Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Overseas Missions in India


The family was desperate. They texted me to ask if they could stay at our home for a few days as they had been deported from India, after 12 years of living and working in the country in a successful pastor-training ministry that seemed to be stable in every way. Among other things, they had trusted local partners to arrange rental accommodation without a proper rental agreement signed by them and paid for in cash, took extreme precaution to cover their internet footprint- having a secure VPN access into a US server, from which they accessed the internet, ‘secure’, encrypted hosted POP email (which was eventually hacked and their PII stolen), corresponding with ministry partners and others in defense of a Christian prisoner held by the ISIS terror organization, hosting evangelistic meetings at home (openly flouting India’s policy on ensuring that they do not preach or proselytize when on a work visa or tourist visa). Under normal circumstances, in Western countries, such activities may be understood to be normal, if somewhat unnecessarily cagey about online activity. In a country with a background like India’s, all this is a surefire recipe for deportation at a minimum. While the opposition to evangelism in India is known to most churches, missionaries and mission agencies, its extent and nuance are lost on many.

The family possessions had to be left behind. They traveled out of India at short notice, carrying 6 suitcases filled with essentials, with no assets to their name besides these. They stayed with us for a couple of weeks, during which they had several embarrassing meetings with missions pastors at their sending churches. They were questioned as to the wisdom of their actions, many being questioned by people who may not have understood the prevalent atmosphere in India or about the several similar deportations that have taken place in the last few years. The emotional toll this took on them was painful to watch.

Eventually as many do, they found a Christian school for the kids, which had funds set aside for missionaries, and a discounted apartment set aside for missionaries by a church. They were allowed to continue with their mission remotely, as in this case, it was possible to teach via live online video.

The more I thought about this, the more I was compelled to put pen to paper and write about the several ideas that have been playing in my mind over the past many years- about our current missions strategy, India’s politically charged, agenda-driven landscape and our own tendency to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to real challenges facing real people who have staked their very lives on the Great Commission.

Entry and Exit Requirements

Among the greatest challenges to travel into countries around the world, especially those above a certain size in population or land area, is the complicated visa regulation in place in those countries. India ranks 52nd in the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index Ranking of 2015, in a group of 141 countries. This is based on several factors, including international openness (which includes visa restrictions), in which it ranks 69, above countries like China (96) and Russia (99), but well below all Western countries and many APAC countries like the Philippines (29) and Malaysia (46).
In its Executive Summary, the report states that India is now relaxing many visa restrictions which have not been reflected in the document, but it is clear that this pertains to short term travel for tourism.

It is important to understand the country’s motivations in institutionalizing such restrictions. A historical background will help clarify these.

India in Context- Colonial Legacy

Like many emerging economies, India views the history of its modern economy from a pre- and post-colonial perspective. In addition, it further divides its post-colonial experience into a period prior to 1991 when the economy was predominantly socialistic and after 1991, following a series of reforms, during which the economy has gradually transitioned itself into a market-driven one.

Recent academicians have pieced together India’s economic strength prior to the period of colonization, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution. In this narrative, India and China accounted for over half the world’s wealth. Individually both these countries had assets and income equivalent to the whole of Europe. GDP figures from the late economist Angus Maddison’s publication, The World Economy, Volumes 1–2. OECD Publishing. p. 638., show that annual income in India was 24.3% of the world economy, slightly more than the current US share (22%).

The colonial period is interpreted differently in India than in the West. While many liberal Indians view this period as one in which the main colonizer, the UK, helped bring Western law and order, democracy, abolition of many social evils, a modern Western education system, some industrialization and the English language as one of the official languages in India, several others consider the British legacy to be one of systematic and long-term impoverishment of India’s native political power, industries and culture through a series of manipulative power grabs, monopolistic and restrictive trade practices and a divide-and-rule policy that culminated in a painful partition of India into smaller parts, the adverse effects of which are still being experienced in the daily lives of Indians today.

For our purposes, it is what they mean by the impoverishment of culture that is most relevant. In the past 2 decades, this negative view of the colonial period has gained strength. In this view, the British sought to transform India’s culture to an approximation of the West. Several real and manufactured quotes attributed to British lawmakers during the period are frequently shared in India to deepen the feelings of anger and mistrust against all that it represented. Among the changes the British introduced were Western style education (which served to advance their interests) and most importantly, the ‘state religion’, Christianity.

British and other European missionaries traveled frequently to India during this period. Using first the British East India Company and the later the British Indian Government’s good offices, they were given safe passage, unrestricted right of entry and often good arrangements for lodging and boarding. Missionaries were often employed in schools and high positions. Unfortunately, these missions, with some notable exceptions, did not make much headway in India, not least because they were perceived as exploitative and unwilling or unable to be relational to Indians. Understandably, many missionaries took an apolitical approach to the colonial government and Indians’ troubles with it, seeking instead to focus on the Bible and its teaching on human conduct.

Unlike Hudson Taylor in China and some others, most missionaries were essentially living a Western life as in a Western country in India. Very few bothered to learn the local languages. In 1919, the massacre in cold blood under the command of Col. Reginald Dyer of 381 men, women and children who had gathered for a nonviolent protest in a public park, reportedly to defend the honor of a missionary, Marcella Sherwood, who had been manhandled by an unruly mob two days before, was representative of how Indians saw Western Christians- eager to force a foreign religion down the throats of those who did not want it, and showing none of the graces they claimed were hallmarks of this religion.

Several missionary undertakings during this period have borne fruit- notably educational and healthcare enterprises like the Christian Medical College at Vellore, created by an American missionary from the Reformed Church in America, which is today the largest teaching hospital in Asia. These are notable because they are exceptions, mainly because they involved and encouraged local leadership to take complete responsibility. Today it is local believers who effectively teach, heal and spread the Gospel in such institutions.

After Independence

India’s independence in 1947 brought several changes to the country. Economically, the country gradually strengthened its industries through a combination of socialistic policies and limited free enterprise, creating a mixed economy, which invited private capital in certain industry sectors and focused government spending on finance, infrastructure and some heavy industries through Soviet-style five-year plans.

India stopped issuing missionary visas very soon after independence, though several visas that were granted prior to this period were grandfathered and not revoked. Though the category still exists, any information on a visa request that smacks of missionary activity like ‘volunteering’ are more than likely to get rejected.

There are several reasons besides the hangover from colonial days. Modern India is troubled by movements seeking to secede a religious or ethnic group from the union. Often these are violent and influenced by state actors. Among them are several movements in the North-Eastern part of the country, with people who are ethnically like Nepalese and Tibetan peoples and funded variously by communist sympathizers and countries like China. Some of these states have a sizeable Christian population, especially the state of Nagaland, which has 88% Christians. Originally followers of a tribal animistic religion, they were converted to the Baptist faith by American missionaries over a century ago. The Indian government alleges that the local Baptist church, aided by American supporters, have frequently engaged in violent acts against the union.

In addition, during the Cold War, Indians have been wary of American spies, some of whom have been imprisoned or deported due to their activities. Many Indians view Christian missionaries as having an anti-state agenda and using their country’s diplomatic mission as a conduit to execute this with impunity.

Still others view the often-loud deprecation of the Hindu religion and Indian culture by missionaries and the native-born Christians as derogatory and anti-Indian in spirit. Many Christians in India have poured scorn on Hindu practices of idolatry and rituals that many hold as meaningful. There are allegations of ‘forced conversions’ to Christianity by missionaries who offer food, medicine and other material provisions in exchange for such conversion. Though such ‘conversions’ are understood to be of no true consequence (in that they are not truly spiritual conversions), they are still viewed as methods to buy allegiance, as several corrupt politicians are wont to buy votes during elections. In recent years, the Hindu nationalistic government under the Bharatiya Janata Party has sought to convert adherents of other faiths into Hinduism, claiming that they were either induced to convert through material collateral offerings or that several generations ago their ancestors were Hindu, so a conversion to Hinduism is simply considered a return to Indian-ness. In this view, a spiritual conviction is held to be nothing more than a stance either for or against an Indian idea, the idea of being Indian. Under this narrative, a person who has made an informed decision to follow Jesus is either ignorant of India’s spiritual tradition so as to prefer Christianity over what many believe is a ‘superior’ tradition, or someone who has sold her or his soul for something crass or material. A Christian, especially recent converts, are derogatorily referred to as ‘Rice Christians’ by many Hindu nationalists, implying that they changed their religion for a bag of rice!

Christianity Misrepresented

Indeed, Christianity in general is seen as intellectually lightweight and morally deceptive, never mind the long list of scandals that have plagued the Hindu religious leaders in India or the many contradictions in Hindu ritual and practice, such as the veneration of the cow to the extent that even its fluid waste is considered good for human consumption in some quarters. This is a drastic change from when Indian intellectuals in the late 19th century engaged with Christian teaching. Influential scholars like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Keshub Chandra Se have published admiring writings on Christianity and sought to adapt its teaching to their own worldviews. Today, the landscape is bereft of genuine Christian engagement with society, except through the high-voltage theatrics of rich televangelists who often take advantage of the people with promises of prosperity and healing; and miserable power-hungry pastors who force their un-scriptural ideas on their congregation, tolerating no challenge to their authority and are wont to invoke eternal judgment on those who dare.

Isn’t a sound theological education a good solution to this? Yes; and many missions programs are geared up towards just this- imparting the rigor and discipline of modern theological studies to Christian leaders in India and other such countries, where the Gospel is finding many willing converts but few who are trained in hermeneutics, rhetoric or other tools which are now considered vital resources for a leader. But I have seen several leaders who have been trained but with no real application in the Indian context. In India, as in many other countries where the Gospel has not had widespread historical engagement, this context is significant. Often this context takes the form of economics, politics, religious practices and beliefs, social customs, relationships and family dynamics. 

We often say that human beings are not primarily rational, but relational creatures. We think we are rational, but our reason is often informed by our relationships in our community. Even in the West, our shared meanings give context to our theological understanding. In India this is highly significant, as community relations and familial ties give meaning to a person’s identity, far more than it does in Western societies. I have seen the Gospel flourishing in Indian communities which emphasize such relational engagement, coupled with an insistence of the truth of the Bible.

However, a lot of the training that leaders receive in India are geared to the Western context. Pastors talk about LGBTQ issues and decry legislation in the US promoting same-sex marriages, while they routinely ignore real problems even within Christian families, like wife-beating, or dowry, or caste or class issues, or tax evasion in real estate deals. If our Christianity does not provoke us in these areas to repentance and faith in Christ, then should we expect it to bear fruit in our lives? So, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of missions, but we must ask how we could truly help people in these countries reach out to their people and present the Gospel as compelling in their contexts.


Indians in the West today have become a political force influencing policies in India with their global goodwill as members of an affluent upper-middle class in the West, and of course their financial power to support their favored leaders in India. No leader has benefitted more from this group than the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, whose rhetoric fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment in the early to mid-2000s, and opportunistic jibes at the corrupt Congress Party, combined with his image of a decisive leader, have firmly positioned him as a champion for the aspirations of modern India. His party, the nationalistic BJP, has consolidated their hold after routing the erstwhile ruling Congress Party in the 2013 elections. There is today no real opposition party that can moderate the ambitions of the BJP today. The endemic corruption and megalomania of the leaders in other parties have all but ensured that India, barring divine intervention, is on a path toward hardline Hinduism, unwilling to tolerate any alternate opinion.

This has led to a suppression of minority civil rights. Though many policies, such as the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code (instead of having separate laws for different religions, on matters such as inheritance, alimony and divorce), a unique identifier program called Aadhar (initiated by the earlier Congress government) and many others are only foundational aspects of good governance, several others, such as suppression on individuals and organizations who have criticized Mr. Modi and not addressing some of his supporters who have committed barbaric acts on people suspected of transporting or consuming beef, are only confirming the image critics have long had of the administration.

The administration has worked hard to win the support of the media. As in the Russian Federation, the media largely reflects the views of the BJP, with some notable exceptions. Many journalists are accused of being bought by special interests, either for (mostly) or against Mr. Modi. In addition, the administration has engaged in a systematic policy of undermining institutions they claim are demeaning India’s image. Nonprofits such as a Greenpeace have suffered from this, and have had their assets frozen. Employers have remained unpaid for months. Though Christian social justice organizations like Compassion International and International Justice Mission still operate, largely due to the good work they have done over the past decade, their CEOs have been denied permission to enter the country, despite having had valid visas and turned away at the airport, with no explanation given. There has been a strategic effort to now allow many foreigners in India, especially if they are connected to any form of social work. Many interns and fellows at IJM who were allowed to visit in the past are not allowed any longer.

To add to this chaos, the genuine fears resulting from terror attacks on India, especially after the brutal siege on locations in Mumbai in 2008, have prompted the government to engage in unprecedented intrusive actions. The government has clashed with many smartphone makers like Research in Motion in attempts to force it to allow monitoring emails and text messages. India is one of the few countries which do not allow satellite phones to be used. In 2013, the government created a Central Monitoring System (CMS) which allows the government to snoop into any electronic communication on any server worldwide that is accessed from India for a particular communication, without any privacy law or resource for people to protect themselves against abuse.


The current administration in India recognized about 14 years ago that the media is a powerful force. Prime Minister Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat state was widely criticized for not having done enough to prevent (and from several reports, aided) the slaughter of 2000 people in his state, mostly Muslims in a convoluted trail of events that added another milestone to the tensions between Hindus and Muslims (with many other minority groups) that have been escalating since 1992.

In an interview by the BBC he was asked if he had any regrets about how he handled the incident, and he replied that the one thing he regretted was not handling the media well. In the years since then, he seems to have mastered the art of manipulating the media to win hearts. In addition, he has turned several major news corporations into allies, steadily airing his propagandist views on history, minority groups, Christian missions, NGOs, the opposition parties and others.

In our world today, overseas missions of any kind- religious, humanitarian, social justice and others- are frequently held in suspicion. In the US, many feel that such missions are a waste of money and time. Others feel that it is a story of cultural domination, one that has been played out several times in the past, with disastrous consequences. Financial misappropriation, political leverage or questionable practices by many nonprofits, such as the Clinton Foundation, the American Red Cross and others have raised this suspicion. In India, the BJP and its allies have over time turned the legacies of selfless missionaries, such as Mother Teresa, into a story of exploitation. Supported by articles that have played up the challenges faced by such missions when ministering with few resources to those whom the government and more fortunate countrymen have long ignored, this propaganda has painted a picture that is painfully inaccurate and slanderous.

Indians today believe that foreign NGOs are involved in human trafficking, such as buying and selling Muslim refugees to send to Europe. Some believe they are involved in drug-trafficking. Whenever a scandal breaks out about an unfortunate (and rare) incident, such as a Christian orphanage trying to profit from international adoptions, several Indians now conclude negatively about all Christian missions, especially those which are funded from overseas. But for all the accusations thrown at Indians, the one fear that sticks in the hearts of the most vociferous detractors is the possibility of conversion into the Christian faith. A Western mind may wonder why this could be so bad, and one could try to understand the logic, but it would be a waste of time. To soften the appearance of this harsh stance, such people allege that these are ‘forced conversions’. I have worked with several churches over the past 20 years in India and other countries, but I have not yet found a forced conversion in the sense the term is being used in India. Detractors frequently question NGOs as to why they could possibly want to do what they do in India, and why they couldn’t instead focus on solving their own country’s problems, never mind the halfway homes, prison ministries, rehabs, schools and hospitals Christians have successfully set up in the West.

Modi’s propaganda has effectively turned judge, jury and executioner with no due process, and the media and several of India’s citizens are complicit in allowing this to happen.


Many missionaries travel to India out of real compassion and a heart to reach people whose lives they know are dissipating into both temporal and eternal destruction. Many are inspired by stories of faith and sacrifice, and several who travel on short-term trips come away feeling called to mission.

After an extensive mission preparation program, they feel equipped to begin a long-term mission in countries like India. It often comes as an unpleasant shock to realize that the trip involves some deceit in the form of applying for a visa that is for the wrong purpose. Most missionaries travel to India on anything besides missionary visas. Practically, this is the only way to enter India. Some missionaries enroll themselves in courses, others start businesses, some teach in schools, but their desire to reach out to a person to share the love of Jesus is often unfulfilled due to the intense scrutiny by the government.

To add to this, the missionaries often must resort to practices that make them feel trapped in their predicament, such as taking extreme steps to hide their electronic communications. This could take the form of using specialized email servers that use end-to-end encryption to and from their recipients in the West, or using secure VPNs to dial into proxy servers in the West, through which they are able to use the Internet. However, such practices only serve to raise red flags.

Besides their efforts to hide their digital footprint, many missionaries also try to hide their long-term ties to the country, by paying rent in cash (thereby also unfortunately enabling a landlord to evade tax) and having no signed rental agreement. Long-term foreign residents in India are also required to register with the Foreign Regional Registration Office, which automatically brings the registrant in the radar. Most long-term residents get around this by traveling outside the country before hitting the six-month mark, and return after a few weeks. Though a pragmatic method and technically sound in terms of the law, the government has been investigating long-term residents whenever a complaint is raised against them, and this has often resulted in a revocation of their stay.

What does one do in such a situation? Missionaries feel perplexed that their conviction, that is such a shining, redeeming factor in their lives, could be held in such suspicion and contempt. They often feel that this is simply a matter of the fear that the forces of darkness have for the Gospel. While this is true in spiritual terms, there is real doubt in the minds of many Indians about the intentions of Christians, both foreign and native. In other words, it is not so much the truth of Christianity that is driving many Indians to such extreme measures to oppose it, but their belief that Christians are intentionally spreading discord and hatred.


There is no surefire way to avoid electronic snooping, but here are some suggestions to live as a missionary in India; and for churches and mission partners to engage effectively in the mission:

1. Pray without ceasing. We must understand that behind the labyrinthine regulations, there is a spirit that is opposed to God’s Spirit and will use every resource to attack His people and stop the spread of the Good News.

2. Don’t do overkill- A lot of the precautions that missionaries take in countries like India need to be thought through. Try to live as simply as possible. Even if it means communicating less frequently with ministry partners, keep secure electronic communication to a minimum when talking about ministry. However, by all means, use such communication extensively to display your fun experiences and love for the country.

3. Be cautious, but draw your line in the sand. All this does not mean that you will not be tracked. After the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, government surveillance has become the norm, especially for visitors. You must assume that you are being tracked, so be careful to not overstep boundaries. When you are making online payments, for instance, remember that the internet is not secure. Do not give any PII (Personal Identifiable Information) away.

4. Abide by the law. Your local ministry partners may sign you up for an apartment without a rental agreement- this may even be the norm for them as India has been a largely cash-based economy. The government’s recent attempt to make India a largely cashless society must be observed over the next few years to evaluate, so this may be the situation in the near and medium term. However, for visitors, not having a rental agreement is a red flag. Insist of abiding by the rule of law. Indian society, including Christians, have learned over time to sidestep some laws, and unfortunately, this has had serious implications for the church’s moral compass. Such transactions, without an audit trail, enable tax evasion.

5. Engage in teaching leaders, but do not assume a primary preaching position. Many churches have come around to the idea that their efforts are best directed towards training national leaders, so many missionaries who travel to India are highly qualified to teach and train pastors. However, even this doesn’t work very well without national partners- equals- who must assume most of the responsibility. The missionary must work as a facilitator and evaluator. Why should it be this way? Again, it is the context of the culture that is the key. While our common frailties and aspirations bring us together, a Western missionary may not be able to bridge the cultural gap completely. Very few in the West comprehend the struggles of Indian believers, especially those of converts from other religions, such as the loss of a loved community which gave meaning to them in a highly relational culture. Missionaries can, however, serve as sounding boards for theological ‘true north’ and as channels of inspiration from the rich environment of ideas which flourish in Western seminaries.

6. Engage in business or much-needed social care that is encouraged by the government. As much as Indians do not trust the government, they have learned to live with the powers that be; and often they understand that such powers could be a blessing. Simply because Christians are typically opposed to the BJP does not mean that they will not support some of their policies, especially those having to do with employment, healthcare or food provisioning. The successive governments have encouraged certain businesses in India over the years- in technology, healthcare and services. A good way to become a valuable resource in the country is to engage in such businesses and work to create or strengthen the ecosystem of such businesses. I have seen several such successful models.

7. Be respectful of local customs- your criticism must be squarely focused on ideas, and even then, do it gently.

8. Be prepared for changes. Do not hinge your career on a long-term stay.

9. Truly partner with local leaders. Help them succeed, make them more visible, let them shine, treat them as equals. How many stories have you heard that highlight local leaders rather than foreign missionaries? Is this a coincidence? Institutionalize the mission.

10. Churches- care for the people (missionaries), not just the mission- they don’t enjoy deception. Build a support group. We must care for missionaries as though they were (because they are) a very special category of people- or rather, they should be. If churches have done their homework and ensured that the missionaries are carefully vetted and sent, it is their privilege to serve them in mission, and if they are in need, to give to them, more than to others with needs. It is a sign of a dying church when its members begin to see missionaries as being busybodies depending on the church for a living, rather than as people who have intentionally set out to share the Gospel with people in often dangerous situations.

11. Mission agencies need to redefine themselves- not just as financial intermediaries or program managers. Many offer programs (always for cash) to help Third Culture Kids adapt to new cultures, some taxation help, insurance and so on. Many offer ‘discipleship’ (again for a percentage of the funds raised by missionaries) which is often rigid in structure and sometimes creates issues with authority and subordination, which is the bane of such programs. The ‘system’ makes many want to drop out. Supporters of missionaries, and missionaries themselves regularly receive communication imploring them to contribute funds towards their expenses, such as a new office building or more general mission initiatives in other countries. Often such agencies do not understand the very personal nature of missions. We trust people who we know closely, and want to be a part of the mission, so that we can know how lives are changing and eyes are opening to God. Mission agencies often invite sending church pastors to annual retreats and treat them with hospitality, which in less charitable circles would be called schmoozing. Many missions pastors think highly of these agencies, when in reality their real work is far less significant in comparison to the relationships the missionaries develop with supporters. What does it take for a church or an agency to stop thinking like bean counters and start participating in the mission?

No comments: