A Plea For Gospel Sanity in Missions: From East to West (Part 1)
Editors Note: This article is part of a three part series.
Part 2: Intoxicated with the Miraculous
Part 3: Overeager to Contextualize the Gospel
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?”
“Well, our 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 is, “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 years.”
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.
“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.”
The conversation 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.
Numbers 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.
Western Missions 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 with whom 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 three points.
i. Where are the churches?
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 of “conversion”?
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.”
iii. False 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.
Indigenous 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 missionaries go 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 numbers alone.
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 faithfulness.
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 testimonies.
 My goal here is not primarily to advance a biblical and theological argument against the church-growth movement or against the more contemporary pragmatic proponents of “church-planting movement” (CPM) strategies. Rather, my aim here is primarily to point out the bad fruit of such methodologies in India. For my critique of the church-growth movement’s principles, see my forthcoming article in the Spring 2015 issue of the Southern Baptist Journal of Missions and Evangelism (will be available online). For an incisive and penetrating critique of CPM methodologies see the excellent articles by Jackson Wu: “There Are No Church Planting Movements in the Bible: Why Biblical Exegesis Missiological Methods Cannot Be Separated” and “The Influence of Culture on the Evolution of Mission Methods: Using ‘Church Planting Movements’ as a Case Study.”
Ken R. Gnanakan, “Caste and the Indian Church: A Response to Donald McGavran,” Transformation 2 (1985): 24.
See 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 http://zeenews.india.com/news/bihar/bjp-demands-anti-conversion-law_1522141.html; 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 at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/dont-want-a-religion-that-only-rejects-us-say-the-aligarh-dalits-on-rss-list/. 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 http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Tamil-Nadu:-A-thousand-Dalit-Christians-reconvert-to-Hinduism-12011.html.