by Cindy Perry
Nepal was closed politically and economically, as well as religiously, for almost 150 years. Nevertheless, God was preparing the way for when the doors would open.
David’s soft brown eyes brimmed with tears as he at his wife Premi. He could hardly believe that the day they had hoped prayed for had finally come. Not that they had prayed for a revolution, but if that was God’s way of opening the doors to the land of their fathers so they could return with the gospel, so be it.
Since his conversion as a young man in 1920, just across the Nepal border in India, David had served the Lord. He became one of the first Nepali evangelists and then an ordained pastor with the Nepal Evangelistic Band. Now he was to return, 30 years later, to become the first Nepali pastor of the first church in the new Nepal.
David was not alone in waiting for the opening of Nepal to the gospel. Missionaries had started work among the Nepali people in Darjeeling, India, in 1874. From the early 1900s mission stations began to dot Nepal’s southern border with India. As workers waited and prayed, they also ministered to migrant Nepalis. Many were converted. Before Nepal ever opened, the way was being prepared for the eventual planting of the church there. Those years of preparation and interaction between missionaries and Nepali Christians led to a unique relationship in the subsequent planting of the church in Nepal.
Isolated in the Himalayas, Nepal has often been overshadowed by its giant neighbor, India. However, church-mission relations in Nepal have developed quite distinctly from what happened in India. The uniqueness of the situation in Nepal sheds light on our future mission strategies and relationships in other closed or semi-closed countries with unreached people. We begin with a brief historical overview.
Nepal had been closed longer than the 30 years of Pastor David’s wait. The borders had been sealed since the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. Later on, Nepal preserved its independence in the face of the colonization of India. From the 1870s, the ruling Rana family consolidated its power and the country was cut off from any outside influence or means of development.
Nepal was closed politically and economically, as well as religiously, for almost 150 years. As of 1950 Nepal was still closed to the gospel, but missionaries continued to labor along her borders and many Nepalis became Christians. However, it was illegal for anyone, national or foreigner (except the British Legate), to live inside the country as a Christian. Nevertheless, God was preparing the way for when the doors would open.
From the 1870s a church had been planted by the Church of Scotland Mission among the largely Nepali population in Darjeeling District, India, just across the eastern border of Nepal. (Nepalis had become the majority in this area due to widespread recruitment by the British of cheap labor from East Nepal for the tea plantations.) Hundreds had come to faith in Christ. Nepali pastors and evangelists had come to the fore. Some carried a vision for Nepal in their hearts and they had tried to cross the border with the gospel. The Bible was translated into Nepali, the first whole Bible being published in 1914, and Christian literature was developed.
From the 1920s, other missions—Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Assemblies of God, Bible and Medical Missionary Fellowship (now InterServe), Worldwide Evangelization Crusade, and Nepal Evangelistic Band—had begun to open stations along Nepal’s southern border. Good relationships were established with Nepali government officials and Rana family members, who came to the missions for medical help. Nepali Christians were discipled and trained in skills helpful to the missionaries. Several of them joined the prayer movement of the Nepal Border Fellowship.
Missionaries and Nepali Christians alike were poised on the border waiting and praying for Nepal to open. The Nepali Christians were subordinate to the missionaries, but that relationship was destined to change.
In the winter of 1951-52 a revolution in Nepal ended the oppressive Rana regime and King Tribhuvan was enthroned. The king quickly instituted a constitutional form of government, opened the country to the world community, and sought development assistance.
Essentially, Nepal was to be brought from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Nepal needed a unifying language, public education, a transport and communications system, medical facilities, and economic aid. King Tribhuvan’s revolution was more than political, it was also economic, social, and religious. Both missionaries and Nepali Christians were to have a part in this new nation-building program. Relationships built during the years along the border were about to bear fruit.
First on the scene were the Jesuit fathers from Patna, India. For years the few wealthy families in Nepal had sent their sons to India for education, and several had studied at St. Xavier’s School in Patna. In the 1940s TriChandra College in Kathmandu had affiliated with Patna University, and so the university was asked to start a school like St. Xavier’s in Kathmandu. Soon, other missions were asked to help in developing sorely needed social services in Nepal.
The Nepal Evangelistic Band made an approach through the British ambassador. The mission was invited to build a hospital on land already offered by one of the Nepali Christians. The first team of 11 people, six female missionaries and five Nepalis, arrived in November, 1952.
Within a decade five more missions negotiated agreements with the government, almost exclusively to provide health services. But their work soon expanded to include education and development projects.
The United Mission to Nepal became the giant among the missions in Nepal. It grew out of a government invitation to two doctors in India, a Methodist and a Presbyterian, to start hospitals in Tansen and Kathmandu. The mission was officially begun March 5, 1954, with seven members. Jonathan Lindell describes the rationale for the new intermission approach:
It was felt that the mistakes that had come to light in the missionary movement in India and other countries, resulting from competition, possessiveness, and independent action by denominational and separate organizations, should not be repeated in Nepal. Opinion pressed for exploring the possibility of establishing a Christian mission in Nepal on the widest possible cooperative basis, a combined interdenominational and international approach … the forming of a united, Christian, medical mission to Nepal, made up of as wide as possible a group of members (was proposed).
The five American and two British agencies joining the United Mission to Nepal restricted themselves to not promoting denominational churches in Nepal. They agreed to focus on nation-building and social service as their Christian witness. This agreement has had a significant impact on the development of the Nepali church as an indigenous church.
For its part, the government attached conditions to the invitations to mission agencies. Proselytizing and political activity were prohibited. The government reserved the right to terminate the missions’ work at any time with one month’s notice. Hinduism would continue to be the state religion of Nepal.
In effect, the missions gained entrance to Nepal, but their hands were tied. In India they had been free to evangelize Nepalis and to plant Nepali churches. Now they were reduced to maintaining a Christian presence. They were welcome to join hands with the Nepalis in their task of nation building, but they could not seek to win converts to Christianity. Therefore, proclamation of the gospel and church planting were largely left to those Nepalis who had earlier become Christians, because many of them returned to their homeland after the revolution.
For example, Pastor David, his family, and a succession of other Nepalis made their way into the Pokhara Valley. Missionaries and Nepalis began to meet together as a small church and David became their pastor.
The medical missionary work attracted many people to the valley and Nepali workers took every advantage to share the gospel. Excursions into the hills for maternity cases or inoculations always included a Nepali Christian. The missionaries provided the attraction and the Nepalis evangelized, planted, and led the infant church. Within two years they saw their first baptisms.
Like David, many other Nepali Christians who had been converted and discipled by missionaries prior to Nepal’s opening, returned to Nepal. Others were recruited from the Darjeeling area as workers for the new mission centers. Here are some stories to show what was happening:
Manimit, a hostel mother at Mirik Bible School near Darjeeling wanted to go to Nepal. When Sister Ingeborg came from Tansen to find someone to train and help her in visitation, volunteered. She became a leading women’s worker in the church.
Elizabeth Franklin had long prayed for Nepal as she worked among the Nepalis in Darjeeling. She recruited a team of young people to accompany her as teachers when the invitation came to start a girls’ school in Kathmandu. One of the young men subsequently became the pastor of the largest church in Kathmandu; another became an elder and a respected figure in a government ministry.
In 1954, Tir Bahadur accompanied Mildred Ballard back to Nepal. He had been converted at her dispensary on the border 17 years before. He became the first Nepali pastor in the Kathmandu valley.
Gyani Shah, a remarkable woman from the middle hills of Nepal, was converted at Patna Hospital. She returned to become a high-ranking army nurse and a respected leader in the early days of the church in Kathmandu. Later, she pioneered an outreach to an isolated area in far western Nepal.
These and others like them became the foundation of Nepal’s church—the first pastors, evangelists, church leaders. Despite missionary presence from the earliest days, the planting, leadership, and growth of the church has been firmly in the hands of Nepalis. Although legal and social restrictions have militated against it, a strong indigenous church has grown throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the role of the missions shifted dramatically from the earlier days when they were outside the country. Outside, along Nepal’s borders, these agencies aggressively evangelized, won converts, and nurtured them. They imparted vision. They provided education and vocational training.
Once Nepal opened, the mission agencies provided jobs for many Nepali believers. Their service has attracted thousands of people to mission hospitals and schools. They offer encouragement and support to the young Nepali churches.
Now, we turn from the historical overview to its meaning for mission strategy today, especially regarding closed or semi-closed countries. What are some lessons we can learn from Nepal?
1. There was a strong prayer foundation for the closed land of Nepal. Persistent prayer came from missionaries on the borders, from their supporters, from the Nepali church in Darjeeling, and from other Nepali converts. Our number one strategy must be prayer. Different missions interested in the same area could well follow the example of the Nepal Border Fellowship and unite in prayer. Out of united prayer comes cooperation.
2. Prior to Nepal’s opening there was extensive evangelism of Nepalis outside Nepal. A strong church was planted among Nepalis on the eastern border and fellowships of Nepali Christians sprang up in other places. Men and women were discipled and given spiritual responsibilities. Thus, when Nepal opened, there was a prepared Nepali leadership available.
In similar cases elsewhere, people from closed countries can be reached in neighboring areas. They should be evangelized, discipled, and equipped for ministry. They should start their own self-supporting churches. Some possibilities for this exist among Cambodians in Thailand, Chinese in Hong Kong, and Turks in Germany.
However, evangelizing and building churches is not necessarily enough. In the case of Nepal, missionaries also played a significant role in imparting vision, and the Nepal Evangelistic Band built a joint missionary-Nepali team. In a unique way, this agency specifically prepared for eventual ministry inside Nepal. Nepalis became members, received financial support, and were trained and thrust into evangelistic ministry, all with the possibility of future service in Nepal in view.
Could not strategies be devised to create pre-field teams of Christians for penetrating their own countries? Relationships with existing agencies would need to be spelled out, covering circumstances both outside and inside the given closed country.
3. Many of the Nepali Christians had been educated and trained in practical skills before Nepal opened, thus enabling them to enter Nepal professionally and to make a contribution to nation building, in many cases alongside the mission agencies. Missionaries played an important role in this professional equipping of new believers. Could we not do more of that today and invest in this kind of training of Christians who can get into countries closed to traditional missionary work?
4. When the mission agencies entered Nepal they had no denominational agendas, thus leaving the church free to develop indigenously. Only in the 1980s has denominationalism become an issue, with the proliferation of small groups entering Nepal. As we consider the needs of closed areas, it is imperative that we find ways to put behind our denominational and organizational lablels, and allow true local ownership of the church to develop. This will not happen, however, unless we make a commitment to plan this approach from the beginning.
5. Once Nepal opened, the burden of evangelism and church planting was on Nepali Christians. The missions stepped back from direct church planting, partly because of legal restrictions, of course, but also because of their own ministry commitments. The agencies could still lend support and encouragement, which was vital in the early days of the new church, when there were relatively few Christians and they lacked church experience.
Missionaries have continued as advisors. Some agencies contribute financially, too. The key fact is their respect for the integrity of the Nepali churches and their commitment to Nepali leadership. The missiological implications are two-fold: with the groundwork laid, we can trust and encourage local Christians to plant the church, then we can stand beside them in partnership.
6. Nationalization of the church was never a question in Nepal. The entire process of evangelization and church planting was in Nepali hands from day one. "The nationalization begins as soon as there is one believer," says Lois McKinney, Wheaton College Graduate School missiologist. This must be an integral part of our strategy to reach the unreached in closed countries, but if this is to work, some of our time-worn attitudes will have to change.
For Nepali Christians, the opening of Nepal was not a romantic homecoming. They walked straight into hardship, rejection by Hindu society, and persecution. For changing your religion in Nepal, you can get a year in jail; if you baptize someone, six years. Some 130 Nepali Christians have court cases pending against them. Yet the church of Jesus Christ has taken root and grown, despite restrictions and persecution. Nepali Christians have much to teach us, not only about perseverance and suffering, but also about the values of a sound strategy for reaching closed countries.
Men and women like Pastor David have been God’s instruments. Undoubtedly, God has other people like him to reach closed nations and unreached people. We would do well to seek them out, perhaps from among society’s outcasts, the displaced, the refugees, the emigrants, and link arms with them in our common task of reaching their nations with the gospel.
Copyright © 1990 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.