by Bhoj Raj Bhatta
If the post-secular Nepali Church does not want to become obsolete, five principles need to be prioritized.
Nepal is a small nation primarily comprised of Brahmins and Chhetris (Aryans), who consider themselves the real Hindus. Most of the remaining groups are of Mongol-Tibetan origin, from whom the majority of Christians are coming. The Aryans, and those associated with them, are philosophically and historically closed to changing their religion. The Aryan political psyche is equally a major cause of resistance to the gospel.
Historically, Nepal withstood the onslaught of invasion from the British, the most powerful empire of the colonial world. After their repeated failures, however, the British were forced to make a peace treaty with Nepal. This treaty helped the ruling class in Nepal hold on to power for generations—this, at the expense of justice, freedom, and equality for the rest, who were brutally oppressed and barred from the modernization of the world. While the Enlightenment, modernity, and post modernity came and went from Europe, Nepal remained in the medieval life.
The Hindu king, Prithivi Narayan Shaha, who united Nepal and stood successfully against the British invasion, expelled then-residing Catholic missionaries in 1769, along with their native converts from Nepal, branding them as conspirators of the colonial powers ravaging India (Perry 2000, 2). The king then closed the door for any outside influence, especially Christians. It remained closed for two centuries.
From 1848, the Rana prime minister usurped the king, making his heirs the hereditary dictators until 1950. He kept the doors closed for their own political advantage (Lindell 1979, 42). The Rana family not only closed the doors to outside influence, but also prohibited public access to education, learning, and freedom, keeping the country in the dark ages. The British association with the Rana gave the false impression to many Nepalese that Christians and the colonial powers were one and the same. Thus, missionaries were perceived as foreigners who had no regard for the plight of the common people.
Christianity and the Missionary Influence
But the demise of the British Empire in India brought a new kind of dictatorship in Nepal which went back to making Hinduism the state religion and the king as a god to be worshipped. The doors to outside influence were opened, but not for Christianity. However, Christianity could not be shut out, and with the initiative of Nepali Christians living in India and the encouragement of a handful of mission agencies stationed there, the gospel entered, churches were established, and a new Christian community emerged without much input from the outside world.
Along with the Nepali Christians from India, several Christian NGOs also came, but were compelled to keep a distance from a newly emerging church primarily through government restrictions on their activities (Barclay 2006). The newly emerging Nepali Church was persecuted by the state and denied their rights as citizens of the nation. This, however, did not hinder their zeal, commitment, and passion to see their homeland evangelized.
Until 1990, missionaries and mission agencies provided all the help they could to church leaders without interfering with the affairs of the local churches. Denominational walls did not exist because (1) missionaries could not be involved directly in the organization of the Church due to government restrictions, and (2) Nepali church leaders were not formally trained and the only model they had was the New Testament, which was cemented by the similar bedrock of persecution.
But after the revolution of 1990, all the cementing factors came crumbling down. Freedom to choose one’s religion was granted, but proselytizing was punishable by imprisonment. Nepali churches found new ways of adapting their freedom and began to grow.
In 2006, another remarkable development for the history of Christianity in Nepal occurred when the government declared Nepal a secular nation, abolishing the monarchy, and, along with it, Hinduism as the state religion. The election of the constituent assembly for drafting a new constitution has given the Nepali Church a new breath of fresh hopes and aspirations.
“New Nepal” is the common phrase heard and seen in many places today and nothing less is expected from the Christian community. Yet one has to be equally apprehensive regarding the actual nature of the Church in times like these, and since 1990 the signs are not very encouraging. Infighting among church leadership for power and resources has opened the floodgates of spiritual attack and the Church is losing respect in the eyes of non-Christian neighbors.
Bitterness, immorality, embezzlement of mission funds, deceptions, and false reporting have become the norm if a “minister” wants to be successful in Nepal. If the post-secular Nepali Church does not want to become obsolete, the following principles need to be prioritized.
Principle 1: A Return to a Biblical Foundation
Those who dismiss the value of a denomination may not be taking into consideration some of the heart-wrenching issues facing the leadership in the formative years of any particular denomination. Many denominations must address issues such as disorder, division, and danger of cultic and unbiblical practices as they seek discipline, order, unity, and protection.
The Church in Nepal began without any particular denominational badges; instead, in 1960 Nepali Christians banded together and formed Nepal Christian Fellowship (NCF) in order to give guidance and structure to the newly-planted churches across Nepal (Barclay 2006). It was an attempt to provide a covering and protection to churches without interfering with their autonomy. However, due to the absence of denominational missionaries and trained theologians, this fellowship failed to come up with the biblical identity of a national Church, and the intended unity never materialized.
Added to this was the increase in persecution. Sympathetic missionaries attempted all they could to minimize the suffering of the persecuted brothers and sisters, making their case known to the outside world and supplying their material needs. This dynamic relationship of persecution and sympathy from missionaries shifted the focus of Nepali church leadership from that of the book of Acts to the glorification of persecution and missionaries’ attention.
Some church leaders boasted of being persecuted and their willingness to die, building a foundation of suffering and persecution. Suffering for Christ became a badge of honor and respect, thus leading to pride and arrogance. Others capitalized on persecution and began to tap into the missionary attention with the hope of material gain.
Today the persecution is gone; however, the foundation of material gain has prospered. The secular “New Nepal” appears to be more promising for mammon-seeking church leaders. These leaders need to come back to the biblical understanding of the Church. “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is a promising assurance that needs to be the case for the visible local church in Nepal.
Too many churches and leaders are laying perishable foundations. Money, personality, cult, political, and ethnic persuasions are becoming the foundations of the Church in Nepal. We need to pray for a day when the fire of God’s judgment begins from the household of God (1 Cor. 3:11-14; 1 Pet. 4:17; Ps.11:1-7). The old materialistic foundations need to be shaken and destroyed by God’s own intervention.
A church cannot be based upon human needs such as poverty, sickness, oppression, and even the need for evangelization. The Church needs to exist for the glory of God, and this is possible only when the foundation of the local churches is in line with the revealed truth disclosed in the Holy Book.
Jesus, pointing to the need of a physical place where believers can come together, said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”—a place where God is sovereign and every activity is directed to glorify him: a place where human needs are met by divine intervention in answer to the prayers of the people of many nations.
Paul declared a new definition of the temple of God when he said that the believers are the temple of God where God dwells by his Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20). In this new definition, individuals as well as communities are the temple where God chooses to manifest his glory. The Nepali Church needs to remind itself that it is not humans who build the Church, nor does it exist for them. The Church exists by God and for God. Once this biblical foundation is laid, the rest of the following principles find their proper expression.
Principle 2: Doctrinal Honesty
Lack of doctrinal clarity and conviction is another characteristic of the Nepali Church, the product of an indigenous approach to Christianity without a clear relationship to the Global Church. Although this Church was based upon the testimonies of God’s merciful works of healing, deliverance, and miracles—and prayer was a driving force—the pioneering leaders opposed theological education and there was, therefore, a lack of basic Christian understanding. They elevated the simple and prayerful reading of the biblical text and had little interest in outside readings.
If the persecution of Christians had lasted a few more generations, this pietistic and devotional approach to Christian life and ministry could have become a powerful positive influence, but the premature end of persecution opened the floodgates of all that was unhealthy and harmful to the growth of the infant Church.
Today the Church in Nepal finds it hard to state its convictions. The flow of money determines one’s doctrinal conviction and pastors who once worked for one denomination can leave for extra money and join another denomination with no hesitation due to differing theologies.
If the Church is to make a positive impact, it has to be honest with its doctrinal stand, not only on the major issues, but also the minor ones. A Baptist must be a Baptist out of his or her conviction, and so is the case of Pentecostal, Charismatic, or nondenominational Christians. Often times, the nondenominational person is the cause of concern. He or she uses his or her label to justify that he or she can believe anything, and can change his or her doctrinal position anytime, depending upon the profit. It is typically through nondenominational churches that we see the cultic and fanatic winds that blow outside of Nepal coming in, riding in the power of money and greed. If the Church is to mature and leave a lasting legacy, it must demonstrate doctrinal honesty. Our values and statements of faith need to match what our lives speak.
Principle 3: Ethical Maturity
Ethical boundaries have nearly vanished in the Nepali Church. First, persecution resulted in Christian leaders taking for granted that because of their suffering, God would allow them to have a little bit of their own flesh to enjoy. It was as if they deserved a break (that came in the form of material gain!). Second, the apparent growth of their ministries seems to justify such non-biblical actions as false reporting to donor agencies, bribes, embezzlement of mission funds, betrayal of fellow Christians, and sexual immorality. Unless the Church as a whole in Nepal addresses these issues, it is bound to fail.
But who will address these issues? Some of the possible solutions include the gradual growth of the major denominations, awareness from the grassroots Christian community, and intervention by the government. If ethical maturity is achieved, the Church will be stronger as a viable option for change and development in New Nepal.
Principle 4: Financial Transparency
Ethical standards and financial transparency are deeply interconnected. Without achieving the first, the latter cannot be possible.
Corruption in mission is more widespread than has been acknowledged. Fake boards are formed, fake audit reports produced, fake receipts printed, and so on. David Hesselgrave cites a cartoon caricature of a missionary who was about to speak to his donors. As he leaves the pew to go the podium, turning to his missionary colleague, he whispers, “Shall we tell them the truth or keep them happy?” (Hesselgrave 1996, 27). “Keep them happy” has been the policy of mission work in Nepal.
This epidemic is more widespread in missions and parachurch organizations that are supported by the national sponsoring missions. The giving constituencies never get the true picture of the mission work; the receiving constituencies never have a clue as to what and how much has been given in their names. It is the person in the middle, whether foreign missionary or local leader, who has absolute control over the whole enterprise.
In the spring of 2008, a Portuguese woman who had faithfully supported an orphanage run by a Christian man for years entered my church. She wanted to come and see the children she had seen only in pictures; she was shaken by what she found. The nightmare started when her local contact failed to come to the airport to pick her up. Eventually, she realized that someone she thought was doing great philanthropic work was only deceiving her and that the pictures were stolen from another orphanage.
This is all too typical of mission work in Nepal. A sponsor in the U.S. receives a family picture of a national missionary pioneering a church in rural Nepal. The picture and the documents report the hardships this family faces in winning the lost. The sponsor decides to send one hundred dollars each month. However, the donor and the recipient are not allowed to have direct contact with each other. It is the person in the middle who decides whether (and how much of) the money should be given to the rural pastor. In the absence of accountability, the person in the middle has full responsibility. This is the hallmark of many so-called national missions in Nepal that function without oversight.
If the Church is to be the guiding light for the nation, then there has to be a genuine attempt on the part of national church leadership to address this issue of corruption in missions and ministry. The local church needs to be given due respect in deciding matters of financial issues collectively. Outside donations need to go to the local church, and by the decision of the local church the support of the national pastors should be distributed. A single-handed leadership style must give way to team leadership in order to achieve proper financial accountability and transparency.
Principle 5: Message of the Cross with Global Perspective
The Church in Nepal needs to shift its focus from itself to otherness in the Body of Christ in which there is mutual reciprocity. It needs to get rid of the dependency mentality of recipients who always think they deserve to be given resources by those who have them. The material help it receives from outside should be taken in a broader ecumenical understanding of the Body of Christ, in which there is no superior and inferior because the cross of Christ stands in the gap, not only between God and humans, but also between one human and another.
Once there is a biblical foundation guided by a clear conviction of one’s beliefs, attested by ethical examples, the material foundations crumble, giving rise to character and intellectual maturity. In proportion to character and intellectual maturity, the Church in Nepal will develop and widen its perspectives to see itself as a part of the global community of believers, not just a nationalistic, oppressed, and poverty-stricken band of people.
Believers who come from oppressed backgrounds with abject poverty as their lot need to be taught and ministered to with the view of widening their horizons to see themselves as citizens of the world where God rules. Once they had no hope of liberation from their oppression and poverty, but now they stand in the threshold of God’s mighty power to deliver them from all bondage. Their liberation does not depend upon people, but upon the power of Christ. Their focus should not be on the needy self nor the affluent donors, but on the power of Christ, who is equally sufficient for the needy as well as the affluent.
The Church needs to open its eyes and see the harvest beyond its immediate needs. Vast areas of north India and China (Tibet) border Nepal, where the Church is struggling to find a foothold. A strong Nepali Church with God-given confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit can become a catalyst in transferring this boldness to the brothers and sisters in these parts of the world.
Barclay, John. 2006. “A Description and Analysis of the Growth of the Church in Nepal.” Accessed February 4, 2010 fromhttp://www.worldchristianministries.org/Brief_History_of_Church_Growth_in_Nepal.pdf?active_page_id=263.
Hesselgrave, David J. 1996. “Challenging the Church to World Mission.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13(1): 27-31.
Lindell, Jonathan. 1979. Nepal and the Gospel of God. Kathmandu: United Mission to Nepal.
Perry, Cindy. 2000. A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Church History Project.
Rev. Bhoj Raj Bhatta is founding and senior pastor of Hope Church in Kathmandu. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Asia Life University in South Korea.
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 328-344. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.