Contextual Mission in India: Evaluations and Directions

by Revd Dr. David Joy

Date added: 21/10/2016

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Contextual Mission in India: Evaluations and Directions

“loss” is a notion. No more than a thought. Which one forms or one doesn’t. With words. Such that one cannot lose, nor ever say he has lost, what” 
― Taiye SelasiGhana Must Go: A Novel



“We carry with us the weight of the past, and because we do not have a finely developed sense of history and historicism, it is a past that is still alive in our present. We wear the dust of history on our foreheads, and the mud of the future on our feet.” 
― Shashi TharoorIndia: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond


                                                                                                C.I.David Joy[1]

A paper from the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion Conference in ECC Bangalore, 16th - 21st October 2016. For the other five papers from this conference click here.


The task of locating the current Indian church is not an easy one as many emerging ecclesial identities appear from various parts of India representing people of the margins. At the same time, there are a number of endeavours by the theologians and biblical scholars to develop a possible missionary theology and hermeneutics in order to address the current issues for mapping the Indian church in a realistic fashion. This paper is an attempt to define the Indian situation by applying a postcolonial historiography. In the same way, I would like to search the roots of missionary theology and evaluate the current status of mission. As a result of discussion, it is proposed to list out major directions and possibilities in doing Christian mission today in India.

1. Searching and Setting the Context

Taiye Selasi’s 2016 novel Ghana Must Go can offer some significant insights in addressing the issues in Indian cities and rural areas as the idea of “multi-local” is a key entry point a possible analysis of the current society. The idea of multi-local could be a paradigm for understanding the society in India as well due to many similarities between the contexts. Andrew Porter’s 2004 book Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914, is a well crafted study that offers sufficient insights for understanding the nexus between the colonial empire and missionary movements. Porter argues:

The sense of embattlement felt by missionaries in the early decades of the nineteenth century was particularly marked in India, South Africa and British West Indies. In each case missions were drawn into engagement with local governments or rival interest groups and turned to the imperial government for assistance and protection.[2]

One of the interesting points Andrew Porter makes is the deliberate attempts made by some missionaries to escape from the shadow of the empire to offer mission activities a sense of freedom and independence.  For instance Porter claims: “in considering the role of mission schools as empire-building agents, however, it is particularly important to remember that those ran them were quite unable to prevent non-Europeans from exploiting mission education for other than religious ends.” [3]In addition to this, it is noted that “in India, missionary assistance and example provided low caste groups with the means to defend their interests, improve their status.”[4] While analyzing the current status of mission in India, Challenges and Prospects of Mission in the Emerging Context: Essays in memory of the Rev. Mathew Thomas is a significant collection of essays on the contextual mission in India. It is also noted that in the process of redefining mission in India, one should take the multi-layered aspects of culture and social values.

2. A Search for the Roots of Missionary Theology

It is with a sense of gratefulness, many of us approach the history of missionary activities in the Colonial British Raj in India. As a student of New Testament and practitioner of postcolonial hermeneutics, I am fascinated to enquire the theological and ideological foundations for such colonial missionary activity in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries  by the churches and mission boards in England. This study is not a historical survey of missionary activities, but a theological and scriptural enquiry of missionary theology. Along with the well edited and published widely circulated, used and read journal the Evangelical Magazine (1794-1851) kept in the United Theological College Archives, I would like to use a number of theological and scriptural works published during that period. I would not use text books of theology or commentaries of ecclecial frame work, but mainly analyze the missionary books written by eminent theologian of that era, which were used by both church and academy. There are many practical issues and concerns regarding the role of the  missionaries in shaping the local Christian culture. It has been a major concern for the students of missiology and theology that how missionaries influenced the local culture and the lives of the people. It is observed that there were attempts to damage local languages in terms of omposing the missionary language and dress-codes.

 I was once fascinated by the brilliant work of Adolf Deissmann’s 1909 book Light from the Ancient East as it presented a clear framework of Christianity within the Roman Empire. However, James Viscent Bryce’s popular book The Holy Roman Empire First published in 1864 and with 40 yrs about 12 edition created a confusion in the academy about the role of the Roman Empire in defining the identify of early Christianity. This framework is important as the question of Indian Christian identity seems to be a core point of conversation both in academy and church. It is particularly important as the current world is within the process of deglobalization and the opportunity to deglobalize the mission is unique and challenging.

This study is important in signifying the nexus between hegemonic powers and colonial mission in India. I state these facts as a preamble to the wider historiography which would certainly offer a new method of recognizing the genuine works of mission boards and missionaries in terms of brining a transformation in the Society. In many areas the shift took place and the present church is a product of continuing encounters and confrontations. Since the missionary history of India has been interwoven with the Colonial history of the region, I should vividly project the background of the mission historic-geography. G.R. Indu Gopan a historian states that for the last five centuries, Indians have been the assisting the Colonial powers from Europe to establish domination over the neighboring countries in Asia. For instance, on May 2, 1511, the Portuguese took 19 ships and 800 soldiers from India to conquer Malakka successfully.[5]The same story continued by the Dutch and the British by taking slaves from India to occupy Asian and African Countries. Therefore, the history of mission should be dissociated from the history of colonial powers.

There are varied interpretations and definitions given to mission by the missiologists across the globe. However, I consider the definition that has been offered by Paul M.Collins is a possible one in terms of locating the potential of mission today. Collins states:

They will be (1) mission in relation to conversion and (2) mission in relation to an understanding of the search of the divine… Mission is to be understood primarily as the initiative and action of God, the Holy Trinity, rather than as a task initiated by the church. Thus the sending agent in mission is God, and the Church participates in this divine sending, rather than taking on the role of ‘sending agency’. Divine mission so understood is therefore not conceived in relation to church recruitment; but is conceived in relation to the divine purposes in creating and redeeming the cosmos.[6]

Bahee Hadaegh  and Sahar Nakhaei “A Postcolonial Reading of Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother” is an excellent example of how the colonial systems influenced the native communities in the Caribeans and the same could be said about the situation in India. The article claims:

The novel demonstrates the destructive effects of the British patriarchal colonial system in twentieth century Dominica by depicting ways that cause deep and undying physical and psychological pain. This pain is caused by ideologies of gender/sex that are internalized and repeated by teachers, parents, and lovers.[7]

A search for similar voices in Indian context should be a starting point for evaluating colonial mission within its proper context.[8]  The amount of dependence and inheritance of colonial legacy in many realms of the society should be seen from both theological and sociological perspectives in order to establish a platform for an appropriate analysis of the society. Andrew Porter concludes his claims after a careful study:

Although missions could not avoid empire, they were determined to put it in its place. The extent of their determination, the universal sweep of their theology, the global extent of their contacts and their consciousness, deserve more acknowledgement than they have generally received. Missions also operated in a world where many different pressures-political, theological, economic and intellectual-combined, as we have seen, to distance from empire no less than to draw them together. These pressures too deserve serious recognition. Aggressive crusading was far from representing the only evangelical approach to the missionary task. The variety and nuance of missionary standpoints, their detachment from empire and the measure anti-imperialism, all associated with Britain’s Christian missionary enterprise, have an important place in the history of both empire and of missions.[9]

This conclusion is important as a number of movements were inspired by the missionaries in terms of equality and justice in many Indian states. The association between native movements and missionaries offered a unique dimension to this question and it provided a space for missionaries to be politically independent in their mission agenda to some extent. Even though the space eas not sufficient enough to accommodate the dreams and aspirations of the people of the land, it could serve as a channel for motivation. Sajal Nag in his 2016 book, The Uprising: Colonial State, Christian Missionaries, and Anti-Slavery Movement in North-East India 1908-1954, vividly locates the reasons why the missionaries could challenge some evil practices that prevailed in India such as sati, slavery and caste issues. Sajal thinks it could happen because of an independent space that missionaries could explore in negotiation with their colonial mission boards. Sajal Nag argues:

The organic correlation between the empire and Christian missions has to be traced back to the beginning of the evangelical movement in England. Total collaboration between the missions and colonialism was the strongest in the case of Spain and Portugal, where the colonial state not only sent out missionaries but also looked after their protection and sustenance. In contrast, the British state took the help of missionaries only to legitimize colonial rule. As a result the missionary endeavour did not necessarily turn political.[10]

While searching for the roots of missionary theology, this insight seems to be very significant as it refers to the dynamics and undercurrents of the political inclinations of missionary movements.

3. A Survey of Current Status of Mission

It is not very easy for the students of mission to explain, evaluate and analyse the current status of mission due to its multiple dimensions. However, there are a number of notable studies and research papers prepared by missiologists and researchers on contextual mission in India from various view points. Ancy Karikulam in her 2012 book The Prophetic Witness of Religious: In the mission of the Church in India Today, states:

Though India is enriched by many diversities of cultures, languages, and religions, at the same time, unemployment, poverty, injustice, oppression and social evils are also prevalent. New movements and attitudes pose menacing challenges to the mission of the Church.[11]

It is the reality of modern India in terms of social and political dimensions. At the same time the cultural and religious dimensions are more complicated and the product of multi-faceted movements and currents. It is noted that among the Hindu movements, there are two powerful voices namely traditional voice and the voice inspired by Western ideas of liberalism and enlightenment. I addition to these strands, there are a number of voices raised “by oppressed and marginalized people of India”. [12] As citizens of India, the Christians are expected to be partakers of nation-building at all levels by offering their energy and talents. It is noted that “Christian participation in the local and national politics certainly will enhance greater involvement of the church.”[13]In order to define the current status of Christian mission in India, it is vital to look at the theological understanding of Indian Christian identity. This idea has been portrayed by Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj by linking the role of theological interpretation in defining the Indian Christian identity:

Nevertheless formal Indian theology has been true to its name. It has been Indian, in that the local context is the base from which the theological enterprise has been pursued. It has engaged with a range of issues that the region throws at us. The multiplicity of approaches to formal theology is an expression of the importance of culture and context.[14]   

Though there are a number of attempts made by the main stream churches and their mission boards, it is noted that the mission strategies are still colonial or Western. Along with the mission centers run by the churches, there are fruitful mission works conducted by individuals and trusts. K.Rajendran did a study on such endeavours and makes the following assumption:

To avoid missions controlled by family members, we must groom new leaders. We should require separation of personal and mission property, so that work can move to others. We must trust and mentor disciples, including cross-cultural ones, so they will capably work even when the “founder President” is not around. Let us avoid missions the property of a few families.[15]

Since I have consulted many documents that dealing with the identity and character of the mission of the church in India, it observed that in many parts of India, Christian missions did not maintain a focus in terms of Christology and theology. Without a vision and focus, there were some activities which could only be counted to be development activities similar to the works of non-governmental organizations in the country. In this regard, D.Preman Niles’ statement on mission in India is very vital. He writes:

A self-critical examination of its own history would provide the church with the criteria it needs not only for its ongoing mission to be a blessing in the midst of the nations but also for the theological exploration that is needed to undergird this emerging missiological emphasis.[16]

In 1999, D.Victor Premsagar edited a book New Horizons in Christian Mission: A theological Exploration. I consider this document to be an important milestone in the history of mission studies as it could address more or less all issues in the context in defining Christian mission.[17]The essays in the volume had been written by eminent theologians, church leaders, missiologists and leaders of mass movements. In order to represent the emergent identities in the Indian church, the volume could include case studies and stories that dealt with struggles and aspirations of the society including the social injustice and inequality.



4. Directions and Possibilities in Contextual Mission

In order to derive and redefine the implications of the study and directions for the future, I would like to keep the current socio-political scenario as a wider milieu. Since Indian Society is multi-faceted in nature, the image of “multi-locals’ (Ghana Must Go) could be a model tool to enter into the portals of Indian society. Many leaders of the church now pose a question regarding an authentic and possible version of Christian mission which can address the issues in a significant manner. Since “in history, at many times the Gospel worked line leaven transforming the social order”,[18] it is mandatory for the followers of Christ to redefine and translate the mission of God in a contextually relevant manner. While rethinking Chrisitan mission, D.Preman Niles’ 2004 book From East and West: Rethinking Christian Mission isan important document to be studied in a deeper fashion as the book deals with many contextual models of mission across the globe. Niles states that “it provides us with directions for the understanding and practice of missionary service today”.[19]It is important to note the context seriously as contextual Christian mission is a mission by “the people of God in the midst of all God’s peoples”.[20]


4.1. Mission and Eco-justice

David M. Rhoads and Barbara Rossing in their article “A Beloved Earth Community” ask the followers of Christ to “see care for creation as basic to vocation and mission” as “the planet is facing major ecological problems.”[21]I am aware of the documents and studies on eco-justice in India today. However, unfortunately many such studies seem to be photocopies of North American documents and research works. Therefore, I would like to highlight the efforts of Indian church in promoting the idea of eco-justice. For instance, the Church of South India could include the theological vision on ecology in its liturgy two decades ago which undoubtedly paved way for a fresh understanding of ecology and enviromental justice. The Church of South India also has a department which is responsible in running programmes in this line. It is possible to maintain the theological conviction to support the issue by protecting the planet only through a systematic inclusion of ideas from the level of Christian education classes in the local churches.

4.2. Mission and Inculturation

In the context of interactions between cultures and ecclesial forms in India both during colonial and postcolonial stages, the question of interaction of cultures or inculturation seems to be significant in defining a possible cross-cultural mission. In this connection, Paul Collins’ observations on inculturation are significant:

Finally there are three practical pointers, which may be identified, in order to assess the ongoing task of inculturation in each local context. These pointers relate to the processes of decision making and the outcomes of those decisions. Firstly, the question must be posed about the locus of decision making. Where does authority lieto make decisions and to whom are the decision makers accountable? In terms of the accountability of decision making, are the outcomes of processes of inculturation monitored? And if so how does the process of monitoring inform onfgoing deate about and initiatives for inculturation? Such questions imply that the processes of inculturation and their outcomes are provisional contemporary.[22]

It is noted that in India, there are movements and identities that would redefine the church with the help of native cultures and practices. While redefining the church with the help of native cultures and practices a notion of mutual respect will emerge to support the new locations of mission. Joseph Mattam explains this point by stating:

No culture is foreign to Jesus. His message is not meant to bear the garb of any one particular culture or group. The way I live out my fidelity to Jesus should not make a foreigner out of me in my own country, as it has happened in the past. It should rather make me a committed participant of the local scene, a s well as a open hearted brother/sister of the human family…This implies that we accept each culture as the result of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit among God’s people.[23]

4.3. Mission and Knowledge Activism

The issue perhaps began during the colonial period as “the transmission of missionary message took place” through “colonizing their languages and confining them within a colonial discourse of Western manufacture”.[24] In the theological discourses and church engagements during the postcolonial period this issue has come up vividly and some schools indeed tried to promote knowledge activism through publications. For instance Joshua Russel Chandran, the first Indian principal of United Theological College, Bangalore stood for more publication to support the mission and ministry of the church in India. Since I would like to highlight the significance of knowledge activism today in promoting Indian biblical scholarship, I point out the vision of The Bangalore Theological Forum which was started in 1967 and the then principal of United Theological College, J.R.Chandran stated:

It gives me great pleasure to commend this new theological journal, The Bangalore Theological Forum. Some may wonder whether it was wise on our part to have launched a new periodical of this sort when there are already several struggling…. We want it to be an instrument for stimulating creative thinking and research which is so vital for the Church’s mission in India today.[25]

One of the major concerns in this regard is the ministry of publication in the Indian theological scholarship. It has been a challenge for the authors and researchers to locate an appropriate space to express their views as many UK based and US based publishers marginalize the endeavours of the writers from our context by branding their works as of lower quality. At this point, I should mention the contributions of ISPCK, CLS, CSS, ATC, TPI, and many other native publishing houses that have promoted the works of native authors. To name a few, Bangalore Theological Forum, BibleBhashyam and Vidyajothi Journal of Theological Research, have also promoted many researchers in offering them a space to publish their works. Asia Journal of Theology that brings together many major theological schools in Asia also functions to be a key channel in supporting this aspect. Since Indian academy is one of the fast growing platform with a clear balance between the church and theological colleges, it is important to facilitate the ministry of publication without falling into the trap of academic professionalism or profit-oriented publication. If a space is created for articulation with freedom, there could be genuine and forward looking theological writings. To make it clear, I would like to point out two articles published in BTF in 1967 by Indian scholars namely Dhyanchand Carr “The Relevance of St.Paul’s Doctrine of the Principalities and Powers to the Church in India” and Samuel Amirtham “Prophesy and Politics in Jeremiah”. D. Carr even talked about the Roman Empire, “..If this was so as regards the Roman Empire of the first century, it is so in India today”.[26]These examples should certainly motivate us to continue theological publications  in order to strengthen the church.


4.4. Mission and Contextual Interpretation of the Bible

The exercise is no more a singular or monologic one, but a multi-faceted one as there are interpretations to bring out a legitimate meaning of the text. However, the problem of a justifiable method in scrutinizing the biblical texts waits unanswered as “biblical interpretation has no dominant methods or research paradigms”.[27]Generally speaking, every hermeneut is acclimatized within the socio-historical and religio-cultural horizons of his/her living context. I am specifically interested in exposing the multi-faceted living contexts of the hermeneut as the hermeneut is a construct or consequence of a particular social matrix. In India where the Bible has been mattered to be a very powerful apparatus for liberation of the people of the margins, a legitimate interpretation of the Bible from a proper perspective is absolutely necessary. In addition to this, there has been a captivating amalgam of perspectives and viewpoints in terms of presenting the biblical interpretations by Indian scholars.  Across the globe there has been a customary and periodical update of hermeneutics by taking the socio-cultural factors into account.


In this paper, I have tried to bring forth the issue of contextual mission by looking at the issue from various perspectives. The history of mission and current status of mission vividly offered  the space to understand new directions in doing a meaningful mission today. At the same time the search made to locate the roots missionary theology challenged me to address the issue of colonial mission as there was a clear nexus between colonial mission and imperialism. However, the future of Christian mission should be understood and defined with the help of insights from the analysis of the society.  It is assumed that inclusion of cultural elements such as art, music and other fold forms will contribute to the field of mission in  a more meaningful fashion.  As the churches and merging identities look for a possible alternative, it is right moment to locate and define mission with clear focus on Christ and his kingdom values.

[1] The Revd Dr.C.I.David Joy is a presbyter of the Church of South India, South Kerala Diocese, currently he is Professor, teaching New Testament, at the United Theological College, Bangalore. He is also the liaison for India of SBL-ICI. His recent books include: Christology: Re-visited: Profiles and Prospects (Bangalore: ATC, 2007), Mark and its Subalterns: A Hermeneutical Paradigm for a Postcolonial Context (London: Equinox, 2008), Not by the Might but by the Spirit (Delhi: ISPCK, 2008) , and Kurisile Rithubhedangal (Trivandrum:TTF,2009), Kurisithe Dhyanavazhikal (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2012), I and 2 Peter: A Commentary (Kottayam: TLC, 2012), Hermeneutics: Foundations and New Trends (Delhi:ISPCK, 2012) and Kurisnte Dhyanavazhikal (Tiruvall:CSS, 2012).His recent edited volumes include Biblical Theology (Tiruvalla:CSS, 2008), Transforming Praxis (Delhi:ISPCK, 2008), Bible and Hermeneutics(Tiruvalla: CSS, 2010),  Co-edited along with Joseph Duggan,  Decolonizing the Body of Christ: Theology and Theory after Empire? (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Overlooked voices: A Postcolonial Indian Quest (Boarderless Press: California, 2015). When the Trumphet of the Lord Sounds (Malayalam) ( TLC/CSS: Tiruvalla, 2016). And co-edited with Mohan Larbeer. Journeys into the Deep: Hermeneutical Patterns of M.M.Thomas (Bangalore:BTESSC, 2016).

[2] Andrew Porter,  Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, p.91.

[3] Ibid., p.317.

[4] Ibid., p.318.

[5] G.R. Indu Gopan, “Penang: The city built by Malayalee”, in Manorama Onam Special 2016 p.174.

[6] Paul M.Collins, Christian Inculturation in India, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007, p.168.

[7] Bahee Hadaegh  and Sahar Nakhaei “A Postcolonial Reading of Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother”in  IJTLTS, vol 3, 2015, p.171.

[8] C.I.David Joy, Overlooked Voices: A Postcolonial Hermeneutics,  New York: Boarderless Press, 2014.

[9] Andrew Porter, op.cit., p. 330.

[10] Sajal Nag, The Uprising: Colonial State, Christian Missionaries, and Anti-Slavery Movement in North-East India 1908-1954, Delhi: OUP, 2016, p.33.

[11] Ancy Karikulam, The Prophetic Witness of Religious: In the mission of the Church in India Today, Bangalore: Claretian Publications, 2012, p. 159.

[12] Ibid., p. 159.

[13] Samuel Jayakumar, Renewal of Mission in India: A Historical Perspective, Chennai: Mission Educational Books, 2008, p.146.

[14] Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj, “Being Indian, Becoming Christian: Toward a Theological Vision for Identity Formation”, in eds., Cornelis Bennema and Paul Joshua Bhakiaraj, Indian and Christian: Changing Identities in Modern India, Bangalore:SAIACS, 2011, p.97.

[15] K.Rajendran, Which Way Forward Indian Missions? A Critique of Twentyy-Five Years 1972-1997, Bangalore:SAIACS, 1998, p.194.

[16] D.Preman Niles,  From East and West: Rethinking Christian Mission, Missouri:Chalice Press, 2004, p.154.

[17] D.Victor Premsagar ed., New Horizons in Christian Mission: A Theological Exploration. Chennai: Gurukul, 1999.

[18]Samuel Jayakumar, Indian models of Wholistic Mission, Chennai: Mission Educational Books, 2002, p.136.

[19]  D.Preman Niles, op.cit.,  p.136.

[20] Ibid., p.145.

[21] David M. Rhoads and Barbara Rossing, “A Beloved Earth Community”, in eds., Ogbu U.Kalu, Mission after Christendom: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission, Loiusville:WJK, 2010, pp.135, 128.

[22] Paul Collins, op.cit., p.187.

[23] Joseph Mattam, Weaving Solidarity: Reflections on Mission Today, Anand: Gujarath Sahithya Prakash, 2015, p.289.

[24] Andrew Porter, op.cit., p.326.

[25] J.R.Chandran, “Forward”, BTF, 1967-1.

[26] Dhyanchand Carr “The Relevance of St.Paul’s Doctrine of the Principalities and Powers to the Church in India”, BTF, 1967-1. P.72.

[27] Pheme Perkins “Canon, Paradigms and Progress”, Biblical Interpretation 1, 1 1993, p.89.

Revd Dr. David Joy

Revd Dr. David Joy


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Contextual Mission in India: Evaluations and Directions (21/10/2016)

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