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An Indian Homecoming

In January, Graham Field made a trip back to South India where he grew up. He was part of a small team teaching at two seminars for pastors, church planters and church workers and visiting and speaking at many of the Tamil Baptist churches in Tamil Nadu.

India never fails to produce a reaction to those who visit. The senses are bombarded and the sounds, sights and smells are unmistakable, evoking feelings which can be overwhelming. More often than not the experience leaves those who visit with a deep affection for the country. That feeling is only enhanced when like me, the visit is actually returning to a place you once called ‘home’ and the purpose is to support, help and encourage churches and Christian brothers and sisters in them.

Tamil Nadu is almost exactly the same size as England and the population is larger than that of the whole of the UK. It was the focus of all of GBM’s work (known then as SBM) until the late 1960’s. It was a joy to visit some of the churches established during the period when we had missionaries serving in India, and to see them expanding and growing, while still very appreciative of the foundations laid by those who went to serve the Lord there. In many respects though, it was an even greater joy to visit lots of new churches that have been planted since the missionaries left India, now that the initiative lies entirely in the hands of the indigenous Tamil believers.

In Madurai, John McDonald, Colin Grimwood and I took fifteen sessions between us at a three-day seminar for around fifty pastors and church workers who had gathered for teaching and fellowship. They listened well and were appreciative. It was interesting to hear them debate similar issues to those we face: the role of women in services; the need for social action alongside evangelism and church planting. The men get little opportunity to receive training and are very grateful for those who are willing to come and teach. There is a real need for them to be strengthened in their understanding and handling of scripture, and there is not enough training available that can build them up doctrinally.

There is a great enthusiasm for church planting and there is a lot of pioneering work being undertaken by the churches. Let me tell you about four of these situations. In a little village called Nenmeni a man by the unique name of ‘Jolly Abraham’ is seeking to plant a church. When we visited, he had just built a tin shack to serve as the chapel on his land, replacing the lean-to which they had been using. We went there on the Saturday evening for an evangelistic meeting. As is usual, the ‘chapel’ had large loudspeakers so that everyone in the village knew that something was going on. Thankfully ‘Jolly Abraham’ used to be a professional singer and had a great voice!

In a place called Varagur, at the foothills of the Kolli Hills, we went to a little chapel that had been built by three brothers who all had farms nearby. The eldest brother had been converted due to the witness of Dr Ruth Harris (an SBM missionary who had acted as midwife when my older brother Paul was born on the Kolli Hills), and his two brothers had also been converted. Along with the pastor and an evangelist who works with the church they are seeking to reach the villages around the area. It was a joy to meet one of the three brothers and to learn that he feeds the whole congregation every Sunday at his farm about 150 yards from the chapel.

After a further two-day seminar in Kilpauk, Chennai, we all preached on the Sunday in two or three different churches. Colin and I visited two new church-plants on the outskirts of the city – one where the building was still being built. It had a dirt floor, no electricity and bamboo scaffold poles poking through the walls. A congregation approaching 100 had gathered, which was remarkable bearing in mind the work has only been going for four years.

We then visited another new work which was interesting in a number of ways: the majority of the congregation were men, and the service was not in Tamil! The Tamil Baptist Church at Thandalam had identified a need among the immigrants who had come from North India to Tamil Nadu to work, but didn’t speak Tamil. Some were already believers but lacked spiritual care and fellowship. Others have come to faith through the witness of the existing Christians, since migrating south. Many will only get back home to see their families once a year!

God is blessing the work and it was heart-warming to see the enthusiasm and vigour of many, but there are still great needs. Less than a third of churches have full-time pastors, and these are very poorly paid. The money that is sent through GBM helps towards the church planters’ salaries, but they cannot survive without earning extra money. They also need help with further training. They greatly appreciate the teaching that they receive from those who are able to visit and spend time instructing them from Scripture. This is still needed as there are too few men within the churches that have the experience, wisdom, skill and time to give to this urgent need.

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