what is the church, and what is worship. By mid-September, we were doing a very rough worship service.”

Tricia Baney, Greg’s wife and partner in ministry, noted that during the early stages of planting, they were still serving part time at their previous church. “It felt like we were missionaries for several years. The people coming did not have relationships, or at least not positive relationships, with churches. They are the de-churched.”

Woodlands Gathering currently has 26 committed people who consider it their church and another 30 who regularly come to events. According to Tricia, “They’re open to us and the church’s mission. They're an active part of Woodlands Gathering, and we hope they will come to feel the love and safety of Christian community.”

Greg adds, “We know there is no other place that’s as safe as the church. It’s the place where we should be reminding each other of our only hope in life and death.”

Entering Into a Hurtful History

When thinking about ministry to indigenous people, many Christians jump to mercy ministry. While this is a part of Woodlands Gathering’s ministry, the church strives to avoid harmful practices, like “building a house, leaving, and never seeing them again,” as Greg puts it. “For 500 years, missionaries attempted to share the gospel with Native people, but often, Christ was misrepresented. We try to re-present Christ to Native people by affirming parts of the culture that actually build on holistic harmony - what we know as shalom.”

Greg recalls that one Native man defines indigenous as “having a relationship with the land where you live, speaking the language, engaging the culture, and living in a ceremonial way. The last point means living in harmony with the world, including others around you, which is not at all at odds with a Christian worldview. Native culture has been presented as incompatible with Christianity, but culture is a manifestation of who we are, created in the image of God.”

The Baney Family

Before beginning Sunday morning worship, Woodlands Gathering started with talking circles, pulling from cultural elements that are already familiar to Native people. Tricia recalls the depth that people revealed in these circles. “There are two things that Native people often say. One, they are the invisible race, and two, we are still here.”

Greg and Tricia are sensitive to the uniqueness of what they are doing as they work to meet a particular culture and environment. Greg says, “We have an awareness of the newness of what we’re doing and the desire to be intentionally reflective of our environment. We also want to shape our environment so that it has a strong connection to historic Christian worship.”

Thankful for a Building

As we shared in 2021, Woodlands Gathering purchased a building, which has helped the small church solidify its home in the community. Tricia reflects, “I am so grateful we have an actual building.”

Greg adds, “A lot of what we’re doing is community outreach, and you need a space to do that. We’re trying to create a touchpoint for people to connect. They meet each other and see their neighbors at our events. It’s an opportunity for them to see Christian community even before they can define what that is.”

Woodlands Gathering shares a meal together after each Sunday morning service.

Woodlands Gathering is able to host many events at their building, serving almost like a cultural center for Native people. Two large events include a seed preservation program and a Cherokee language class.

Seed Preservation Program

Greg explains how seed preservation shows the redemptive work of God. “Every aspect of creation has been subjected to the consequences of the Fall,” he says, “including food and crops. About two thirds of North American exported goods are the result of thousands of years of indigenous farming. Corn has been commercialized and used for high fructose corn syrup, but heirloom native corn was loaded with nutrition. We’re trying to show how the redemptive work of Christ affects all of life by reestablishing a relationship with creation and with our food.”

The church purchased seeds from Eloheh Farm & Seeds, a farm in Oregon that preserves heirloom indigenous seeds, and planted a community garden on their property.

While some perspectives view the Native American relationship with the natural world as animistic or pantheistic, the Baneys explain that many Native practices have significant overlap with a Christian worldview. “The early missionaries’ first instinct was that Natives were animistic, but most Natives were monotheistic,” says Greg. “Prior to the industrial revolution, we all had an inherent understanding that we had a relationship with creation. God gave us the responsibility to serve and take care of and work the earth. If we don’t do that, we’re going to suffer. One of the reasons God gave for the Babylonian exile was that the Israelites didn’t allow the land to lay fallow in the seventh year in 2 Chronicles 36:21.”

Because of their culture, Native people tend to understand reciprocal, balanced relationships instead of consumerism. Greg says, “When Natives kill a dear, they offer thanks, and they don’t kill more than they need. For Cherokee people, war was the last resort, but when they had to fight, they could not go back into the village after shedding blood until a healer scraped them and shed drops of their blood. This comes from the idea of harmony and living in a peaceful community. When reading the Bible through indigenous eyes, you notice that God creates Adam, then brings all the animals to Adam to see what he names them. To the western eye, we think God wants Adam to be a taxonomist, but in the ancient near east, to name something was to define its relationship to you.”

Cherokee Language Class

Woodlands Gathering also hosts a Cherokee language class. (The church includes all tribes, but there is a significant Cherokee population.) A teacher whose first language is Cherokee joins them from Robbinsville, NC to teach the language.

Greg says, “Out of 50,000 Cherokee people in the United States, there are fewer than 1,000 who speak the language. The church can show that Christ is redeeming all things by preserving the language. It’s God’s providence when a language disappears, but that doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of preserving it. Languages are a reflection of a specific people group and how that group interacts with its environment - an environment which is not void of God’s witness.”

The Baneys mention Revelation 7:9-10, which reads in the English Standard Version, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Woodlands Gathering incoporates native instruments and Cherokee hyms into worship services.

Greg continues, “There are Cherokee hymns dating back to the 1800s that were sung on the Trail of Tears. One of them in particular we sing in our worship services, hopefully demonstrating Revelation 7.”

Tricia says, “What’s unique about many Native languages is that it’s verb based while English is noun based.” Greg adds, “In English, 70-80% of words are nouns. The 500+ Native languages are mostly verbal. That’s why it’s difficult to talk about theology in traditional Native languages, and it’s part of why there were so many misunderstandings between early missionaries and Natives.”

A Resource for the Area

While Woodlands Gathering still heavily relies on outside support to sustain the church, Greg believes the church has something to offer the region. “We have a missing seat at the table when it comes to the church, and that is Native believers. It’s not a one-way street of ‘Let’s go give these people something.’ Instead, it’s reciprocal. Woodlands Gathering has an ongoing need for funding, but we also have an ongoing opportunity to contribute.”

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