Silver Spring, Maryland, United States …. [ANN Staff]
India is proving to be a nation where many thousands are interested in the Gospel message and the Seventh-day Adventist church pastors, Bible workers and lay members who are sharing it. Tens of thousands are joining the church each year, coming from many parts of this vast, highly populated land whose 1 billion people represent roughly one-sixth of the Earth’s population.
To explore why the Adventist message is as successful as it is, and to examine some of the reasons for that success, Ray Dabrowski, communication director for the world church, sat down with D. Ronald Watts, president of the Adventist Church’s Southern Asia Division (region); Michael L. Ryan, vice president of the world church and director of Global Mission; and Don Noble, president of Maranatha Volunteers International, a lay Adventist group that has aided in church construction around the world, including India, where its volunteers have constructed churches and schools.
Recently, they met for a conversation to examine the many facets of church witness and growth in India, as well as the ambitious program to provide places of worship for multiplying congregations in Southern Asia. What follows is a part of that conversation.
Ray Dabrowski: Looking at evangelism and church growth in Southern Asia, what are some of the factors contributing to such an amazing growth?
D. Ronald Watts: One of the major developments that has been happening in the last few years includes teams from North America, from different [districts] and local churches, [who are] coming over and doing evangelistic meetings. Many of them do 10 village programs, some do 50 village programs where they simultaneously establish 10 new churches or 50 new churches at a time, and then construct church buildings, and put volunteers in place to disciple the people.
Dabrowski: That’s from the outside, but what is happening inside the church in India?
Watts: From the inside, of course, one of the biggest factors is the change in attitude of the local people toward Christians, toward Seventh-day Adventists. People are beginning to see that the values that Seventh-day Adventists are teaching are values that many of them have held very important in their lives for generations. They see that what we are teaching matches what they believe. You know, the idea of non-violence is something that is important to us. We don’t go to war, we don’t kill people, and they’ve had non-violence as a very important feature of their society since 500 B.C. and the time of Gautama Buddha; [as well as] the emphasis that we place on family [and] the emphasis that we place on devotion to God. You know, there is a very large component of Indian native religion, what they call “bhakti.” It is a very devotional type –it’s not the issue of theology and philosophy, but [the] worship of God — that is very important to them.
Dabrowski: Today’s India is experiencing changes, political, social, and economic. Is this also affecting the way we go about doing church?
Watts: There is a different atmosphere in India today after the last election, in which a prime minister comes from a minority community. And so all the minorities in India are very happy about that. One of the first statements he made after becoming prime minister is that he will see to it that the riots which have occurred in the past that have killed people who are of minority religions are not going to happen again, they will not be allowed to take place. In Andhra Pradesh where we have such a large work, the new chief minister is a Christian, a Christian medical doctor. He is a man devoted to God and is devoted to the people, and they appreciate that he worked in a number of Christian hospitals and people know him as somebody who loves the poor. He came into power with a huge majority.
Dabrowski: So, you are feeling already some effect of these recent changes.
Watts: We feel a different atmosphere of happiness. [This chief minister] has 350 Adventists who work for him on his estates. In fact, Maranatha is in the process of constructing a new church building on the chief minister’s estate for the Adventists, and that should be dedicated on Christmas Eve.
Dabrowski: Analyzing church statistics, they testify that the Southern Asia church region, in terms of baptisms and professions of faith, has the highest growth percentage of all the parts of the world. How are you coping with this huge growth, the influx of so many people?
Watts: I think we are coping well, because we have done two important things. We have organized new missions and new structures so that we have a structure there that will take care of these people. And secondly, we have built churches with the help of Maranatha particularly –Maranatha has built 850 churches in our area in the last six years and is planning to pass 1,000 before March 2005 — and we’ve built other churches, working with them. And tied together with that is the fact that through Global Mission, the church’s initiative to establish congregations in new areas, and other mission organizations, we have volunteers that now work in every village; and these Christian volunteers lead out in the daily worship service, and conduct adult literacy classes, health classes and their Sabbath programs. It is very important to have a stable work.
Dabrowski: Considering the role Global Mission plays in this phenomenal activity, what specifically is being done?
Michael L. Ryan: Global Mission has actually been given the task of keeping visible before the church the need to place these congregations in unentered areas. So of course we are very anxious that we do an analysis of the territory, find out where the primary unentered areas are, which India has a lot of them, and then the details are organized whereby we can go about having a congregation in there. … It also depends on what one means by Global Mission. If we refer to Global Mission at the local level, then of course they are recruiting pioneers, training them, sending them out, equipping them, helping get the thing started. And as far as we’re concerned, anything that is done that will stabilize that little group, that is part of the plan. And then of course, the regional organization is the one that really owns the Global Mission pioneer program — they [also] do the recruiting, training, sending, and we provide them with funding.
Dabrowski: Building churches in these areas has become an imperative to sustain the church’s growth, and so, Maranatha became involved…
Ryan: Early on, we had funded some projects and when we finally went out to these places, you couldn’t find the congregation after a year, or in other places, it was sad to discover when they’d take you to what they called a new church and they had just recently built it. The new church wouldn’t be half the size of your office and it would be made out of mud and they’d say, “Well this is what we can afford.” And so I knew something had to change because, what kind of growth are you expecting if you can only squeeze 15 people in there standing up?
Dabrowski: This church growth happens because the church was intentional in what it wanted to do with these unentered areas. As we look at India, we witness Global Mission’s successful work, yet we are talking about a billion people living there. We are just touching the surface, aren’t we?
Ryan: My perspective on the success, of course, is that it is really a miracle, a miracle of the Holy Spirit because we just aren’t that smart and we’re not that organized and [reaching out to] Hindus is just not that easy regardless of what some might say. In terms of the success, clearly the success is with the Lord, but I do agree with Ron. I think there is not only a new spirit in India as far as the population goes, but I think there is a new spirit among our church members.
I see two things in India that still remain a huge challenge. One [is that] there are still thousands of villages in which Jesus’ name is barely known, if at all. And there are some areas that are higher priorities than others. We simply do not have the key to unlock the lock. I think particularly of Kashmir, and [other] areas with millions of people, yet our message is still not [preached] there. An increasing problem in India is going to be the cities. It used to be a country that population-wise was more evenly spread in rural areas, but as India becomes a technological factor in the world, you find that cities are growing.
The second factor would be that with such a huge, rapid growth, we are challenged to have an understanding around the world church that we have an obligation to make those new believers strong in Christ. They come, they are excited, they love the Lord, but there are a lot of things that we could provide as a church to make them stronger in Adventism, and particularly when it comes to the issue of discipleship.
Dabrowski: The role of a church building, itself, is there a particular dimension to this factor in India?
Watts: The role of the church building in [church] growth is in itself almost [immeasurable], but you have to understand that 85 percent of the population of India were never allowed to worship in Hindu temples for the last 2,000 years. And for them to have a place of worship is so valuable that it’s more valuable than anything else they can ask for or think of. It gives them a sense of stability in their lives, it gives them a sense of happiness, it brings an order into their life, and in those villages where those churches have been built, they have become the center of the village and it’s nice to go there. The church is the center of their life and of their family.
Dabrowski: Is the style of the building important?
Watts: I’ve never heard anybody worry about the style of the building. We often worry about the size of the building — whether it’s big enough for all their families, and of course marriages, and many important events in peoples lives are centered around the place of worship — funerals and baptisms and child dedications and all those kind of things. A church building … we who worship in churches that somebody else built, we take it for granted, [and] just don’t have a clue as to what it is like to be in a place and not have a place of worship.
Ryan: There is a bigger issue than just providing a place to worship and having the members feel good and stay in the church, but actually what is taking place really goes beyond that. One of the problems that we faced in Global Mission was not having any funding whatsoever to build church buildings with. … The miracle of church building is the fact that yes, we have been able to provide for this cultural aspect, but also because someone,(Maranatha) got involved. We opened a source that actually not only had the expertise on how to go about it, but they also had access to resources that provided a miracle for a lot of those congregations and the funding is just not something that’s easy to raise.
Watts: Also, one unique thing about this combination of Maranatha and
Global Mission is that they are teams working together. Nobody else has the package. There are other Christian groups working in India and I’ve read their literature. They are advocating: Don’t build churches when you first go to a village — you start in a house church and then you see what they’ve done. They are rejoicing because in this particular village in Bihar, they have raised up a congregation of 20 people. But when [Maranatha and Global Mission] put this package together we have congregations of 300, 400, 500, and 1,000 people. And there is nobody who is doing that that I have seen in India, no [other] Christian organization.
Dabrowski: So when Maranatha and other groups go to India, they’re building churches before they start public meetings?
Watts: Before we have any members in the village, they are getting a property and building the churches so that when the people hear the message, they say, “We’ve got a place to worship, let’s go.” It’s so much easier for people to make that decision. And frankly, it spreads.
They are there worshiping and people from 20, 30 miles away come and see that and say, “We’ve been Christians in our village for 100 years, we’ve not had a church, how did you get a church?” And then of course they inquire about our message and want us to come and study the Bible with them and baptize them so they can get a church also. It really helps the church member in India to be a missionary to all the other villages around when they have a place of worship.
Ray: Don Noble, what does it take to build a church and how much does it take to build a church in India?
Don Noble: Everything depends of course on the size of the church you build and the type of church you build. … Just as houses are not all the same price, the same applies to churches. There will be a difference in price based on size, quality and location. What we’ve decided to do, in consultation with the Southern Asia Division office, is to provide three different sizes. We try to be pretty systematic, so we have small, medium and large church buildings. If you are in a village in north India and they are bringing in 75 or 100 or 125 people, you build a small church. And according to our current pricing, that comes with a concrete roof, that’s US $5,000, which isn’t really
too bad when you think of the cost per person. A medium-size church, seating 250 persons will cost US $7,500. A large church, for as many as a congregation of 400 is considered a big church. For the first time in six years we had to raise the price for building such a church because of the cost of steel, to US $11,000. I’m going to guess in the future that’s going to change — that’s why we want to build as many as we can at the current price structure. Of course you also have to buy the land, and land will vary anywhere from getting it free in some places, US $500 in certain states, in Uttar Pradesh it will cost more and in the [large] cities, of course, it’s a whole different issue.
Watts: It depends on the size of the congregation, as Don has said. But you have to have a minimum type of building and you have to provide for some future growth, even if you have a small congregation. I’ve gone through the membership lists. In South Andhra there are 100,000 members. They have 500 congregations. How does one manage 500 congregations is beyond me. But they’ll tell you, they don’t lose any of the members.
Part of that is you have a [church building], and you establish that as the center of their social life and … we bring the social group together. We don’t divide the social group. The elders of the group come into the church and all the other people along with them. So when a family in India may be 300 people in the village, you bring the whole family together, and you get inside their social structure that was before preventing them from becoming Christian and now you have the social structure working with you to help them to become Christian and they’ll tend to stay in the church.
Dabrowski: We are not only talking about sizes of church buildings, and one size will not fit all, but it’s also [how] these buildings are done …
Watts: You know, you could build a small hut for US $100, but six months from now there isn’t going to be anything there. You want to build a reasonably good structure and, as Don said, there are different sizes, according to the size of the congregation. Maranatha is using reinforced concrete, and they are building buildings that are cyclone-proof. For example, on the east coast of India we have these cyclones that come in off the Bay of Bengal and destroy everything in their path. There you build solid buildings, but this requires some investment and that’s the kind of church they are building. Yes, you can build something less than that, but when you do, it’s [really] less than that.
Dabrowski: What has the India experience done for the Maranatha organization itself, and its many volunteers and supporters?
Noble: For me, India, with one out of every six people on the planet, in a way represents what is left to happen before Jesus comes back. And if God can open that country, He can open any place on the planet.
And if the message can go quickly there, it can go quickly anywhere and He can come quickly. So when we talk about what I would consider small growth so far — there are the possibilities of greater growth — I get excited because I say, here is a view of what God wants to have happen quickly.
Watts: We’re talking [with Maranatha] about a 1,000-village program where we will enter 1,000 villages simultaneously … and Maranatha will build 1,000 churches. Now, that doesn’t say they are going to raise the money for 1,000 churches … They are going to be the ones that build it from wherever the money comes, but they are going to be there.
Noble: I think with what we’ve learned, that God will lead us about as fast as we think He can. If we have the faith that God is going to open up India, I think He is going to open up India. If we have the faith to do a 1,000-village program, He’ll give us that 1,000-village program. And then when we’ve learned that He is trustworthy for that, because we need to learn that, He’ll show us something bigger.
I think people are going to get so excited about [the program] and that it’s going to change peoples’ lives. There is no lack of money, there is only a lack of faith, and lack of belief that God can do this. And eventually it will get to the point where people say, “This is happening in India. We can be used by God in this generation to end the work.” Not just a little bit of growth all the time, but a finished work.
Copyright © 2004 by Adventist News Network.