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In January of 1956, several American missionaries (Jim Elliot and Nate Saint being the best known) attempted to reach a remote tribe in Ecuador in an endeavor that has become known as Operation Auca. The people group, called Huaorani, Waodani, or (pejoratively) Auca, were known for being extremely violent, and when the missionaries met several of them on the beach, the missionaries were killed.

Their deaths sparked significant interest in missions, and also ultimately led to many Huaorani people being converted through the efforts of Elisabeth Elliot (Jim's wife) and Rachel Saint (Nate's sister), among others.

Now, 60 years later, what is the state of Christianity among the Huaorani? What percentage of the people call themselves Christians? Is there a generational gap? Are there among them any established and/or growing churches, particularly with indigenous leadership?

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I contacted I-TEC, Steve Saint's missionary organization, about this question. Steve's son Jaime sent this reply by email:

The Waodani people today are around 20% Christ followers. We don't have any information on how that breaks down on age, though most of the older generation (over 50 years old) are Christ followers. Their churches are very different from ours in many ways. While most of their communities have some Christ followers (the church), they typically do not have organized times of worship. When they have a "service," there may be 10-20 "preachers," depending on who wants to talk. At the same time, they talk about following God's trail on a daily basis.

He also pointed me to the Joshua Project's page on the Huaoroni, which says that 40% are Christians and 0.3% are evangelicals. I asked Saint about the difference between his numbers and those of the Joshua Project, and he replied:

Not sure why the discrepancy. I travel down to the jungles several times a year and have been going for more than 25 years. The Waodani themselves do not count anyone as a Christ follower unless they have have trusted Christ as Savior, been baptized, and the fruit of their lives shows that they are following Christ.

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This article by Stephen E. Saint is a little out of date (1998), but suggests unfinished business. Saint says that there were many conversions among the older generation, who appreciated the arrival of a force that ended the constant rounds of killing, and appreciated things such as medical help. However only a handful of the younger generation is interested in Christianity. Saint says that the arrival of Christianity has led to a culture of dependence, with most churches relying on outside leadership, although this may be changing slowly.

The view of anthropologist James Boster on the impact of Christian missionaries is at variance with that of Saint, because he suggests that "the 'pacification' of the Huaorani was a result of 'active effort' by the Huaorani themselves, not the result of missionary imposition. He argues that Christianity served as a way for the Huaorani to escape the cycle of violence in their community, since it provided a motivation to abstain from killing." This view means that the impact of Christianity has been far less positive that the missionaries would like to believe, and may be a better explanation why Christianity has failed to set down deep roots among the young.

It seems that Christianity is not so much a way of life but, for many, a poorly understood faith system. Saint says that when he was a teenager living among the Huaorani, a friend that he was baptised with led some other young boys in killing a shaman's son. So, several young Christian converts believed that killing the son of a leader of the old religion was good Christian conduct. Some of the older Christians decided that the murderer should be punished, and they prayed for God to carry out this purpose. He died shortly after.

Laura M. Rival (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (published 1999), page 103) says that most Huaorani today say they are evangelical Christians, but that "the way in which Huaoroni people talk about God, select stories from the Bible or preach shows that they have certainly embraced Christianity on their own terms."

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    "that most Huaorani today say they are evangelical Christians, but that in the way they talk about God, select stories from the Bible or preach, shows that they have certainly accepted Christianity on their own terms." - so, no great difference from the overwhelming majority of Western Evangelicals then... – bruised reed Feb 1 '16 at 6:45
  • @Mr.Bultitude I removed this, as you showed that it can be misunderstood. I was not referring to Christian belief as superstition, but to the known fact that even former followers of primitive religions can be influenced by the expectation of death, and thereby die from auto-suggestion. There is here a coincidence of timing that could mean that the murderer's death was connected to the prayers - lingering primitive beliefs led to him accepting death as inevitable when his community prayed for that outcome. Far from being snarky, that shows something about the state of Christianity belief. – Dick Harfield Feb 9 '16 at 2:56
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    Thank you for clarifying, and sorry for jumping to conclusions about your intent. I've edited the answer; see my revision summary for why, and feel free to revert anything you don't like (though I'd caution you to be careful about clearly identifying quotes, even from secondary sources). I have one more question: you mention Boster's view as potentially being "a better explanation why Christianity has failed to set down deep roots among the young"; but are there sources that say that it's failed to take root among the young? If so, please cite those sources in your answer. – MR. TOODLE-OO'D Feb 9 '16 at 17:33
  • I'm not sure about the point of your second paragraph. The WP article summarizes Boster as saying that changing moral standards were driven primarily by the Huaorani, not the missionaries, but doesn't say that therefore it wasn't due to Christianity. If the hearts of individual Huaorani were changed by Christ, then their actions would change, all due to the "impact of Christianity." – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 9 '16 at 18:45
  • Also: perhaps they don't exist, but I'd really like to see sources that are more recent than 1998, 1999, and 2003. Today's Huaorani youth were toddlers or not even born yet when these works were written. – Nathaniel is protesting Feb 9 '16 at 18:48

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