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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 177–188 

The Church, Residential Schools, and Malformed Discipleship

Andrew Kowan

On May 29, 2021, news outlets reported that the remains of 215 children were found buried at a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia. 1 This news confirmed what had been known to Indigenous communities in Canada for generations.

Indigenous Christians and theologians may be able to point the white North American church towards more holistic metrics for faithful discipleship.

In subsequent months the remains of many more children were found at former residential schools across the country. These residential schools were administered by the federal government of Canada and, for decades, run by Christians of various denominations in a concerted effort to assimilate First Nations Peoples. The forced assimilation strategy intentionally robbed Indigenous Peoples of their languages, cultures, communities, and families. Indigenous Peoples have experienced many forms of abuse and racism, but the Indian Residential School System in Canada represents one of the most tragic and egregious examples. This is not only because of the massive trauma and suffering it inflicted on Indigenous Peoples but also because of the central role of the church in causing such harm. The inherently violent residential school system {178} created a context where coercive, manipulative, and abusive practices were regularly carried out by Christian teachers, missionaries, and clergy. Children were often malnourished and abused, and many deaths of children were “concealed due to misadventure, abuse, and neglect which could be categorized as criminal negligence, manslaughter, and even murder.” 2 While there are no longer any active Indian Residential Schools in Canada, Indigenous communities continue to live with the intergenerational trauma they inflicted. The church’s integral role in this abusive and racist colonial system that devalued Indigenous Peoples and caused them such suffering stands in radical conflict with the good news of the gospel and the love of Jesus for all people. It is my contention that the church’s role in administering the residential school system and its inability to recognize such practices as an afront to the gospel expose a serious malformation in discipleship.

In recent years, the government of Canada has taken steps to acknowledge their national sin and to begin the work of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. In a telling contrast, in this very gospel-centric work of repentance and reconciliation, the church has largely trailed behind even governmental bodies. It seems clear that the church has not sufficiently analyzed, repented, and moved towards a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples and that the church struggles to understand how it might even begin to do this work. While many of the denominational bodies most actively involved in residential schools have made public statements, a lack of understanding and engagement among local congregations across various denominations remains. 3 Scripture clearly calls the church and its people to the work of repentance and reconciliation. It is central to the gospel and central to the life of a disciple of Jesus. Until churches begin this work with Indigenous Peoples, the malformed practices of discipleship which helped to create the brokenness will continue unchecked. The intergenerational trauma caused by the church-government partnership that ran residential schools is clearly present today, and the need for work in reconciliation is clearer now than ever before. Despite this, there is a lack of engagement from local churches who appear disinterested and/or incapable of responding beyond simply trailing national initiatives. Churches must take seriously the ongoing work of reconciliation not only because reconciliation in relationships is the core of the church’s faith but also because churches were intimately involved in the harm that was done. A church that has no will or power to imagine and effect reconciliation is a church that has a colossal identity and discipleship problem.

It is my contention that the white North American church has struggled to resist cultural accommodation in the area of race, which {179} has consequently led to this malformation in discipleship. If the church is to work toward a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, it will require funding a vision of reconciliation that imagines partnership, mutuality, and reciprocity with historically marginalized peoples. Such a vision can only come once the church more clearly articulates what it means to be disciples of Jesus. In other words, reconciliation and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. In his work on Ephesians, Michael Allen defines spiritual malformation as someone falling in lockstep with the ways of the sinful world, which fosters selfishness or insatiable lust or racism or misogyny. 4 Such malformations align the believer, or the church, with the systemic and sinful patterns of the world and suffocate formative and positive discipleship practices. Such accommodations are an insidious influence. They are not only incompatible with the gospel but leave the church and its people paralyzed and unable to speak or act prophetically within culture. If the church is to find its voice as a people who understand and practice repentance and reconciliation, it must articulate and diagnose the cultural accommodations that have led to malformations in its understanding and practice of discipleship. 5 These cultural accommodations are perhaps part of the reason why the church trails behind even governmental bodies in recognizing and repenting of this historic sin.

A serious analysis of the malformation in discipleship and its assumptions that led to complicity with an abusive and racist system needs to be done to identify, repent of, and rectify wrongs before reconciliation can be pursued. A well-formed disciple ought to practice and be an agent of confession, repentance, and reconciliation. The fact that the church has lagged in these areas in its relationship with Indigenous Peoples suggests that there are persistent malformations in discipleship within the lives of individuals as well as congregations. In this essay, four assumptions of this malformed discipleship will be identified: (1) privilege and power, (2) an individualistic gospel, (3) a messiah complex, and (4) cultural blindness. These assumptions need to be addressed if we are to find the will and the vision for the necessary work of racial reconciliation in our communities.


Rooted in Christendom, the church’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples from the beginning was troubled by a power imbalance. The legal framework of the Doctrine of Discovery, 6 a complex legal tradition that arose in medieval Western Europe with the church at the center, allowed for the seizure of “newly discovered” lands and the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples. 7 These actions were endorsed by {180} royal privilege and Christian ritual. While the Doctrine of Discovery dates to the fifteenth century, the current legal framework in Canada not only assumes it but it helped to create the Indian Act and paved the way for the development of the Indigenous Residential School System. Such foundational beliefs and legal frameworks continue to perpetuate colonialist mindsets and systems rooted in Christendom that benefit newcomers to the detriment of Indigenous Peoples. This is not ancient history; the legacy of trauma and enduring discrimination persists. A few examples include ongoing land disputes, overrepresentation in incarcerated populations, overrepresentation in foster care, and inadequate access to clean drinking water. This is the present context in which Indigenous communities and churches live and work today.

Unfortunately, too many Christians know little about the Doctrine of Discovery, the Indian Act, the history of residential schools, or the enduring challenges that Indigenous Peoples of this land face. Even more, too many local Christian communities have been ill-equipped to unpack the underlying cultural assumptions that have led to the development, implementation, and persistence of colonial ideas as they relate to race. Under the Doctrine of Discovery, non-Christian Peoples were not deemed to have the same rights to land, sovereignty, and self-determination as Christians because they were viewed as inferior. 8 The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action call on all religious denominations and faith groups to repudiate ideas used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and people such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. Such a call for repudiation of doctrines that establish the superiority of privileged people groups, one would hope, should arise first and foremost from our own theological and doctrinal commitments. Rather, the rhetoric used to attract immigrants, including Mennonites, to settle in Canada was borrowed directly from the Doctrine of Discovery. 9 Such language of empty, unused, or underutilized land ready to be tamed and settled suggests that immigrants benefitted from the theology propagated by the Doctrine of Discovery. More specifically, European Mennonites became direct beneficiaries of lands gained through unjust treaty systems. 10 Because the MB Confession of Faith asserts that good stewardship resists unjust exploitation of the earth and its people, 11 and also states that believers witness against corruption, discrimination, and injustice, 12 the conscious and violent exploitation of both the land and its Indigenous Peoples should not only be acknowledged and repudiated but also replaced by a communal prophetic vision for reconciliation in equitable partnership with Indigenous communities. {181}


Critiquing the work of Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Billy Sunday, and others, Scot McKnight argues that the evangelical message that reduces the gospel to “getting saved” and to a narrow view of a decision to receive justification has been divorced from moral transformation. 13 This reductionistic gospel message has favored Western individualism and leaned heavily on conversion, minimizing the announcement of the good news about Jesus Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Specifically, Jesus’s own radical vision of the kingdom in Luke 4:18-19 imagines a new society that is good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. 14 Any version of the gospel that narrowly focuses on individual salvation runs the danger of being disconnected from the issues of injustice, racism, and segregation. This has often blinded the church to the issues of oppression.

Less obvious to many white churches is that it is an issue of discipleship and the gospel to address racial injustice and one’s own complicity in those injustices. While there has been acknowledgement of paternalism and racism in the Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions, as well as acknowledgement regarding the failure to advocate for marginalized Indigenous Peoples as our faith would instruct, 15 there still seems to be a deep need for further reflection on race, history, and reconciliation. Paul instructs his readers in Rome, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). These are familiar words for contemporary Christians that often evoke great thoughts of resisting cultural capitulation on issues like sexuality or materialism, but it is more than curious that they are seldom applied to issues of race. In his book, Rediscipling the White Church, Pastor David Swanson laments that he cannot ever remember hearing in church a call to resist, address, or reckon with patterns of the world related to racial injustice, racism, and segregation. 16 Swanson’s conclusion is that white churches in North America, through their own willful ignorance, have been conformed to the patterns of this world and complicit in injustices related to race. Thousands of testimonies from Indigenous Peoples across Canada tell stories of their traumatic experiences with Christian foster parents. Many of these foster parents disciplined their Indigenous wards “through whippings, psychological terror and heavy farm labor,” and told the children that if they did not submit they would “burn in hell with all the other pagan Indians.” 17 This kind of spiritual manipulation and coercion was often justified by the Western colonial narrative that they were working to save children from their pagan parents by “killing the Indian in the child.” 18 These {182} issues have not been adequately analyzed, addressed, or imagined in the predominantly white church as a part of Jesus’s call to radical, self-sacrificial discipleship. Even more, when churches and white Christians have been presented with this history and have been asked to respond to issues of racialized injustice, there has been a tendency to exhibit racist behavior, defensiveness, apathy, and disbelief. 19 None of these responses will lead to the transformation and renewal of the mind required for the journey of reconciliation ahead. Instead, such responses contribute to ongoing problems and serve as roadblocks on the path to racial justice.

Awareness of historic injustice is not enough. The church must be involved in the reconciliation process which necessitates mutual and reciprocal relationships with Indigenous communities. Herein lies an opportunity and a need to embrace a larger gospel than individual conversionism; a gospel that proclaims, through the life and teachings and the death and resurrection of Jesus, that God has become king and his kingdom is breaking into this world. As James Cone asserts, the gospel is more than a transcendent reality of the individual escaping this world on their way to heaven, it is an immanent reality that is found wherever the poor struggle for justice, a liberating force among the oppressed. 20 The cross is transformed from a symbol of death and defeat to the most empowering symbol of liberation and new life, especially among those who suffer daily from great injustice. Herein lies one of the dangers in maintaining an individualistic gospel. By defining the gospel so narrowly, its message of justice amidst powerlessness, suffering, and death is lost. 21 Alternatively, there is opportunity in embracing a wider, larger gospel. Indigenous theologian Randy Woodley interprets Jesus’s words in Luke 4:18-19 as building on the vision in Isaiah 61. Woodley sees the gospel as bringing forward God’s dream of shalom where no one suffers unjustly and the benefits of the kingdom coming into the world are for a community made up of all nations. 22 A shalom-shaped discipleship, empowered by a shalom-shaped gospel, is wide and large enough to envision salvation and justice together.


White Western Christians are traditionally accustomed to holding power, influence, and privilege, leading very naturally into a posture of fixing the “problems” of the dependent other while showing little interest in partnerships, mutuality, or equality. A harmful trend in embracing Western cultural assumptions undiscerningly alongside Christian faith has led to a posture perpetuating a colonial mindset and paternalistic tendencies. Assumptions that “we know better” and “we can fix this,” paired with an individualistic gospel that “we” bring to the world, {183} are tied together in the intergenerational trauma Indigenous Peoples continue to experience today. What is needed is not the ongoing messiah complex of Western Christianity, but a posture of mutuality, partnership, and relationship. This posture may also help lead to the dismantling of larger systems of colonialism embedded within society.

Followers of Jesus in North America can no longer claim ignorance of the history and ongoing legacy of systemic racism that negatively impacts Indigenous Peoples. Any future ignorance is willful ignorance of the issues that have been explored, explained, and documented in anecdotal stories, historical sources, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. There is more widespread societal awareness and acknowledgement of these issues today than ever before. However, awareness alone does little to address the present issues or the enduring trauma. Neither will a posture that embodies inequality in relationships or power. We cannot “fix the problem” or make it go away. A Christ-formed discipleship will equip the church to engage the very real costs of racial reconciliation. Rather than continuing unequal relationships that perpetuate a colonialist mindset, there exists a necessity to engage in mutual and reciprocal relationships.

Reconciliation and the journey forward cannot happen in a relationship marked by condescension. Pastor David Swanson argues that “we cannot seek justice for an idea or a principle. Our efforts must align with the goals that have been articulated by women and men of color; otherwise, we will succumb to what our racialized imaginations assume is best for people we’ve never met.” 23 One temptation is to engage in unequal relationships by going to Indigenous communities with the intention of fixing their issues as we identify them. This is only another, more nuanced form of colonialism. Indigenous theologian Richard Twiss asserts that “nothing significant will happen in the way of reconciliation without honest, Christ-honoring and genuinely loving relationships. Our relationships and friendships in Christ Jesus, which are to be built on trust and mutual respect, are the building blocks of healing in the world.” 24 Put another way, if the church is to play any role in the healing and reconciliation process with Indigenous Peoples, awareness must give way to real, reciprocal relationships. Any work of justice, activism, or healing requires solidarity through embodied relationships.

The challenges facing many Indigenous communities are complex and multilayered; the impact of colonialism through the state and church touches almost every facet of an Indigenous person’s life. 25 Oscillating between reactions of apathy and defensiveness due to the overwhelming nature of racial prejudice is not an option for disciples of Jesus. The {184} future church has an opportunity to be a faithful presence by joining Indigenous communities in addressing the issues and achieving the goals identified by those communities themselves. Examples of very practical steps and goals are easily accessible through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, which specifically addresses churches and faith communities. Such action requires a paradigm shift from doing ministry to or for Indigenous Peoples to ministering in mutuality with or alongside Indigenous Peoples in specific, localized contexts. 26 This allows for Indigenous communities and churches to pursue the work of reconciliation together as equal partners. There can be no reconciliation without the investment of personal relationships and genuine friendships.


Privilege and power, an individualistic gospel, and a messiah complex have led the church to form discipleship without properly recognizing cultural or racial bias. This experience has led to many Indigenous Peoples hearing the gospel as the “bad news” of Jesus Christ that requires people to forsake their ethnic identity in exchange for the identity of the dominant culture. 27 This “bad news” has required Indigenous Peoples to accept their status as those “meant to be colonized” and forced to cooperate in bringing about their own demise. 28 The church can no longer allow its understanding of discipleship to be formed without reference to, or awareness of, culture and cultural identity. This raises the importance of disciples becoming aware of their own cultural identities and assumptions and this can only happen if there is an increased appreciation for other cultural identities and the importance of listening and learning in mutually beneficial relationships.

In his book, The Deeply Formed Life, Rich Villodas describes the need for racial reconciliation in a divided world as well as practices that create opportunity for racial reconciliation. 29 One important practice is that of incarnational listening, which not only helps grow an awareness of past and present issues but provides an opportunity to take steps towards reconciliation and relationship. Incarnational listening is described as a practice where one leaves one’s world by letting go of the familiar to enter the world of another. Once in the world of the other, one can begin to practice active, humble, and curious listening while still holding on to oneself. This allows for a space of mutuality, reciprocity, and growth through learning in relationship. 30 This practice opens several opportunities for the church not only to become more aware of its own discipleship malformations but also to cultivate an imagination for reconciliation with a more holistic view of discipleship in mind. A posture of humility and listening in relationship with Indigenous Peoples {185} is a powerful way to counteract the assumptions of individualism, privilege, power, and a messiah complex, all of which have helped to create the situation we are in.

Incarnational listening allows the white North American church to acknowledge that much of their received tradition and theology has been predominantly from those of white European descent. This has privileged some readings and social locations over others. Dennis R. Edwards asserts that despite the Reformation’s efforts to get the Bible into the hands of ordinary believers the church was virtually no different from other segments of society that devalued women and dehumanized peoples of non-European descent. 31 Edwards contends that theology is deficient when “it omits the voices of those in the majority world and ignores the interpretations of ethnic minorities.” 32 If churches today are serious about reconciliation, mutuality, and partnership with Indigenous communities, it is imperative that they learn from Indigenous theologians, pastors, and leaders in order to expand their theological imagination for ministry and discipleship. This has implications reaching beyond hermeneutics into practice. For example, it is well worth asking whether the homogenous growth principle implicit in many successful church growth paradigms has an implicit and sophisticated form of racism and classism couched within it. 33 Indigenous theologian Randy Woodley suggests that although growth is important, pursuing numerical growth at the cost of diversity, inclusiveness, and right relationships with the marginalized is more a pattern to be avoided than one to be emulated. 34 This criticism of the North American church’s growth models is not unique to Indigenous theology. Others have decried the “McDonaldization” of the church through metrics of efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control in other places. 35 Indigenous Christians and theologians may be able to point the white North American church towards more holistic metrics for faithful discipleship.

Finally, incarnational listening also opens space for the spiritual discipline of lament. Lament affords the opportunity to enter into the suppressed and untold stories related to race that have brought immense grief and pain to individuals and communities. 36 Lament is a thoroughly biblical practice that not only helps bring about personal wholeness and healing but serves as a call to public rightness, fueling action motivated by compassion and relationship to others. 37 Rather than evading the pain and grief of others, lament helps name suffering and provides an opportunity to emerge with a new vision of God’s reconciling work in the world. This work is critical to the process of reconciliation as it allows followers of Jesus to name truth, take responsibility, and work to repair the damage that has been caused. 38 {186}


The malformation in discipleship that permitted the church’s role in the atrocities of the Indian Residential School System will be addressed when we learn to take Paul’s words in Romans 12 seriously. Christ’s disciples are to be transformed by a gospel that resists the spiritual malformations of privilege, power, individualism, messiah complexes, and cultural blindness. Such resistance is a starting point in a discipleship that takes issues of race and the mutual flourishing of all communities seriously. The journey of reimagining a holistic discipleship, like the journey of reconciliation itself, will be long, costly, and difficult. But as Rich Villodas states, “this is the work of reconciliation—not that we despise ourselves or others, but that we listen and live humbly and incarnationally and through that process see the image of God in one another. Reconciliation is hard and protracted work, yet by the grace of God and the courageous steps we take, we can begin to taste today what is waiting for us when the new creation is fully consummated.” 39


  1. Courtney Dickson and Bridgette Watson, “Remains of 215 Children Found Buried at Former B.C. Residential School, First Nation Says,” CBC News, accessed August 30, 2021,
  2. Suzanne Fournier and Ernie Crey, Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities (Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 1998), 58.
  3. Katie Doke Sawatzky, Bruce Clemenger, and Aileen Van Ginkel, “Moving towards Relationships with Our Indigenous Neighbours,” Mennonite Church Canada, website, accessed August 30, 2021,
  4. Michael Allen, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020), 32-33.
  5. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 9-10.
  6. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action,” accessed August 30, 2021,
  7. Sylvia McAdam, “Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery: A Call to Action” in Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Winnipeg, MB: Mennonite Church of Canada, 2016), 143-44.
  8. McAdam, “Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery,” 143-44. {187}
  9. Hyejung Jessie Yum, “Unsettling the Radical Witness of Peace: A Decolonizing Investigation of Mennonite Migration from Russia to Manitoba in the 1870s,” Anabaptist Witness 7 (Oct 2020): 93-113.
  10. Yum, “Unsettling the Radical Witness.”
  11. Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application (Winnipeg, MB, Hillsboro, KA: Kindred, 2000), 164.
  12. Confession of Faith, 131.
  13. Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 92.
  14. McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, 114.
  15. “Statement of Anabaptist Church Leaders—Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings” Direction 43 (Fall 2014): 243-45.
  16. David W. Swanson, Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 182-83.
  17. Fournier and Crey, Stolen, 42.
  18. Fournier and Crey, Stolen, 48-49.
  19. Swanson, Rediscipling the White Church, 182-83.
  20. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), 155-56.
  21. Cone, Lynching Tree, 156.
  22. Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2012), 32.
  23. Swanson, Rediscipling the White Church, 168.
  24. Richard Twiss, One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2015), 172.
  25. William Aguiar and Regine Halseth, “Aboriginal Peoples and Historic Trauma: The Process of Intergenerational Transimission,” National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health, accessed November 30, 2021,
  26. Many churches and parachurch ministries are engaging this space For example, one only needs to contact the Indigenous Neighbours program through Mennonite Central Committee to explore how to build respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. There are opportunities for education, connection, relationships, and advocacy.
  27. Woodley, Shalom, 150.
  28. Woodley, Shalom, 150.
  29. Rich Villodas, The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus (Colorado Springs, Co: WaterBrook, 2020).
  30. Swanson, Rediscipling the White Church, 168.
  31. Dennis R. Edwards, Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2020), 67-69.
  32. Edwards, Might from the Margins, 69.
  33. Randy Woodley, Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 63.
  34. Woodley, Living in Color, 63.
  35. C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating {188} Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 15-16.
  36. Soong-Chan Rah and Brenda Salter McNeil, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 48.
  37. Villodas, Deeply Formed Life, 76.
  38. Ray Aldred, “Missions to Native Peoples: Moving from Charity to Justice,” Direction 43 (Fall 2014): 192-201.
  39. Villodas, Deeply Formed Life, 74.
Andrew Kowan serves as Lead Pastor at Sardis Community Church in Chilliwack, BC. He holds a BSc from Trinity Western University in Langley and an MDiv from Regent College in Vancouver. He and his family are honored to live, work, and play on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Stó:lō Coast Salish Peoples.

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