A Plea for Gospel Sanity in Missions
Part I: Obsessed with Numbers
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 who 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 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 dazzle the Western church—and when supporting partners in the West are impressed, that typically means the dollars rush in. Unfortunately, Western churches seldom, if ever, learn that in many cases the numbers are inflated, the testimonies are fabricated, and the “gospel work” they’ve been investing in is actually a mirage.
The conversation I’ve described above illustrates some particular issues in missions that I’ve watched with growing concern, and as an Indian, who was born and raised in India and 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 turn, I hope to address some of the major problems in missions in India—problems that arise 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 a plea from East to West for gospel-centered sanity in missions.
I. Obsessed with Numbers
First, it’s important to 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.
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.
A 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.
I hope to debunk this false idea by discussing some of the disastrous effects that it’s 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 is tarnished. By pointing out some of the devastating results of the emphasis on numbers, I hope to encourage Western churches to be discerning in the missionary works they support while also encouraging my Indian brothers to seek true gospel growth in their ministries, regardless of whether that looks impressive to the West or not.
THE SCOURGE OF CHRISTIAN NOMINALISM
Missionary reports from India are filled with the news of amazing “people-movements” to Christ that are apparently taking place all over the country. Missionaries I’ve talked to 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) are 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 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 at least one of them. His point is not that all churches must have a physical address, but that these numbers are reporting phantom churches that don’t exist in reality.
In short, the numbers are a delusion. These 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 a long time to establish and then require much labor in discipleship, which slows 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, manipulative at worst.
Disregarding the biblical mandates and qualifications for church elders (1 Tim 3:1–7, esp. verse 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 which 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, and I converted to Christianity on the basis of several false promises. So 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 on 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, and some of them even to “pastoral training and teaching.” So the Indian ministry will pay 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 I admit 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 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 he has planted are sound, faithful, gospel-preaching, and disciple-making. They are not phantoms. 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: 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. May our work be driven by Scripture rather than statistics and strategies!
Part II: Over-awed by the «Supernatural»
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 are absolutely enthralled.
My Indian co-laborer nudges me. 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 am 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.
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!
Clearly, the West has an 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?
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; meanwhile, they say, the third person 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. So 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.
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 of 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
Similar to the Western obsession with numbers, the West’s fascination with sensational stories has had 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—and 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 too 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 their 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.
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 that emphasize great miracles while teaching the health-and-wealth anti-gospel. 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.
PUTTING 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’s not get carried away by stories of dreams and visions, but let’s stand firm on the bedrock of God’s inspired Word. 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 that 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, 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 supernatural 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.
Part III: Over-Eager for Contextualization
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. Their goal: to 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.
I’ve already mentioned 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.”
Now, what do I mean by contextualization? The word used in missions scholarship to describe how the gospel should be fleshed out and made clear 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. 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 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,” and 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. They come from 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!).
In these 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.
Many who 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 own culture.
SHALL WE PROVOKE THE LORD TO JEALOUSY?
Sadly, these 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 “contextualization” movements.
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 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.” But we know Christianity is not a product of “Western” culture. Rather, the Christian message is a worldview that transforms all cultures, both Eastern and Western. 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 trans-cultural lordship and glory of Jesus, rather than hyper-orienting our message and praxis around specific cultural groups.
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.
Proponents of “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.”
When Indian 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 India.
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?
Perhaps, if Christ hadn’t 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 the text.
iii. “Insider Movements” and “Secret Believers”
Another result 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 (also 1 Cor. 7:39)—teach people to prefer marriage to unbelievers from their same backgrounds and ethnic caste groups over marriage to believers of other groups. They also insist that “Hindu followers of Jesus” should never intermarry with “Christian background believers.”
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 and 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.
And so, 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 over and over, 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 “ministries.”
Okay, perhaps 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 destructive teachings?
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. Whenever 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.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Training Leaders International website.
 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.
 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