The Church in India by and large is a product of mass conversions. As a result of a treaty-like agreement, toward the end of the 1900s entire villages subjected themselves to wholesale baptisms. Caste, native influence and the incentives involved in accepting the gospel played significant roles in these events. Lower caste individuals treated with hatred and contempt by upper caste people were essentially looking for an identity and dignity; material benefits were also a factor. Together, these things shaped the majority segment of present day Christianity in India.
Conversion and Religion
Conversion is the most important component in the history and psychology of religion. Religious acts and beliefs are intimately merged with all the major interests of life and a group membership implies undeviating participation in the cult. The chief objective of missions is conceived to be conversion. In India many conversions result from the influence of tradition and example. Under such conditions the phenomenon passes into the orbit of the crowd appeal and the accompanying mass excitement.
It is a well known fact that traditional historical Indian churches have often showed a propensity toward the mystical rather than the pedagogic aspect of the faith. Stress was placed on regular attendance, tithing and participation in the religious life of the church. As a result several generations have passed which did not bother about understanding the tenets and teachings of the Bible. Thus, the Church did not fret over systematic teaching and production of sound literature. Unfortunately, church elders, pastors and evangelists are no exception. The great army of Indian evangelists who proceeded to the villages day in and day out did not feel the need to be well-versed with the message they carry. Factors other than the content of the message, such as those listed above, dominated the process.
This, however, is slowly changing. Rising literacy rate, urbanization and increased standards of living have produced a generation throughout rural and urban India whose mindset has changed. Today, most people tend to seek a proper basis before believing or following any teaching. Education and the effects of mass media percolated down to the very grassroots of India. This has posed a new challenge to our rural evangelists. It is not adequate to be simple and depend solely on the miraculous (such as signs and wonders) in order to reach the masses. People in the Indian countryside see numerous individuals of all religions performing what can be called “miracles.” And people are asking questions.
Today there is an increasing demand for scriptural training. Herein lies the problem. The majority of these workers are semi-literate and a good percentage are totally illiterate.
The gospel workers, pastors and educated Christians started taking note of the changing conditions. A new hunger for the word of God and a competence to articulate it in a digestible form to the small groups in the villages emerged. Today there is an increasing demand for scriptural training. Herein lies the problem. The majority of these workers are semi-literate and a good percentage are totally illiterate. Many have only heard the Bible read to them. They lack any basic knowledge of the fundamentals of Christian schooling. Their ignorant ways and antiquated methodology more often than not leads to “God’s name being blasphemed among the gentiles” (Romans 2:24).
Empowering the Village Worker: The Way Forward
The future of gospel preaching unequivocally depends on training and equipping the vast army of village-level workers. On the one hand, no Bible school or college will admit these individuals because they lack basic qualifications for enrollment. On the other hand, they cannot be stopped from meeting people and talking to them about Christ in their own way. The only way out is to attract them to a classroom situation to impart Bible basics. Once they receive some Bible knowledge, instructors can follow up by offering them a regular supply of systematic Bible study material. Out of such rationale and motivation emerged the idea of the Faith Institute of Rural Evangelism (FIRE), a Bible class where individuals are taught in their home villages so that the men and women are not taken away from their work for too long. Since 1988 more than two thousand evangelists have received training and teaching skills through these classes.
After completing the class, “graduates” of these mobile Bible schools also get a Bible guide, Vedapatham (meaning, Path of the Bible), which includes Bible study material. Each guide covers a book of the Bible and includes an analysis of biographies, exposition, typology, Bible geographical notes, pulpit helps and essays. So far guides have been produced for all Old Testament historical books (Genesis to Esther) and the five New Testament historical books (the four Gospels and Acts). A guide for Romans is now in preparation. The guides are all done in the Telugu language, which is spoken by the second largest segment of the population in India.
Equipping the Saints in India
Many thousands of young evangelists in India are passionate about sharing the gospel with those in their villages. They need the resources to do this. May this generation be one that not only comes to Christ and experiences a one-time conversion, but one that is transformed by the word of God.