Editor's note: The following is part two 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.
Q: What is the appropriate role of American Christians and churches in participating and partnering with Indian Christians and mission agencies?
A: In my opinion, the role of the American church should be a complimentary one, rather than a frontline one. There are many different avenues to work with the poor in India, serve through business endeavors, facilitate training in some needy areas, etc. Financial assistance is also good, as long as it is done in a way that does not lead to dependency and control. Above all, I think the best role would be prayer. That's a major role for both sides. We need to be praying for one another.
Due to the rise of persecution in India and a lot of hate rhetoric against Christianity, and particularly conversion, western Christians need to be sensitive to the ground realities. Otherwise, they may jeopardize God's work and endanger local Christians and their ministry.
For instance, let us look at the short term mission scenario. Short-term visits by Western Christians can reduce the local Christians to long term victims if it is not done properly.
Because globalization has made travel more easy, short-term missions is growing exponentially. In fact, the number of American short-term "missionaries" grew from 120,000 in 1989 to 2,200,000 in 2006. Americans spent a staggering $1,600,000,000 on short-term missions in 2006 alone. Short-term missions is positive in many ways. It can facilitate closer and deeper relationships and help build intercultural partnerships. But there are negatives as well. Often I see short-termers coming in for two weeks with an attitude, "I am in India for two weeks and I want to change it." These short-termers could seriously jeopardize the ongoing work of the Christians in that area.
I would want to remind short-termers that God has been active in India throughout its long history. The gospel has been here for 2000 years. In my opinion, it is always good to work with and under the local Christian leadership.
In forming partnerships, there is also this vital issue of equality. In the body of Christ, we all are equal members with only one head, which is our Lord Jesus Christ. When we say partnership, many non-Westerners think that this is just another way for the white people to be in control of missions. And it is true that as purse strings can become puppet strings, thereby reducing partners to puppets.
The real mark of equality is, in my opinion, reciprocity. Americans – even very young people – come and minister in my country, and speak in our churches, and yet it is usually difficult for a non-American or an Indian to speak in an American church. Sometimes, I wonder if social Darwinism (belief that America is the apex of the cultural evolutionary chain) continues to exist in the churches. Christian missions are not mono-directional, which was the dominant paradigm of the colonial era. It's multi-directional, from "everywhere to everywhere."
I think true reciprocity and collegiality will be evidenced when we ask our fellow Christians from other parts of the world: "Is there a word from the Lord?" Not so much: "Tell us your story?" I find that sometimes when I am asked to share my story (my testimony and ministry) I feel I am being subjected to the "trophy syndrome" of the American Church, which is an indirect way of applauding oneself, "See what we have produced." It takes humility and a learning attitude.
Also, in forming partnerships, we need to be aware of the issues of integrity and accountability. One of my friends in Kentucky says that if we were to put together all the reports that come out of India, probably India would have been saved multiple times. Unfortunately, it is true. However, American churches also need to examine their obsession with bigness and desire for results-oriented, number-conscious ministry. Many in the non-Western world often hype the numbers in order to please their donors.
The good news is that we are growing in cultural sensitivity, but I keep telling both sides (Indian and American) that we have to create an environment of trust, transparency and truthfulness. If we are the body of Christ, there should be equality; there should be integrity; there should be interdependence. And a lot of progress is being made, but we need to be constantly moving towards that goal.
Q: If you had just one thing that you could say to the Western Church, what would it be?
A: We have already talked about much of it. India is complex and diverse. There is a huge need to understand the nation, to work in a way that is culturally sensitive, and to be partners in ways that truly reflect the biblical ideal of partnership, where Jesus is the head. As my good friend and Native Indian scholar Randy Woodley writes, "God's new song cannot be sung solo. We must all sing it together, embracing – and not restricting – our diversity."
PrabhuSingh Vedhamanickam, Ph.D., is a renowned evangelist and trained missiological anthropologist, with a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Intercultural Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky. At present, he is the professor for Anthropology and Missions at South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS), Bangalore, India. He is a consultant and trainer for many Indian mission agencies and also speaks in various revival meetings, seminars and mission conferences in India and around the world.
Dr.Singh lives in India, with his wife, Sheeba, and daughter Prarthna. His wife is the founder of Jeevan Foundation that serves among the poor and marginalized children and women in India, including HIV families and children of sex workers.