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In India’s Deep South

Colin Grimwood (Grundisburgh Baptist Church) describes the joys and challenges of a visit to today’s India.

India continues to fascinate me: the busy streets, the continuous hooting of the traffic, the numerous small shops and street stalls, the simple uncluttered homes, the bright colours (of saris and houses) and the friendliness of the people (they always respond to ‘Vanakkam’ with hands held together and a bow of the head).

India is a country that is developing fast and yet many of its people still live in grinding poverty. It is heart-breaking to hear of an auto-rickshaw driver who cannot even afford to buy rice to feed his family. The grip of false religion is in evidence with idols everywhere and temples on nearly every street corner. Then there is the dark spectre of Hindu Nationalism, with extremists wanting to rid the country of Christianity over the next few years, supported by the current government.

January 2019 was my third visit, along with the veteran John McDonald, and Graham Field who grew up in India as a missionary son.  We were there to speak at three pastors’ conferences and a preachers’ study class, although between us we also visited and preached at over twenty different churches.

Our itinerary began in Sivakasi, about 400 miles south of Chennai. The conference was held at ‘Greenland Nagar’, although it was neither green nor icy! Graham and I spoke on the Pastoral Epistles, dealing with the role of women, the Scriptures as the source of our authority and the basis for godliness, the roles of elders and deacons and how pastors are to maintain godliness in their own lives. John looked at how to preach from the Old Testament, setting the pastors to work in small groups.

Life is very fragile for many people. Sivakasi is a town built on the fireworks industry. 95% of the country’s firecrackers are made there. But the Supreme Court recently placed severe restrictions on the use of firecrackers and a ban on the use of certain chemicals. Over 1,000 factories have closed, leaving 800,000 people out of work. Gruel centres were being opened for a few days to give some relief.

We moved on north to Namakkal, where the church was hosting a morning of ministry to make good use of the Pongal holidays. Other churches also had special meetings for the same reason. It was heart-warming to see so many attending on one of the relatively few days of holiday they have. It was here that we saw live goats tethered to meat stalls by the side of the road waiting their turn to be butchered on the day of the holidays known as ‘non-veg day’, when families traditionally get together. At least the meat was fresh!

We eventually arrived back in Chennai , where we spoke at the preachers’ study class on the interpretation of Scripture. We repeated the Sivakasi lectures at another pastors’ conference and then also lectured at a half-day conference with a different group of pastors.

We also had the opportunity to visit Vuyiroli, a home for elderly people who have been abandoned on the streets. We visited them in their dormitories and then enjoyed a time of prayer and fellowship with them. The staff have just been joined by a young family from Nepal.  What a desire they showed by travelling from Nepal mostly by bus, with a very young child, taking some four days to get there.

Some of the older pastors are struggling with health issues. For instance, Sam Devenesam is still not fully fit after a serious heart operation last year. So there is a need for a new generation of mature, well-taught pastors to come through, and thankfully there are some signs of that happening. Sam’s assistant, Luke Jayarajam, needs our prayers as his eighteen-year-old daughter tragically died suddenly just before Christmas.

Churches are still being planted in a number of places. We visited such a work in a village called Pachal, where they meet under a lean-to on the side of a cottage. We returned to Benalur, where last time the building was only half finished and the congregation were sitting on a dirt floor. It was lovely to see the building beautifully complete, with many children attending. One of the challenges is to provide adequate support for the church planters.

There is also a programme to visit every house in Chennai, a city with a population of 10 million, which the Tamil Baptist Churches are getting involved with. Another evangelistic effort is to reach the large numbers of migrants who come down from other parts of India to find work.

The churches face many challenges. Opposition in India is growing. It is patchy, but it can be serious. One church plant we visited two years ago has been forced to close. The pastors we met have been spared physical violence so far, although one had suffered an attack when leading a church in a different state. Another issue is the lack of men being converted. In many of the churches the women far outnumber the men.

There are also social challenges. Many young people from rural areas are migrating to the cities for education and employment, leaving a big gap in village churches. Traditionally, Indians have kept strong connections with the wider family, but now there is a greater focus on the nuclear family and the pursuit of money and career. This is causing a strain especially for the elderly, as well as weakening Christians spiritually. Mental health problems are increasing amongst young people and pastors are struggling to deal with this.

I believe the Lord greatly helped us in our ministry once again and from some good conversations afterwards the teaching seems to be helpful and relevant.  It is good to see how pastors have progressed in their understanding and handling of Scripture, and also to see a steady stream of people coming to Christ, including many Hindus. There are still many great opportunities for the gospel, but the mission field is vast, opposition is real and the world is very attractive. The churches of India still need our prayers.