Editor's note: The following is part one of a two-part interview with Prabhu Singh Vedhamanickam, Ph.D, a missions scholar well-known in both the U.S. and India as a trainer of missionaries to India and the world. According to Dr. Prabhu Singh, relationships in the global church can be strained when short-term and resident missionaries from wealthy nations don't confront wrong notions they have about Christianity in the world. He asserts attempts to partner have sometimes gone awry, producing hurt and separation, and argues it's time we come together.
Intro by Ruth Burgner, who interviewed Dr. Prabhu Singh, for The Mission Society.
American Christians go to India. They see extreme wealth side by side with incredible poverty. They return to the States and come up with a plan to "help India's poor." This happens a lot. But is this serving God's kingdom?
"More than 100 years ago," writes Indian anthropologist Dr. Prabhu Singh Vedhamanickam, "a South Indian Tamil Christian created much consternation in the historic World Missionary Conference at Edinburg in 1910. Azariah – probably the most influential Indian Christian leader in the first half of the 20th century – concluded his speech at the conference with these words, 'Through all the ages to come, the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labors of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We ask for love. Give us friends.'
Evidently, in spite of the great sacrificial service for the Lord demonstrated by the Western missionaries, writes Dr. Prabhu Singh, "the local indigenous Christians often felt unloved and marginalized as they were not treated equally. They were perceived and paternalized as children and not as friends and partners in the gospel." That was a long time ago, but "the issues raised by Azariah are still pertinent for the global church," observes Prabhu Singh.
Maybe our perceptions need some adjustment. India has the 8th largest Christian population in the world. The Indian Church sends out thousands of its own missionaries. Of its more than 200 mission agencies, many do not receive money from abroad for their missional purposes. For example, one south India-based mission agency with nearly 2000 workers has an annual budget of nearly nine million U.S. dollars, and all its money is raised from Indians, both living in India and abroad.
While much claims are made about the rise of global South Christianity and India's contribution to global missions, missions continue to be under the grip of Western dominance. How do we help, by God's grace, rectify this? How do Americans begin to better regard our worldwide brothers and sisters as friends and equals in God's kingdom work? Here, we talk with Dr. Prabhu Singh about how the Indian and American Churches can better share in partnership and friendship together.
Q: How does the Church in India view connection with the Western Church?
A: In my PhD research, I asked this question to many Indian Christian leaders (particularly with regard to persecution): Does Western connections help or hinder? I received a wide range of answers. Many viewed partnership with the West as positive, if it is managed well. But some were apprehensive and said that relationship with the West may perpetuate the stereotyping of Christianity as a foreign religion, funded by outsiders. Also, this may lead to dependency and cultural domination.
For me, personally, I think partnership with the West is legitimate, although with some caution, for three important reasons.
First is a theological reason. I believe that since the Church is the body of Christ, the local and the global dimensions of the church are interlinked. Hence, one cannot cut itself from the other. We are intricately and inextricably interwoven with each other. Most of those I interviewed cited this as their primary reason to have a positive relationship with Christians in the West.
The second reason I think we must have relationship with the West is anthropological. From an anthropological perspective, we often think and talk about insider (emic) and outsider (etic) perspective. If you are an insider, you know more about your culture. But sometimes you need fresh eyes to look at your own culture to spot the blind spots. There is a famous Chinese proverb that says, "If you want to know about the water, don't ask the fish." It's kind of counterintuitive, but a fish is so immersed in water it can develop blind spots about it. For instance, in mission history, while many American missionaries who have come to India have spoken vehemently against the Indian caste system, hardly few would challenge racism in their own land. It is easy to have blind spots about our own culture. So we need each other for our mutual edification and growth.
Third is a pragmatic reason. The world we live in is increasingly becoming global. We can't cut each other off, even if we wanted to. That's the reality we live in.