Danielle Welch reports on the rural church-planters who are risking persecution as they take the gospel house-by-house across India. Read how you can help pray and equip these evangelists to share the good news.
Pastor Suresh is showing me around one of his 23 churches. We’re standing on top of a hill, sheltering from the wind, behind a small Hindu temple. This open piece of land is where Suresh and his assistant first started inviting people to meet with them and hear about Jesus. The local community consists of a series of small two-room houses, stepping down the steep hillside to the main road below. We passed some shops and market stalls a few miles back, but up here on the hillside there is nothing but a few families and views of the countryside as far as I can see. We’re invited into one home to meet some of the families here who have become Christians and are eager to learn about Jesus. As we drink chai, more women and children arrive, and I think what an unlikely gathering we are – drawn from such different cultures (as true for my Indian colleagues as for me) by the story of Jesus.
Suresh is a church-planter and evangelist with a heart full of vision for reaching communities across Karnataka (one of India’s southern states) who have never heard of Jesus. He and his team try to get to know people in the local villages, where the population is a mix of Muslim and Hindu. Talking about this community Suresh says, “The first time I came here I saw this temple. I had a vision, a challenge, to come and share the gospel here. After much prayer I came to visit individual houses, sharing Bible portions. So I made one friend – and after that, it multiplied. And now we have nearly 40 people here. We have a church – a small house church.” “Making friends” is not easy – and Suresh says they are often chased out of villages when they talk about Jesus. He’s been beaten up many times and threatened with arrest. Two days after we meet, Suresh goes to help an assistant who has been seized by police. Both of them are held in a police cell for several days before someone secures their release. “Still, people are brave about evangelism,” Suresh reports. “They have accepted Jesus as their Saviour and they are brave enough. We see many miracles here.”
ONE AT A TIME
In a context where Christian witness is under increasing pressure, and sharing the gospel brings with it a real threat of persecution; there are whole networks of pastors like Suresh, sharing the gospel house-by-house and village-by-village across India’s vast rural landscape. SGM Lifewords has been meeting with pastors, asking what they need for their work, and where the resource gaps are. The message is always – whatever else you do, please pray. Suresh asks: “I request you all to pray for Indian pastors who are being persecuted a lot. I work with 22 pastors in Karnataka and other states – and most of them have been persecuted. Please pray for us, and for our vision – let the vision come true, that we will reach each and every home in this state with the Word of God.”
FROM SOUTH TO NORTH
The message is the same when we meet Pastor Richard and his wife Priya in Rajasthan. They moved to this, one of India’s most northern states, in 2010 – and now leads a small team of pastors and church planters. Richard explains, “It’s been very hard. When I was at Bible college, we were clear that we wanted to be somewhere where there is much need for the gospel. Rajasthan is geographically a dry place – a desert. And spiritually I would also call it a ‘dry land’. North India has been hard ground for the gospel right from the beginning. We have had many missionaries from the south of India, and from all over the world, but still, we haven’t seen a big result here. North India is the place (in our nation) the gospel seems to have least reached.”
And here, perhaps even more than in the south, persecution is a daily and a dangerous reality. Richard talks of fellow pastors who have been attacked, two even left for dead – their families also attacked, churches were broken into or burnt, and services disrupted. Claiming the name of Jesus here takes courage and great faith. “Rajasthan is the least-reached place – Haryana next. In Haryana you cannot distribute Bible booklets in some places, you can’t share and pray for a person in the street. We cannot use the name of Jesus openly because there are restrictions by the law. We cannot put up a cross or use the word ‘church’ – when we are trying to build a church we have to call it a ‘prayer house’ or something else, or we will not get permission.” Public rhetoric boasts that Christianity will be wiped out in these northern states by 2020, stoking up fear, hate and opposition in local communities. Richard says Christians have to look to their own conduct too. “We have to be people of good testimony. There are reports of ministries exaggerating conversions and numbers, for funds; or attacking and condemning other people’s beliefs in a way that only stirs up more hatred.” As Priya explains, “When we carry the name of Jesus, we are looked on as a ‘religion from the outside nations’ – there are so many barriers to overcome.” Richard points out that for every person that a pastor shares the gospel with, “there are ten people back at home to discourage them. And to turn the good news into bad news in their lives.”
CHALLENGES TO GOOD NEWS
Priya knows this experience first-hand. She became a Christian at the age of 20: “Immediately my whole family, my entire community, the whole society around me came against me. I kept telling them, ‘I cannot leave Christ’. For months I was kept under house arrest, under guard. There came a day when my father told me if I have to follow that faith, then I have to walk out of that house. So I left my house in 2004, and since then I have been following and serving Jesus.” Priya now works with women and children in the local area. She considers the culture about women and children one of the biggest barriers for Christian workers to overcome if people are to experience the good news of the gospel. “In many communities, women are looked down upon, considered lesser to men; the girl-child especially is a burden.” This view of women opens up space for all kinds of violence, abuse and neglect towards women and girls. Even in the absence of outright abuse, many girls have very low self-esteem, and consider themselves of little value.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR LOVE
In a culture dominated by strong religious, political, and societal divides – perhaps epitomised in the caste system – here then is a great opportunity for love, and therefore for the gospel. Richard explains: “Here in north India, I would say the culture is generally very rigid. We don’t hear much about love – it is absent in most religion, in the caste system, in many homes. People are hurting because they are growing up in a harsh world. So when we talk about God as a father of love, giver of good gifts, this is a great thing for people to hear. It is something they have never heard or understood before – that God is love.”
And just as with Pastor Suresh in Karnataka, Richard says the church is growing village-byvillage, house-by-house. “There is lots of work to be done. There are villages and tribal areas where name of Jesus has never been spoken or heard. But we have also seen lots of doors opened to the gospel in villages, and in tribal areas. North India is definitely a place that needs God to move – and I believe this is the time.”
PRAY WITH US
- Give thanks for Suresh, Richard, Priya and others like them. Praise God for their commitment to reaching people who don’t know Jesus. n Pray for the pastors who are persecuted.
- Ask for God’s protection and comfort as they meet opposition and barriers to the gospel.
- Pray for those who hear the good news and decide to follow Jesus. Pray that their faith would be accepted by their families and that in turn loved ones would respond to the gospel.