Kerala has seen two decades of the New Generational Churches and folks are still confused. So a republishing of an old article.
|A cross from the Syrian Christian Marthoma Tradition|
“Jesus Christ was not born on Christmas Day but sometime in September. So the 25th of December is just another day!” This is not some crazy theory languishing in some isolated brain cell but is one among the many differing beliefs being preached from the pulpits of the New Generational Churches or the Full Gospel Churches. And who is listening? Plenty People. The faithful from the traditional Catholic and Syrian Christian churches are leaving in large numbers to join these churches or even form new ones at the drop of an alleluia singing hat.
In the past decade, Kerala is witness to a new phenomenon - small groups of praying people are holding hands and forming churches. These churches have no Pope, no Archbishops, no Bishops, no Priests - they have leaders who become cassock less pastors (some study theology while others get the calling). And fifteen, fifty or more people register as a church under the Charitable Societies and Registration Act 1955. It is hard to put a finger on the exact figure- twenty or maybe more in Kerala, for some home corners double up as churches. In Kollam, Binu Raveendran and his family who have converted from Hinduism have a Home Church. Says Binu’s wife Ganga “We call it ‘Read Bible Everyday’ and it is growing.” The largest among the New Generational Churches is the Heavenly Feast with five branches in Kerala. It has more than 11,000 members in their church at Kottayam alone. Says Pastor Mathew Kuruvilla “The numbers are so large that we have stopped giving membership and stopped counting.”
What begins as casual prayer meetings slowly evolves into a church. That is no small matter for the lone Pastor has to shoulder social responsibilities like marriage and funeral rites too. The New churches follow the Pentecostal doctrines, but unlike the Pentecostal Movement, which is very rigid in their stance these churches attract large crowds with their interpretation of the Bible and a more palatable version of the Pentecostal doctrines. The young and the old gravitate towards these musical churches, easily.
In the year 1985 Viju Jeremiah Traven and three others formed a rock band Exodus in Kochi. Then he went to do his own thing. In 1991 he became the lead singer for the Kolkotta based Rock Band Shiva. Three years later Traven quit Shiva and did jingles for a living in Mumbai. 2000 saw Traven back in Kochi and he joined his old band Exodus. They got the calling. Then began the transition from Exodus the rock band to Exodus the Church and in 2001 the church happened. The Sunday morning Mass at the Exodus Church (single unit) is a far cry from the solemn ritualistic affair of the traditional churches. At a leased hall, which is bereft of the usual Church paraphernalia- altar, censers, candles, cross etc., their “Praise and Worship Service” has all the ecstasy of a concert- 1000's of watts loud, the congregation is clapping, dancing and singing. Pastor Traven is jumping with joy and ecstasy. And the sermon filled with epiphany. The pastor walks among the people asking “Are you happy?” “Yes!” The congregation shouts back. Smile on their faces and Song on their lips- they are glad to be in church and they are not hiding it. And there is a strong bonding among the people.
This maybe Christianity in holy hybridization but the traditional churches are not looking at these praying activities too reverentially for some of the rich and the powerful too incline towards these groups and they are fast deserting their mother churches. Rev. Dr. Daniel Acharuparambil, the Latin Archbishop of Verapoly views this trend as dangerous. He says, “They are sheep stealing. They go to proper Catholic families and try to attract them.” And the other denominations are campaigning hard against these churches through newsletters and sermons- denouncing them as heretic.
But what do the deserters have to say? The list of grouses of those who leave the traditional churches is endless: they idol worship, are too ritualistic, profess transubstantiation and the clergy are no longer interested in the problems of the laity.
Besides not celebrating the traditional Christian festivals, one of the most radical differences is the way these new churches perceive the Cross. For centuries the cross has been a powerful and paradoxical symbol of Christianity. On one hand wars have been fought under this symbol while on the other it is an obvious statement of piety and it evokes intense and passionate feelings when associated with the death of Jesus. Adopting the Pentecostal attitude, the New Generational churches shrug it off as just a symbol and nothing more. The burden of the cross from around the necks, from the church tops and within these churches has been glaringly removed. The cross is not used for benediction nor is the sign of the cross part of their service. Says Pastor Traven “We have nothing against the Cross but people tend to worship the object. We worship the person not his grave.” But Rev.Dr.Daniel Acharuparambil disagrees “Bible is interpreted by these individuals and they often tend to exaggerate one view point while they overlook the others. Christianity detached from the mystery of the cross has no meaning. It cannot be Christianity. The cross is central to the Christian view of life and its destiny. It is a reminder of the mystery of redemption.”
The age-old issue of transubstantiation is again brought up here. A pastor of one of the New Generational Churches who left the Catholic fold has this complaint “The Catholic Church believes in ‘Transubstantiation’: they believe that the wafer and the wine by some magical process change into the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus only talked symbolically but these traditional churches have become so ritualistic that they have deviated from the word of God.” The Archbishop of Verapoly gives the Catholic view “It is not symbolic, we believe with the words of consecration by an authorized priest the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. We cannot prove it by science or technology. It is a mystery of faith and unless you are given the gift of faith you cannot profess transubstantiation.”
Another difference is that the New Generational churches believe in adult baptism, which they proclaim is required to enter the kingdom of God. “Adult Baptism” and “Born Again” are the most oft repeated words in their lexicon. Says V.I.D. Renjan Pastor of New Life Fellowship Churches, Kochi(Group church- 3000 nos. in India),“In order to be baptized the person should repent, but what does a child know about sin?” But Adult Baptism will warrant more than a rap on the knuckles by most of the traditional denominations, it can amount to ex-communication. Rt. Rev. Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius the Bishop of the Marthoma church says, “If a member takes another baptism he will be advised, but if he still clings to the new faith then the parish priest will be allowed to delete his name from the church’s register. But at the same time the door will be kept open for the person to apologize in writing and come back to the fold.”
For a Christian ex- communication will have long lasting repercussions that will affect his body even after death. The church can simply refuse to bury his body in his family grave. With rising land prices gravelessness is no laughing matter. However the New Generational churches are pretty smart about this grave issue for even though many of them do not have church buildings and usually operate from rented halls most of them have invested in cemeteries.
What is interesting is about these New churches is that they look up to one leader for their guidance spiritually and the process of selection of new leaders is not democratic. When the power and large sums of money are vested with one person isn’t there every possibility that the leader may stray from the straight and narrow path?
“Yes, That can happen.” Says Dr. John Joseph member of the Pilgrim Highland Church, Trivandrum (single unit).
Why don’t all the New Generational churches get together and form one church?
“God is not interested in institutions.” is his sagacious reply.
He may have a point here. It is no secret that the two Jacobite factions are fighting it out in court for the possession of their holiest churches and prestigious institutions - reducing religion to a farcical comedy.
Is the mushrooming of single churches an ephemeral trend or will it quake the foundations of the traditional Churches with their numerous institutions of schools, colleges and hospitals? What ever it is. It definitely is a wake up call. The traditional churches will need to wake up from spiritual lethargy and start reformations fast before more and more salvation hungry sheep leap fences to newer pastures and take that baptismal dip.
( Written in September 2007. An edited version was published in Outlook Magazine September 27, 2004)