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Friday February 1 2019

Looking Back: Church Growth in India

Missionary and writer Lesslie Newbigin tells of church growth in India, powered by new Christians converting their friends and families. Published in February 1959.


You don’t need to be “far ben” in the faith to bring others into it. God can use the beginners. Just inside, they are His link with people just outside.
BISHOP LESSLIE NEWBIGIN of Madura, in the Church of South India, one of our missionaries, describes how the Church has grown in one district through the witness of “beginners.”
There is something here for the Church everywhere.

THIS is a story of one small corner of South India. It’s a bare, dry, wind-swept stretch of country where it is hard to make a steady living from the soil. Ten years ago there were just thirteen little village congregations; to-day there are fifty. That hasn’t happened because preachers have been paid to go there (though we’ve had a small evangelistic band working in the area); it has happened because the people themselves have talked about it to their friends. They have “Gossipped the Gospel”.

It all began many years ago when a village labourer heard a missionary preaching and bought a copy of one of the Gospels for a penny. He took it home, read it, and said, “This is the thing for my people.” He had to tramp many miles from town to town before he found someone who would come to his village and teach his people. But he didn’t rest till he and his folk had become Christians. And from there it spread from village to village, among the ordinary labouring folk whom the wealthy landowners had for centuries treated as outcasts.

Opposition and boycott

It wasn’t all success. There were groups that accepted baptism and then went back. There were bitter persecutions. Well-to-do landowners couldn’t abide seeing their labour getting new ideas into their heads, giving up old customs, acting and talking as if they were the children of God Almighty Himself!

At one point a newly baptised group was put under a sort of boycott, denied the use of wells, deprived of all traditional work, reduced almost to starvation. Some of them came to the point of actually agreeing to go back to the old religion and were standing in front of the Hindu shrine ready to do as the priest told them, when they suddenly realised that Christ meant more to them than life itself, and they turned their backs and left the priest standing there.

After that the landowners knew they were up against something they couldn’t break. The whole community was given a new respect. To-day they can’t be treated as dirt. Something had really happened to them; they were children of God.

It spreads because ordinary people talk about it. Your relations come and ask you; when you go to a wedding the other guests gather round and say, “What is this you have done? What is this new message?” So you have to try to explain. You tell them about this new life. Even if you don’t know how to tell it very well, they see it in your eyes. So they say “Come and tell us about it.”

Sometimes it is an individual, like Manuel the tanner who came to settle in Vadipatty and talked so much about it that the villagers came time after tiem to the pastor’s house and said, “Why don’t you come and take us into your family?”

Sometimes it is a young enthusiast like Jesudsen, a professional musician who was baptised only a few years ago, but who spends all his leisure time going from village to village as an evangelist, and who has brought two villages to Christ and prepared them for Church membership. More often, I think, it is just what ordinary people hear and see when they meet the new Christians.

“What can God…?”

A few weeks ago I was visiting a village for the baptism of a new congregation. I picked my way along a dark and messy street to a small temporary shed where the group was assembling. They looked an unpromising bunch, poor, unkempt, illiterate.

I had one of those atheistical moments: “I wonder whether this really adds up to anything; what does it mean to baptise these people What shall we ever make of them?” And then God rebuked me. I began to notice something else: a group of young men moving about among them, keen, bright eyed, trying to help and to show them what to do.

Who are these? Of course! They are some of the men we baptised a year ago in the next village, and it is they who have brought these people to Christ and prepared them for baptism. That’s the measure of the change that can happen by living for one year in the family of God.

“What can we make of them?” That’s an absurd question. We couldn’t do a thing. But God can make them His own children if we will just take Him at His word and let Him have His way in us.

Lesslie Newbigin was ordained into the Church of Scotland but spent much of his career as a missionary in India and was one of the Church of South India's first bishops. He would go on to be General Secretary of the International Missionary Council, Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church after he had returned to the UK, a prolific writer and influential theologian.

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