From the tropics of
Bangalore to the arid hills outside Nasik, and on to the bustling crowds of Delhi, my experience in South Asia was both rewarding and surprising. Merely showing up in was eye-opening, as I suppose any visit to a developing nation would be for an American. But I found far more than a refreshed gratefulness for the material blessings of the West, or a renewed desire to share with those in need. India
Through the kind staff at India Gospel League, and the many unique people I met in their network, I encountered God's kingdom in ways I'd never anticipated – and, in a ways I'd hoped were true, but had never experienced personally. While the moments I shared with believers half a world away can't possibly be captured in print, I'll do my best to report what I saw and felt.
First, regarding the ministry of India Gospel League (IGL):
1. Everything I hoped was true about the ministry work in
Asia was proven true, and, in point of fact – better than I'd hoped. Like you, I'd seen pictures of smiling orphans in Christian care, pictures of little cement church buildings in remote villages with crowds of new believers out front – and like you, I'd wondered if the fantastic accounts of growth that accompany such images are really representative of the work. Are these exceptions, or the rule? I'm thrilled to report that I now have my own pictures, my own memories, and my own countless handshakes and "Praise the Lord" greetings from Indian believers to prove that God is working. At least as far as IGL is concerned, it is as real on the ground as it appears to be in print. (By the way, "praise the Lord" is some of the only English the village believers know – if you go yourself, you'll hear it often!)
2. A great awakening is sweeping
, and the church is growing through the Spirit's initiative. Churches are being planted in places that have never before had a gospel witness. These village congregations aren't following some denominational prescription or slick strategy – they're simply teaching God's Word and obeying it. From these frontier congregations flow stories of real miracles, whole family conversions, and real kingdom multiplication. Exponential growth, born out of faith-filled initative by indigenous church planters, is the norm. India
The greatest feature of this mighty growth, in my view, is that it is spearheaded by the Indian churches themselves. India Gospel League intentionally requires that church plants and ministry works only use outside contributions for startup and partial assistance – because what they are building is a long-term, local church presence for India – not an impressive list of foreign-funded activities that only last as long as the flow of contributions. IGL does not pride itself on the number of church planters supported – but only on the churches planted that demonstrate commitment to Scripture and to Christ. IGL offers partnership and support to church planters for a two-year period – and during that time, it is expected that the missionary will have planted one or more churches that can sustain their own work going forward. So, while over 60,000 village churches have been planted in association with IGL (as of 2009), the ministry at present only provides living expenses for a few hundred startup church planters which, in terms of U.S. dollars, only amount to about $100 per month each. When I do the math on that, I recognize that no other mission strategy I have heard comes close to this level of effectiveness. Even better? Despite the desperate poverty in the villages, some of those supported church planters are now being sent out with donations from infant churches elsewhere in
3. The medical, children's, and education ministries of IGL are truly impressive. Staying at IGL's Salem campus gave me the privilege of interacting with orphaned and needy kids under their care. What I saw were children with far more discipline, knowledge of God's Word, commitment to Christ, and joy in their hearts than any group of Western Christian kids I could name. Across India, hundreds of needy children are housed, fed and discipled in twenty such homes (and more will be built as funding comes in – the needs in this regard are, for India, limitless.)
Traveling medical clinics bring help to villagers that would never have access to prescription drugs or medical consultations. The day I visited, eyeglasses that had been collected in Hudson, Ohio were being prescribed to villagers that would otherwise never have access to such luxuries. In addition, IGL's hospital in Salem sets a high standard for care in their culture; even pioneering in areas left untouched by the country's medical system (IGL's hospice unit is one example).
Contributions from the outside are used to subsidize components of ministry that would simply be out-of-reach for a culture where laborers may make less than $2 a day, and where many village believers live by subsistence farming. But because IGL doesn't offer a "free lunch" of materials, services and supplies, the churches view Western donors as "partners" in the gospel, not "providers." For the long-term spiritual good of India, and the credibility and viability of the local churches, this distinction is critical.
4. To be ordained by the church network with which IGL participates, a pastor must have served for at least five years and have planted at least two churches. In India, while still no small task, this is not extraordinary. An incredible harvest is being reaped by those men and women with the courage to go boldly with the gospel. And as I spoke with these servants of God myself, I could sense the intensity of their faith. As I asked them about their practices, goals, and fruit, I heard reports that, if I changed the names and locations, would appear to be stories from the book of Acts. From divine healings to miraculous provision, from persecution to church multiplication – I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of Scripture itself, to see the power of God in a way most Westerners aren't even sure is possible anymore. (You don't have to believe me - go see for yourself.)
5. IGL does not "control" its affiliated churches in a denominational sense. A "National Association of Interdependent Churches" (NAIC) was formed to give the church network a sense of identity (and legal status), but this operates on a voluntary participation, independent basis. There are regional coordinators in each area of India to disciple, train and hold accountable the church planting pastors, but they don't set the strategy or make decisions for the churches. Each church planter hears from God on his own (or with his local church elders, etc), answers that call, and informs IGL of the work being done or of plans to reach additional villages. If IGL can assist in partnership, all the better – but that's all their role is.
Rather than enforce a top-down strategy, IGL allows the pastors themselves to chart the course as they hear from the Holy Spirit. If their vision aligns with the Vision 2000 movement, and their core beliefs align with NAIC's statement of faith, the church planter is welcomed into the family. In the ultimate sense, these churches are accountable to God, and view NAIC only as a pathway of mutual partnership in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Secondly, regarding the lessons I learned:
I learned that I have small dreams and weak faith. Even IGL has had trouble dreaming as big as God is working – in the 1990s they hoped to plant 1000 churches by the year 2000. And when the year 2000 came, they had planted over 25,000 churches. And today, only ten years later, the number has surpassed 60,000. Now the "Vision 2000" movement aims to plant 100,000 churches among the approximately 500,000 villages still yet to receive a gospel witness in India. And if recent history is any guide, that prayerful goal will be revised upward again in the future.
I met one pastor who has planted seven churches in the last three years over a fifty kilometer radius – and he only has three volunteer assistants to help in the work. He told me has begun evangelism in an eighth village. The work of a lifetime? Not for this man – he is praying that he could be a part of 1000 church plants before he dies. I'd say this Indian version of the Apostle Paul is off to a strong start. (By the way, among the villages, IGL calls a "church" a group of at least twenty baptized adult believers who regularly meet. Village work that has not yet reached this level is classified differently, and would represent thousands more locations where seeds are being planted.)
I and my traveling companions, accompanied by IGL leaders, were given the privilege of speaking to groups of church planters in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Delhi. Never before have I felt so humbled, so inadequate, and so blessed beyond what I have earned or deserved. What does someone like me have to say to men and women like these? When the question was asked at one conference of over 200 leaders, "How many of you face persecution and opposition?" and nearly everyone raised their hands while giving an audible shout in reply – I tearfully wondered what on earth I was doing on the platform preparing to teach. Should these faithful servants not be teaching me? And when we were given the honor of participating in the ordination of eighteen men who had planted at least two churches already – who was I to lay hands upon them to confirm their calling?
I learned that I'm really not that serious about my faith. In Indian seminaries, the men train far harder and far longer than I did in my classes. And while they are in seminary, they're expected to do pioneer evangelism and church planting on evenings and weekends. In the IGL children's home, the kids would rise at 5 am for an hour of prayer, then attend Christian school all day long, then finish their day with a 7:30 pm Bible study period. I found the church worship to be more intense and dynamic than church-as-usual-USA style, the commitment to the Great Commission much stronger than in my church, and the desire for prayer and holiness far greater than anything in my own life. While we might be amazed to get attendance at a prayer meeting lasting a few hours on some special, annual occasion, many Indian church leaders (and even average believers) host all-night prayer vigils monthly, as a matter of course. In every category of spiritual discipline, life and outreach, I found this to be the case. And I wonder why God moves so mightily in their nation?
The trip revived my interest in and understanding of the gospel. Actually, the gospel was first preached in a culture that was a blend of rural villages and bustling metropolitan cities filled with all sorts of religious exchange. This is India today. Hiking a few kilometers into the mountains to visit a village congregation allowed me to feel what Jesus and his disciples would have felt as they traversed the Judean countryside. The quiet rural metaphors and the concept of discipling, being followed by crowds, speaking to whole communities at once – it all makes more sense, having seen village culture. Witnessing both the blessing God's people can be to their neighbors and, ironically, the persecution they can endure from those same neighbors, made the gospel stories come to life in a way I never expected. The epistles of the New Testament, and the encouragements they contain, seem fresh and relevant. Have I been viewing the kingdom of God in black-and-white, missing the color?
I've heard it said that we should find where God is moving and join Him in His work. What will this mean, to me? Do I return to the life I've lived, content with the possible and predictable? Will I sag back into my lazy, uneventful Christianity? I hope not.
Can I import what I learned to my own culture, to my own church? Can I give more, or dream more, or attempt more? Or even return someday? As I recount the faces of the believers who greeted me, knowing these dear brothers and sisters are sacrificing so much for the gospel – and knowing that the job is not yet done – in their nation or in mine – my answer must be yes.