For more than thirty years, the Churches of Christ have been working in India. This outreach has involved the support of a few full-time on-the-field missionaries, part time missionaries, and the support of a multitude of Indian brethren. Dozens of training schools have been established, and each year hundreds of students graduate and enter into the work. With more than thirty years behind us and millions of dollars spent, to my knowledge there are only two churches that have elders and hardly any churches support their preachers! Why?
About three years ago at an India Missionary Workshop in Lufkin this seemed to be the question of the hour. Where are the elders? Where is the strong leadership that should have been trained by now? Why are the Indian churches not supporting their own preachers? Why is the Indian church, after all these years, still so dependent on foreign support? And what would happen if funds were stopped? Would the preachers continue their work? Would the local churches rise to the challenge and support their preachers and their own works? Or, would it all collapse? Questions! Questions! Questions! The truth is, we have more questions that we have answers.
After being involved in this work since 1982 and having lived in India the majority of those years, I have some personal observations that I would like to share with you. While I think that several problems can be identified, the solution seems to be nowhere in sight. One major problem that is the role of foreign support in the Indian economy and its effect on the Indian mentality.
The question is not, "Is it right to support someone?" We all know that the laborer is worthy of his hire. Actually it is not one question, but a series of questions including how one should be supported, for how long should one be supported and to whom is the one supported answerable? As you know, most of those on foreign support receive their funds directly from a church in the States or funds are indirectly routed through a key Indian brother. In some cases a key Indian brother could be receiving and distributing hundreds or even thousands of dollars each month. One can only imagine the power and influence that comes to the one who controls such an amount of money on a monthly basis. A power, which if one is not careful, can be used to one's own advantage. (By the way, according to Indian Law, an individual cannot receive more than $500.00 per month without obtaining permission from the Central Government to receive foreign funds, and Rs. 60,000/- or more per year must be declared to the Income Tax Department.) Recently, a brother known to me, received a marriage proposal from a key Indian brother who oversees several schools of preaching and about 700 Indian preachers. To encourage this young man to marry his daughter, he offered "as much money as you want," he would be made a director of one of the schools and he was told that he would also be given an AC car. With such an offer, I told my friend that only one question remained. Just how ugly is this girl?
Such power also puts one in a very tempting position. For example, one key brother known to me funnels funds to various preachers. Initially, the salaries were set in Rupees and a dollar amount was calculated to correspond. The key brother receives the dollar checks, cashes them and then forwards the set Rupee amount to the respective preachers wherever they may be. What happens when the dollar rate changes from Rs. 32/- per dollar to Rs. 36/- per dollar? The accusation from one such preacher on the receiving end was that over the years while the dollar rate had changed several times, the checks he received did not reflect the change although the sponsoring church continued to send the same amount of dollars month after month, year after year. What happened to the extra Rupees? Where did they go? Who benefitted? Should we put an Indian brother in such a tempting position? We might ask ourselves, Is there not a better way?
Even when funds are sent directly to an Indian brother, two questions arise: 1) To whom is he now answerable? And 2) Is there another key Indian brother or key foreign missionary indirectly involved who has power and influence? To my knowledge, almost without exception, an Indian brother receiving foreign support thinks and operates under the impression that he is answerable only to his sponsoring church, or to the key foreign missionary, or the key Indian brother. Certainly not to the local church! The practical result of this is simple. If the local brethren question any of his decisions, practices or perceived / usurped authority, he simply reminds them that he is not answerable to them, but rather to his sponsoring church which, by the way, just happens to be about 20,000 kilometers away! Even in situations where local brethren have written to the sponsoring church about the preacher, the preacher almost always prevails. And there is reason for this.
Even in the face of serious allegations, the local preacher can usually retain his supported status, if he is in good standing with either the key foreign missionary or the key Indian brother-if there is one to whom he is connected. Consider that most supported preachers obtain their support based on a recommendation from either a key Indian brother or a key foreign missionary. Any accusations or allegations against a supported preacher that reaches the ear of the sponsoring church are then usually filtered through the key missionary, the key Indian brother or in many cases both. It they stand behind him, he retains his support. If they do not, he loses it. Again, you can imagine the power that comes with being in a position to recommend. You can imagine what sort of honor and tribute will be paid to him by those who are indebted to him-whether they like him or not. How many times have we heard the phrase, "They loved me so much!" or "I have loved them so much!"
Let me illustrate how this works. A brother known to me, Kumar (name changed) was recommended for support by a key Indian brother. Living in different cities, all went well till Kumar began a small publication without asking permission from the key brother. Upset that his permission was not obtained before beginning the publication, the key brother then recommended to Kumar's sponsor that his support be cut. It was! And although Kumar wrote letters to his supporting church in the States (which I read) explaining what happened, the key brother prevailed. Kumar crossed the fatal line of bypassing the key Indian brother on what might seem to us to be nothing of consequence.
It basically works the same where a key missionary is involved. He recommends who should be supported and who should not. Since he often raises the support himself, he usually controls the operation and calls the shots. In reality he is a one man missionary society! Again, in the eyes of the Indian brethren, the key missionary wields tremendous power and influence. A year or so ago a brother explained to me how, at one time, he was not very well placed within the group with which he works-that was, until he was finally able to meet the key missionary and talk with him. After that, he was promoted and given an area of Karnataka which he now oversees in this pyramid of power operation. He concluded his story by saying, "Now. I can feed my family!" Brethren, something is surely wrong with this kind of arrangement.
About two months ago, a brother was explaining to me why he needed more monthly support. For one thing, he was paying Rs. 600/- per month for the small hall where the church met. So, I asked him how many of the church members had jobs. He said none. Finding this hard to believe, I questioned him again, and he said that they were "just daily wage earners." What do you know? They did have jobs! In this particular church there are about fifty adults who do indeed work. They earn about Rs. 30/- per day. With this information, we had a simple math lesson. For this illustration, let us just use the number twenty-five-half the congregation. 25 members X 6 days labor at Rs. 30 = Rs. 4500/- per week. Now let us say that they only give 5% of their earnings, not 10%. This equals Rs. 225/- per week. Rs. 225/- X 4 weeks = Rs. 900/- per month. If taught properly, can these brethren not pay their own rent? Can they not support or partially support their preacher? Maybe we need to sit down with our Indian preachers and brethren and do the math.
Almost one year ago two brothers, previously unknown to me, came to meet me in Bangalore. They were searching for support for about seventeen preachers. According to them, they were all supported by the same congregation in Nashville, and due to problems within the sponsoring church, their support had been stopped. By the time they met me they had been without support for about six months. I learned that there had been more congregations in number than preachers as some of the preachers were ministering to more than one group. I also learned what the average membership had been in each congregation. With this information, I began to do the math. Not long into the math lesson, I was interrupted and told that the preachers had stopped their gospel work. They had returned to other works and congregational numbers had drastically decreased. It seems that they been abandoned, but if support could be arranged, the preachers were ready to go back to work. Is this the fate that awaits the work in India? Why are the Indian preachers not teaching and encouraging giving in the congregations where they work? Do they have any desire to be supported by the local church? Are they working toward being supported by the local church? If not, why not?
At the present time, I only know of two congregations that were supporting their preachers. One still is, I am told. The other one was until a key foreign missionary came and put him on his pay-roll. This was done with full knowledge that the Indian brother had been selected, trained and hired and was, therefore, being supported by the local church. The local church was not consulted nor was their consent sought for their preacher to become involved in this person's personal missionary agenda. This preacher now receives a salary from both parties, and the church is yet to react to this situation for various reasons. My opinion is that the church would probably have been willing to cooperate and share their preacher had they been consulted. They could have then reached an acceptable financial / time-sharing arrangement. I say this to illustrate that our Indian brethren do not bear the full responsibility for what is happening in India. Many mistakes are ours. Personal missionary agendas must give way to what is right!
On the following page I have illustrated what I call the Saul Syndrome. I call it this because it reminds me of King Saul's resistance to David's potential. While it does not apply to all Indian preachers, I hope that it will bring to our attention a prevailing problem. Further, I hope it will serve as a working model and at least provide one possible answer as to why we do not have more elders in the churches of India and why we do not have a stronger leadership that we do. If the Indian church is going to mature beyond its present state, we may need to take some bold steps to force its growth and maturity. We may have to force the Indian church to take a step of faith in the direction of becoming self supporting. We may have to force Indian preachers to submit to local authority. We may also have to force ourselves to take that same step of faith as we rethink, restructure, and refocus our efforts.
10. The Cycle 1. Supported Preacher Continues -With or without training 9. Division: Potential Leaders put out, marked or withdrawn from. 8. 2. Outreach Preacher's Position: NOYB! -Teaching "None Of Your Business!" -Gospel Meetings "I do not answer to you!" -Campaigns 7. THEY CLASH: Preacher & Leaders -Clash and argue 3. Conversions 6. Leaders Begin to Emerge 4. Follow-Up -Suggestions Offered STUCK -Personal Study -Authority Questioned -Special Seminars, etc. -Practices Challenged 5. Growth & Maturity -Etc., Etc. -According to Preacher's Ability -From outside Influences: Seminars, Schools, Material -Personal Study by individual -Natural Ability
It seems that many Indian churches become stuck in the maturing process at about the same stage. Interestingly, the stage at which many become stuck occurs at about the same level as reflected in the Saul Syndrome diagram. The point is that many of the preachers involved in the Saul Syndrome have good Biblical knowledge, but they can't properly mature the church. Many preachers just cannot deal with or relate to a congregation that matures beyond a certain level, and it seems that this level prevails among many Indian churches. The problem comes when members mature to the point that they begin questioning the preacher in regard to his salary, his practices, his decisions and other activities. Unable to deal with such questions, the usual reaction is to shut the mouths of the opposition by whatever means it takes.
For example, with one congregation familiar to me, I was supplied with a list of the brethren that assembled about twenty-five years ago. If you compare this list with those who are presently attending, you will find just a few corresponding names. What happened? The answer is simple. Those who questioned the preacher were put out. Those who stayed lined up under his authority. So it has continued over the years with converts coming and going. Those who stay line up or else! Obviously there are no elders and there is no strong leadership. The preacher is the final authority and it will continue this way as he has the full, seemingly unconditional, support of his key foreign benefactor. Believe it or not, but this congregation is hailed as one of the oldest and as one of the best in India! In most cases the preacher's problem is not the lack of Biblical knowledge, rather it may be a lack of ability to relate to other potential leaders who may challenge his authority. Unable to produce this upper level of maturity and leadership, eldership potential is minimized and a good strong leadership never develops. This is not to say that many brethren through-out India, men and women, do not have a good understanding of the Bible. Many do, but this does not necessarily translate into elders and leaders. To become an elder or a leader, one must be taught not only in the Biblical realm, but they must also become skilled leaders and shepherds possessing a great deal of wisdom. Not only might such training be beyond the capability of the local preacher, but even if a member were to receive such instruction and develop the desired qualities, the question is whether the local preacher will be able to deal with this brother in an acceptable manner. In other words, to what degree, if any, is the local preacher willing to submit himself to local leadership and authority? Unfortunately, if the present trend continues, we may never know!
Here is a situation that occurred a couple of years ago in central Andrah Pradesh between a church of seventeen years existence and the preacher who ministers to them and to several other congregations. The brethren had questioned the preacher on some matters and he became upset. Being upset, he retaliated. How? He went for the Sunday worship assembly and then as he said in his own words, "I withheld the Lord's Supper from them. I did not serve it." This was his punishment for their insubordination. This occurred in a church that was established more than seventeen years ago! After so many years, why is he still responsible for serving the Lord's Supper? Is this an isolated incident? How many more years will it take before this church has elders or a leadership that can, if necessary, do without the aid of such a preacher? Let me add this note: The sponsoring church looked into the many allegations against this preacher, and in spite of the key Indian brother's recommendation that his support should be continued after a stern warning, his support was stopped. Yes! We may wonder who among our fellowship may be supporting him now? I fear that part of the problem lies in sending and supporting men who are not well qualified. Recently, a small group of students, who were already "preachers" and already receiving support, graduated from a Bible school. The problem is that they graduated without proper training. Classes were short, usually taught by unqualified teachers and almost, without exception, no exams were given. Will these young men be able to develop and lead a church into an eldership with strong leaders? Why were they permitted to graduate under such circumstances? Could it be that a quota or an agenda had to be met? Brethren, is it not well within our means and our ability to do better than this?
Let us not mistake Biblical knowledge for maturity and leadership ability. In some way the churches of India and the preachers need to be educated in the dynamics of preacher / church relationship. They need to understand the proper relationship they should have with each other. They need to know, in the absence of elders, who has what authority, how to make decisions, how to resolve problems, etc. Both need to be educated as to how the church / preacher relationship should operate in the absence of proper leadership. This is what is referred to some of us as Interim Church Government, meaning, basic Biblical rules or patterns that should be followed by a church that does not have elders to help them in their decision making process-something that is basically taken for granted in our U.S. congregations. Maybe some material and seminars could be developed and presented that would assist the Indian churches at this critical stage. In all fairness to us foreign brethren, the problem also includes our lack of knowledge as to what is happening on a daily basis in the interaction between the members and the preacher, and what is happening within the community. It is impossible to really understand what is happening within a congregation on short visits. Limited by time and busy schedules, many only get a glimpse of what is going on, and usually it looks like everything is going well. But at some point, we need to stand back, take a good look, remind ourselves that we are 30+ years down the road, and ask ourselves some serious questions: What have we done wrong? What have we done that is right and that is working? What changes could we make that would facilitate a stronger church in India? How long will the umbilical cord remain in tact? What sacrifices will we / they have to make? What will it take for the churches of India to launch out on their own, support their own preachers and their own works? When? May God bless us with wisdom and, above all, answers.
presented at: 1998 Indian Missionary Workshop, Sunset Church of Christ, Lubbock, Texas.