CPMs Up Close
The Bholdari of India
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.