(For PROJECT INDIA, by: Terry Ivy)
The method any church planting ministry uses should not be determined by a concrete adherence to a rigid style. Instead, it should be determined by the people group and the culture in which they live. (1Cor. 9:19-23) For example, to take a Western mindset concerning church planting and implement it in an Eastern cultural setting is a commitment to failure. One of the greatest threats to successful church planting is the attempt to bring outdated and strict models to bear, which may have been successful in previous generations, but are hindrances to our day or cultural dynamics.
Regardless of the unique change of the cultural dynamics of a targeted people group, any methodology should seek biblical warrant. There always seems to be some ‘new’ way to plant churches, but many are gimmicky and shallow, and will not sustain through time for lack of giving converts a foundation of sound doctrine or intimacy with Christ. Fads will pass, but church plants which work outwardly from a Scripturally patterned core of dynamics offers a greater potential of establishing a lasting presence. We should seek to develop lasting oak trees, not fading mushrooms.
At PROJECT INDIA, our work in rural India uses a very simple method which takes advantage of the open doors which are present. We desire to see an exponential church planting movement free from the fluff and gimmicks seen in many movements, as well as freedom from some of the over-loaded organizational paralysis seen in many church planting groups in the West. Our method isn’t to be taken as the ‘only or best way’ for every situation, but rather as a successful method for like cultures and people groups. Below we will outline our method of planting churches. The dynamics of this method are producing results at a rate which is consistent with our burden and call.
II. Target Group
The target group for PROJECT INDIA (PI) are those living in unreached rural villages across India. Most of the villagers are Hindus which have 330 million various gods/goddesses as objects of their devotion. Some, as we have found, are atheists who have abandoned the belief of any god or goddess by experiencing the genuine lack of answered prayer and existential fulfillment.
The average village consists of 30% upper caste and 70% lower caste. The vast majority are idol worshippers and are very sincere in their pursuit of seeking truth. This is important to understand, because to the western mind, idolatry is usually looked upon as a practice of people who are not using sound judgement or reason within the religious framework of their spiritual practices. The failure to recognize the sincerity of the Hindu people, even in their idolatry, will come across as cultural snobbery and high mindedness. Instead, most villagers have never heard the name of Jesus. Therefore, their movement toward idolatry is their cultural practice in an attempt to fill the spiritual void they feel on an existential level.
Most westerners fail, for various reasons, to understand several factors related to these rural areas of India. Those factors are:
- Simplicity – The life and culture is very simple. The life style of the church planters to these villages must also be very simple.
- Humility – If a messenger displays a proud or arrogant disposition, they will never reach these villagers. Humility will garner a receptive audience. This is the very opposite of what most American preachers act like, as our society applauds the arrogant and cocky. Humility is woven into the very fabric of Indian culture, especially in the rural areas which are free from westernization.
- Respect – The church planter must be one who shows respect for the people, their ways, their beliefs, their culture and their humanity. Shock jock evangelism will not work. Hindus want nothing to do with a messenger if the messenger is not humble and respectful.
- Cultural/Religious Framework – The culture of the villages (religious pluralism and community first) and the religion of the villages (Hinduism) can not be seen as two different aspects. They are indivisibly joined. To mock Hinduism idolatry by sacrilegious practices or blasphemous statements, is seen as a mockery of Indian culture and will create an unsurmountable stumbling block to the villagers.
- Hindu Openness – Hindu religion is a pluralistic belief system. As long as due respect is extended to Hindu villagers, they will gladly give audience to the presentation of the Gospel. Like the Greeks on Mars Hill with their pluralistic view of worship, they will inquire and welcome a presentation of this ‘strange and new teaching’ when respect is shown. (Acts 17:19-21)
- Community – Community takes precedence over individuality. Indian culture functions more as a community and disdains any individualistic model. This is the opposite of Western culture. Any attempt to be a maverick or individual trend setter will receive resistance from village Elders. If someone stresses personal rights over community welfare, he will become an enemy to the community.
- Unreached – These villagers have not been exposed to the gospel, therefore this people group, both in their religious practices and in their culture, is as close to the Greeks in the New Testament book of Acts as you can imagine. Because of this, the methodology used to reach them is taken from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable similarity. The Gospel is to be presented with incredible simplicity by avoiding the religious jargon and cliches’ Westerners are used to.
Embracing the above understandings of the culture and customs of these rural villages gives a huge advantage for successfully planting churches in these unreached areas. Careful attention should always be given to the above issues.
III. Outreach and Evangelism
We hold several types of outreach. These meetings focus upon the simple truths of the gospel by presenting messages about the Cross of Jesus and the Love of God. Focus is given to the sequential flow of biblical history and the ministry of Jesus Christ to offer redemption to all who surrender to Him through faith. The different types of meetings we hold are:
- Personal Witnessing and Tracts – We provide tracts in the native language and distribute them among the villagers. These tracts are actually messages which provide the clear gospel about the uniqueness of Jesus and the message of salvation. Along with this, we do one on one personal witnessing among the villages.
- Street Singing and Preaching – We provide singing on the streets in the villages. The songs also proclaim the message of the gospel and the call to follow Christ. When a crowd is gathered we present the gospel and offer invitations for the hearers to receive the gospel.
- Personal Care and Preaching – We have men who are trained in herbal medicine to treat the needs of the villagers. In response to this care we ask the recipients to meet and hear a gospel message. Out of thankfulness for the free personal care they have received, they attend the meetings and listen to the presentation of the gospel.
- Feeding and Preaching – To demonstrate God’s love to these villagers, who are among the very poor, we provide meals to feed the hungry. We only ask that they come and hear a gospel message. By showing compassion for their plight through feeding, the Holy Spirit begins revealing the uniqueness of the Love of Christ and thereby, prepares their heart for the gospel.
- Telephone Outreach – We also conduct telephone outreach meetings. These are messages where I teach and preach about Jesus to gatherings. These messages become a great interest to the villagers as they hear the gospel in English and then hear the translation into their native language. These have proven very successful.
- Video Outreach – In some instances, when a TV and video player can be found, we use videos which have been recorded at our conferences. We are seeing people come to the Lord from watching these video messages.
Through these various outreach and evangelistic methods we are seeing great success. The type of outreach meeting will vary depending upon the availability of other PI team members to help the local church planter. An example of the success is that from December of 2011 through February of 2014 we have planted 129 churches in previously unreached villages with over 18,000 souls surrendering to Christ.
IV. Gospel Presentation
Understanding and sensitivity to the local customs and culture is important for reaching any culture. It is extremely important concerning reaching the rural villages of India. Here in the West, most of us are familiar with the slash and burn offensive presentation of the Gospel. Any attempt to use these harsh methods only build insurmountable barriers to the success of reaching the lost. At PI, we lean heavily upon the pattern demonstrated by the Apostle Paul throughout the book of Acts. Here are several important aspects we see in Scripture. They are intertwined into a necessary and important thread.
- Preaching is a Privilege – The opportunity to share the gospel in the rural villages of India is not a right, it is a privilege. The Hindu culture is religiously pluralistic. This affords us the free opportunity to share the Gospel among various people groups. To violate this trust by insulting or demeaning either their culture or religious practices is a violation of respect, humility and love. (Eph. 4:15; Tit. 3:2; 1Pet. 3:15) The Indian people are loving and gentle souls who reciprocate respect and honor. This should always be recognized.
- No Culture Transporting – The Gospel presentation does not hold any culture above the other. Paul did not take the culture of the Hebrews and enforce them upon the Greeks. Instead, he simply presented the message of purity of heart through repentance and faith in Christ. It is God’s love for all men that has the power to penetrate every culture. Each region of the World has its own culture and customs, the Gospel is not to be presented with the transportation of Western customs mixed in. Enforcing our native cultures and customs upon a foreign culture will guarantee failure. (1Cor. 9:19-23) Understanding and respecting the culture and customs of the people we are reaching out to is essential. Church planters who cross cultural lines must properly understand the clearly defined difference between the culture and the Gospel.
- Exalting the Cross – Jesus promised that when He is “high and lifted up,” that all men will be drawn to Him. (John 12:32) Our evangelistic messages focus upon the Cross of Jesus, the Love of God, and the new life available only through Christ. (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2) We focus upon engaging the person’s existential and moral need through the Gospel, and not their present religious practices. When the Cross is exalted, they easily realize that their pluralistic religious practices are not sufficient to fulfill their heart or provide salvation.
- No Sacrilegious or Blasphemous Speech – Paul’s testimony among the idolatrous citizens of Asia was that he and his fellow apostles did not commit sacrilege or blasphemy against the idols of that region. (Acts 19:37) Even Demetrius, the man who stirred up the hostile riot against Paul at Ephesus, could only say that he proclaimed that “gods made with hands are no gods.” (Acts 19:22-26) This was the same way Paul addressed idolatry at Athens. (Acts 17:29) This is important: Paul and his associates did not attack the idolatrous temples (sacrilege) or speak down on them with inflammatory or insulting sermons. (blasphemy) Following this pattern, the church planters of PI do not engage in idol smashing, mocking or disrespectful dialogue about the idols of Hinduism. To do so only unnecessarily offends the very people we are attempting to reach with the Gospel. The message of Christ Crucified is the offense or scandal; our actions or method of proclaiming the message should not be. The native Indians who are idol worshippers are sincere in their pursuit of truth as they seek to find the existential meaning for their life. To make their practice of idolatry the forefront of the message by blaspheming their religious practices and cultural customs is both foolish and lacks Scriptural precedent in New Testament missions. Our presentation focuses upon giving no offense to those inside or outside the church in regards to cultural matters. (1Cor. 10:31-33) [Important: this does not mean those responding to the gospel are left to think Jesus is one among many gods.]
- Personal Comparative Religion – India is a land with over 330 million gods/goddesses. By exalting Jesus as the ONLY way to God, we have discovered several things. By simply staying focused upon Jesus as the only way to God, the listeners engage in what we call personal and inner comparative religious considerations. Multiple testimonies have borne this principle out to us. It would be impossible (because there are so many) to attempt to mention and verbally dissect the nuances of each idol in Hindu culture. However, when the Gospel is preached, the Indian people are constantly considering the uniqueness of Jesus and comparing Him to their own idols and gods. And, when they respond to the Gospel, they know from the messages that they are forsaking all and surrendering to Jesus as Lord and Savior. (1Thess. 1:9) The Apostle Paul focused his indepth teaching about abstaining from idols to the church gathering, not as a central focus during an outreach gathering. (Acts 15:20,29; 1Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33; 2Cor. 6:16) While speaking in the marketplace with unbelievers, Paul never spoke insultingly (blasphemy) against the religious practice of idolatry. (Acts 19:37) In fact, he actually recognized their sincerity in being “very religious” (Acts 17:22) and used it as a springboard to proclaim the Gospel. The Greeks were seeking existential realities in life, and because they had not the knowledge of Christ crucified, they pursued religious idolatry. Therefore, like the Greeks, Hindus are very sincere in looking for an existential fulfillment in life. Respect for a person’s spiritual pursuit goes a long way in gaining an audience and getting the privilege of sharing how Jesus is the ONLY way to God.
V. Planting Churches
The model we at PI use to plant churches in unreached villages is very simple. We move church planters and their families into rented homes in the various villages. The initial village is usually a main village with an average population of around 3,000. This center village serves as their operational base. On average, these initial villages are the center village in a given location with an average of 5-6 smaller villages surrounding them. The surrounding villages usually range in population from 800 to 1,500.
In the center village, our church planters begin street gospel meetings. (The “Marketplace,” Acts 17:17) As new believers come to Christ, our church planters use their rented homes as the meeting place for the fellowship. Therefore, borrowing the early New Testament pattern of simple meeting places, we avoid the church planting hinderances of property acquisition or building construction. It is our belief that to focus upon property and construction will only slow down and hinder the exponential outreach to the villages and the planting of churches. Our burden is not to place priority into ‘brick and mortar,’ but into people, who are the true building of God. (1Cor. 3:16, Eph. 2:22) When the new church plant outgrows the accommodation capability of the home, then meetings are held in rented public facilities. If the church membership grows to a place where they desire to construct their own permanent facility, they are totally responsible for that endeavor.
Our goal in planting churches in these unreached villages is two-fold. First, We want to establish congregations following the New Testament pattern. This pattern includes, among many things, churches which are autonomous and self-governing, with men in the offices of Elders and Deacons. They are to be ruled by a plurality of Elders. The Church Planter, along with visiting Pastors from PI will provide plurality of oversight until local leadership is established.
Second, we want to establish church planting churches. That is, we pray to see new church planters raised up from the harvest of souls. Our church planters help to identify them and we get them into training and preparation for the work of planting new churches in the other unreached villages. This aspect also involves church planters planting additional churches in the villages surrounding their main village where they make their domicile.
VI. Training Leaders
The training of leaders, especially new church planters, includes several areas of importance.
- Church Planters – We hold several conferences a year to train and commission church planters. These men must understand and commit to the sound basic doctrinal positions held by PI. This statement of faith provides unity of message and avenues to maintain accountability among all church planters. Men are not commissioned until they understand basic Bible doctrine, meet the qualifications of Elders as listed in 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and are proven on the field through assisting established church planters.
- Local Church Leaders – Each commissioned church planter is responsible to meet frequently with men in their newly established church. They are to look for and train those from the village to prepare them for leadership among the local church. (Elders and Deacons) These local officers are proven and evaluated before ordination into leadership.
- Women – We also put focus upon the older women teaching, training and discipling the younger women. Though women are not ordained into church office, they are encouraged into several forms of ministry, especially in support and ministry to other women as well as reaching out to the children of the villages. The position of PI is what is observed in Scriptures. That is, leadership of the local Church is held by men.
- New Believers – We immediately connect new converts with other believers who can help them grow personally in their new faith by instructing them in the life of a Christian and answering their questions.
VII. Follow Up
Follow up involves several areas among the PROJECT INDIA church plants. These areas include:
- Leadership Commissioning – At PI, we follow the Scriptural pattern of releasing biblically qualified men sooner rather than later. These men have the basic doctrinal understanding which provides sufficient teaching and leadership abilities among unreached areas. They always have at their disposal, immediate contact with the local oversight leadership of PI for any difficult or unexpected problems. Also, the local leadership of PI has immediate contact with leadership in the United States.
- Continual Training – We seek to hold 1 day conferences for church planters and their wives every month. These are for offering more in-depth teaching on doctrinal issues and resolving questions which have arisen on the mission field. This is also good for getting necessary feedback concerning any unexpected issues they are facing, and for times of prayer and encouragement.
- Accountability – There is frequent (several times each month) contact and discussion with PI church planters. The PI leadership in India stays in constant contact with each church planter concerning the spiritual well being of their personal walk, family life, leadership and doctrinal teaching.
The methods laid out here are the ones which seem to follow many biblical examples as well as taking advantage of modern technology. We do not see them as being superior to others, but only profitable for the people group we are seeking to reach in rural India.