The business of faith
7 Sep 2008, 0407 hrs IST, Amrita Singh ,TNN
There was a time the Christian missionary spread the word of god in a simple and direct way. He would step off a boat, make friends with locals and after years of effort, count a sizable flock.
Cut to 2008 and it's a different scenario altogether. Church planting agencies, as they are called, have taken over the evangelical role. They ensure that growth targets are set and new churches built. There is quantifiable growth. In the four years from 2003, 22 new International Churches of Christ were built. The Adventists has concrete plans to build 500 new churches too. The Presbyterian Church of south India, which is funded by the UK-based Mission to the World, also has a goal of 500 new churches in the next decade.
The growth means the existing flock has to dig ever deeper into its pockets because the new churches are funded partly by members and partly by foreign donations. Senthil Joseph (not his real name), who goes to church occasionally, says: "Even though I am not a regular, I have to make donations for the new churches. In the last 10 years, since I moved to Delhi, 10 new churches of my (Syrian Christian) sect have come up and every time I have to pay a heavy donation."
Most Christian denominations use the name-and-shame method to force their flock to donate generously. Joseph says: "The amount given is published in the annual telephone directory of the community for every one to see."
The commercial thrust has made the last decade one of the most successful for the growth of Christianity in India. According to a forecast by the World Religious Council, India’s 25 million-strong Christian population could balloon five-fold by 2050.
Church planting agencies have never been busier. These agencies are described by the Indian Evangelical Mission as "specialists in taking Christianity to places where it has no presence and training people to establish new churches there."
One of the most effective church planting agencies working in India is the US-based AD 2000 and Beyond Movement. It is impressively organized, having mapped the whole of India by caste and identifying those most likely to be receptive to their message. AD 2000 lists nine Indian tribes as Priority-I, possibly because they are so poor they’re deemed most likely to convert.
The nine tribes identified by AD 2000 are: Bhilala, Binjhwari, Chero, Kawar/Kamari, Lhoba, Majhwar, Panika, Shin or Sina, and Sikkimese Bhotia. AD 2000 identifies thickly-populated, politically important and moderately poor northern India as "the core of the core of the core".
In a sign of some of these church planting agencies’ sense of purpose, AD 2000 has drawn up detailed plans to target all of India’s 75,000 postal pin codes with the ultimate goal of a church in each.
So, how do church planters work in the 21st century when the days of the itinerant missionary are long gone? Helen, a missionary who has worked among Bhils in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh says the first step is to send a reconnaissance team to the target area to find out if a church is already under construction. The team would also need to study the area and understand its problems.
Armed with this basic information, modern missionaries are expected to work out a sound socio-economic plan for the area. This could include simple things to make the lives of locals better, such as starting a school, a health centre, new self-help groups. It is only after a minimum of five years of such groundwork that a Christian denomination actually starts to talk to local leaders about building a church.
The proposed church would initially be paid for by bigger ones in the cities but it is expected to become self-supporting and entirely locally-managed within 15 years. After that, it is time for the missionary to move on and adopt a new place.