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Chapter 2
CPMs Up Close

The Bholdari of India

The setting

In the congested interior of India there is a people group we’ll call the Bholdari. The name refers to their language, which claims nearly 90 million speakers living in more than 170,000 villages stretched across four Indian states. The population includes all four castes and the classless untouchables. The majority of the people group are extremely impoverished, illiterate and dependent upon subsistence agriculture and a barter economy for their livelihood.

The region is also home to several important Hindu holy sites and the Brahmin, or priestly, caste is well-represented among the Bholdari. More than 85 percent of the Bholdari are Hindu, the remainder being Muslim or animist. Within this region there also are four large cities with more than 1 million people each.

Christian contact with these people began with the ministry of William Carey and his Baptist successors in the early 19th century. Roman Catholic Jesuits began work about the same time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, several thousand untouchables streamed into the Catholic church. Since Indian independence in 1947, however, Catholic growth has plateaued with less than one-tenth of 1 percent professing Catholicism.

Baptist work received a spark of life from Swedish Baptist missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These missionaries succeeded in planting and nurturing 28 churches in the area before departing the field in the mid-20th century. Baptist work was dealt a severe blow when British troops, seeking to quell the nationalist independence movement, bivouacked their occupying troops in the homes of local Baptists. During the latter half of the 20th century, Christianity peaked and began a long decline. By the end of the 1980s, it had been more than 25 years since any of these churches had reproduced themselves.

What happened

In 1989, Southern Baptists sent a strategy coordinator to the Bholdari people. Following a year of language and culture acquisition, the missionary launched a strategy of working through some of the local churches that had embraced his vision for planting new churches. To his horror, the first six Indian church planters, using methods common to church planting in the more tolerant environment of south India, were brutally murdered in separate events as they began their missionary work.

In 1992 the tide turned, however, as the missionary strategist implemented a new approach to church planting. Drawing on the teachings of Jesus found in Luke 10, in which Jesus sent out disciples two by two into the villages of Galilee and instructed them to find a “man of peace,” the Bholdari evangelist church planters began to do the same. Before opening his mouth to proclaim the gospel, each Bholdari missionary would move in with a local man of peace and begin discipling the family (even before they became believers) into the Christian faith using chronological storying of the Bible. As these initial converts came to faith, they led their families to the Lord, baptized them and forged them into the nucleus of new churches in each village.

In 1993, the number of churches grew from 28 to 36. The following year saw 42 more churches started. A training center ensured that there would be a continuing stream of evangelist/church planters spreading the word. Along the way, churches began multiplying themselves. In 1996, the number of churches climbed to 547, then 1,200 in 1997. By 1998 there were 2,000 churches among the Bholdari. In seven years more than 55,000 Bholdari came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Key factors

Several key points have marked the development of this Church Planting Movement. An early one came with the missionary strategist’s decision to experiment with multiple models to determine maximum effectiveness. Simultaneous church planting initiatives were launched through the existing local Baptist churches, through a humanitarian aid project and through a local network of evangelist church planters.

After six months, the strategist carefully evaluated each work. Once he determined that the local church planters were, by far, the most productive agents, he began channeling more of his resources of time and training into them.

A second pivotal step came when the IMB strategist identified and trained an Indian missionary to serve as co-strategy coordinator from within the movement. The blond-haired American strategy coordinator with limited language acquisition would always be less suited for travel throughout the Bholdari provinces than an Indian. Together the two created a dynamic synergy. The IMB strategist lived outside of India and traveled extensively, developing a large international coalition to support the ministry. The Indian strategist lived within the region, implementing and coordinating the growing network of training, evangelism and church planting.

Just as the Indian strategist was able to do things and go places that were impossible for the IMB missionary, so too the IMB strategy coordinator was able to perform vital ministry tasks that would have been impossible for his colleague living within the country. These roles included: development of a massive global prayer ministry; creation of promotional and mobilization materials; marshaling of Scripture translation and cassettes; development of training and leadership materials; and the forging of strategic alliances with evangelicals from other parts of Asia who contributed to the expenses of the Bholdari church planters.

In an effort to minimize institutionalism and foreign dependency, the strategy coordinator has placed every program in the Bholdari ministry on a two-year timetable. After two years, funds are withdrawn and the entire work is re-evaluated. Even the church planter training programs are held in rented facilities and relocated every two years.

Unique factors

What began as a predominantly Baptist movement fractured into multiple alliances during its first seven years of existence. This was due in part to the local Baptist churches’ inability to keep up with the rapid growth.

Rather than divert his focus from church planting to denomination building, the strategy coordinator chose a different means of unifying the sprawling movement. The common link between every church: commitment to the Bible as undisputed authority.

Another distinctive in the Bholdari Church Planting Movement was the strategy coordinator’s reliance upon outside funds to support the work. However, funding was limited in its use. Funds went to establish training centers for church planters and lay pastors, to support church planters in training and to subsidize the expenses incurred by itinerant evangelists and church planters. This provided a base of support for the church planters as they pursued their work across hostile territory. Once churches were planted, subsidies ceased. No subsidies were channeled to local pastors. Instead, pastors were trained to be bivocational. Neither was funding allowed to be channeled into constructing buildings.

The reliance upon external funds for the support of evangelist/church planters raises questions about the ability of the movement to propel itself indigenously. Avoidance of pastoral subsidies or subsidies for buildings has encouraged the indigenization process, but the funding of local missionaries has caused concern in some quarters. The response given by the strategy coordinator is that “all missionaries, by their very nature, must receive external funds. What is true for Western missionaries is true for Indian missionaries as well.” An encouraging sign may be found in the way local churches have caught the vision for planting new congregations. At an annual pastors’ conference each of the 1,000 pastors in attendance reported that their own churches were starting between two and five new churches.

Beginning with the family of the man of peace, conversions followed along family lines throughout each village. Individuals were not baptized apart from their household. Male family members typically baptized their emerging church family and led the church community which followed.

Learning points

1. Failure can be a prelude to success, if we are willing to learn from it and not give up. The first efforts at church planting among the Bholdari resulted in six martyrs.

2. Experimentation and rigorous evaluation can help put a Church Planting Movement on track and keep it on track.

3. At the level of discipleship and doctrine, two questions have shaped the practice of the Bholdari believers. Every issue of faith and practice is met by:

a. what will bring honor to Christ in this situation and
b. what does God’s word say?

4. Chronological Bible storying and oral cassette versions of the Scripture have enabled God’s Word to become a central force even among a predominantly illiterate people group.

Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction

Chapter 1 - What is a Church Planting Movement?

Chapter 2 - CPMs Up Close

•A Latin American People Group
•A Region in China
•The Bholdari of India
•The Khmer of Cambodia
•Other Emerging Movements

Chapter 3 - Ten Universal Elements

Chapter 4 - Ten Common Factors 

Chapter 5 - Ten Practical Handles 

Chapter 6 - Frequently Asked Questions

Chapter 7 - Obstacles to CPMs 

Chapter 8 - Tips for Fine-Tuning a CPM 

Chapter 9 - A CPM Vision for the World 

Glossary 

 

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