Chapter 16: Issues In Evangelistic Mission In The Present Indian Context

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 16: Issues In Evangelistic Mission In The Present Indian Context

A talk at the United Theological College, Bangalore on 19 August 1993.


There are several crucial issues related to evangelistic mission which are not related particularly to the Indian context, but to the general context of the modern world. They are also relevant for our consideration in the Indian context. I choose a few:

1. What is the Evangel, the gospel, which the Church is called upon to communicate to the people of the modern world?

The central issue in the early debates between Fundamentalists and Modernists was on the question whether the gospel should emphasize as the essence of the gospel, deliverance of the humans from sinfulness or affirmation of the human vocation to creativity and cooperation with God in recreating nature and society according to the purpose of God. The alternative contained in the question is no more valid. The modernists have become conscious of sin as the spirit of destructivity present in all human creativity so that even secular evolutionary and revolutionary ideologies of reshaping the world have now come to recognize that all human creativity and creations need deliverance from the spirit of perversity working within them; and Christian theology of modernity today emphasizes the social and cosmic dimensions of sin and atonement. On the other side, the fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have begun to see that Christian atonement and redemption are not merely for individual appropriation in isolation but also take into account the whole person with his/her involvement in society and culture.

John I, Col. I and Heb. I emphasize that it is through Christ that all things have been created and that therefore all things come under the redemption of Christ. Col. 2.14-15 speaks of the Cross of Christ as the source of the Forgiveness of sins as well as Victory over all principalities and powers. Rom. 8 sees the subhuman creation, humanity and the Holy Spirit of God as “groaning” together for the End, the final manifestation of the Family of God on earth.

A theology of redemption combines affirmation of human creativity in the purpose of God and deliverance from human sinfulness to release humans for their vocation of cooperation with God in continuous new creativity. P.Chenchiah used to say that a return to the original creation and to the innocence of Adam before the fall cannot be the goal of the Christian gospel. In fact the new Adam Jesus Christ according to I Cor. 15 is of a higher order than the original Adam. I have found H.Berkhof’s theology combining Karl Barth and Tiehard de Chardin quite helpful in this connection. In his paper on “God in Nature and History”, Berkhof says that the dynamic of the gospel is “a great movement from lower to higher, going through estrangement and crises, but also through atonement and salvation, and so directed towards its ultimate goal, a glorified humanity, in full communion with God, of which goal the Risen Christ is the guarantee and first fruits”

When one thus takes seriously creativity and atonement in history in its movement towards the eschatological goal of the Kingdom and recognizes what Devanandan has called “the personal, social and cosmic” dimensions of the Gospel of the Kingdom, evangelism becomes witness to the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ as the bearer of the coming Kingdom in all areas of life of the world in the immediate present. Here the covenant of the preservation of the fallen world through justice and judgment (indicated by the covenant of God with Noah in which God calls all humanity to create and maintain an order of society based on reverence for life, and the Divine ordinance through which the political order that uses power and legal justice for the liberation and protection of the weak from self-aggrandizement of the strong in a sinful world- Moses, David and Rom. 13) as well as the covenant of Grace through Israel and the Church are both signs and foretastes of the End, the Kingdom of Love and Righteousness.

2. Secondly, modern missionary movement which became dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries have been emphasizing proclamation of the gospel to people of other religions and cultures making clear that they were called to decide for or against Christ and that their decision for Christ involved joining the fellowship of Christians in one of the denominational churches as representing the Church, the Body of Christ. The book Colonialism and Christian Missions. Post-colonial Reflections by Jacob Dharmaraj (1993) raises the question whether a good part of the missionary idea and practice in India was not controlled by the colonial climate of thought which did not belong to the essence of the gospel. For instance, that climate was shaped by the expansion of western power and knowledge in the world accompanied by the certainty that all the world would soon become Christendom displacing all other religions and cultures. There was a devaluation of these other religions and cultures and a total identification of the gospel with western Christianity and western culture. The point is that there was not an adequate idea of the transcendence of the gospel over religions and cultures, and therefore the idea of the Church of Christ as a ferment transforming all religions and cultures and taking new incarnations within them did not find expression in missionary practice. This critique is fairly old now. But the crucial question for evangelistic mission today is how in a changed post-colonial situation the forms of the church and its evangelistic proclamation and the call to conversion and the invitation to join the fellowship of the church may take place within the context of the recognition of religious and cultural plurality and common participation in building a new just society and state. With every religion, culture and ethnos seeking self-identity, parity and justice in mutual relations in society, inter-religious and inter-personal dialogues are a necessary setting for redefining the form of any evangelistic mission. As D.T.Niles used to say, the essential scandalon of the gospel should not be mixed too much with other scandals extraneous to the gospel.

Wesley Ariarajah who was Director of the Dialogue Unit of the WCC for many years, in his Thomas Athanasius lecture given in Kerala (Current Trends in Ecumenical Thinking 1992) deals with the topic “Interpreting the Missionary Mandate” in the present context of religious and cultural pluralism. He quotes the findings of an ecumenical consultation in Switzerland to say that Christians “should consider religious plurality to be within God’s purpose” and discuses Buddhist and Judaic models. The Buddhist message and teachings were ‘released’ into the mainstream of the national religious and cultural life without any demand that any person becoming Buddhist had to ‘leave’ his or her cultural and religious heritage behind. The people of Israel did not seek to make Jews of all nations, though they discharged their voation of proclaiming Yahve as the God of all nations. The nations had the right to exist as nations and were not expected in one way or another to be incorporated into Israel. Ariarajah in this light defines the Christian missionary mandate: The Christian mission then could become the joyful responsibility of bearing witness to what we have come to know about God in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, to the values of the Kingdom that would lead peoples to truer life. It would be a witness that does not call upon our neighbours to leave their religious culture and people to become part of the church, but point to “Christ as One who has underwritten the promise of God to renew all life”. He adds that it would however leave the possibility open for a person who had been witnessed to, to want to name the Name and become part of the historic community, the church which is called to be faithful to the Gospel message among the nations. “The Christian is called not to convert but to witness. The burden of responding to the message is that of the hearers and not of those who proclaim”.

I have discussed Ariarajah’s approach to the missionary mandate at such length because it is one which takes the pluralistic situation seriously. His main point that the Christian task is to witness and not to convert is important. But there is nothing wrong in inviting those who respond positively to the Person of Christ without leaving their religious and cultural community to form fellowships around the Lord’s Table and the Word of God as “part of the Church” within their religious and cultural community-settings themselves and those who respond to the Christian values to consider acknowledging their source in Christ.

3. Thirdly, evangelistic witness cannot be isolated from the total life of the church. The proclamation of the kerygma is integrally related to the didache, the church’s interpretation of the gospel in terms of the self—understanding of the hearers, to the church’s diakonia, its service and social action and above all to the church’s koinonia, the quality of its fellowship. Hromadka of Czechoslovakia used to speak of the credibility of the evangelistic mission of the church as dependent upon the total life of the church, that is to say, it depends upon the way in which the church makes its prophetic mission of defence of human personhood and peoplehood in society and state and the ability of the church to reconcile diversity within its fellowship of divine forgiveness and become a source of reconciled diversity in the larger society. Here specifically the Christian contribution to overcoming Communalism and strengthening Secularism is of the greatest importance in the Indian context. This involves countering Closed Secularism which creates spiritual vacuum and Religious Fundamentalism which creates intolerance of the other. Open Secularism and Renascent Religion should reinforce each other.

Historically it was the decision of the Indian Christian community to give up communal representation and other safeguards that made possible the inclusion of the right to propagate religion as a fundamental right of every citizen in the Indian Constitution. This decision was taken by the leaders of the Indian Christian community because they did not want to remain a static communality but wanted to be a missionary community. They got the support of the secular politicians because freedom to propagate religion was considered by them as part of the freedom to propagate cultural and political ideas. The assurance that increase of numbers through evangelism and conversion would not be used to augment communal self-interest continues to be necessary to preserve that right. It is also necessary to show that religious freedom is the guardian and condition of all other fundamental freedoms of the human person. One could say therefore that the witnessing and serving vocation of the Christian community as well as the fundamental rights of all the citizens are best served by Christians giving up any self-centred communal approach in India.

We must remember that not only the Hindutva of the RSS-VHP-BJP parivar but also the more liberal Neo-Hinduism of the Gandhian line consider the missionary propagation and the conversion resulting from it as religious imperialism and destructive of inter-religious harmony.

Though other religions may not have developed a theological justification of caste as in traditional Hinduism, conversion to other religions has not proved as effective as was promised. Here the indictment of the Christian churches of India with respect to the church’s failure to overcome the spirit of caste within its fellowship is to be specially noted. So there is a good deal of truth in the argument that conversion to other religions has lost its social logic. It is clear that the Indian situation calls for deeper mutual understanding among religions and for the development of a consensus about parameters of religious practices in a democracy, where there is co-existence of non-missionary and missionary types of religions.