In the spring of 1999, Inuit Jackie Koneak, who works for the government of northern Quebec, was repairing a snowmobile in the village of Kuujjuaq, which sits above the Arctic Circle. He heard an announcement on his radio about a Christian renewal conference being held at an arena nearby, and hoping to reconnect with old friends whom he thought might be there, he decided to stop in. He left the snowmobile parts lying on the floor, and with hands still blackened with motor oil, stepped into the arena for a short respite from work.He stayed the whole day at what turned out to be a charismatic conference. When the speaker asked for people to come forward for prayer, Koneak went. "Something was pulling me," he recalls. "I wanted to experience what others did." He kept going back each day, and by the end of the week, he was a newly baptized believer.A church-based charismatic renewal in Canada's remote Arctic region has deeply touched the lives of thousands of people like Jackie Koneak. But revival hasn't come without controversy, and northern Canadian Christians are striving to harmonize this new wave of Christianity with their native culture and their historic ties to older, established churches.

Don't be a dead caribou

Inuit people in northern Quebec (an area called Nunavik) and the new territory of Nunavut (formerly part of the Northwest Territories) are spread out across Canada's eastern Arctic—a massive and inaccessible area with only 35,000 people. Life in a small village of fewer than 2,000 people is all that many Arctic residents may know.Some villages claim 40 to 60 percent of their people are born again because of the recent revival meetings. "Many of these communities have been completely transformed, right up to the top, right up to the mayors," says evangelist Billy Arnaquq, who lives in the tiny village of Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island in Nunavut.The Inuit are generally quiet but emotionally expressive; in worship, they often weep over abuses they have suffered or sins they have committed, and laugh out loud from a newfound spiritual joy.With metaphors that listeners can readily grasp, Inuit pastors encourage expressiveness: "Don't be like a caribou that hangs dead in the storage locker!" exhorted one woman pastor in their native tongue of Inuktitut. "You must be alive in Christ."According to church leaders, the charismatic movement has had visible results: people give more of themselves, they make major changes in their lifestyles, and they influence their communities for the better. In several villages, mayors and council members have become active believers, and in a few instances, the mayor doubles as the local pastor. Some villages report sharp drops in suicide and alcohol abuse, although such drops are difficult to verify.

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Grandiose claims

But long-established leaders in the Anglican and Roman Catholic church, which helped bring Christianity to the Arctic 150 years ago, have expressed doubts about the value of charismatic worship and teaching.Traditional church leaders are troubled when they learn that some evangelists are reporting that, just now, native people are hearing the gospel story for the first time."When you see people who are making capital out of the [poor Inuit in the North]—Please send us money so we can go tell them about the love of Jesus—it makes me wonder what their understanding of the North is," says Anglican Bishop Chris Williams. His Diocese of the Arctic is a gigantic territory covering 1.5 million square miles. "People do know the gospel. They don't all listen to it."Williams, who came to the Arctic from England 40 years ago, especially objects to outsiders from southern Canada or the United States who fly up North for revival services and fly out again, making grandiose claims about their evangelistic successes.Ben Arreak, an Inuit Anglican priest in Kuujjuaq, agrees that the northern charismatic movement, which began almost 20 years ago, has been a source of divisiveness. When lifelong Anglicans moved to launch Full Gospel churches, it "caused division of the families and friends in small communities," he says.Further concerns of Williams and other longtime church leaders include:

  • The charismatic movement encourages a second baptism for Christians who were baptized as infants.
  • Charismatic leaders sometimes exploit the emotions of the vulnerable.
  • Some charismatic churches promote a "health and wealth" gospel.

"When extravagant promises are made and then not fulfilled, people get upset and give up on the Lord altogether," says retired Anglican bishop John Sperry.Arnaquq, an independent charismatic evangelist whose father was an indigenous Anglican missionary, is well aware of the culture clash between traditionalists and charismatics. While many charismatic leaders admit they are not immune to criticism, they are finding a new willingness to cooperate and discuss problems."Now many Anglican churches are completely wide open and now they invite us to come," Arnaquq says. "Some of them will open their doors and some of them will not open their doors."

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Newfound openness

Paul Idlout, Anglican regional bishop for Nunavut, says that since the charismatic movement began, sexually abused individuals have been more willing to seek help from the church. "The movement is helping people open their feelings and express their hearts."The charismatic movement has also encouraged more Bible study and an emphasis on grace. Although she was baptized in the Anglican church, "I never heard about being born again," says Annie Tertiluk, a teacher and Full Gospel pastor overseeing churches on the Ungava Coast of Quebec. "I thought God was too holy for me to get close to him."Then again, for every victorious Christian, there are reports of parents who are "slain in the Spirit" on Sunday and neglect their children for bingo games during the week; worship leaders who sing praises to God yet live outside of wedlock; fathers who read the Bible but also sexually abuse their children.Still, the renewal movement has given pastors a new passion to teach biblical morality. At one recent Bible conference, pastor Johnny Oovaut of Quaqtaq, Quebec, rebuked the several hundred people who had gathered from throughout Nunavik and Nunavut to study the Bible. "We have people today, they call themselves Christians," he said. "They're living together. Fornication: that's unholy."

Campaign against suicide

Both traditional and charismatic leaders agree that the Inuit and other northern people have urgent spiritual needs that cannot be ignored by any church.This realization has led to a deeper level of commitment to ministry, especially to dealing with a trio of perils among Arctic residents: alcoholism, sexual abuse, and suicide.In 1997 Anglican priests Moses Idlout and Peter Airo and lay reader Paulusie Padlayat undertook Trek Against Suicide—a 5,000-mile, 65-day snowmobile trip to 35 communities in the Nunavik and Nunavut regions to speak to their people about suicide and sexual abuse.Six people committed suicide in one year in a community of 900. The statistics are similar throughout the North. One study shows the suicide rate in Nunavik to be more than 300 per 100,000 people (and 200 in Nunavut), compared to fewer than 25 in Quebec, the province with the highest suicide rate in Canada. A majority of the people in any given community have lost a relative or close acquaintance through suicide in the last decade.As a result of these talks, people began to open up and respond to the message of love and forgiveness, says Moses Idlout, the younger brother of the Nunavut bishop. When professional counselors Clair and Clara Schnupp of Dryden, Ontario, followed up on the Trek Against Suicide a few months later, almost all the people they interviewed had a heightened awareness of the devastating effects of suicide. A majority—87 percent—felt the communities were already beginning to take more responsible action, including establishing intervention groups and offering counseling.For the Schnupps, a Mennonite couple who have worked with natives for 30 years through Northern Youth Ministries, the feedback was encouraging. Yet it also underscored the need for counseling among Inuit Christians. "We're convinced that what is needed is good, solid biblical teaching that changes the core of the heart, that affects the damaged emotions from all this physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse," says Clair Schnupp.There is a growing consensus among Inuit church leaders that Christian counseling will help struggling believers mature into solid Christians."There's a tremendous need for Christian counseling," says James Arreak, a pastor in the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit who also works full time in the new government's finance department. "When they come to the Lord, they bring with them whatever issues that are left unresolved in their hearts. It takes time and care to deliver the healing and the victory of Jesus Christ."

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A long journey

Many Inuit Christians are far from discouraged about the task ahead of them. Having been nomads for centuries, Inuit are familiar with long journeys.Their parents and grandparents traveled great distances to hear the gospel preached by pioneering missionaries. Many Christian leaders would like to set their differences aside."The Lord didn't call me into a denomination," says Moses Idlout. "The Lord calls me to be filled with the Holy Spirit and introduce [others] to the Lord and fill them up with the Holy Spirit."

Related Elsewhere

At this Nunavik tourism site you can see photos of the area, read a native history, and learn Inuit words. Nunatsiaq News is one of the largest papers servicing the Nunavik area.These basic Nunavut facts were created to help kids get to know the region, but adults might be interested in the information on this list as well.Previous Christianity Today stories about ministries in arctic North America include:Potlatch Gospel | Alaskan churches debate whether they should reach at-risk youth by using their culture's pre-Christian traditions. (June 15, 2000) Arctic's Anglican Bishop Looks for Priests to Brave the Cold | Nine vacancies in Anglican Communion's largest diocesan territory, but no prospects. (Jan. 27, 2000)Previous Christianity Today stories examining revivals include:A Fresh Encounter with God | Anne Graham Lotz says, "Just give me Jesus" in five-city revival. (May 11, 2000) Violence Mars Bonnke's Revival | Sixteen Nigerians die during opening rally. (Dec. 18, 1999) Harvest Season? | Filipinos are turning to God, but rapid church growth strains relationships among Christians.(June 14, 1999) Dental Miracle Reports Draw Criticism | (May 24, 1999) Hungry for God | Why more and more Christians are fasting for revival. (April 5, 1999) The Selling of 'Miracle City' | (April 5, 1999) Pensacola Outpouring Poised to Cover the Globe | (Feb. 8, 1999) The Cornfield Revival | For two years, thousands have been jumping for joy. (April 6, 1998) Brownsville Revival Rolls Onward | But success brings intense scrutiny for Pensacola Pentecostal church. (Feb. 9, 1998)

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