This is an article from the September-October 1996 issue: The Future of the Frontier Mission Movement

Is Extraction Evangelism Still The Way To Go?

Several Other Models Suggest Some Possible Alternatives In Mission To Hindus And Muslims

Is Extraction Evangelism Still The Way To Go?

Looking at the mission of the Indian church as a whole, there are two quite dissimilar approaches to missionary work. Missionary evangelists to the tribal peoples are expected to adjust as much as they possibly can to new cultures, and to keep any churches which develop as an integral part of tribal society. This is unquestionably a wise and biblical strategy.

When it comes to evangelism among Muslims and high-caste Hindus, however, the standard approach can be considered neither wise nor biblical. Rather than enter the Hindu or Muslim community (as the tribal community is penetrated), evangelists stand outside the society and call for individuals to profess Christ and come out to join the Christians. This means the extraction of new believers from their homes and society, and the destruction of bridges for the Gospel into those societies.

Why are the principles of the more successful outreach among tribal peoples not applied to efforts among Hindus and Muslims? Perhaps a main reason is that geographic factors necessitate new churches developing among tribals, whereas Hindus and Muslims often are living in the areas of existing churches. It is obvious, however, that there is no present effectiveness in winning Hindus and Muslims, so that attempts at new strategies are mandatory.

In speaking against the present practice of extraction evangelism, care must be taken to avoid misrepresentation in two sensitive areas. First, there should be no cause for offense to the hundreds of faithful followers of Christ who are often in leadership in the churches after having been previously extracted from their homes and society. It is this group of esteemed brothers and sisters who will feel most deeply the issue under discussion. Many feel that an abandonment of extraction evangelism is long overdue. But others, because they left family and society, literally forsaking all for Christ, believe that others should be called to that same radical step.

May love cover the differences in opinions and feelings on this issue. Opposing extraction evangelism in no way implies opposition to those who came to Christ and stood for Christ in this way. Rather, all Christians must be concerned together that the natural bridges from the new disciple into his family and society are quickly destroyed, and then years and even decades are expended in seeking to rebuild those ties to reach kith and kin for Christ. Is it not better never to burn the bridges?

A second possible miscommunication is that no one from Hindu or Muslim backgrounds will ever face severe opposition if a better strategy for evangelism is adapted. Certainly there will be opposition, and occasionally there may even be expulsion, but everything possible must be done to minimize and eliminate these things. Present attitudes indicate that expulsion is the expected norm, and so extraction of new believers from their societies is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) encouraged.

Each convert extracted from his own cultural situation reinforces in the minds of Hindus and Muslims the misunderstanding that Christians are opposed to their cultural traditions. In this sense, one could defend the thesis that each convert won from these faiths at present actually represents a setback to winning large numbers from these communities.

What is the proposed alternative to extraction evangelism? It is simply to apply the principles of missions to tribals in outreach to Hindus and Muslims. This means the evangelist to Hindus should live in every possible way as the Hindus among whom he is working. He should share the Gospel by means familiar to his Hindu friends, rather than the means he and his home church are familiar with. New disciples of Christ will be expected to remain within their society in every way, even as the evangelist has fully become part of that society. New cell groups, eventually to become churches, will grow up within the culture of the people.

Obviously, there are areas where there can be no compromise with Hindu and Muslim cultures, but probably these areas are fewer than we first think. Idolatry is an obvious area of conflict with Hindus. But the presence of anti-idolatry movements within Hinduism should make us pause. Why can an educated Hindu reject idol worship and stay in his home (usually not without problems), while those who, under Christian influence, reject idolatry are expelled? The same applies to caste, which many modern Hindus are defying to various extents.

Entering and keeping new believers within Hindu or Muslim society is in no way an easy path to follow, but in light of present ineffectiveness new approaches must be attempted. What about the danger of compromise? Is it not possible that the distinct identity of the Christian will be lost? How will anyone know who is Christian and who is Hindu?

While compromise must be avoided, there must equally be a refusal to create artificial distinctives. In the New Testament no cultural distinctive is set out for the Christian. Is there any distinctive except a holy, Christlike life? Is there not actually a command to retain the position in life that one had when called to Christ (1 Cor. 7:17-24)? As Paul specifically applied this principle to the main distinctive of Jewish or Gentile culture (v.18,19), should it not today apply to Hindu and Muslim cultures also?

No one can presume to have an easy answer to that most difficult of questions, What is a Hindu? So venerable an authority as William Carey called his converts "Christian Hindoos."1 How far is "Hindu" a cultural and how far is it a religious term? With a goal of a church fully faithful to biblical revelation and fully within Hindu culture, is it really necessary that such churches and Christians renounce the term "Hindu"?

There are many hard questions and issues to be faced in this approach. Historically, a number of fascinating instances are available and should be studied for insights that might be gained. We will consider only four such cases, each of a different type.

First, the presence of numerous secret believers indicates a felt need among many admirers of Christ. The most fascinating of such cases is the Secret Sannyasi mission that Sadhu Sundar Singh claimed to have met on different occasions.2 This is not the place to discuss this difficult subject, especially since it does not seem to present a viable missiological model. We note it is indicative of a need for new approaches.

Second, the case of Narayan Vaman Tilak is noteworthy. Tilak was a typical extraction convert, baptized in 1895. His life in Christ is a history of struggle with the Gospel and his Brahmin context. In the last two years of his life he entered into sannyasa, the fourth and final stage in life for a high-caste Hindu. Tilak adapted much of the traditional Hindu focus of sannyasa in light of his biblical convictions, but his step was clearly an effort to break out of isolation within "Christian" society in favor of a return to Hindu society.

Along with taking sannyasa himself, Tilak sought the formation of a "brotherhood of the baptized and un-baptized disciples of Christ."3 In present missiological terms, we might consider this the development of a functional substitute for baptism. There was no room for secrecy, since the society was open and clearly evangelistic. There is no record of any Hindu having joined prior to Tilak's untimely death, which finished this experiment before it was properly begun. There are the seeds of a missiological model here, although evangelicals could hardly approve of the laying aside of baptism.4

A third type might be considered semi-secret believers. But the "secret" is more from the church than from Hindus. Akshay Kumar Nandy is a striking illustration of a type that by definition will be mostly unknown. Nandy stood in the heart of the Hindu tradition, and in the early decades of this century was deeply involved in India's struggle for independence. With the stain of one particular sin darkening his soul, he went on pilgrimages to many Hindu centers but found his peace of heart in Christ. He was baptized by a missionary at Serampore College in 1914. But his was not normal conduct:

After this initiation the missionaries arranged a tea party for certain invited guests. From this public social function I abstained myself, not that I observed any caste distinctions but I wanted it clear that I did not join the Christian Society. Others may call this initiation or rite of discipleship by the name of "baptism," but to myself it was a very distinctive spiritual step having no other implications and in line with similar rites in Hinduism.5

At the time of his initiation Nandy was staying with a Brahmin family, and continued to do so. He never faced ostracism from his Hindu society. Reflecting on his life in 1950, he sadly noted, "My life and work would have been more fruitful to the glory of God and good of man, had I the opportunity of closer association with the true disciples of Jesus Christ in the Church."6 As an isolated believer Nandy suffered; had he been part of a growing movement within Hindu society this problem would have been mitigated, if not eliminated.

Finally, we note the striking Christ movement centered on the charismatic figure of the deeply syncretic Saint of Munipalle, Rao Sahib K. Subba Rao. Subba Rao claimed a vision of Christ and subsequent healing powers. He was bitterly opposed to the church and to baptism and taught a theology far from what could be considered biblical. Only rarely did Christians welcome or approve his variety of service to Christ. His movement was dynamic, however, with estimates of up to 10,000 disciples, mostly in the south Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Despite the problems, Subba Rao's movement illustrates the potential for Christ-centered movements within Hindu society. Such movements can only develop outside and perhaps even against the church, however, as long as the church is stuck in extractionist thinking. Sensitivity to Hindu feelings in these areas may well keep a future Subba Rao from reacting so bitterly against institutional Christianity. By rejecting extractionism and embracing the sociological aspects of these four case studies, we may well find a key that will unlock the door into myriad Hindu homes presently shut off (if not physically, at least psychologically) to the messengers and message of Christ.

Wherever and however God leads, let us at least leave behind the extracting of people from one culture and transplanting into another. With sincere thanksgiving to God for many who have been won to Christ by extraction evangelism, let us move on to new methods with new hopes for a larger harvest.

  1. See R.D. Paul, Changed Lives, Lucknow Publishing House, Lucknow, India, 1968, p.66.

  2. There are a number of references in Sundar Singh's writings. See especially the chapter on "Non-Christians with Christ" in With and Without Christ. Note also support from conservative Presbyterian missionary John Taylor in India: Dr. John Taylor Remembers, Wilmington, 1973, pp.106f.

  3. Tilak himself quoted in Winslow, J.Cl, Narayan Vaman Tilak: The Christian Poet of Maharashtra, YMCA, Calcutta, 1930, p. 119.

  4. For further reading on Tilak and his struggles and dreams, see my forthcoming Christianity in the Hindu Context: The Life and Legacy of N.V. Tilak.

  5. "My Internal Life" in The Seeker, Vol. IV, No. 2, The Rains, 1950.

  6. Ibid.

  7. The best accessible treatment of Subba Rao is K. Baago's brief study, The Movement Around Subba Rao, CISRS, Bangalore, India, 1968. , Reprinted from Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April, 1994. Box 794, Wheaton, IL 80189


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