This is an article from the November-December 1994 issue: India

Did Christianity’s mission in India take a wrong turn?

Did Christianity’s mission in India take a wrong turn?

What has kept missions to India from reaching more of Inida? Could it be that missions to India got sidetracked into running institutions instead of preaching the Gospel? Indian Christianity expresses herself through her institutional forms perhaps more than any other place in the world. Numerous historic, religious and social factors have contributed to this development.

A few of the more significant events that have shaped the institutional expression of Christianity in that land have been the prevailing worldview of many of the missionaries to India thoughout the nineteenth century, the strong paternalism of the British colonial administration, the creation of cantonments for security reasons, the strategy of evangelism through educational patterns, and the disastrous droughts which afflicted many sections of India during the 1880s and 1890s.

The nineteenth century worldview of westerners was shaped by colonialism, prevailing theories regarding the superiority of European races, the development of Darwin's evolutionary concepts, a faulty biblical hermeneutic which interpreted all references to Zion as literal Israel but had little concept of God's plan for the nations and an over-inflated ethnocentrism. The spirit of colonialism took hold of the northern European nations as a driving passion during the eighteenth century and their scramble to carve up the world throughout the nineteenth century had much in common with an intense game of Monopoly. Colonialism was not entirely exploitative, as the "pagan" nations often became the white man's burden. This was reflected in the watchword of some mission agencies which was to "civilize, commercialize and Christianize." Of course, that point of view was translated into the construction of schools throughout much of Asia and Africa but most extensively in India.

One of the first factors which led to Christian Institutionalism in India was the pattern forced upon William Carey. When his colleagues, Marshman and Ward arrived in Calcutta, the British East India Company refused permission for them to remain. Hence Carey, Marshman, Ward and their families moved to a Danish colony upriver from Calcutta, called Serampore. Together they purchased a large piece of land and proceeded to build bungalows, printing press warehouses for their industrious translation efforts, a college and a seminary to train Christian leaders and a church. The Serampore missionary estate became a compound to which the Christians could retreat. Had the Serampore trio been permitted to remain in Calcutta, it is probable that the missionaries would have chosen a more thorough integration with the general social structure rather than clustering in a compound. Nevertheless, what was established became something of a model for many of the younger missionaries who arrived in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

With the dawn of "Enlightenment" in Europe, educational patterns dramatically changed. Graduates of the university systems of that day were convinced that western scientific ideas would solve or correct all the problems of mankind. Alexander Duff, an Edinburgh University graduate of 1829, arrived in India the very next year, brimming with ideas on how to undermine the idolatrous bulwark of Hinduism. His concepts provided much fuel for the orientalist-occidentalist debate. The orientalists were those who valued the cultures and the languages of the diverse people groups, while the occidentalists saw paganism as being so pervasive that the only way a people could be properly christianized was to teach them English, or some other equivalent European language, and then through that medium educate them in western educational principles. His assumption, along with that of other occidentalists, was that the mythological thinking of Hinduism would crumble in the face of the critical analysis of western scientific thinking. As an evangelical, he further reasoned that once Hinduism disintegrated under the impact of the power of the sciences, it would produce a nationwide receptivity to the Gospel. Duff teamed up with Macauliffe, the Minister of Education of the East India Company, and together they formulated an educational program which became the modus operandi (mode of operation) for missions throughout India from 1830 to 1932. Before long, mission after mission became preoccupied with so many educational institutions that their organization appeared more akin to a school board than to the spiritual organism each was intended to be. This institutional approach to missions was dynamically reinforced through the colonial government's policy of "grants in aid" to any agency which applied for assistance in its effort to promote and administrate its educational policies.

The popularity of the Christian educational institutions outstripped the ability of most missions to provide teachers and administrators for their schools. Many missions employed alumni of their schools who were still committed Hindus or Muslims to teach their Bible lessons. Often the religious education dimension either fell into a state of neglect or at best was very poorly taught. The institutionalization of western education in India did produce a few outstanding Christian leaders and some rather nominal believers, but for the most part it only resulted in a syncretized worldview of Christian ethics with a Hindu social structure. Aside from the Christian leaders, it also produced Hindu reformers such Keshub Chandra Sen, Ramakrishna Parahimsa, Swami Vivekananda, and even Mahatma Gandhi, to name but a few.

The year 1857 was one of profound change for the British colonial forces in India. A revolt among the Sepoys [army], commonly referred to as "the mutiny," took place across northern India. Many British subjects lost their lives because they were entrapped within towns and cities with no means of protection or escape. Once the revolt was brought under control, radical administrative changes began to take place, one of which was the creation of cantonments. These were the development of administrative subdivisions adjacent to a given city. Each cantonment varied in size but most ranged from 100 to 200 acres. The cantonment area was designed with wide tree-lined boulevards and government administrative offices spaciously located along them. Palatial- like bungalows for the administrative officers were also scattered in the area. Each cantonment generally contained one or two church compounds which ranged from 10 to 20 acres in size. Many missionaries chose to live within the cantonment for security reasons, but most, for the quality of lifestyle provided.

Missionary activity switched from "go" structures to "come" institutions. Aside from the schools already described, hospitals, publishing depots, teacher training colleges, agricultural programs and other types of institutions were established. A vast majority of the missionaries of that era viewed the caste system as an extreme evil of the Hindu society. Their evangelistic methods were designed to lead fringe individuals out from the caste structure into the Christian faith. Once an individual stepped away from his caste, all of his life support structures collapsed. Hence it was imperative for the missionary to provide housing, employment and often marriage arrangements for those who professed faith in Jesus Christ. Rarely were the Christians able to maintain themselves through self- employment unless they had some land which they could cultivate. Paternalism often manifested itself in the attitudes of the missionary for he was now far more than a gospel messenger, he was an employer and administrator of several institutions as well as pastor of the local church. What the missionaries of that day failed to realize was that for the Hindu looking over the compound walls, the social behavior of the Christians appeared like another caste. In fact, the Christians were often labeled "the brown sahibs" while the missionary was the white sahib. The tragedy of all this was that the local church was very much dominated by the institutions associated with it.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, central India was afflicted with a series of famines. The famines were so severe that in some districts fifty percent of the population died. Missionaries within those regions would find a child suckling a mother who had died from starvation or they would discover a home where parents had both died while giving the last morsels of nourishment to their children who survived. These famines struck repeatedly, so that over a period of ten years many mission stations were converted into orphanages as child after child was brought to the missionary. Caring for two hundred children or more forced the missionary to abandon evangelistic strategies and attend to the physical and spiritual needs of boys and girls. Thus missions which escaped the educational patterns or refused to become ensnared in the cantonment pattern of ministry now were forced into an institutional pattern due to the weather pattern of the moistureless monsoon winds.

Although the missionaries in India studied the writings of Henry Venn, Roland Allan and John L. Nevius, the concept of indigenous churches never had a broad impact on institutional Christianity until the 1920s and 1930s. When the three self-concepts of indigenaity did take hold, it created profound controversy and polarization between those missionaries who had given their lives in service to the many mission institutions and those who endorsed the simpler model of frontline evangelism without institutional encumbrances.

The tragedy is that the Church in India has been saddled with the administrative responsibility of lands and buildings, the legacy of institutional missions. Indian Christians frequently view the lands as their personal asset. This has resulted in litigations too numerous to recount and has become a millstone around the neck of believers who should be directing their energies towards sharing the Gospel with the vast unreached Hindu population. One other sad aftermath of two hundred years of institutionalized Christianity is that many of the indigenous missionary movements within India are repeating the pattern left behind by their western counterparts.

Vern Middleton, Ph.D. is Chair of the Missions Department at North West Baptist Seminary in Vancouver,Bc

A Different View ,In his work, Colonialism and Christian Missions, Stephen Neill casts additional light on the subject of colonialism. While Neill recognizes that the "term `colonialism` ... is used almost exclusively as a term of reproach and that indeed many, many evils have taken place as a result of colonization, he's not so willing to concede that colonialism as related to missions has been a complete disaster.

Neill confesses that too little is known in the way of factual information to form any hard conclusions, but he also notes that "where scientific research has been carried out, we find again and again that the facts were very different from the legends that have passed current for several generations."

"Missionaries," Neill writes, "like all other human beings, are men and women of their time. A century ago the extension of western dominance was seen to be irresistible. Many accepted it as something undesirable in itself, but were willing to make the best of a situation they would not have freely chosen." Furthermore, he suggests that missionaries have always aimed to present a pure, unadulterated Gospel and have rarely sought to deliberately westernize their converts. Then he reminds that "converts are imitative, and have always been inclined to make the same mistake as their western friends."

So what is the score? Does the good that has resulted from colonialism outweigh the evil? Neill says that remains to be seen,"but one thing is perfectly clear. Even a century ago men lived in many separated worlds; today, for good and evil, we all live in a single continuum and are bound up in a common destiny." He points out that the instrument used for this unification "was the colonial expansion of the west." And the result of unification has been the advancement of the Kingdom. --Thomas Davis


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