This is an article from the October-December 1999 issue: Oh, India

Follow-Up Reflections on Churchless Christianity

Follow-Up Reflections on Churchless Christianity

If you could envision an India won for Christ, what would its religious life be like?

—Herbert Hoefer

Returning from a recent trip to India, the original author of the astounding study Churchless Christianity offers here some summary remarks. They seem wistful perhaps at first glance, hopelessly ideal or even totally wrongheaded and dangerous.

To read this is like listening in as Paul, in Acts 15, is accorded breathtaking freedom for his Gentile followers who were not converting to Judaism. Is this really parallel?

Do India's billion need to be Westernized completely to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and the Bible as God's word? Are there really more "non-baptized believers in Christ" in Madras than formal Christians? Are we keeping up with what God is doing? If not, what do we do?

—Ralph Winter

DO YOU THINK the vast majority of India will ever join the church?"

"If you could envision an India won for Christ, what would its religious life be like?"

These are the two questions that I've been asking as I have traveled in circles of Christians and nonbaptized believers in Christ over the past few months in India.

I have not met anyone who responded affirmatively to the first question. There's an overwhelming recognition that the Western-structured church is basically incompatible with the culture of the nation. I should point out that my question always applies to the institutional (small "c") church. The second question implies my hope and prayer that the Church as the Body of Christ will by God's grace pervade the whole land one day.

Many issues impinge on these two questions. I have found it helpful to divide the matter into two basic topics: spiritual authenticity and cultural forms.

The Issue of Spiritual Authenticity

Reaction to "foreign" religion. Spiritual authenticity is the critical issue in the India mentality. It's the issue that lies behind the guruprinciple in Hinduism. It is also one of the dissatisfactions with the Western style of training and appointing spiritual leaders for a congregation.

In all my years in India, I have never heard any disparaging comments regarding my ministry because I am a foreigner, even a representative of past colonial oppression. The people of India look only for one thing in religious leaders: spiritual authenticity. They don't care about the nationality or even the caste (witness, for example, the high-caste following of many mass rally lay preachers) at this point. They will go where they find God's presence.

Another evidence of this principle has been the widespread response to Mrs. Gladys Staines' wonderful witness following the cruel murder of her husband and two sons in northern Orissa. Many Hindu religious leaders and the general public are deeply suspicious and resentful of Christian evangelistic work, especially among the tribals. They feel we go after the "easy prey" among the poor and ignorant and entice them with money and promises. However, all those deepseated feelings were immediately put aside when they heard this grieving Westerner speak. For example, there was this letter to the editor in the January 28, 1999, issue of the national daily newspaper, The Hindu:

Mrs. Gladys Staines proved to be a true Christian when she said those who were responsible for the death of her husband should be forgiven as it was the will of God. She is an example of divinity in a human being.

We do not come into this world of our own will nor can we postpone death as we wish. Mrs. Staines also proved to be a realized soul when she expressed her satisfaction and gratitude to God for giving that long span of life to her husband to serve the people. All Hindus should take note of divinity in this great Christian woman.

    -A.V. Hanumantha Rao, Chennai

The issue of baptism is directly related to the issue of spiritual authenticity. Where there is spiritual authenticity, there is no objection to baptism (see the great Hindu philosopher T.M.P. Mahadevan's remarks in Debate on Mission).1 If the majority of Christians were like Mrs. Staines, there is little doubt that most Hindus would wholeheartedly follow that path, even if that path were proposed by Westerners and colonialists.

Example of a social worker. A second evidence of this principle of spiritual authenticity is an encounter I had with a professional social worker. This person is from a devout Christian family and has become quite renowned for his/her (I want to keep the person's identity as concealed as possible) selfless service to the poor.

If anyone asks, the social worker says, "I am a Hindu." She/he has a religiously neutral name. I asked the person what her/his personal faith is, and she/he said, "I am a Christian" without hesitation.

("Hindu" is a term which directly implies identification with the culture and life of India. Therefore, she/he and others readilyand in good conscienceuse the term in this way.)

Almost everybody knows everybody else's background in India, especially if they are going to entrust anything to them. I am quite sure many of the Hindu donors to her/his projects know the social worker's background. They have no interest in her/his personal religious denomination. They look at the dedication and the characterand the identification with the national culture.

The unfortunate attitudes toward the Christian church in popular opinion and impression are numerous. For now it is enough to recognize that this person needed to use the term "Hindu" for people to believe and trust her/his intentions. The day may come when she/he can be open about the wellsprings of her/his dedication, and it won't matter anymore.

Advice of a Sannyasi. A third example of this principle is a Jesu bhakta, a wandering sannyasi that I met in Chennai. He is a Brahmin believer in Christ, and he has devoted himself to visiting Jesu bhaktas (whom I called "nonbaptized believers in Christ" in my study) around the country. He has three words of advice which he regularly gives to such people.

His first advice is, "If anyone asks, tell them you are a Hindu." It is acceptable to worship the god of your choice as a Hindu. The statement also indicates that you have identified yourself with the culture, history, traditions, and cause of the nation.

Secondly, he advises Jesu bhaktas never to go to a church. He warns that they will usually come after you immediately, embarrassing both you and your family. This will cause unnecessary misunderstanding and opposition with your family.

Thirdly, he advises avoiding going into full-time "church work." Rather, one should stay within one's family and fulfill one's social responsibilities. One's primary call and opportunity is to be a witness there.

I heard many anecdotes from him and others about how such Jesu bhaktas are indeed accepted and respected by their families. The authenticity of their faith is recognized and admired. Their faith spreads more easily as these three norms are followed. We must enable the compelling attraction of the Christian faith to shine clearly in the heart of India.

Land of spiritual seekers. Finally, the fact of Hindus yearning for spiritual authenticity provides an ideal opportunity for Christian nurture. The life goal of a sincere Hindu is spiritual growth. One is truly human only to the extent that one has matured spiritually.

The Christian Media Center in Chennai broadcasts radio programs throughout India. Dr. Suviseshamuthu, Director, reports thousands of responses every month, seeking further information and further nurture. Thousands of Hindusmany of them nonbaptized believers in Christhave taken their correspondence Bible study courses. Hindus will go where they receive authentic spiritual help.

Here, then, is the challenge and opportunity for the church. Can we provide the culturally-sensitive, spiritually-authentic nurture materials for which the vast population of India yearns?

In this regard let me add one other observation before moving on to the second issue of cultural forms. I observed above that most Jesu bhaktas want to keep aloof from the church. However, that does not mean the church must keep aloof from them. We canand, I feel, we mustbe in relationship with them.

As noted above, they desire nurture materials. In addition, the church can help the individuals and groups (movements?) guard against falling into dangerous heresies. For example, there is an antitrinitarian trend of Christomonism among Jesu bhaktas. By God's grace, God has guided His Church as He promised (Mt. 16:18, Jn. 16:13), and we are responsible to serve as "faithful stewards" (I Cor. 4:1), especially among new believers in Christ.

Of course, we must be extremely aware of distinguishing faith/culture issues in this regard. And that brings us to the second issue: cultural forms.

The Issue of Cultural Forms

India's cultural forms are deeply rooted and pervasive, having a tradition extending several millennia. India also has a long tradition of defending its cultural integrity against military invaders seeking to impose their cultural and religious forms. Most unfortunately, Christian baptism became involved in those cultural wars (as I discussed in Churchless Christianity).2 However, baptism is a purely spiritual matter which should have no effect on one's cultural practices.

The structured church in India has established its own culture, including its own worship patterns. Christians are comfortable with those forms, for the most part, and nobody is asking them to abandon their preferred culture and religious practices.

Objections to church forms. However, in the reactions to the two questions with which I opened this article, it is evident that the vast majority in India will never conform to Christian cultural forms. As a case in point, the Jesu bhaktas prefer to stay away from the church simply because they feel more comfortable in their own cultural forms.

Dayanand Bharati in his book Living Water and Indian Bowl3 outlines in detail and with deep passion these cultural concerns. Recently I participated in a discussion group which came up with the following list of fully twenty "reservations and objections to structured churches" among Jesu bhaktas. Many of the objections are minor and some perhaps unacceptable, but all together the list is quite imposing.

  1. bad moral reputation of Christians
  2. dislike to join socially with Harijans4
  3. join in homes and at church during week but not on Sunday
  4. discomfort with pattern of Sunday worship
  5. feel sitting at worship is disrespectful
  6. more comfortable to sit on floor
  7. feel inappropriate to wear shoes inside sanctuary
  8. dislike Western style of church administration
  9. find elections spiritually disruptive
  10. cannot understand old Christian language
  11. dislike Western-style music prefering bhajans
  12. dislike Western-style weddings
  13. dislike changes in women's dress:
  14. tilak
  15. white sarees
  16. no gold
  17. dislike change of name
  18. loss of life-cycle rituals (up to 16, classically)
  19. loss of frequent festivals
  20. loss of cremation ritual by eldest son
  21. dislike Christian food (nonvegetarian)
  22. reputation of Christians as unpatriotic
  23. facing family objections and embarrassment

Once again, the issue is not baptism. Baptism within cultural forms would be quite acceptable. In fact, the group discussed the pros and cons of adapting baptism into a family ritual as most of the Hindu religious customs of initiation are traditionally practiced.

Issues of faith and culture. Many very difficult issues of faith and culture need to be sorted out. Clearly our Jesu bhaktas will probably be the best persons to work on these issues, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Hopefully, sensitive Christians also can be helpful in working with them. Some kind of national newsletter or email sharing could be most helpful in stimulating this dialogue.

New forms may require new terms. Old termseven Biblical termsmay carry too much old (Western) baggage. Instead of "Christian," for example, "Jesu bhaktas is being used, as we have seen." New terms for "church" and "baptism" and "salvation" may evolve as well. I can foresee a less forensic (i.e., "justification") theology of atonement developing, using the concept of God's overwhelming love.

It will be a long and dangerousbut absolutely essential process. The Jesu bhaktas will serve as interpreters of the faith to the wider community and as interpreters of the culture to the church. They would enable the vast population of the nation to see beyond cultural mistakes made by missionaries and Christians in the past as well as the present!

The Jesu bhaktas will demonstrate to everyone how one can be a Jesu bhakta of integrity and a cultural Hindu of integrity at the same time. The Hindu community must realize this, and the Christian church must realize this. In this process, obedience to the command and blessing of baptism will be restored to its proper place in faith and practice.

Evolving new forms. All of the twenty issues listed previously will have to be addressed. In addition, many others will be crucial. India is now a rapidly changing, modern society, so this discussion will be part of a larger national debate on cultural forms.

A Lutheran church in Kodaikanal even now has become a bit of a pilgrimage site. The pastor keeps it open throughout the day. Hindus come and go, by foot and by car. The pastor reports that they come from as far away as Coimbatoro and Chennai. They can pray to Christ privately and secretly in this hill station location. They believe that prayers made in that church are "answered."

Might a more open style of "membership" evolve among Jesu bhaktas, more on the temple pattern? In the Roman Catholic churches, for example, they appreciate daily accessibility for private devotion and the anonymous atmosphere of worship and mass rallies.

On the other hand, we also observe in the multiplying Hindu renewal movements that group identification and small group meetings are now common (e.g. Sai Baba and Ayyappa groups). Such group involvement has been central to the JudeoChristian tradition since the exilic development of the synagogues. It is a pattern we see in Christians throughout the world, also outside the structured church (e.g. the house churches in China, the "no church" groups in Japan, the basic communities in Latin America, the indigenous church movement in Africa). We need to gather for Scriptural study, emotional support, spiritual guidance, prayer, and the Eucharist. Some groups are already forming, whether in a systematic fashion as in the Subba Rao movement or unsystematically as in those visited by our Jesu bhakta sannyasi.

All involved need to do some boldand controversialenvisioning, as suggested in my second opening question: "If you could envision an India won for Christ, what would its religious life be like?"

My vision? I see pilgrimage sites and ashrams scattered throughout the land. I see church year festivals and saints days that are now "minor" developing into major social events, and many new Christian family rituals. I see roadside shrines everywhere: "Father" shrines for protection, "Son" shrines for forgiveness, "Holy Spirit" shrines to pray for help and guidance and strength. (We already see such shrines along the roads in Kerala, placed by Roman Catholic churches.) I see pictures of Jesus, incense to Him in puja rooms, Indian Christian art, music, poetry, bhajans and a flourishing architecture.

Obviously, the religious life of India would be as different from the religious life of the West as the entire culture is different. Nobody in the East or Westor in the heavens abovewould want it any different.

The Jesu bhaktas will demonstrate to everyone how one can be a Jesu bhakta of integrity and a cultural Hindu of integrity at the same time.

"To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours." (I Cor. 1:2)

  1. Mahadevan, T.M.P., "The Christian Image in India." Debate on Mission. pp. 299305, esp. pp. 301-302, Herbert E. Hoefer, ed., Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Madras. 1979.

  2. Hoefer, Herbert E., Churchless Christianity. Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Madras, 1991, pp. 153168.

  3. Bharati, Dayanand., Living Water and Indian Bowl. ISPCK, Delhi. 1997.

  4. For a brief definition of Harijan, see footnote 1 of "Christ Followers..."


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