Several weeks ago, my friend Charles Samuel wrote a thought-provoking article with the provocative title, “The ‘Indian Church’ Must Die,” and the response was nothing short of incredible. People whole-heartedly agreed, vehemently disagreed, or sat somewhere in the middle. Some were just upset with the title. This post is not a rebuttal to Charles’ post because as a product of the “Indian Church,” I agree with most of the sentiments in what he conveyed. This is about recasting the vision of the local Indian church for the glory of Christ.
The main idea behind Charles’ article was this: there is something dangerous and unhealthy about an ethnocentric church that solely exists to promote an ethnic ideal. Here’s what we mean by “ethnocentrism”: it is when an ethnic identity, heritage, values, or even church, sees other ethnic identities, cultures, or churches as inferior to their own. It is when there is more talk about traditions and the way forefathers did something than about what Christ has done and the implications of the gospel.
For our purposes, ethnocentrism is when a church’s identity and purpose is primarily found in its ethnic culture, and Christ and what he has done in his death and resurrection is secondary.
The gospel, the good news of Jesus, was given in a cultural context, and it will always be so, but it was never confined to a cultural identity. Whenever we present the gospel to someone, it will always be within the medium of the context of culture, whether it be Indian or American or hipster or conservative or urban or affluent culture. Culture isn’t a bad thing: it’s what you naturally get when you have multiple people together who share some characteristics.
The gospel was also given in an ethnic context, but it was never confined to an ethnic identity. In fact, the Bible promises a day when every ethnos (Greek word for ethnic people groups) will worship Christ as King. The book of Revelation has a glorious vision of this:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number,from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation tells us that a day is coming when every believer of Jesus, regardless of where or when they were born, will worship Christ together. Until then, we continue to meet in ethnic and multi-ethnic congregations, working to continue making disciples of all nations. Ethnic churches aren’t bad! But ethnocentric churches are dangerous and a distortion of what the gospel calls us to.
We can argue about how insular Indian churches can be, but instead I want to talk about how they can be used to accomplish the picture we see in Revelation 7.
The Indian church in America is uniquely equipped to reach immigrants from India in a way that other churches aren’t. Indian churches know the language, customs, and traditions that new immigrants from India are familiar with. They eat a lot of the same food, hold many of the same values, and can identify with Indian immigrants in a way that most other organizations can’t. South Asian Christians in America know what it’s like to move to a new country full of promises, and to feel a little lost and overwhelmed. They know how reassuring it is to find comfort in befriending other Indian immigrants because they’ve done it too.
To my Malayalee churches: there are lost Malayalees in America that don’t know Jesus! Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, apathetic. Malayalees that understand the Malayalam spoken and sung in Keralite churches. Malayalees that enjoy eating South Indian food offered at weekly home meetings. Malayalees that are looking for community and recognizable culture in a culture that is far different than the one they know. Lost Malaylees that, apart from the grace of God in saving them, will be eternally separated from God. And this is true of all the Indian cultural groups. Of every culture and ethnos.
What if we reached out to our immigrant neighbor or coworker or friend? What if we invited them into our homes and lives? What if our Indian churches didn’t lose their ethnic identity or traditions or language, but used them to actively pursue the growing Indian immigrant community? What if we realized that God has sovereignly placed us in our city and around the people we know, not to be an inward-focused holy huddle, but to be an outward-focused catalyst of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
What if we realized that the Church exists primarily to glorify Christ and spread the gospel?
The Indian church in America should live because she is uniquely equipped to reach immigrants from India in a way that other churches aren’t.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compares the church to the body of Christ, and individuals as members of the body. In a very real way, the whole Church universal is the body of Christ as well, and different congregations are members of this body. If one member suffers, the whole body suffers. If one part hurts, everyone hurts.
The Indian church, for all her flaws, is part of this body of Christ, and there are parts that aren’t functioning well. But what if, instead of cutting this dysfunctional part off, Christ redeemed it and made it new and whole and functioning?
What we need is not amputation. We need healing, and thankfully, Jesus is pretty good at that.
Photo courtesy of ©Sten Dueland under the Creative Commons License 2.0
10 responses to “Why the ‘Indian Church’ Should Not Die”
Great post, Brice. The Indian church is filled with it’s flaws, especially to the millennial generation. However, we do have a responsibility to our people. “What we need is not amputation. We need healing..” Well said.
You just put my thoughts into words. Great article! We are called to Live for his glory not to end it. No one is perfect but we are to be striving for the perfection through Christ. Thanks Brother. God Bless!
Thanks for your comment! I’m glad others are thinking/talking about this too! Let’s keep the conversation going.
Great post with great points. One thing we often forget is that the word of God remains the same through all cultures, generation, races, etc. His promises and commandments are the same yesterday, today, and forever. My opinion and observation is that these days, pastors and leaders are quick to water down the gospel and even muddle the commandments of God to cater to the upcoming generation. Again, this is just my mere observation and sometimes even I’m guilty of doing the same.
Thank you for this post Brice, I most definitely don’t think that any church should die except for when they stop preaching the Gospel and make disciples as at that point they cease to be a church and becomes a cultural/affinity group. I wrestle with the idea of ethnic specific churches though, I am not saying that there is no context for it I am just working to land on a healthy place on the topic. Here are some of my initial thoughts,I believe that the local church must represent and be relevant to the local community if they are responding to the call of making disciples. If the local community consists of predominantly one ethnicity I could see the local church having more of that ethnicity represented. However when an ethnic specific dna drives the mission of the church it stops being relevant to the local community. Such a church no longer becomes a church for the city and the issues that affect the city outside of the particular ethnicity that makes up the majority of the congregation is no longer relevant to the congregation [social justice, racial recon to name a few in the N American context ].
Also, unless there is a Gospel centered ecclesiology there is a real possibility of ethnic specific churches being exclusive at some point and slowly shifting to being ethnocentric as the framework of communicating the Gospel and building community is relevant to a specific ethnicity. Then there is the sin bent to find ones identity in their tradition, culture, ethnicity above the Gospel. There are several urban/suburban churches in parts of N America and Europe planted in the past 30 years in neighborhoods targeting specific ethnicities but over the years the demographics have changed and the neighborhoods have become more diverse yet because their missiology is not driven by the gospel their dna is ethnic specific and has lost it’s relevance to the local population. I think that there has to be a trans cultural dna that is Gospel centered and values diversity, celebrating all cultures as representative of the diversity and creativity of God. I think such a church will be relevant to a diverse cross section of people from the local community.I am not against ethnic specific churches but just grasping to understand the topic more.I would love to hear your thought and the thoughts of others on the topic though. Great article. Grace and Peace.
Sujith, sorry I’m responding so late, it’s been an incredibly hectic week.
I actually agree with you, I’m not incredibly fond of ethnic-specific churches and myself haven’t been a part of one in over 7 years. But I was loathe to say any church should die, and thinking how God could use the ethnic-specific churches. There is potentially space for those who feel called to the Indian church to use what God has equipped them with to reach lost Indians.
Admittedly, it seems limited in scope because as many have pointed out, most second-generation Indians don’t feel equipped to reach first-generation immigrants, and most are caught in between two cultures. I’ve written on that before. I look like my parents, but identify with my non-Indian friends.
I’m all for the local church, and I think the local church is the hope of missions. I think I’m having a difficult time seeing how you “celebrate” all cultures in a multi-cultural church. That’s another topic.
But I believe a gospel-driven theology, missiology, and ecclesiology must be part of the identity of the local church. And of course, a consensus on what the gospel is 🙂
There seem to be a lot of people having this conversation, and I’m so grateful for that! Am I correct in thinking you’re part of the Advance Initiative?
Church = Harvest. If you’re not sowing and reaping, you’re stagnant and dying. What you wrote, that should be our only burden. A burden for the lost and hurting souls. Go ye into ALL the world and preach the gospel to EVERY creature. Bravo.
Good article too. But it isn’t comteary to the Indian church must die article., quite the contrary it complements it. Most of the Indian churches that I have been to unfortunately should die. They do not have vision and they are not reaching the lost whether they are malayalees or not. The Indian church is dying on its own. I am sitting in a church that can easily seat 500 or more. It is only about 100 seated (fortunately I am just visiting this church and it is not my home church). This problem is central to many churches not just Indian churches. Whenever the vision is not focused on the lost the church is not in the will of God. My two cents.
Thanks for your comment!
I agree that Indian churches need a re-shifting of what the vision is to be, namely the person of Jesus and reaching the lost. I’m not trying to make a clarion cry for them to hold on to survive in their current form, but an idea of what it can and should be. I myself haven’t gone to one in years because of this. I am, however, loathe to say that any worship of Christ, faulty or not, should die. My hope with my post was to get conversation going and reach those who have the capacity to change the Indian church.
I really like your argument! My parents came into a new and scary country and I can’t imagine how hard it would have been for them to go to a non-malayalee church. They were already immersed in a new language and culture and the one solace was their church.