Occasional Paper: Riches, “Urban Indigenous Australian Pentecostal Christianity”

My Identity is ‘Indigenous Australian’ and ‘Christian’ and it’s Not An Oxymoron: Urban Indigenous Australian Pentecostal Christianity

Tanya Riches (Fuller Theological Seminary)


Within post-mission Australia, the state effectively manages perceptions of Indigenous peoples (both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) through the media, which often perpetuates rather than contradicting false stereotypes. In a contemporary neoliberal global political regime that values efficiency and rationality, Australia’s first nations are often characterized as homogenous, inefficient and non-rational. Recent publicity over threatened closure of over one hundred and fifty remote rural communities provides a case in point. In statements to the public, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett defended his position, citing drunkenness, domestic violence, lack of work ethic, and even general untidiness as reasons for the removal of Australians from their land[1]. In this way, cabinet ministers at both state and federal levels capitalize upon the general population’s ignorance about Australia’s Indigenous peoples[2]. However, there are hundreds of Indigenous nations and cultures, including the islands of the Tiwi and Torres Strait (Rolls, Johnson, and Reynolds 2010).[3] While connection to land as a central feature best represents Indigenous cultural and spiritual continuity, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live and work in Australia’s urban cities. And, although spirituality is as for any group, highly various in practice, the ABS reports 73% of Australia’s Indigenous population self-identify as Christian.

Christianity amongst Indigenous Australians is under-researched, and even refuted by some academics (Schwarz and Dussart 2010). In the Indigenous community, however it is well known, as The Torres Strait commemorates the “Coming of the Light” annually on July 1st, marking the Bible’s arrival via Anglican missionaries to the region in the nineteenth century. This song and dance ceremony highlights the significance of the Christian religion to Torres Strait culture[4]. But for the Aboriginal mainland, divides between Christianity and Aboriginal cultures are often emphasized. This is with good reason, as missionaries played a significant role in the traumatic removal of Aboriginal children, now termed “The Stolen Generation” (Loos 2007; Kenny 2007; Bouma 2006; Wilson 1997). Arriving on the mainland in the 1800s at the height of colonialist power, many European missionaries agreed to care for Aboriginal children in return for financial compensation from the state. Although churches and the federal parliament have apologized for the damage caused by this arrangement (Rudd 2008; NSW Council of Churches 1997), removal of children continues and affects many families deeply.

It is important to note that Christianity was, just like its receptive cultures, similarly diverse. Yet the plurality of Christianity is often glossed. This article will examine themes that emerge from the negotiation of Pentecostal Christian and Aboriginal identity within the urban setting. In many cities, Indigenous peoples are a minority and their uniqueness is obscured by the diverse cultures present in the Australian cityscape. Indigenous Christians (both those attending traditional denominations who often display charismatic spirituality, and also Pentecostal groups such as the Indigenous Initiative of the Australian Christian Churches) are often invisible, and negotiate their cultural and religious self-conception in the space left-over between Christians who limit or restrict their involvement in Australian denominations, and Indigenous leaders who are seeking to restore traditional indigenous religiosity. Despite failures to recognize urban Aboriginal Christians, in fact they are forging a uniquely Australian expression of the faith. Participants construct and review their “Aboriginal Christian” identity at the nexus of external voices. But they also retain freedom for both cultural continuation and rupture – in other words, their right to construct the self.

The idea that Christianity is by necessity mediated by European cultural or denominational structures has diminished with new waves of indigenized Pentecostalism(s) appearing in the cities of the “global South”. The translocal impacts of these churches are noted as significant, particularly as states flounder in the wake of structural adjustment policies (Freeman 2012). Indigenous pastors are described as remaking their worlds (Meyer 2003). Global theology provides opportunity to amplify Christianity’s non-white voices, particularly those from the “Global South” – many indigenous to their land (Yong 2005; Dyrness 1992). It must be noted that there is still great need for Australian scholars to undertake a more “anthro-theological” project grappling with, as African-American scholar Willie Jennings describes it, the “Christian imagination” that, over centuries absorbed and perpetuated a racial bias towards European cultural values (Jennings 2010).[5] This Christianity is often erroneously accepted as ‘the’ Christian faith and/or culture in scholarly writing. However, the Australian missiological guild’s role in reflecting upon and reforming Christian practice from within denominational centres is significant, with Ross Langmead’s contribution notable in this regard (2002a, 2002b, 2007, July 2004). Similarly, some anthropologists have sought to fill chasms between the literature.[6] Robert Tonkinson, seeking reflexive research, seeks to connect particular beliefs (such as theological fundamentalism, and anthropological subjectivity/objectivity) to practices in the field, assessing their long-term effects (Tonkinson 2007).[7] Continuing work is necessary to bridge divides within the Australian discourse. However, this article intends to explore points of integration and disintegration in being both Aboriginal and Christian, rather than attempting to prescribe an idealized Christian identity. The following section will outline literature relevant to this task.


The aforementioned divide between the Christian and anthropological literature is deeply entrenched in Australia. From Alfred Radcliffe-Brown’s appointment in 1925 as the first anthropology chair at The University of Sydney, scholars sought to record traditional Indigenous religious practices (Berndt 1974; Stanner 1966; Rose 1992; Berndt Sept 1961). On the whole, such works were motivated by two popular theories. The first was the idea that Aboriginal religiosity was the most primitive of all belief-systems, famously immortalized by Emile Durkheim (1912). The second appropriated Darwin’s law of natural selection to argue that Aboriginal peoples may become extinct and these cultures must be preserved (Kenny 2007). European missionaries (many of them pre-existent in these communities) in contrast often believed Aboriginal religion was evil. Some sought to transform both spiritual and material realities (Champion March 1995; Tippett July 2006; Tonkinson 2007). As Ian McIntosh outlines, this often placed anthropology at odds to mission work, and by virtue of it, also more theological studies of mission or missiology (McIntosh 1997; McIntosh 2000). Ironically, Aboriginal communities often played host to both scholars and evangelists. These two Western influences were identified in laying the seedbed for the Galiwin’ku religious awakening on Elcho Island, termed ‘The Adjustment Movement’ (Berndt 2004; McIntosh 1997), in which Yolngu elders revealed their sacred sites by placing a white cross upon them, effectively dubbing them Christian. Following this event, a charismatic revival ensued.

There are a few notable exceptions to the large void between these disciplines. Historian Peggy Brock presents a comprehensive picture on changes to Indigenous Australian religiosity during colonization, highlighting interaction between missionaries and Indigenous peoples in Outback Ghettos: Aborigines, Institutionalisation, and Survival (Brock 1993) and also a following broad overview of contemporary Indigenous Christianity in her edited volume Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change (Brock 2005). Importantly, she documents the contribution of Aboriginal leaders, who often used missions as a base to form a new, collective identity that adapted to the changing world (Brock 1993, 7). However, government policies and zealous white overseers unfortunately thwarted many attempts at black settlements. Brock’s edited volume highlights widely various contemporary religious experiences. that also includes some discussion of charismatic forms of the faith in Australia.[8]

Different to mainline missionary movements, Pentecostal (and charismatic) religiosity arose globally in the twentieth century, and perhaps in Aboriginal Australia as early as 1904[9]. Initially a marginal movement, Pentecostalism now accounts for 500 million Christians worldwide (Miller and Yamamori 2007). Alan Anderson defines four waves or expressions with shared “family semblances”, characterizing this movement by its “emphasis on an ecstatic experience of the Spirit and a tangible practice of spiritual gifts” (Anderson 2013, 8).[10] Aboriginal Pentecostalism was first noted by Malcolm Calley (1955) in the 1950s on the East Coast of Australia among the Bundjalung people. He collected images that were recently reviewed in an oral history project by Akiko Oko (2011). In addition to these works, Fiona Magowan has published a significant corpus of work exploring religious meanings found within cultural performance at the intersections of Yolngu land, ritual and identity, including the continuing effect of the charismatic Christian revival in East Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory (Magowan 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007a, 2007b, Magowan and Neuenfeldt 2005). As such, her work gives greater visibility to the “imagined, embodied and affective experiences” of these Indigenous Christians (Magowan 2001: 275). Additionally, Carolyn Schwarz addressed ritual “syncretism” citing cases where kinship responsibilities and Yolngu religious belief systems remain evident within charismatic Christian expression (Schwarz 2010, Mar 2010).

Pentecostalism is a renewal movement within Christianity, and the distinctive theological form is highly prevalent amongst indigenous African peoples, and exploding in the urban environment (Freeman 2012, 21, 71, 84). As an example, Nigerian Christianity, according to Nimi Wariboko, is structured into two types, ‘non-African African Christians” and “African Christians”, with this last category further split into “Spirit-filled”, versus those who do not profess to have had the Pentecostal experience. While traditionally this movement distinguished itself through the practice of glossolalia or “speaking in tongues”, within the Nigerian context few clear identity markers or “criteria for belonging” exist. Thus, Wariboko says,

“The identity of the Pentecostal spirit is fluid, rhizomatic, improvising its form and dynamics both in melodic harmony with its cultural milieu and in rejection of it … [and] by this cut they differentiate themselves from the mainline, ‘orthodox’, ‘dead’ Christians. They are now ‘non-Christian Christians’ …what the “identity politics” of Pentecostalism shows is the impossibility of any identity coinciding with itself or any believer (African or otherwise) coinciding with herself, and the impossibility of identifying any universal sameness… Pentecostalism renders all distinctions, divisional markings and classes inoperative without abolishing them and ‘without ever reading any final ground’ (Wariboko 2011, Kindle Loc 1815).

In his opinion, such techniques create an “exclusive, superior religious identity” (Wariboko 2011). For this reason, Pentecostalism can be a highly contentious topic within Indigenous communities. To date, however, interest in Australian Pentecostalism has been in its production and consumption of popular music, fueled by its particular understanding of ‘anointing’, which designates a person or object (such as a CD or song) as chosen by God for the purpose of edifying the church spiritually. But Aboriginal Australian Christians have been producing worship music for fifty years (Riches 2015), and are also generating new music fused with local languages and instruments, such as The Mount Druitt Indigenous Choir (Riches 2014). The adjective ‘anointed’ is often used by Pentecostals to distinguish their worship practices from other forms of Christianity. However, this article seeks to investigate how participants viewed their own identity, particularly the intersections between Aboriginality and Christianity.


Participant observation was conducted during the course of my PhD project at eight urban churches with Indigenous Senior Pastors.[11] In addition, 40 one-hour interviews are analyzed here (15 males, and 25 females), collected over a period of two years. These interviews with urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Pentecostal and charismatic Christians were conducted in three Australian cities – The Gold Coast, Cairns and Perth. Additionally, this includes visitors from Port Macquarie, and Tamworth. Those currently living on the East Coast of Australia were overrepresented in the sample, however their nations of origin were highly diverse[12]. As such the project represents some who are “on country” or traditional lands (Bundjalung, and Noongar), and many who migrated from rural areas. The first eighteen interviews yielded the most information on the intersection of Aboriginality and Christianity. These were conducted during an initial site visit and at the insistence of its Aboriginal pastors, concerned that during my study I would be exposed to ideas unrepresentative of real Aboriginal realities, and voices. While each of the participants signed formal consent, and were happy to share perspectives with me (a white researcher) during the interview, in subsequent discussions it has become evident that views on the direct negotiation of Christianity and Aboriginality may cause offence to other post-missionized peoples. Thus, pseudonyms have been ascribed to these interviews in an attempt to protect participants. The following section addresses particular themes that emerged from these interviews. 

Urban Indigenous Pentecostal ‘liturgy’

Although Pentecostals dislike the word ‘liturgy’, services attended did display a consistent pattern reminiscent of global Pentecostalism (Farhadian 2007; Coleman 2000; Lindhardt 2011; Brock 2005). This section is intended as an overview of patterns of worship observed in the eight churches attended during my fieldwork. Most Indigenous pastors and congregation members describe their churches as ‘multicultural’. Local elders and community often attended the church, with a variety of other Aboriginal nations. All also had “white” Australians, and international immigrants attending the congregation. These churches usually hire venues used by the community midweek (e.g. schools or community centres). At the venue, whether intentionally or not, visual cues (such as painted murals) convey that Indigenous participants are especially welcome. Symbols found on the church website and signs include dots (as in Aboriginal dot paintings), boomerangs, animals (e.g. eagle), footprints, and animal tracks. These Indigenous aesthetics are often also present in the worship space. The services attended had on average from 20 through to 60 congregants, these numbers described by the pastors as seasonal.

Sunday morning preparation begins with musical rehearsals, interspersed with prayer for leaders and musicians. At Ganggalah Church, Tweed Heads a democratic open prayer session is followed by morning tea (often referred to as ‘tucker’, or ‘food’ in Aboriginal lingo). The main service begins after this “fellowship”. At other services, however, the congregation arrives slowly, up to an hour before the advertised time. Should there be special guests, a welcome may be extended to them in the meeting. For larger groups or for special celebrations an official ‘Welcome To Country’ ceremony may be performed in language, accompanied with dancers painted in ochre, eucalyptus leaves and didgeridoo music. On ordinary Sundays, however, noticeable guests are often invited to say a few words following the musical worship. The senior pastor often (but not always) leads the music, usually from a guitar. Songs may flow into testimonies, communion or straight into the message. This stands in contrast with many Australian Christians that intentionally separate the preaching and musical portions of a service. The message is usually a simple biblical presentation followed by “ministry time” that allows church members to come to the front for prayer. Ecstatic manifestations may occur, and if there are many people to pray for the pastor may initiate another song or even dismiss the church while prayer concludes.

Pentecostal ‘Spirituality’

While many indigenous religions have been described as “animist” (the belief that features in the natural environment are animated with a spiritual essence or soul), this does not adequately describe pre-Christian religiosity explained by these Australians within their interviews, which is closer to “panentheism”. This religiosity distinguishes between spiritual and material worlds[13], seeing both working interdependent from one another – however, the spiritual world enchants or enlivens the material one, and is therefore considered more ‘real’. Participants’ comments regarding traditional Aboriginal religiosity referenced its similarity to more Pentecostal and charismatic forms of the Christian faith. Thus, multiple participants explained that Pentecostalism is a natural Christianity for Aboriginal people, allowing them to distinguish between good and bad spiritual forces at work in the real world, through the paradigm provided in the Bible. Many participants dubbed this as ‘spirituality’.

Caroline:         I think the Indigenous people of Australia have a very strong connection with spirituality and it’s just natural—even if they don’t become born again—it’s just a natural integration. They haven’t got to work through all the things they’ve been programmed with over the years to access…what God is saying.

Many held the opinion that Aboriginal people were especially “sensitive” to God’s reality or voice, while this was not always true of European or white Australians.

Phillip:            Spirituality – this is a natural gift we have. I think as a people we’re pretty intuitive and being brought up maybe more spiritually aware, you know, even as a young kid, you just knew what stuff to stay away from … just more alert to it.

This sensitivity can be cultivated, and practiced in church services.

Jane:               there’s a spiritual connection …there’s sensitivity for God. It’s felt, it’s not just talk, you can feel the presence of God… I mean it’s God, not us but the presence of God is very tangible.

Participants defined this as The Holy Spirit (or Spirit of Jesus). They also distinguished commonly held but erroneous views.

Olive:              He is God on earth. Once you realize that, you know that he is not just the image of a ghost hovering over us … he does have senses, like spiritual senses. Whereas, as people, we have natural senses and spiritual senses, it’s the same with the Holy Spirit. He feels—spiritually—he has sight sense, taste, touch, and smell. It says in the Word, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” as an example… grieving is a type of emotion.

Some participants believed their natural “spirituality” was heighted within Christianity, which also gave them reason to “discern” between the good and bad spiritual forces in their city. This true of one participant deemed a “spiritual healer”. Other participants referred to his success in exorcising demonic influence from psychiatric patients. When questioned about this he stated,

F:        well, my strength is in the Lord, Jesus…. [for many] indigenous communities … it is a state of mind, they don’t get themselves out of poverty, get themselves out of depression – whole thing is that they do need a helping hand, to get out of it. Especially with our people, the majority of our stuff is all demonic anyway.

After I expressed concern regarding conflation of the spiritual and physical for mental health patients, we discussed his exorcism method. It seemed unlike louder Western Pentecostal forms that may engage a conversation, or demand that a spirit give its name before leaving the person. He described silent prayer while he gently touched (“laid hands on”) a person’s arm or hand. In this way, he could be perceived by hospital staff to be a shaman or traditional healer, even when invoking the name and power of Jesus. Where medical staff is unable to adequately treat a patient, a traditional healer may be recommended, and gain access to the hospital ward. This is probably because traditional healers are presumed to have knowledges relevant to Aboriginal peoples that Christians are presumed to reject. This healer gains access due to the mysterious efficacy of his powers of treatment.

The theme of spirituality was often associated with positive outcomes such as supernatural healing. However, it also was countered by the idea that Indigenous Australians could get stuck in a negative spirituality or state of mind – many participants used the phrases “loss of identity” and/or “lack of self-worth”. High drug and alcohol use in communities was attributed to this psycho-spiritual state. Some participants linked this to Christianity, relating it back to the mission era when Aboriginal languages and cultural ways were silenced. This was a point of great sadness. One elder described her frustration encountering more missionized Aboriginal Christians who continue to hold “misconception” about cultural practices, deeming them evil. Younger urban participants often advocated for traditional cultural ways to be revived, lest their people be stuck in a negative spirituality. Only one young adult disagreed, describing cultural practices as “irrelevant”. He explained that his mother and grandmother were “very cultural” and made their living by painting boomerangs, however he believed what was once life giving had become “external”. By this, I understood that his family’s Aboriginality (spirituality) was largely performed for white Australians as an object of tourism, and therefore failed to yield any internal life and vibrancy. He found that Christian worship rituals, in contrast, were able to provide this life.

The Holy Spirit in The Land

Despite differing levels of engagement with the wider Aboriginal community, most participants asserted that ‘respect’ for and ‘care’ of land continues to play an important role in their lives, even when off their traditional lands and/or in the urban environment. At times ‘culture’ and ‘spirituality’ directly related to land and care of land. Sometimes, the word ‘culture’ signified songs and dances that held significance within a particular geography. Often, participants shared how they attempted to observe the cultural rules of the land in which they live, showing respect by refusing to swim in waterholes until offered the right to do so by the elders and/or traditional landowners. This was related to God’s value upon and ordination of land.

Darren:           I went into a different country some eight years ago… the Lord told me not to go, but I went. And that night the truck was rocking and everyone else was asleep except me and rocks were hitting the windows. I felt a spear come through me… I was violently ill for three days until it broke. Doesn’t matter how much I would pray, it was a disobedience that I did.

One participant cited the biblical passage in which Abraham was prompted to buy a plot of land for his wife’s burial as evidence that God respects property laws[14]. This contrasted other Australians, who did not always recognize these laws. Participants argued for God’s role in forming and maintaining land boundaries. Descriptions of Creator Spirit were correlated to the third member of the Trinity, The Holy Spirit, who remains immanently present within the Australian land, speaking to any and all willing to listen. Therefore, they reasoned, as God remains the same, the Aboriginal ‘old fellas’ (ancestors) recognized the Spirit of God even without the Bible, which brought clarity in its revelation of Jesus. Aboriginal Law was paralleled with the Old Testament Torah, now fulfilled but also surpassed in the Spirit’s animation of the life and teachings of Jesus, the perfect human. One participant explained it as “easy to come under the Old Testament in rule and then to step up into grace into the New Testament”. In this way, the Spirit of the law is perceived as greater than the letter. Thus, land is significant, and should be cared for – due to its spiritual significance as the handiwork and delight of the Holy Spirit.

Cultural Continuity within Christianity

Worship was seen as reconnection with the Spirit – a remedy to lost identity and lacking sense of worth. Worshipers described experiences of intimacy with God that gave insight regarding their situations. This narrated their lives in a new way. The experience was described as true “freedom”, and was significant to them in dealing with the psychological effects of traumas they cited – racism, poverty, sexual abuse, drug use and domestic violence. And yet, participants recognized the significance of worshipping God as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. One woman broke out into praise during the interview.

Gwen:                         thank you Lord for creating me unique in this beautiful culture and using me in my culture, Lord, to draw people to you!

For many, attending a congregation with an Aboriginal pastor was a way of maintaining connection to culture, and land. It allowed for “respect”, and continuing relationship with elders. But it also provided a way for their community to adapt and change to Westernized life without the more “restrictive” aspects of Aboriginal law.

Chris:              there’s a really big, big connection with earth, so, um, I believe in that. You … gotta have that spirituality and, and I think Christians… can go forward and make a difference.

Participants often refused the idea that culture was an appropriate “barrier” or excuse for adapting to modern Australian life.

E:        Some people say, “I don’t do that because it’s not my culture” and its like, okay but … if you’re aboriginal or if you’re married or whatever that’s a byproduct – your primary culture is your Christian culture, which is Christ.

In this way, they argued against being given their own special privilege within the Australian church.

Transcending Racism

Many participants shared personal experiences of racism in Australian society. Elders referred to “shame culture”, common amongst younger Indigenous peoples. In response, they emphasized the need for all cultures to be treated as equally important, giving examples of how they had internalized this value. Many did not want Aboriginality to be discussed as a special culture, as one of many cultures present in Australia. One explained,

Eric:    Yeah, so our spirits are recreated new, we’re not Aboriginals in the Kingdom of God, we’re new men, men of the spirit, created by the spirit, so we leave our culture and take on a Kingdom culture.

They emphasized that all peoples were “brothers and sisters in Christ” as “children of God”, and therefore cultural differences were less important than this relationship that united them. This allowed them to transcend the racism they considered prevalent in Australian society.

When questioned about the importance of having a black pastor, some expressed concern with this idea, stating that they were equally happy under a white (or any other colour) pastor. With this, they affirmed equality in the Spirit, and the right for God to pick any human for the task of leadership. This allowed them to worship with all peoples, even descendents of those who had stolen their land. Many rejected black/white dichotomies, referring to Australia’s diversity.

A:        Culture is important because it makes up who you are, it gives you identity … but it also helps understand other people’s culture, you know, especially for missions… Aboriginal leaders and churches are quite involved in missions here.

Thus it was clear, the main project for these Christians was building the church.

Communal Identity Conflicts and Resolutions

Many of these Christians described church as an alternative community where all people were equal, and could contribute, outworking intentional values of “family, community, responsibility, connectedness”. This was the motivation behind any mission activity. However, there were also various areas of conflict. For example, while all stressed the importance of an experience the Spirit, some respondents promoted denominational views such as “talking in tongues” (glossolalia) which other members minimized as “doctrine”.

Katy: Yeah Pentecostalism sometimes goes a little bit overboard I think. See we don’t talk in tongues and all that and that’s one of the things they like to push – and you know that doesn’t make us less of a Christian or what not. It’s a gift from God and man’s not going to give it to us. I believe in it but if I’m going to get it, it’s going to come from God not from man.

And, regarding the incorporation of Aboriginal culture into church worship, participants were divided. Although sharing common basic ideas – that God had given people their lands, histories and cultures which could therefore be considered good, it was clear these gifts were also often misused (in worship of other gods) or misunderstood (for example by missionaries) as “evil”. Some disagreed that anything reminiscent of “corroborree” dances could be integrated into church worship, extending this also to instruments such as the didgeridoo and clapsticks. Others believed these could be used where intention was to bring glory to God. Some complained that when these instruments were included, they did not carry the same ‘anointing’ or spiritual connectivity felt at other times, and they therefore deemed cultural music and dances only appropriate for times of celebration (“bringing flavour”) but distracting from the main goal of experiencing the Spirit. Others described ways these instruments had facilitated their personal experiences of God.

There was overall agreement and great sadness that, within the Australian denominations they attended, Aboriginal people did not receive the “honor” that was due to them as traditional owners of the land. Some cited that their leaders refused to practice traditional Welcome to Country (or Acknowledgement of Country) ceremonies. This lack of respect frustrated many older participants. It was expressed as a loss also for non-Indigenous Australian Christians. However, in contrast, discussing community rituals caused deep discomfort. Many believed the denominations uncritical in their absorption of Aboriginal cultural rituals, and were suspicious of attending meetings in which leaders failed to “discern” spiritual meanings and content behind actions. However, most stressed that Christian maturity provided needed discernment regarding symbolic actions, and therefore the Christians could negotiate their participation in constant awareness of God’s presence. There were disagreements as to which rituals were beneficial for Christians to participate in. Some refuted the idea that Christians could retain a personal totem (usually a plant, animal or feature of the land), while others described this as a special relationship or affinity but argued that it was not actual worship of that object. Many cited smoking ceremonies as something they would refrain from attending.

V:        they go through and start smoking and speaking the lingo… yeah, I wouldn’t have that. We were taught about the blood of Jesus, so that oversteps some kind of boundaries. I think if you discern, the Holy Spirit will help you. It’s a sort of knowing – which is right and which is wrong. A lot of us are still trying to find out what culture is and where we come from. A lot of us weren’t brought up in it, [speaking] our own language – so that was stolen and taken.

One participant attended all local ceremonies but would refuse to partake in “pointing the bone” or “catching women”, as this was sorcery and a misuse of spiritual power. But, he did not think these rituals occurred on his traditional lands anyway. An esteemed female pastor explained that she warned her congregation away from blood ceremonies, but let them decide for themselves regarding smoking ceremonies. Additionally, on the West Coast the phrase ‘The Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ was used with positive reference,

B:        Culture is very important; it’s where you come from and all that. But it’s sad that the language and all is gone, it’s still important yeah, to have The Dreaming and the stories.

However, a participant from the Gold Coast stated,

P:        It’s either Dreamtime or it is Christ. Christ is risen.

Tensions are found between Aboriginal Christians, and discussion on these issues can be heated. Perhaps for this reason, some explained they had felt happier attending churches where they were the only Aboriginal person. This allowed them freedom to participate in worship knowing they were different, but they did not actively negotiate cultural issues. Some felt God had led them previously to a “white church” in order to be a missionary. On the whole, however, participation in churches is community or culture building – and many noted that their church culture was actively being “redeemed”, meaning being brought back into true worship in new ways. For most participants, this was an experiment that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t.


There is no doubt that the continual negotiation Wariboko notes in Nigerian Pentecostalism is also present in Aboriginal Australian Christianity. The identity of an Aboriginal Christian is marked by a commitment to ‘spirituality’, which often draws upon notions pre-existent to Western civilization in Australia, incorporating them into the Christian framework. This takes place as a dynamic improvisation that allows participants freedom to analyze and engage both paradigms, attributing their most consistent and positive features as God’s design. This serves ultimately to be a radical re-visioning of Christianity in Australia’s urban cities, which seeks to “honour” the Australian land while remaining open to multi-ethnic Australian society. These Christians are constantly monitoring the spiritual atmosphere around them and their church, actively working to cultivate a positive spiritual environment, while rejecting other, oppressive elements. With its worship rituals, the church serves as an alternative community that provides buffer from the existing social and political environment, allowing members to negotiate between Aboriginal and Western life. However, forming this strong collective identity results in some loss of tradition, and may therefore alienate these Christians from others in their community. Therefore, there is a continual push for the reintegration of uniquely Aboriginal elements into the rituals. This is countered by the inflexibility of Christian denominations and their lack of recognition of Aboriginal realities. As such, this is a project that continues, and as such may indeed be unending, as Wariboko suggests.


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[1] https://newmatilda.com/2015/03/10/barnett-plays-abuse-card-defend-closure-remote-west-australian-communities

[2] A recent reality television series ‘First Contact’ hosted by celebrity journalist Ray Martin took six non-indigenous Australians into various communities and documented their responses. It cited that only four in six Australians had any contact with the Indigenous community. http://www.sbs.com.au/programs/first-contact

[3] There are thought to have been between 300-700 Aboriginal nations prior to colonization.

[4] Some of the history of this event can be found on the various tourism sites, which indicate its prominence to the region: http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Find+out+about/Aboriginal+and+Torres+Strait+Islander+Cultures/Gatherings/Coming+of+the+Light+Torres+Strait+Islands#.VZUIx6ZSJh4

[5] I have attempted to do this in previous writing (Riches Fall 2014). More significantly, there are Aboriginal authors who have also undertaken this task, notably the Rainbow Spirit Elders (1997) including George Rosendale, and also recently Graham Paulson (Paulson October 2006).

[6] There are of course many missiologists that consider themselves anthropologists, and anthropologists that self-identify as Christian. In both communities there is a clear understanding of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ engagement, and this is measured in part by the transformation of the discrepancies of Indigenous realities measured in governmental reports, known informally as “The Gap”.

[7] Although many believe Pentecostalism and fundamentalism to be synonymous, this is far from the case in Australia (Clifton 2005).

[8] Within this volume Jacqueline Van Gent and Peggy Brock’s chapters address contemporary Australian Aboriginal religious experiences and both Fiona Magowan and Bill Edwards’ chapters relate to Australian Aboriginal charismatic experience. David Maxwell’s chapter discusses Pentecostal congregations in Zimbabwean towns and cities.

[9] From my interviews, it is said that the Aboriginal-led Pentecostal congregation Bethel in the Innisfail area of Queensland was carried over from the Welsh revival rather than later, more publicized variants that arrived from Los Angeles’ Azusa Street. However to date, Pentecostal historian Mark Hutchinson attributes the official birth of Australian Pentecostalism at 1906 (Hutchinson and Wolffe 2012).

[10] Some Classical and NeoPentecostal Aboriginal Christians, however, distinguish themselves from charismatic Christian movements within mainline denominations.

[11] Three churches were located in Perth, one in Sydney, one on the Gold Coast, one in Cairns, one in Port Macquarie and another in Tamworth.

[12] The Aboriginal ancestry participants identified were Barbarum, Butchulla, Dharawal, Noongar, Woollawarra, Martu, Kamilaroi, Bundjalung, Wiradjuri, Dunghutti, Biripi, Kunwinjku, Jabiru, Mawng, Kunibídji, Yagel, and Yawuru. Three participants were descendants of South Sea “Blackbirders”, or slaves, also with Aboriginal heritage. Three participants were from the Torres Strait Islands.

[13] Two exceptions to this were discussed. The first was totems, which divided participants. Some believed totems to be “negative spirituality”, while others noted it as affinity with nature and subject to the Creator. The other exception related to ‘the Serpent cult’ or ‘Rainbow Serpent religion’, which most participants believed had distorted Aboriginal culture, and was now used for sorcery. Some noted that young men were attracted to this religion in a quest for power. Many participants did not believe that this cult was ‘traditional religion’.

[14] Genesis 23