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July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 32–35 

The Para-Church Agencies and the Church in India

Katie Funk Wiebe

Leaders of Christian mass communications in India gathered at Nagpur November 8-12 to ask some searching questions about their ministries. This First All-India Christian Communications Seminar was an outgrowth of the All-India Congress on Mission and Evangelization held January 1977 at Devlali. The congress had urged para-church agencies to work toward greater cooperation and to consider afresh their rationale for existence as independent bodies.

About 120 persons gathered for the seminar, held in facilities of a girls high school, which was closed for the November vacation. All were present by special invitation to ensure that all aspects of mass communications would be represented and to keep the number of nationals in the majority. Present were representatives of Good News Broadcasting, Trans World Radio, Far East Broadcasting, United Bible Societies, Daystar Communications, and various other print and electronic media organizations from India, Thailand, the Philippines, Nairobi, England, Canada, Sri Lanka, and the United States.

Most delegates came with at least some knowledge of the status of mass communications in India. This democracy, the largest in the world, has had a Christian witness for more than nineteen centuries. It is not unusual to hear people speak of being sixth and seventh generation Christians. And yet only 2.6% of the population is Christian. Church growth is just keeping pace with population increase.

According to George Ninan, whose article in the November 1977 issue of AIM (organ of the Evangelical Fellowship of India) introduced the seminar,

No other period in history has seen so much money, energy and man-power channeled into the promotion of the Christian message through literature, radio, records, cassettes, services such as {33} education, medicine and personal evangelism. . . . In a country of nearly 655 million people, we have approximately 10 million newspaper circulation per day, at the most 30 million radios, not more than one-half million TV sets and about 10,000 cinemas. Most of these have their maximum exposure in urban areas only. This means it is the 20% urban population that is being exposed to these media.

He concluded, “In the sense the western man understands mass communication, we just don’t have it in India.” The question to be discussed was if that, after all, is what India needs and wants.

The five-day seminar began with reports and papers and a smorgasbord of workshops on all aspects of traditional and electronic media, but the issues of most concern soon surfaced. Delegates asked for more time than the agenda allowed to discuss the relationship of para-church agencies to each other and to local churches. Bruce J. Nicholls, who works with The Theological Research and Communications Institute, led this discussion. He defined a para-church agency as any institution or organization working alongside or with the church. Nicholls said,

I have the feeling that if we were to accurately assess the total assets of people, programmes, properties and finances used by para-church organizations in India in terms of the number of professions of faith that have led to baptism and active church membership, we might be shocked by the paucity of our achievements, the vast wastage through overlap and unnecessary competition, and an appalling lack of effective cooperation between local churches and the media organizations.

He pointed to the paradox that the para-church organizations are the hope of the church, bringing renewal in evangelism and mobilizing the church to social action, and at the same time endangering the life of the church by becoming a multi-ministry corporation which takes over the functions of the church and strangles it.

During the discussion, the mass communicators admitted that they tend to promote their own programs rather than the ministries of the churches, they do not willingly submit to the larger body of Christ, they pattern their operations after the public relations methods of large business corporations, they tend to operate independently of the local church, and their personnel do not become involved in the committees and work of the churches because they get their sustenance (financial and spiritual) from their own organization. Para-church agencies also tend to choose like-minded people who represent no church for executive positions and boards rather than persons who are vitally involved in the local church as decision-makers. {34} That this relationship with the local church needs strengthening was affirmed by the Findings Committee, which later said that 50 pastors had been invited to the seminar and only 10 had accepted the invitation.

Foreign-based para-church organizations also came under scrutiny. At times they create the impression of having large supplies of overseas money, which is threatening to the small local church with limited funds. Also, leaders who have access to foreign funds may be tempted to build personal empires. As one speaker pointed out, in America empire building is most easily done with government grants, in India with overseas funds.

Nicholls stressed that the goal of the ministry for all Christians is not to win converts but to create new communities of disciples, and para-church ministries miss the mark if church growth is not part of their work.

Research to “Measure the Invisible,” which had been given a large block of time on the schedule, was trimmed down as the seminar progressed. Dr. Donald C. Smith of Daystar Communications said, “Research is a tool long overlooked . . . in Christian organizations.” Why use the scientific method in Christian work? he asked. “Research is just systematic hard work,” he replied. “We are not replacing trust in the Holy Spirit.” Research is a means of “getting rid of the muddle and clutter of human thinking so the Holy Spirit can work.”

Anne Ediger, researcher for Good News Broadcasting, in a well-received paper on the “Spiritual Decision-Making Process,” pointed to the necessity of research for Christian agencies to show them if their stated goals are being reached. If research shows that goals are not being accomplished and no alternative action is possible, the programs should be discontinued. “We say God has led us to do so-and-so. But does God never lead us to disband?” she asked.

Despite the solid material presented on research methods and techniques, the hallway discussions leaned in the direction that some agencies in India are not ready for complicated research procedures, some of which smacked of large business tactics. “Too western and too sophisticated” was overheard.

Rev. Vinay K. Samuel, a volatile and forceful personality, pastor of a large church in Bangalore, spoke what seemed to be a prophetic word for India in his paper on “The Contextualization of the Gospel.” It proved too new for some listeners and too heady for others. Some acknowledged that they needed to hear what he had to say.

Vinay strongly urged that the church take a hard look at the social, economic, and political context in which church communicators {35} are preaching the Gospel. “What does it mean to acknowledge and experience the Lordship of Christ in the concrete realities of this contemporary situation?” He alluded to the large number of subcultures in India, the plurality of religions, the political situation, and the poverty of the country (with the poor getting poorer and the rich richer) despite India’s potential to become a developed country. He criticized capsule answers thrown at people in the form of tracts, radio sermons, and so forth. “Encouraging hard work, thrift and other good Christian virtues is too simplistic an answer to the struggle of the oppressed poor,” he said. The main social problems of contemporary India are the caste and dowry system and secularization, he said. Placing the Good News in the context of Indian society begins with listening to the questions troubling the people.

Katie Funk Wiebe, author of Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy, teaches at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. She is an Associate Editor of Direction.

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