A Singing Community: Worship in the Navajo tradition

On the Navajo reservation, many congregations are small. People know each other well, and the informal worship service flows naturally into a fellowship meal. Families worship together, feeling no need for nurseries or childrens worship. If it gets a little noisy, the minister just speaks a little louder!

The service that follows is told in narrative and outline form. See the sidebars in this article for specific examples of prayers and other liturgical elements common to a typical Navajo Christian Service.

Gathering Together for Worship

Navajo worship often begins informally, as soon as two or three people have gathered. An older man or woman will announce, "There's enough here to sing," and will offer a brief testimony to get the service started—something like, "We thank God for the rain that fell yesterday and for the sunshine today, so let's sing a song of thanksgiving."

Then the singing begins, without accompaniment. As the group finishes each song, someone else may suggest another song and give another introduction: "When I was small, my grandmother used to sing to me. I never understood why she was so happy when she sang this song to me, but now that I have come to know the Lord, I do understand. I love to sing this song!"

And so the singing continues, with people taking turns suggesting songs and with others joining in as they arrive. Even though a congregation that meets in a rural area will not often have a regular church building or any instruments, they still sing. If the congregation has a piano or guitar, those who are able to play will join in when they come, but instruments are not really necessary. All Indians are singing people. They sing for blessings and for tragedies. In all walks of Indian life there is always singing. When the singing is finished (without an eye on the clock), the service continues ...


Greeting and Salutation


(another song or two)


The pastor will ask for requests, write them down, and then lead in prayer. Prayer is always an emotional time in a Navajo congregation. Sometimes requests are elaborate and detailed. There is real unity in prayer, especially in small churches where people know each other and are part of the same clan. These men, women and children are unified twice— by their clan membership and by being Christians.



During the offering, either someone will play the piano or everyone will sing another hymn.

Announcements and Reports

(optional, and again, very informal)


(read by the minister)



(led by the minister)


Conclusion of the Service

In larger city churches, a formal benediction and doxology will conclude the service. But in small reservation congregations, the service very often ends informally, many times without a spoken benediction.

There is always an important concluding ritual: all members of the congregation shake hands—and not just with a few people close by. Everyone shakes hands with everyone else, with both hands clasping both hands of the other. Children are also taught to participate and are included in this ritual of unity with the rest of the congregation. Then, in rural areas where people have traveled some distance, someone takes the cover off the stew pot, and all the members have a church potluck together.

Worship in Navajo congregations follows a pattern very similar to that described in Acts 2:42: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."

The "story" of the service was told to RW staff by Sharon Jim, a Navajo now living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while her husband attends Calvin Theological Seminary. She works for CRC Publications. • Those Reformed Worship readers who would like to use or adapt this service in their local congregations may wish to extend their worship service into a time of fellowship over a meal. Additional resources, including recipes (lamb stew, squash and com dish, fried bread, and Navajo cake) and a recording of Native American music are available. Contact SCORR All Nations Heritage Week, 7S50 Kalamazoo Ave., Grand Rapids, MI 49560.



You have come from afar
and waited long and are wearied.
Let us sit side by side,
sharing the same bread drawn from
the same source
to quiet the same hunger that makes
us weak.
Then standing together
let us share the same spirit, the same
that once again draw us together in
friendship and unity and peace.
[Prieres d'Ozawamick, Canadian Indian liturgical text]


Sharon Jim listed several favorite Navajo hymns found in Jesus Woodlaaji Sin, a 1979 publication of the Navajo Hymnal Conference, New Mexico. Her list primarily included hymns that have their roots outside the Navajo culture: "Amazing Grace," "Blest Be the Tie that Binds," "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," "He Lives," and "Trust and Obey." As in many churches started by missionaries, nineteenth-century gospel songs, the ones first translated by the missionaries into the native tongue, predominate among the Navajos. They, like most people converted by missionaries in the past, were urged to leave behind the music of their culture, which was often closely tied to native religion, and to adopt hymns from the missionaries' culture.

One of the challenges to the next generation of Native American Christians is to reclaim more of their culture for Christ, including the songs they sing. The three examples of true Native American hymns given on these pages were published in the 1990 Untied Methodist Hymnal, a hymnal with a wealth of music from many different cultures.


Prayer to the Holy Spirit

O Great Spirit,
whose breath gives life to the world,
and whose voice is heard in the soft
We need your strength and wisdom.
Cause us to walk in beauty.
Give us eyes ever to behold
the red and purple sunset.
Make us wise so that we may under-
stand what you have taught us.
Help us learn the lessons you have
hidden in every leaf and rock.
Make us always ready to come to you
with clean hands and steady eyes,
so that when life fades, like the fading
our spirits may come to you without
shame. Amen.
[Traditional Native American Prayer]


O God, you are like a weaver-woman
in our lives.
Out of the energy of the universe
you have spun each one of us
into a unique, colorful strand
with our own special hue and texture,
and have woven us together
into your human family that blankets
the globe.
We admit that our own choices have
severed us
from your loom of life and created
in the whole of our human fabric.
We have allowed ourselves to be
bound by the narrow contexts
into which we were born and now live
our daily lives.
To insulate ourselves from fatigue and
and to insure our own survival,
we have often refused to ask the hard
that need to be asked
for the sake of the well-being of all
O God, open our eyes to the mystery
and power of your Spirit.
Refresh us with the light of your vision
so that we may once again recognize
the beauty and wonder
of the specially spun thread that we
and the splendor of the one colorful
cloth of humanity.
Reattach us to your loom
so that your vision may be made plain
through us.
In the name of the Christ,
the One who was at one with all of life.
[Prayer from the USA, source unknown (The weaver-woman is significant in Navajo stories and culture)]

Reformed Worship 25 © September 1992 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.