Earlier this year a group of Reformed Church in America (RCA) pastors, and their spouses, joined the Global Mission staff of my denomination to make a journey to India to visit congregations in the Church of South India. This visit caught my interest for several reasons. First, I have made two trips to south India myself, both back in the 1980s. My life was transformed by these two trips. Second, I am a student of this particular missions movement in India because of the legacy of the late Lesslie Newbigin who led this fellowship during the late twentieth century. (For those who have not read Newbigin, rush out right now, and do not be deterred by anything but sickness or death, and buy anything Newbigin you can find, particularly Foolish to the Greeks, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, or The Open Secret, and begin a journey that I promise you will change your life as a Christian if you still have a teachable spirit!)
The Church of South India grew out of a mission work of the RCA and several other denominations. It now numbers more than four million members and every week celebrates baptisms and confessions of faith in a virbant and growing church context. One RCA pastor noted, in Mission Today, a report from the RCA: "Evangelistic effort is placed right alongside of meeting the more physical and temporal needs of people. What I found most rewarding and meaningful was that this holistic approach was the direct legacy of the work of the RCA missionaries. While the missionaries came with the zeal of the evangelist to preach Christ and convert the masses, they responded with the compassion of Christ when they saw great human need before them." Exactly, and this is precisely the legacy of men like William Carey who also understood India much better than many of those fundamentalists who later went to this great land in the 20th century.
But the truly amazing part of the story of Reformed missionary work does not end here. RCA missionaries began a village, in the 1850s, that they purchased with mission funds in order to provide freedom for an enslaved people. They even gave these people land that they could farm and live on. When these Americans visited that village an amazing thing happened. Stephanie Doeschot, a pastor at Christ’s Church in Saint Peters, Missouri, said, "It seemed that everyone from miles around came out to greet us and celebrate what God had done there. Never will I forget the announcement made by one man, who appeared to be in his seventies. He said that not a day has gone by in the past 150 years that his family members have not thanked God for the RCA!"
The missional church emphasis is about stories just like these. We must preach the gospel but we must also live the gospel in culturally specific ways; i.e., we must practice the first and second great commandments. Too much of conservative American Christianity lost this vital connection over the past seventy-five years or so. An emerging generation is now seeking to get it back. Reformed and evangelical Christians should celebrate this recovery. Many, however, remain skeptical and critical. The division prompted by the liberal/fundamentalist battles in the 1920s is anything but over. I sometimes wonder if my generation has to die before this battle becomes a historical marker, not a definding moment. Churches like the RCA can be a healing force in the larger church world if they retain their mainstream orthodox perspective and continue to pass on a legacy like that of the mission work done in south India for the past one hundred and fifty years. This is what precisely inspired Lesslie Newbigin, who began to address the West with such missional clarity after he came back from south India in the 1980s.