Friendship, the Basis for Mission: East Meets West, North Meets South in India
by Jeff Ritchie
The following report of our trip is a case study in how mission is changing when we see every part of the world as a mission field and the church in every place as a mission force. As members of the body of Christ, we grow in faith and fruitfulness when we connect with each other in the same way as we are connected with Jesus our Lord, who says to us, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
Over a century ago, a young leader of the Church in India, the Rev. V. S. Azariah, addressed the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. He asked for a new form of mission partnership between East and West: “Give us friends.” This past month the Kolhapur Church Council (KCC) in Western India welcomed an Outreach Foundation team of ten Americans and Brazilians in the same spirit. They were looking for friends who could better equip them for God’s mission. Those from North and South America came with the same hope; namely, through meeting new friends in India we also could be better equipped for mission in our respective fields of service. Among those in the welcoming church was the great-granddaughter of Bishop Azariah, Sheba Telore. Sheba and her husband, Ramesh are now serving as development workers in Kolhapur.
Representing The Outreach Foundation on this transformative visit were Jeff Ritchie, Associate Director for Mission; J.C. Pezini, Portuguese Language Ministries Coordinator; and Brian Stewart, Trustee. The group included members of three Presbyterian denominations – the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil, the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Other visitors not part of our group but with prior connections to the Kolhapur Church Council were Doug and Judy Hall, from Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), an inner-city mission in Boston, Massachusetts, and Adolfo Santana, a Brazilian who had formerly served as a missionary in Goa, a city near Kolhapur.
Our purpose in visiting India was to see a church that had a vision for church planting and was aligning its entire ministry as a church to live out this vision. Initiated by a former Executive Secretary of the Kolhapur Church Council (KCC) after a visit to Emmanuel Gospel Center in the early 1990s, and developed in its present form by the current Executive Secretrary, the Rev. S. K. Pathane, KCC’s “Vision 2020” calls for the planting of 1,000 house churches, one for every community of the Kolhapur District of the state of Maharashtra, by the year 2020. Currently the KCC has fifty-five churches and 250 house churches, so it has embarked on an ambitious undertaking.
To keep Vision 2020 before the whole church, the KCC holds a mission conference every two years. Our trip was timed to coincide with this year’s conference which was held at the same time as a major Hindu festival, Diwali. Businesses are closed and schools are on holiday during Diwali, making it an ideal time for an all-church meeting.
This year’s theme was “Making God’s Mission Our Mission,” and the theme verse from Scripture was John 3:17. Through the Bible studies, sermons, and talks given by Indians, Brazilians, and Americans, participants in the conference were challenged to align their lives with God’s loving purpose to save the world and see that their mission in life was to join God in his mission. Additionally, the KCC leaders expressed their hope that a key outcome of the conference would be additional students enrolled in the Good Shepherd Bible School which is the Council’s training center for church planters.
The call for more laborers, more harvesters, more people who would “make God’s mission their mission,” not only came through the messages of the conference; it was reinforced in song and ceremony. A young adult in the KCC composed the theme song for the conference. The refrain was “Making God’s Mission Our Mission,” and one of the youth Romanized the Marathi words so that we non-Marathi speakers could joyfully sing with the others “Devache Seva Karya!” Through song we expressed our desire to align ourselves with God’s mission more and more.
Another key part of the conference was a ceremony on the last evening in which graduates of the Good Shepherd Bible School were awarded certificates for completion of their study. A few were graduates from the old curriculum, a three-year residential program. The majority had completed a one-year course which was the bridge between the old program and the new program. Family and friends celebrated this milestone with the graduates who had been equipped for the work of evangelism and disciple making and were ready to “make God’s mission their mission.”
After several of the talks, some of the Brazilian and American participants found themselves praying for people who came up to them with various needs. It was an extremely moving experience, and for some of the team it was the highlight of the trip.
After the mission conference our group visited churches and home meeting groups. As in the conference, in the local churches there were inquirers following the service who asked for prayer for salvation, health, family issues, and other personal situations. This ministry of prayer went on in an unhurried pace until there were no more persons to be prayed for. When our Indian hosts said, “This ministry of prayer happens every Sunday in our churches,” we realized the depth of spiritual hunger in India. Truly, the time of harvest has come.
The visit to a rural home meeting deserves especial mention. The village was located in a sugar-cane growing area. Thirty-five to forty women, children, and men crowded into a tiny home. They have been preparing for baptism. The evangelist who normally works with them and with three other home meetings was not present, but the evangelist who had started the work drove us there.
Upon our arrival, the people who had gathered for worship served us tea, rice, and cookies. Then they sang a few songs. As the group followed along in their New Testaments, one of our group shared the story of a time when Jesus ministered in a crowded home (Mark 3:31-35). The rest of us shared a word of encouragement, a song, or a prayer. Then four or five of the villagers asked for special prayer. On our way out of the village, we stopped by another home where we prayed for a woman whose body had been severely burned when a firecracker exploded and caught her clothing on fire. We had rejoiced with the new believers in one home. Now we wept with this woman in her pain.
All of these experiences were deeply humbling and deeply moving. We did not know Marathi. We did not really understand the cultural, religious, economic, and social context of our new India friends. In most cases we were helpless to do anything except to pray. But that was the ministry God wanted us, and so by God’s grace we made ourselves available.
The U.S. and Brazilian participants were truly amazed and inspired by our time in Kolhapur. We saw what we had hoped to see: a church that, from top to bottom, has aligned itself around a vision. The mission conference was a kind of covenant renewal ceremony whereby the church was able to recommit to the goal of planting 1,000 new house churches in the next six years. The recognition of the graduates of the Good Shepherd Bible School at the conference served as a recruiting opportunity to multiply the harvesters (at least 10-15 new students enrolled after the event). The two days after the conference, our visits to the churches in the city of Kolhapur and in the surrounding villages reinforced the sense that each church that belongs to the KCC is committed to this vision. Each church had a number of home groups, and some had developed groups to the point that they could be called “churches” (those who had a baptized membership of twenty-five or more).
We were all the more impressed by this commitment to a vision because we were acutely aware that the Kolhapur Church is located in a largely Hindu context. Persecution of the church is not constant but is never far away. Even without external challenges, the commitment to church planting requires a total “buy-in” from the churches that must be periodically renewed. But as the Rev. S.K. Pathane, Executive Secretary of the Kolhapur Church Council, shared with the group, “If the harvest force increases, the vision is achievable.”
With that inspiration and the catchy refrain of the theme song of the conference, we departed India having made new friends with people from two other parts of the world. The U.S. participants hope to visit their new Brazilian friends next year and see how to do church planting “among those who don’t like church.” Brazilians and Americans alike have been invited to return to India and spend more time with youth and young adults. In the future it is hoped that key leaders of the Kolhapur Church Council can go to Brazil and the United States to share their focused vision with our respective churches.
Were he alive, we hope that Bishop Azariah would be pleased by this visit. A friendship for mission fruitfulness and faithfulness has been forged. Thanks be to God!
Associate Director for Mission
Young adult praise team