India: Scene Six — God and gods

3 11 2011

Mostly about God and gods

India is, above all, religious. There is no separation between church and state here; while Indians work, play, fight, beg, travel, marry, bury, eat, sleep, govern, gather, conduct business, take a bath, brush their hair whatever Indians do it is married to the spiritual. To illustrate, here is a conversation we had with an Indian man:

Indian: Explain this to me, I recently met an American who said that he does not follow any god. He does not believe in God, do you think this could be true?

Us: Yes, that could be true.

Indian: I can’t believe this is true. Who would ever think there is no god?

Us: it is very common in our country.

Indian: (incredulously) You are saying that people do not believe in any god at all?

Us: Yes.

Indian: Well what do they do when they are in trouble? Who do they speak to?

Us: The don’t speak to anyone. They just rely on themselves.

Indian: Are they stupid?

In most taxis you will find one god or a row of gods (including Jesus at times, just to be safe). There are shrines to at least one of the 39 million gods EVERYWHERE; whether in a city centre or deep in the Indian hills. Some shrines might be small, a foot high, a foot wide with a simple clay model inside. Some shrines are massive, ornately carved or garishly painted like the shrine to the monkey god Hanuman, near our hotel, with a massive statue, crouched over with his grotesque mouth open wide: the door one would pass through to “worship” him.

There are shrines and temples for every religion and every expression of that religion (bizarre ones like the “rat temple” or the “snake temple”). On our trip we walked through the Bahai Lotus temple in Delhi, a large Muslim temple in Old Delhi, the spectacular Golden Sikh temple in Amritsar, we saw temples to Shiva and to the bloodthirsty Kali. We saw ashrams (retreat centres for pilgrims and training centres for disciples) and saw “holy men” (sadhus) in their orange robes everywhere we went, these thin wandering men who have renounced all worldly things in hopes of…in hopes of what?

Religion has not freed India, though people still travel here thinking they will find something. Religion here imprisons.

If you are born blind, it is in response to your poor choices in some other life, why would anyone help you now? Your parents might put you in the corner to live out your life in darkness, you might barely survive, and they would have no conscience about it since you obviously deserved it. Hinduism doesn’t require kindness to the less fortunate.

If there are noises in your house at night, if demons haunt your home and physically batter you, you must visit the local shrine more often, ring that bell harder, offer something more or better to appease it.

You must buy more garlands, sacrifice more coconuts (these can replace animals in most cases), you must make a pilgrimage, you must wash in the Ganges, you must take off your shoes, you must perform pujas, and most importantly, you must mind your station in life, and you must not convert to another religion nor redraw the lines that keep everything working as it has for thousands of years. It is fine to be Muslim, just stay a Muslim. It is fine to be Buddhist, just stay a Buddhist. It is even fine to be a Christian to some extent, but keep it all to yourself.

This is how India changes, advances, but still remains the same.

Coming to India, I wanted to know what it looks like to “be the church” in northern India (northern and southern India are very different from each other, as are the east from the west. It is almost like there are countries within this country). Like everything else here, it all seems like a puzzle at first. All along I felt as if I was bring given a little picture and another little picture and another until I got that “aha moment.” Having said that, I don’t begin to claim to know much about this profoundly complicated place or how things work exactly, but here is a slice of it:

After our dark and depressing time in Varanasi, we had two really amazing experiences with church planters here. We went to a city a few hours out, to a medical facility. We were invited into the home of a doctor and his wife (I am not going to mention names here just in case it is a problem) who fed us and then invited us into a circle of church planters. He began by asking me what I wanted to know about church planting in India. To be honest, it was a little intimidating. Who am I? These men were taking time out to talk to me and, having experienced the craziness of Varanasi just a few hours before, I was pretty unprepared for a formal sit-down. No matter, the doctor just began to share his story and I tried to keep up.

Church planting in northern India has been an immense challenge, particularly for “westerners”. Many westerners have come and have tried and have had such frustrations. I have mentioned the anti-conversion law, which is a very serious complication with serious ramifications, but there are many other reasons why the church has struggled to be established here; only 1% to 2% of the population are “Christian” (and Christian can be a loose term as well). Just reading my description of Varanasi might give you some idea as the rituals of this city are played out in thousands of cities across India, but beyond that, there are many other reasons that I don’t have the expertise to explain. Northern India is at the top of the list in terms of the most unreached places in the world.

I don’t know what church planting looks like in other areas of northern India. We attended a well established church in Delhi, and a very large (2500 strong) church in the Punjab, but what I saw and heard in this little meeting made my heart beat as I saw a pretty pure expression of what is uniquely the Indian church growing here.

Fist, you have to know that before the doctor came along, his predecessor prayed and fasted for 40 years for God to do a work in India, and as I understand it, he did not see a single person come to Christ. But those prayers were like seeds in the ground, and now hundreds of people are coming to Christ and are being baptized. Here is how it has been working:

This movement in India is happening through new converts beginning house churches. Christian leaders go into a village and begin to pray over the village, over its strongholds, asking God to lead them to a person. Then they meet someone and ask that person if they can pray for them. Indians, being Indians, are usually very receptive to prayer and will ask for prayer for healing or for specific needs or concerns and when God answers those prayers…please notice that I said “when” not “if”…that person and his family will want to know more and will come to Christ after some time. Then they make that persons’s house a house of prayer so that neighbours can come and be prayed for. When their prayers are answered, they also come to Christ and a little house church forms.

I love how these men talk about prayer. There is such an expectation, and such an experience, of God answering prayer. They are totally reliant on this. There is no plan B, no alternative but to pray. A gentleman from the U.K. whom I met later was saying that he was in India meeting with some Indian believers. He was helping them with some equipment they needed and they talked about a nearby facility they were hoping to buy for their ministry. They asked him to pray that God would give it to them. He prayed, but he admitted that while he prayed he didn’t have any faith that they would actually get it because the building was huge and modern and completely out of their reach. The next year when he was back in India with some more equipment they told him it needed to be put in the new building.

“What building?” he asked.

“The one we prayed for last year, of course,” they replied as if it should be completely obvious that God would give it to them.

The Indians put on a clinic when it comes to faith that God hears and answers prayer.

I have much to learn.

When a house church forms, the leaders who came to pray over the village look for 4 pillars to help establish that church: someone to teach, someone to lead the women, someone to lead the children, and an evangelist. Yes, church of North America, it is a given that from day one, the church is meant to share the gospel with others and to expand to reach more and more…

Now here is where it is all tricky and New Testament-like: new converts are leading these churches. They might know one verse and they will teach that one verse (hopefully correctly) and they might not even have a Bible at this stage. They might not even be literate!

So this is where the leaders of this church planting movement come in. I know I won’t have all the details correct, but this is generally how it works. Under the doctor’s shepherding, he acts as the main helper/director of this (he is a pretty brilliant man, a neurosurgeon plus a few other equally impressive specialties to his name), he meets with leaders who are in charge of an area within their region. These leaders are coaches/mentors to the house church leaders themselves. Their job is to drive around every day and meet with these church planters, many young in their faith and help them, pray with them, encourage them, keep them on track. Their whole job, every day, is to coach. One of these leaders may have 8-10 church planters under their care.

The church painters themselves shepherd their little flock of 15 or so people (some are larger, most meet houses, but some have property), sending people out to plant new churches in nearby villages. It is a movement! I can’t remember the statistics, but the baptisms happening are in the hundreds in each area/grouping of churches.

Each church planter comes to the medical facility once a month for training on how to pastor a flock, and how to teach the word of God (I should add that church planters are bi-vocational, leading their church, or in many cases more than one church, and also working elsewhere). They might be taught one more verse in the Bible; they are taught how to teach it, how to be theologically correct (you can imagine how important this training is in a religiously confusing place like India) so that they are teaching in a truth-filled way, and they are then given opportunity to teach it back so that they can be sure they have understood it correctly. And then they go back to their house church to teach it. Sometimes the church planters are just one step ahead of their flock.

If it all sounds smooth and organized, I don’t think it is. Sharing the Gospel can come at great personal risk, there are serious demonic strongholds that they contend with, and adopting a whole new and more loving and compassionate mindset takes time. Yet the church is alive in northern India and slowly, the statistics will change.

When the sun had gone down, we still had another couple to meet. I wish I could have recorded our conversation because they have an amazing story and incredible passion for a very difficult assignment: Varanasi! Where to begin…

— Teresa Klassen

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