I have just returned from a ten day visit to mission field in eastern India. The purpose was ministry as well as field research to study and understand the socio cultural practices of a particular tribe in the region and the reason for their growing interest in Christianity. have been very receptive to evangelism efforts in recent years. Currently significant numbers of people of this particular tribe are embracing the Christian faith. What might be rightly termed as a “Christward movement” which signifies that they are not necessarily embracing traditional Christianity practiced in the main line denominational churches but are attracted particularly to Jesus Christ and His teachings.
The richness of the indigenous tribal culture along with a few strong similarities to certain Judeo Christian beliefs is truly astounding. To highlight a few: their belief is in one supreme God (in contrast to the hindu belief in a pantheon of gods and goddesses), who is unseen but whose power can be experienced. This supreme God “Darmes” is the creator and sustainer. Among the many stories passed down by oral tradition over centuries, there exists one, of a deluge that destroyed the entire earth at which time Darmes saved only one man and woman by hiding them in his bosom.
Community ties, as in the case of most tribal groups, is very strong and close knit. Deeper study evidences several elements within this tribal culture that is positive and contributing to to the practice of the Christian Faith without its modern fringes and flavours but in its form as found in the days of the writing of Paul’s epistles and the book of Acts.
The first Lutheran missionaries reached this region called ‘chota Nagpur’ a little over 150 years ago, followed by Anglicans, then the Roman Catholics with the goal of evangelizing these tribal people. They have worked independent of each other among them with varying degrees of response over this past century and a half. A review of historical records of their work reveals that they had a two-fold agenda. Yes, it was to present the salvific message of Jesus Christ but to establish their exclusive sectarian forms of governance and practice of the Christian faith. The presence of God and His revelation within the culture was not recognized and all of indigenous culture, including the positive elements in it were shunned as evil and uncivilized.
A two-tier exclusivity in missions, one that continues to this day in many parts of the world is evident; first the exclusivity of the Message and the exclusivity of the form and practical expression of that Message which fails to recognize God at work in every culture and among every people in His way. Why many did not pay attention to the message then and why the response to Christianity was not as vibrant and extensive as it is now is no great surprise. It is no surprise either, that if a significant number of people did become ‘Christians’, it was on account of the social, political and economic benefits they could receive rather than in true repentance.
Conscious effort is needed now as the Church moves forward with its mission in a pluralistic world, since claims to exclusivity of Christianity will only create greater resistance. This does not mean that Christians are called to compromise the message we bring but we are called to reconsider plurality and the exclusivity that we claim. The reasons for this are many, however John Stott identifies three: First there is a new global consciousness. Secondly, there is the new appreciation of other religions. Thirdly, there is the new post colonial modesty (Stott 1992, 298-300).
India is a pluralistic nation with a rich diversity of cultures. It is the birthplace of five major religions. Culture can no longer be ignored nor dialogue in such a pluralistic context be accepted just as an option. It is an indispensable reality that should be faced. John R. Franke writing on Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity so rightly points out that “Faithful Christians in different contexts and settings ask questions that have not been formed by the experience of the Western church. They consider the Bible, theology, and the church with philosophical and worldview assumptions that are different from those of Greco-Roman, Franco-Germanic, and Anglo-American settings. Indeed, many of the conversations and controversies that have shaped the Western church are of little significance in other parts of the world.” (Franke 2013)
Franke also highlights how the leading ecumenical and missionary theologian of the last centurry Bishop Lesslie Newbegin expresses a theology that thoughtfully considers the complex interaction of the gospel, culture, mission and religion. His suggestion that the Christian Faith is at the same time exclusive, inclusive and pluralistic is very appealing in the present context in which the church is mandated to bring a message of redemption, liberation and transformation. (Franke 2013)
Franke, John R. Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity. June 1, 2013. http://www.respectfulconversation.net (accessed December 3, 2013).
Stott, John. The Contemporary Christian. Leicester: Inter Varsity Press, 1992.