Posts By: Aubrey Sequeira
The scene was so
disorienting, it felt like it must be from a Hollywood (or Bollywood) movie. We
are in a bustling bazaar in a large
city in Northern India. A white dude in skinny jeans rides up on a mini-motorcycle
to meet us. He guides us through narrow “gullies” (alleyways) into the small
and crowded neighborhood in which he lives and works. We hear about the
ministry that he and his friend are engaged in here.
win a particular people group to Christ. But they don’t want to work alongside
the established national church. They want to win people groups to Christ, but
they don’t want to teach these people what it looks like to be followers of
Christ. Rather, they want people to be able to follow Christ “from within their
own cultures.” Yet in many cases, what results is a hodge-podge mix of religion
that has virtually no resemblance to biblical Christianity.
There are more
than a few such foreign workers laboring in India.
posts, I addressed two major issues plaguing missions work in India: the craze
for numbers and the West’s fascination with “supernatural” testimonies. Here, I
wish to address another issue that is quickly gaining traction and causing
problems in India, much like it has in the Muslim world: extreme forms of “contextualization.”
What Do I Mean By Contextualization?
“Contextualization” is the word used in
mission’s scholarship to describe how the gospel should be fleshed out in
varying cultures. Am I opposed to contextualization? Of course not! In my years
of ministry in India, I’ve never worn a tie to preach. I often preach barefoot,
and the congregations are dressed in Indian attire and seated on the floor.
When I preach in the West, I am almost always in suit and tie. The tone of my
preaching is different, the illustrations I use are different, and the matters
to which I apply the Scriptures are different, all depending on context…and yes, my wife wore a saree (and not a dress) on our wedding
day. And certainly, I am thankful for the many Western missionaries who
contextualize the Bible’s message in ways that are biblically warranted,
helpful, and appropriate to the culture.
My purpose here
is not to criticize contextualization. Neither do I wish to get into nuanced discussions
about the spectrum of contextualization and how much contextualization is
legitimate. Rather, I wish to raise awareness about certain illegitimate forms of contextualization that
are taking root in missions in India. These forms of contextualization receive
their impetus from Western missionaries who refuse to cooperate with the established
national churches, believing that they understand more about Indian culture
than anyone else. And much like the “Insider Movements” of the Islamic world, most of these teachings result in false
and heretical movements in India, far removed from biblical Christianity. It is
my prayer that what I share here would challenge brothers and sisters in the
West to cease supporting missionaries who propagate false teachings and
practice harmful methods of ministry.
“Hindu Followers of Christ”?
Some of my
encounters with Western Christian workers in India leave me feeling deeply
disturbed. Last summer, I was visiting India when my ministry team bumped into
one of these guys—an American who has spent almost the last decade in India. He
considers us Indian Christians too “Westernized.” He thinks that he’s more
attuned to Indian culture, for he celebrates Indian festivals and practices
several Indian / Hindu customs—customs that Indian believers such as myself
have rejected. This Westerner believes that the things he does will help remove
barriers to belief among the high caste Hindus he’s seeking to reach.
There are others
like him who dot the missions landscape in India…They come from many varied
backgrounds in the West, but a lot of them are latte-sipping, skinny-jeans-wearing
Christian Hipsters from the West coast or Canada, who for whatever reason, seem
to have grown bored or disillusioned with traditional Christianity. They’re
looking for something new. They’ve read the latest and greatest books on
missions, contextualization, and culture (and perhaps a smattering of emergent
church literature and post-modern philosophy). And so they come to India and
try to form communities of “Yeshu-Baktha
Hindus” or “Hindu disciples of Jesus.” They don’t want to be identified as
“Christians” because they consider this “too Western” (never mind Acts 11:26!).
communities, a puja or Hindu
initiation ritual performed in Jesus’s Name takes the place of Christian
baptism. The “Lord’s Supper” consists in the breaking of a coconut and drinking
of coconut water. Bhajans (Hindu
devotional songs) are sung in Jesus’ Name instead of Christian hymns. The place
of worship is lit up by little diyas (Indian
oil lamps typically used in Hindu religious ceremonies). Preaching finds no
place in these communities, for “monologue” is considered a Western idea. These
groups are led by “gurus” instead of “pastors.” And the storyline of Scripture is
replaced by a storyline borrowed from the indigenous culture: Jesus is
understood in terms of Hindu mythology and Jesus’s sacrifice is interpreted in light
of the Vedas.
propagate such teachings typically do
it from good motives. They are wary of a colonialist form of missions that
imposes Western culture on indigenous Christians. They truly want to see an
indigenous Christian movement established. They’ve bought into the latest
“missions research” which says that that removing cultural barriers to belief
is the best way to achieve church growth. And so they dress up
Christianity in the garb of specific cultural groups hoping that these groups
would accept the Christian faith while retaining their culture.
My Response: Shall We Provoke the Lord to
well-meaning proponents of “contextualized” Christianity do not realize that
they are presenting a garbled gospel and forming sub-Christian communities. I
will respond here by identifying four serious problems with these
i. Syncretism and a Biblical Worldview.
First, the natural
result of such kinds of “contextualization” is syncretism of the worst kinds—a
dangerous and damning mix of the Hindu and Christian worldviews. In more
serious cases, I do not hesitate to call the movements heretical. The eager
proponents of “contextualization” think that they are preserving Indian culture,
but they do not realize that for Indians (unlike in the West), culture,
worldview, and religion are inextricably intertwined. Most Indians, including “Westernized
Christians” such as myself, as well as former Hindus who have trusted in
Christ, recognize this fact.
The close link
between culture and religion in the Indian mind is the reason that most Indians
have a negative impression of Christianity, for they assume that all Western
cultures are “Christian cultures.” However, Christianity is not a product of
“Western” culture. Rather, the Christian message is a worldview that transforms
all cultures, both East and West. The
Gospel demands a renunciation of secular thinking, immorality, and profligate
living in the West, just as it demands a renunciation of idolatry and
superstition in the East. We must proclaim the transcultural lordship and glory
of Jesus, rather than hyper-orienting our message and praxis around specific
The Apostles never
permitted pagan cultures to influence the biblical message or the form of
Christian worship. Rather, even in a pagan culture like Corinth, Paul gives the
Scriptures pre-eminence. Writing to a predominantly Gentile congregation in
Corinth, Paul calls these believers to see their identity in terms of the
biblical storyline (1 Cor 10). Paul prescribes what should happen in their
worship services and even dictates to them how they should take the Lord’s
Supper (1 Cor 11–14). Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ in
“accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–4), and not some cultural
metanarrative from Corinth. Scripture forms the people of God, not vice versa. I
have often wondered if a connection exists between contextualization movements
and the influence of post-modernism. The authority is shifted from the revealed
Word to the community of readers.
“contextualized” movements disregard the biblical principle that darkness has
no fellowship with light, and Christ has no part with Belial (2 Cor 6:14–15). And
Christ’s Word is mutilated in the name of “contextualization.”
national believers advance these criticisms, we are labeled as being
“Westernized.” In fact, Indian “Christian background” believers are told that
we have no right to speak on such issues at all, for we are the root cause of
the problem. But even when “Hindu background” believers voice their
concerns—and I know several who do—they are sidelined as having already been
“Westernized.” The irony is astonishing: These are Westerners claiming that they know more about Indian culture than Indians who have been born and raised in
ii. Christ Commands Us to “Teach”
Some of the more
moderate “contextualization” advocates with whom I’ve interacted tell me that
they do not want Western understandings of Christianity to be imposed on people
in India. Therefore, instead of teaching Indians what Christian life and
worship looks like, they ask them to read the Bible and come to their own
conclusions. Sounds good doesn’t it?
Christ has commanded us otherwise. The Great Commission includes the call to make disciples, teaching them to obey all of Christ’s commands (Matt 28:18–20).
And Christ’s commands are revealed in the apostolic Word—the Bible. The Bible
sets the agenda. The Bible forms Christian identity. The Bible shows us what
Christian life and worship looks like. And the Bible tells us that Jesus equips
his people through teachers (Eph
4:11). This means that we must interpret and apply the Word of God across
ethnic and cultural lines—much like Paul the former Jew did in the
congregations that he formed in Gentile and pagan cultures. The notion that
communities should read and come to their own conclusions is actually rooted in
the post-modern mindset that places authority in the community rather than in
iii. “Insider Movements” and “Secret
of “contextualization” movements is the emergence of Hindu “insider movements.”
Proponents of “insider movements” teach people to remain as “secret
believers” or as “Hindu devotees of Jesus” (Yeshu-Bakhta
Hindus) so that they will not be excluded from their families and
communities but can instead stay on the inside in order to “eventually win more
converts to Christ.” Furthermore, those who advocate these forms of
contextualization—in direct violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 (cf. also 1 Cor.
7:39)—teach people to prefer marriage to unbelievers from their same backgrounds
and ethnic / caste group over marriage to believers of other groups. They also
insist that “Hindu followers of Jesus” should never intermarry with “Christian
The pragmatic desires to maintain cultures and grow
the church result in a dilution of the gospel message, and a casting aside of
the call to follow Christ at the cost of persecution and exclusion from one’s
kin (Matt 10:34–38; Mark 8:31–38; John 15:18–25; 16:33; 2 Tim 3:12).
This testimony of a sister in Christ from a Hindu
background illustrates the point:
When I became a Christian, there
were some people in my area who started teaching me that I should remain a
“secret believer” and not inform anybody of my faith. They did not want me to
be excluded from my family. Therefore they encouraged me to live as a “secret
believer” so that I could remain within my family, hoping that eventually my
family and community would also come to Christ. When I moved to a different
area to start a job, I learned that this teaching was seriously wrong. I found
great freedom in finally expressing my faith in Christ openly and boldly told
my parents and community. I told them about Jesus and the work he has done in
my life. Though I was rejected and ostracized at first, after ten years, my
family finally began to respect my decision to follow Christ. They even
attended my wedding to a Christian believer in the church!
Indian church leaders like myself and my Indian
co-laborers call people to be open and committed followers of Christ and to
come under the authority and discipleship of the local church. In response, proponents
of “contextualization” condemn us for practicing “extraction evangelism”
(taking individuals out of their families / communities) and not “stimulating
the growth of people movements.” But if I remember correctly, it was Jesus who
declared that those who follow him would be hated by all for his name’s sake,
and that a person would find enemies among those of his own household, yet one
must embrace and follow Jesus at the cost of all these (Matt 10:34–39). The New
Testament tells us that Christians are “sojourners and exiles” who have been
“rejected by men” but are “chosen and precious in the sight of God” (1 Pet
2:4–11). Believers are called to bear the reproach of Christ, going with him
“outside the camp” (Heb 13:12–13).
iv. What They Do When It Doesn’t Work.
The irony of it
all is that when it comes to truly winning people to Christ in India, “contextualization”
proponents fail dramatically! Virtually no one is won to Christ, for when the
gospel is not clearly proclaimed, there is no power to draw people from darkness
to light. In fact, very few Indians are interested in joining a movement that
looks in every way the same as their own religion but simply has a new god
tacked on. One of the Westerners I mentioned above has lived in India for
several years and has adopted all these Indian customs, but no one seems
interested in his teaching.
"When it comes to truly winning people to Christ in India, “contextualization” proponents fail dramatically" - Tweet this
desperate for some kind of success, some of these groups resort to shameful and
underhanded tactics. They begin to enter the established Indian churches that
they once spurned. They give some impression of reaching out for fellowship,
and try to gain the trust of national church leaders. And after making their
way into the established church, they begin to target new believers who have
recently embraced Christ from Hindu backgrounds—those who are weak and facing
imminent persecution and rejection, those who are learning what it costs to
follow Christ. The “contextualization” proponents then begin to brainwash these
weak and fledgling believers, teaching them that they are being “Westernized.”
They are told not to give up their Hindu identity: “You don’t need to be a
Christian—instead, be a ‘Hindu follower of Jesus.’” This is how many
“contextualization” proponents find their “converts.” I know, because I’ve seen
it happen, and I’ve known struggling baby believers who have fallen into these
traps. When things like this happen, I pray that the Lord would obliterate such
So What Can You Do?
Okay, so maybe by
reading this post, you’ve been stirred to take this issue more seriously—what
now? How can you help prevent the growth of these kinds of false and
(1) Please be very careful whom you support.
Most of these Western workers on the field have been funded by orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing churches who would be utterly
horrified to learn of what those they support are doing on the field. Please be
cautious. Hold all your supported missionaries to rigorous doctrinal
accountability, and periodically check in on them to ensure that they are
teaching the truth.
(2) Always be careful to review the values
and distinctives of mission agencies and refuse to support any mission agency
that advocates these extreme forms of contextualization. Contextualization is
necessary in every cross-cultural endeavor, but beware the forms of
contextualization that fall short of biblical Christianity.
(3) If you’re seeking to be a missionary,
resolve that you will not ignore the established national church! Wherever
possible, partner with faithful national church leaders, so that you better
understand the culture and how the gospel should take shape in that culture. I
know this can be challenging, and in many cases national churches are corrupt,
unhealthy, or non-existent! But if at all possible, strive to find faithful and
doctrinally sound national brothers with whom you can partner. I assure
you—they exist. If you are in a pioneer endeavor where no national church
exists, be careful to understand the culture well. Make a distinction between
those forms of culture that are religious and those that are not. Do not shrink
back from teaching the “whole counsel of God”—which means teaching
people to embrace Christianity as an entire worldview. Teach them to reject cultural practices where the Scripture demands
it, and be certain that all your “contextualization” is biblically warranted.
For a quick glimpse into “Insider Movements” in the Islamic world, see this
insightful interview with a Bangladeshi pastor: http://www.wts.edu/stayinformed/view.html?id=1579
Editors Note: This post is one in a three part series. You can read the first article here.
I sit there, intrigued, as I listen to the man’s story. We are in an important (and extremely unreached) city in North India. Detail upon intricate detail mounts as he narrates the amazing events that caused him to renounce Sikhism for Christianity. I listen intently as he tells us of the healing his mother received from a life-threatening illness, his subsequent rise from rags to riches, the persecutions he has faced, and most importantly, the supernatural vision in which he saw a figure cloaked in white who squeezed his hand and told him “I will bless you.”
He rubs his moistened eyes, wiping away tears…and then he tells us that though it has been over 20 years now, he can still feel the hand of that otherworldly figure squeezing his hand today. My Western friends listen, some of them wary, but a couple of them, enthralled…
My Indian co-laborer nudges me as we listen. We are all too familiar with the gimmick—this is something we’ve seen and heard many times before. The man finishes his story, and one of my Western friends, a sincere brother—in fact, one who is fairly solid in his theology—remarks, “Wow! Praise God! That’s such an awesome testimony brother!”
Inwardly, I feel flabbergasted! How is it that even people who know their Bibles and understand the Gospel well get duped by this stuff?! Isn’t the complete absence of the gospel in his testimony obvious??
My Indian friend and I begin to explain to the man about the true forgiveness of sins that only Jesus can provide, about Christ’s death and resurrection and his sin-bearing substitutionary sacrifice on the cross…he looks puzzled, for he has no idea what we’re talking about! All he knows is that “Jesus is the only god who will bless you.” That’s why he became a Christian. That’s why he became a pastor. And he’s been a pastor for 20 years! He used to be a poor Sikh, but now he’s driving a posh SUV as a “Christian bishop.” He drives us to his “church” building, a multi-story mega-church that seats 3000, and tells us that he’s the “bishop” over a ministry that plants several hundred churches every six months. But one could replace the name “Jesus” everywhere in his testimony with the name of any other god, and it wouldn’t make a difference…
And to make matters worse, this “bishop” has a Western missionary, totally taken in by his story, functioning almost like his foot-servant. Why not, since the missionary can report back all this bishop’s numbers as his own!
In my previous post, I talked about the evil fruit that results from a craze for numbers and “rapid growth” in missions in India. In this post, I want to focus on a second major problem—the West’s enchantment with the “supernatural.” My intent here is not to enter into the debate over whether God still operates supernaturally or not. Rather, I hope to alert my brothers and sisters in the West to the dangers of being allured by sensational stories that are devoid of the biblical gospel message. I also hope to call my brethren in both India and the West to keep the gospel message central in all our gospel work, and to prize the power God’s Holy and Authoritative Word above all else.
Has the Holy Spirit Migrated from West to East?
The Beatles. Madonna. Julia Roberts. Eat, Pray, Love. College students without a job. One can think of a long list of people in the West who are fascinated with the otherworldliness of Eastern spirituality. And this trend has found its way into the Church as well. I’ve grown weary of hearing it over and over: “We Western Christians are so narrow-minded. We put God in a box! We place limits on what he can do. That’s why we don’t see God work supernaturally here like he does in the East.” Many of my brothers and sisters in the West have bought into this false idea that the Western church is devoid of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work today—while the third member of the Trinity is greatly active in the East, in places like India and China, where people are purportedly seeing dreams and visions and miracles are happening all over the place. In the West, people are fascinated and allured by all the amazing testimonies and reports they hear from what is happening “out there” on the mission field.
But sadly, this fascination with the “supernatural” is often accompanied with a loss of discernment. At times, Westerners get so googly-eyed with sensational stories from the East that they don’t even notice the non-existence of any form of the gospel message.
Westerners get so googly-eyed w/ sensational stories that they don’t notice the absence of the Gospel. - Tweet this
Beloved friends, Wake Up! The Holy Spirit has not transferred locations! He is just as active in the West as He is anywhere else in the world, doing what He has been sent to do—empowering witness to Christ (John 15:26–27; Acts 1:16; 1 Pet 1:12); convicting the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8); leading the church into all truth (John 16:13); glorifying Christ by drawing people from darkness to light as the gospel message is proclaimed (2 Cor 3:12–4:6); and sealing God’s people for the Day of Redemption (Eph 1:13).
Oh that we would recognize that the greatest, most supernatural work of God is when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of sinners to the glory of Christ, regenerating and renewing them through the proclamation of the gospel, so that they are transferred out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith! Do we not realize that the Spirit of God is sovereign and active, accomplishing this work in every place where Christ is faithfully proclaimed from the Scriptures?
I know of so many dear brothers and sisters in the West whose testimony goes something like this: “I grew up in a Christian home. From my youngest years, my parents taught me the Bible. My parents loved the Lord. They pointed me to Christ and told me of his sacrificial death on behalf of sinners. I was very young when I heard the gospel, repented of my sins, and trusted Christ for salvation. And so I’ve grown up almost all my life knowing the Lord.” Beloved friends, is this less glorious or less supernatural in any way? Is this not a demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s power to raise dead sinners to life? Have we forgotten the glory of the gospel? Have we forgotten that all heaven celebrates when one sinner comes to repentance?
Let us not emphasize other things, for this has disastrous consequences…
The Fabrication of Testimonies that Titillate
In my last post, I talked about the corruption prevalent in ministries in India owing to an emphasis on numbers in the West—Inflated numbers and false reports of great revivals are generated in order to bring in Western cash. Likewise, the West’s fascination with sensational stories has a similar corrosive effect—testimonies are fabricated in order to dazzle and daze Western believers into generously giving financial support. And once again, I am sorry to say that my Western friends—even the theologically sound ones—are gullible.
In India, I have encountered professing Indian believers who don’t say much to me by way of testimony—why would they, since I am just a fellow Indian. But these very people, when they meet a Westerner, as soon as they see white skin, are quick to narrate stories of dreams, visions, and amazing supernatural experiences.
On more than one occasion, I have had the heartbreaking experience of meeting churches and believers in the West who have had the awful experience of being duped by Indian “ministries.” For instance, one Indian “evangelist” hoodwinked a whole network of churches with his fantastic testimony:
He claimed to have been raised as a religious Hindu, and his family owned a snake that they worshipped daily. As an adult, he was gripped with religious fervor and zeal for Hinduism. He was on his way to attack and kill Christians when he saw a vision of Christ that halted him, and brought him to tears. He then became a Christian, resolving to proclaim the faith he once persecuted, and despite being rejected by his family and friends, he is following Christ and serving him as an evangelist.
Several churches and ministries supported this “man of God,” only to later learn that the entire story was made up! This man actually grew up as the son of a pastor in a “Christian home,” and fabricated this testimony because he learned that it is only testimonies like this that generate support from the West. And let me assure you that this story is not an isolated case! There are many, many others like this one… and in every case, my Western brothers and sisters are quick to be amazed—and sadly—deceived.
Such deception could be avoided by exercising more caution and discernment—by verifying every detail of such testimonies (especially in view of its extraordinary details) on the account of eye-witnesses; and by carefully checking if the person understands the biblical gospel and prizes it above such experiences.
The Propagation of the Prosperity “Gospel”
When Western believers unwittingly get carried away with sensational stories of the supernatural, not only does corruption thrive in India, but so does false teaching. Even churches and believers who decry the evils of the heretical prosperity gospel actually promote its growth in India. How? By endorsing and supporting ministries in India that emphasize great miracles while teaching the anti-gospel health-and-wealth doctrine. Because the ministries in India that emphasize great miracles are also those that most often teach the anti-gospel health-and-wealth doctrine. They do not begin with the biblical gospel, so we should not be surprised to find that the content of their ministries is not the biblical gospel! Yes, it’s true. And this is also tied to the craze for numbers: the “prosperity gospel” prospers, and brings in the people by the droves. It thus boasts of both supernatural “miracles” and big numbers.
Let’s Put the Emphasis in the Right Place
My brothers and sisters, the only way for true gospel growth to happen in India is for us to remember how gospel growth comes—through the Gospel! The Gospel proclaims that all people everywhere have sinned and rebelled against God our Creator and stand justly condemned under his holy judgment; but God graciously saves sinners through his Son Jesus Christ, who lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death on the cross as a substitute for sinners, and was raised from the dead, so that all who repent of their wickedness and trust in him alone receive full forgiveness of sins and eternal life through him. The Story of God’s great and supernatural plan of salvation must take precedence over all other “supernatural stories.”
Let us not get carried away by stories of dreams and visions, but let us stand firm on the bedrock of the inspired Word of God. Even the apostle Peter, who was an eye-witness to the glory of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, who heard the very voice of God and saw with his own eyes the Son of God in all his majestic glory, tells us that we have something more sure than his experience. Something “more fully confirmed, to which we would do well to pay attention”—the Bible (2 Pet 1:16–21).
The faithful Indian co-laborers that I know, who sincerely work for true gospel growth in the hardest regions of India do one simple thing when anyone comes to them with stories of a dream or vision or anything else. Open God’s Word. Point them to the Bible. Remind them that such “supernatural” occurrences might be shaky and uncertain, but the Scripture is steadfast and true. Do we thank God for dreams, visions, supernatural healings, deliverances and any other special acts of God’s providence that glorify Christ? Absolutely. But the most supernatural work of all is when the Holy Spirit brings people to submit to the Supernatural Book.
My brothers and sisters in the West, will you hear me out? In your support of gospel work in India, will you be discerning and resolve not to get carried away by the sensational stuff? Will you remember that the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of the Scriptures are what produces a people conformed to Christ’s image? Will you ensure that any “gospel work” that you endorse or support is founded on the message of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners, the gospel of repentance and faith, and God’s Holy and Inspired Word? I pray that you will.
So the next time you hear a testimony from India (or anywhere), be careful to discern whether the person has truly understood the gospel. And be careful to ensure that God receives the glory above all else for his marvelous supernatural work in saving lost sinners.
In my next post, I will address another burning issue in missions in India—“contextualization.”
I feel like I’ve
had the conversation more than a thousand times. In my years living in the
United States, believers often meet me and having learned that I’m from India,
they ask: “Oh! Have you heard of the Indian minister _____? ”
“No, I haven’t. How do you know him?”
church supports him—he’s an amazing evangelist and has planted churches in the last 5 years, has
opened 5 orphanages and runs a Bible College to train pastors!”
“Really? Do you know him personally?”
In most cases the reply in, “Sure, we’ve met him. He visited our church and shared his testimony. He has
such an amazing testimony— His vision is to plant more than 30,000 churches in the next 10
It’s been hard
for me not to grow cynical and feel frustrated each time I have conversations
like these. Because what my Western brothers and sisters often don’t understand
is that most Indian “ministries” have learned what excites people in the West.
Indians have learned that massive numbers and astounding testimonies are what
dazzles the Western church. And when supporting partners in the West are
impressed, that typically means that the dollars will rush in. Unfortunately,
Western churches seldom—if ever—learn that in many cases, the numbers are
inflated, testimonies fabricated, and the “gospel work” that they’ve been
investing in is a mirage.
I’ve described above illustrates some particular issues in missions that I’ve
watched with growing concern … and as an Indian, born and raised in India, who
came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the faithful labors of a Western
missionary in my city, I feel responsible to voice my concerns.
In this series
of blog posts, I hope to address in turn some of the major problems in missions
in India—problems arising from certain emphases in the West. These problems are
perpetuated and exacerbated both by Western missionaries who go to India, and Western
churches who support indigenous Indian ministries. My desire is not to be
pessimistic and critical, but to call us all to be faithful and obedient to the
biblical commands to “make disciples” and proclaim the “whole counsel of God.”
Consider this series of posts a plea from East to West for gospel-centered
sanity in missions.
In this first
post, I will discuss one of the primary problems in missions in India—the
Western drive for numerical efficiency. That is, the idea that large numbers
are a validation of God’s blessing and ministry success.
and Strategies over Scriptural Soundness?
The corporate world is infatuated with numbers. Big numbers.
Numbers are the order of the day in every sphere of life, and the drive for
impressive numbers has found its way into the church and the church’s mission,
both in the West, and—as a result of Western influence—in India. Most missions
buzzwords are in some way colored by the notion of numerical efficiency:
“rapid.” “multiplication.” “strategy.” “growth.”
Every “vision” and every “report” has some kind of a
numerical tag attached to it. 5000 churches in 5 years. 30,000 baptisms in 3
years. Bigger and faster = better. Right?
Sadly, the Western church’s obsession with numbers has had a
destructive effect so that the name of Christ is blasphemed in India.
The sinful craze for bigger and better numbers has tainted
both indigenous ministries and the work of Western missionaries in India. The
notion that numerical growth is an indicator of faithfulness is foreign to the
Scriptures and actually arises from the “church-growth movement.” But sadly, most churches—even those that hold
to a more robust God-centered theology of the gospel—have bought into this
false idea that “rapid growth” is the primary sign of God’s blessing. The
faster you grow, the more faithful you are.
The notion that numerical growth is an indicator of faithfulness is foreign to the Scriptures - Tweet this
I hope to debunk this false idea by discussing some of the
disastrous effects that it has had on missions in India. But more than that, I
hope to rouse my Western brothers and sisters to a more sane, faithful, and
gospel-centered approach to missions. We may certainly celebrate numerical
growth if it accords with the Scriptures. But when numerical growth replaces
Scriptural priorities, the gospel is compromised and Christian witness
tarnished. By pointing out some of the devastating results of an emphasis on
numbers, I hope to encourage Western churches to be discerning in the
missionary works they support and encourage my Indian brothers to seek true
gospel growth in their ministries regardless of whether that looks impressive
to the West or not.
in India and the Scourge of Christian Nominalism
Missionary reports from India are filled with the news of
the amazing “people-movements” to Christ that are taking place all over the
country. Missionaries I’ve talked have described their work in these terms: “7000
churches were planted in Kashmir in the last 5 years.” “50,000 new believers were
baptized in New Delhi last year.” “Hundreds of thousands of low-caste ‘Dalits’ (untouchables)
coming to know Christ.” We are told that things are happening in India on an
“unprecedented scale,” matched only by the opening chapters of the book of
Acts. Is this for real? Let me respond with 3 points.
i. Where are
A fellow Indian co-laborer in the gospel
(who labors in one of the hardest regions in North India) tells me that when he
hears Western friends talk about these thousands of churches planted, without
blinking, he wryly asks for their address and postal code, so he can go visit. His
point is not that all churches must have a physical address, but that these
so-called numbers reported are of phantom churches that don’t exist in reality.
The numbers are a delusion! The so-called “churches” are
typically nothing more than a group of three or four people made to gather
together once or twice casually. They hear a couple of watered-down Bible
stories, and vanish into oblivion after that.
In most Western missions work in India,
pragmatic priorities have supplanted biblical ones. A Western missionary friend recently told me
that upon his deployment to India, superiors in his organization insisted on
being “strategic” to “stimulate rapid growth” by planting “rabbit-churches”
that are quickly established and multiply fast, rather than “elephant churches”
that take long to establish and then require much labor in discipleship,
slowing things down. My friend’s forthright response: “But rabbit churches get
devoured by hawks and wolves.”
The craze for numbers and the push for rapid growth results
in “churches” that have no gospel, no trained leadership, no theology, and no
depth—making them easy prey for the heresies of prosperity theology,
syncretism, and other false teachings.
ii. What kind
Even worse, the scourge of Christian nominalism brings
reproach on the name of Christ from unbelievers in India. The push for numbers
and rapid growth in missions has resulted in much distortion and dilution of
the gospel message today. People are taught to “believe in Jesus,” “receive
Jesus,” or “make a decision for Jesus”
without any of the biblical teaching on repentance. The so-called “conversions”
that result are nominal at best, deceptive at worst.
Disregarding the biblical mandates and qualifications for
church elders (1 Tim 3:1–7, esp. v. 6 – “he must not be a new convert”),
missionaries appoint unqualified indigenous “leaders” whose only “training” is
a week-long seminar with a missionary team.
In many cases, people “convert” in
droves, believing that converting to Christianity will bring them certain
social or economic benefits. Missionaries triumphantly send reports back home
with testimonies featuring stupendous and unfathomable statistics of people
converted and churches established. Ken R. Gnanakan, an Indian theologian,
responding to the church-growth movement several years ago, phrased it well:
“In our zeal to report back numbers to our prayer partners, we have left
congregations to continue to follow their Hindu thinking, and apart from a
change in name and place of worship there is little difference between the
so-called Christians and their Hindu neighbors.”
Conversions Lead to Persecution.
The plague of
false conversions also has political ramifications and leads to persecution.
Hindus accuse Christians of luring uneducated people and those of the lower
castes by promising them benefits. Group conversions and nominal Christianity
finally result in mass reversions back to Hinduism when underprivileged
populations, who originally converted to Christianity hoping that it would
raise their social status, find that Hinduism may have more to offer them
politically. Most of
these reconversions are accompanied with the testimonies that say, “I used to
be a Hindu, I converted to Christianity on the basis of several false promises
made to me, and now I’m coming back to Hinduism.” Does not all of this raise
the question of precisely what sort of “conversion” is taking place? Certainly
not the kind of divine-wrought turning from darkness to light that we see in
the pages of the New Testament.
Missions and the Inflation of Numbers.
The other outgrowth of the Western obsession with numerical
growth is the large number of Indian “ministries” who have caught on to the
trend and are riding the wave—all the way to the bank. Yes, the church in India
is corrupt, as Yahweh says of Israel—“like a raw wound” (Isa 1:6). I speak as
one who knows first-hand of the kind
of corruption that is pervasive across ministries in India.
Many Indian ministries gladly inflate
their numbers and deceive Western supporters into believing that a great gospel
“harvest” is taking place. After all,
it’s the numbers that bring in the cash.
The techniques are tantamount:
A large crowd of
people is assembled in a field and someone on a podium asks them how many ate
“puri-bhaji” (a staple in North India) for breakfast. Hands go up, a picture is
taken, and a picture report is published, reporting “decisions for Christ.” In
other cases, people are asked if they want to receive a financial blessing or
healing. Those who desire it raise their hands, pictures are taken and more
“decisions for Christ” are reported.
On occasion Western supporters visit,
some of them even to do “pastoral training and teaching.” And the Indian
ministry pays a few pastors a token amount to show up for a couple of days.
They do. And the Western missionary goes back, happy and satisfied that they
have not just supported financially, but have “invested” in the lives of people
who are “hungry for the Word” (and the free lunch).
Many of these Indian ministers live in the lap of luxury,
wining and dining at 5-star hotels and getting driven around in luxury cars, as
a result of the dollars rolling in to their ministries.
It is with great sorrow that I find that my Western brothers
and sisters are very gullible—happy to give and support any ministry that
boasts big numbers. The statistics make their eyes glaze over, and they are
blinded to what actually takes place.
A Better Way…
Is this a
rebuke? Yes, in some ways it is. But I write out of heartfelt love, and with a
passion to see soundness and truth begin to take root in missions work in
India. Big numbers simply feed our big egos with the notion that we are doing
something worthwhile for God. But God’s real work simply cannot be measured by
Last summer, I
sat with a faithful Indian brother, an older man of God who has labored for
several decades in one of the hardest and most unreached states in North India.
He told me of Western churches over the years who offered to support him, if
only he would diligently report a certain number of baptisms each month. In
every case, he refused, because he has always believed that conversion is God’s
work and cannot be manufactured. This man has not planted thousands of
churches. The numbers are not sexy and spectacular. But the churches that he
has planted are sound, faithful, gospel-preaching, and disciple-making. The
disciples he has made are those who know the Lord, and in them the Word of
Christ dwells richly. The fruit of his ministry shines like gold in the dung-heap
of other so-called “ministries” all around. And God will reward his
Let me share
with you another personal story, this time, of a foreign missionary. I knew a
missionary who lived and worked in India for years—well over a decade. He
established a business in a major city and labored slowly and patiently. He
barely had any converts—in fact, he probably had only one. He died in India and
within months of his death, his business was destroyed. By numerical standards
and “strategic” considerations for “rapid growth,” he was a total failure. By
the standards of many Western mission agencies, the many dollars given to support
him over the years were a total waste. So was his ministry a waste? I think
not. For I was his one convert. He taught me the Gospel. He proclaimed to me
the excellencies of Christ. He taught me how to read the Bible and how to
discern truth from falsehood. He spent his life in service to his King, and my
eternity is changed as a result.
So I plead with my brothers and sisters in the West: In your
sending of missionaries and in your support of indigenous gospel-laborers,
please prioritize faithfulness over efficiency, quality over quantity, and
growth in truth over growth in numbers. Am I opposed to the growth of the church
and the multiplication of disciples? By no means!
I long to see a
great revival sweep across India. Indeed, I pray that masses of people are
evangelized and that countless churches are established all across the nation. But let us not strive for manufactured
numbers and “growth” that come from sacrificing truth on the altars of
efficiency and perceived success. In the New Testament, the concern for
numerical growth never drives the mission of the church—a concern for the glory
of Christ does (Rom 1:5). Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit who calls
spiritually dead people out of darkness into the marvelous light of the Lord
Jesus as the gospel is proclaimed with boldness and clarity. Therefore, do not
use numbers as a yardstick to measure God’s work, but rather let God’s work be
measured by the lives of people who
“bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8; Rom 15:18). Rapid growth and
multiplication may well be one indicator of God’s blessing, but they are
certainly never the primary indicator. Let our emphasis be on faithfulness to
God’s Word rather than on numbers. May
our work be driven by Scripture rather than statistics and strategies!
In my next post,
I will examine a second major problem in Western involvement in missions in
India — the issue of the “supernatural” and impressive
R. Gnanakan, “Caste and the Indian Church: A Response to Donald McGavran,” Transformation
2 (1985): 24.
the recent drive of the BJP government in India to pass an “anti-conversion”
law and the spate of “homecoming” (ghar wapsi) reconversion ceremonies to
Hinduism. PTI, “BJP Demands Anti-Conversion Law,” Zee News, December 29, 2014
[online]; available at
Pragya Kaushika, “Don’t Want a Religion that Only Rejects Us, Say the Aligarh
Dalits on RSS list,” The Indian Express, December 14, 2014 [online]; available
Reconversion of mass groups of people to Hinduism has been fairly common in
India for several years. See, for instance, Nirmala Carvalho, “Tamil Nadu: A
Thousand Dalit Christians Reconvert to Hinduism,” Asia News, April 14, 2008
[online]; available at