After two centuries of missionary effort, less than 3 percent of India’s 670 millions is Christian.
It is not difficult to be a lover of India. The gentleness and simplicity of its people with their spiritual sensitivity and hunger for God, its handsome men, elegant sari-elad women, and vivacious children with wondering eyes and ready laughter—these are some of the characteristies that endear Indians to those of us who have the good fortune to know any.
The Christian good news reached India very early. Although the claim of Syrian Christians that Saint Thomas came to India in the first century lacks solid historical evidence, yet trade between Palestine and India is known to have flourished at that time, and one of the signatories of the decrees of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 was “John. Bishop of Persia and Great India.”
The Portuguese explorers, who opened up trade with Europe, also paved the way for the Jesuit missionaries, and Francis Xavier arrived in 1542. Protestant missions date from the eighteenth century, and the modern missionary movement may he said to have begun with William Carey, who arrived in Bengal in 1793.
In spite of two centuries of Protestant missionary effort, however, less than 3 percent of India’s 670 millions profess to be Christians, and two-thirds of these are Roman Catholics or Orthodox. Why has the headway been so slow?
The first reason is doubtless the peculiar character of Hinduism in both its intellectual and moral aspects. Intellectually, it is a totally inclusive faith, absorbing everything and rejecting nothing. It would gladly embrace Jesus Christ also—if only he would renounce his exclusive claims. But any talk of his uniqueness or finality is deeply offensive to Hindus. Mohandas Gandhi was a perfect example of this attitude. I have visited Sevagram, the ashram where he lived between 1936 and 1946, and seen the small, glass-fronted bookcase in which he kept his Bhagavad Gita, Koran, and Bible. He loved these three books equally, he said. He greatly admired Jesus, particularly his Sermon on the Mount, but strenuously denied that he was unique.
To this intellectual obstacle a moral one is added, namely the dreadful doctrine of karma, that every human being must eat the fruit of his own wrongdoing, if not in this life then in samsara, the endless cycle of future reincarnations. “A Hindu will never admit that he needs a Savior.” a Christian professor of theology once said to me, “not because he does not acknowledge that he is a sinner, but because he believes he can save himself—by karma, by bhakti (religious devotion), or by ceremonial washing.” This is why the Hindu reformer Vivekananda said that “it is a sin to call a person a sinner.” To such people, steeped in the illusion of self-salvation, the cross is a stumbling block—until in despair (as one convert expressed it to me) they are driven by their own Hindu scriptures, which say there is no forgiveness, to Jesus who says there is, since he died to secure it and offers it to us freely.
A second hindrance to the spread of the gospel has been imperialism, and the Western appearance of the Christianity many missionaries planted. “Everywhere.” wrote Roland Allen in 1912. “Christianity is still an exotic.” Similarly, Stanley Jones, the American Methodist missionary, championed what he called the “naturalization” of Christianity in India. He ended his book The Christ of the Indian Road (1925) with an illustration drawn from an Indian marriage custom: “The women friends of the bride accompany her with music to the home of the bridegroom … that is as far as they can go. Then they retire, and leave her with her husband.” Just so, he argues, the missionary’s “joyous task” is to introduce Christ to India and then to retire. “We can only go so far—he and India must go the rest of the way.”
Yet western missionaries have not always displayed this modesty. In Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s words in The Finality of Christ (1969), they have sometimes confused the tradenda (the fundamentals of the faith which must be handed down) with the tradita (traditions which we have received, but are not indispensable), and have passed on the latter with the former, “a whole mass of stuff.… everything from harmoniums to archdeacons.” It is only with slowness and hesitancy that the Indianization of Christianity is taking place.
The third hindrance to the evangelization of India I am reluctant to mention, because I cannot do so without implied criticism of my Indian brothers and sisters. But it is they who have expressed this matter to me, and I am only passing on their own convictions. It concerns the lack of moral discipline in the churches, and the toleration in church members of such acknowledged evils as caste discrimination, corruption, and litigation. These are public sins, which cause a public scandal. Until there is repentance and renewal, one cannot expect the church to be an effective agent of the gospel.
In spite of these three hindrances, there are many encouragements today.
It is wonderful to watch the development of indigenous Indian missions, especially the Indian Evangelical Mission formed by the Rev. Theodore Williams, and the Friends’ Missionary Prayer Band, whose founder-president is Dr. Sam Kamalesan. The FMPB now has 155 missionaries (mostly in the unevangelized regions of North India), 31 candidates in training, and the stated goal of 440 missionaries by the end of 1982. All these Indian missionaries are supported by Indian money. Moreover, they are finding great receptivity to the gospel in many Hindu villages. In one area of South India, which has previously been totally resistant to the gospel, and in which there is no church building for miles around. 100 baptisms are now taking place each month.
The resolve to evangelize is not limited to the missionary agencies, however. The 1977 All India Congress on Mission and Evangelization at Devlavi addressed its call to “all Christians in India.” Pointing out that 98 percent of evangelistic effort was being directed towards the existing Christian community, it called for a redirection of concern and action towards the responsive segments of the unreached 97 percent of the population. The All India Conference on Evangelism and Social Action followed in 1979. Its Madras Declaration called for the gospel to be visibly demonstrated in Christian action against poverty, injustice, and corruption.
So there is a mood of confident expectancy among evangelical Christians in India today. The Rev. P. T. Chandapilla, general secretary of the Federation of Evangelical Churches of India, spoke to me in Madras in January about the importance of the growing evangelical compassion for the poor and the necessity of good works of love to authenticate our gospel preaching. It is in this context that “We are seeing the greatest turning to Jesus Christ which India has ever seen,” he said, “especially in the tribal belts. For India there is no other option left.”
JOHN R. W. STOTTMr. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls C hurch, London, England.
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