Holy Ghost On Malabar Coast

New age churches

The mainstream church in Kerala is seeing a rapid erosion in its ranks as proselytising Pentecostal groups exploit discontent among the faithful

Tiruvalla, Kerala

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.The Gospel according to St John, 14:16

THERE WAS no disunity among the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ over the path to salvation. As far as they were concerned, Christ took the form of man to establish the church as part of the divine plan to ensure salvation to all. Unity, alas, has not been granted to multitudes of lesser mortals in Kerala.
The state has 60.5 lakh Christians — the highest concentration in the country. But today the faithful are confused as to which path to follow. Adding to their confusion are numerous Pentecostal denominations, each suggesting separate ways to the eternal life. In a bid to protect their “originality”, the new-age Pentecostals are also fighting an internecine war of words, blaming each other for diluting the true meaning of faith and worship.The Pentecostal movement’s growing clout has alarmed the Syrian Christian church, which commands the largest following. Several of its denominations — like the Jacobites and Marthomites — have witnessed a sharp erosion in their ranks.Many of the laity feel the mainstream church isn’t doing enough to address contemporary concerns. “The organised church is a big failure in addressing the spiritual needs of the laity. They will be finished if there is no deep introspection,’’ opines KG Jacob, who recently converted to the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Why are the faithful fleeing?
The mainstream clergy once used to accuse the Pentecostals of stealing their flock. That doesn’t hold true any more. Very few return after crossing over, so the switch can no longer be claimed to be impulsive or money-driven. “Personalised evangelism” is the buzzword among those preaching an alternative Christianity that is at times a frenzied challenge to the established church. Says KV Pathrose, a recent convert from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, “I was an alcoholic and when my church ignored me, a friend brought a Divine Feast pastor to my house. In a matter of three days, I was a transformed man.” The Pentecostal groups are bringing about a major attitudinal shift among Kerala’s churchgoers. Catholics and Syrian Christians, bred on the sacrosanct tenet of the Immaculate Conception, are now embracing the Pentecostals who shun that dogma.
Tiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district is the breeding ground of most of the Pentecostal outfits. This small town has India’s highest number of bank branches and ATMs thanks to a strong NRI population. Many NRIs get influenced by Pentecostal teachings outside India and force their families here to convert. Kumbanad near Tiruvalla is the headquarters ofthe Indian Pentecost Council (IPC). It is also the headquarters of the Atmeya Yatra Movement, a new-age church set up by millionaire evangelist KP Yohannan. Once the citadel of Mar Thoma and other Syrian Christian groups, Kumbanad has turned into Pentecostal country. The same phenomenon has happened in Kozhikode district’s Nellipoyil, a small village that is home to about seven denominations.“Prayer fellowships are attracting men and women to the otherwise fundamentalist Pentecostal outfits,’’ pointed out Shaju Philip, a Kozhikode-based journalist. Father Paul Parathazham, a professor of sociology at the Papal Seminary in Pune, surveyed “flock stealing/ flock desertions” in 2002, and says the Church should be “perturbed” by the phenomenon. His study located three reasons for the exodus: the absence of Christian fellowship in mainstream churches, an inability to “experience” God, and a decreasing exposure to the scriptures.Parathazham’s report prompted the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India to issue a set of guidelines — conceding that there were “unmet religious needs of the faithful” and asking for prayers to be made more spontaneous, appealing and personalised. The church has also sought initiation of the BCC — Basic Christian Community — movement through family units for closer interaction. The organised church says most conversions are taking place for pecuniary benefits and overseas funding.
“We have no counter-strategy for the Pentecostals’ delirious, limb-shaking sessions. The situation is grim, though,” says one priest. Concurs Fr Paul Thelekkat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church: “I’m afraid it all looks like a kind of opiate. The Church cannot entice believers through gimmicks.”ACCORDING TO Eapen Thomas, the treasurer of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God, his outfit has about 2,500 small and big churches all over Kerala. The Indian Pentecostal Church of God and the Assemblies of God are the front-runners while about 800 small groups also remain active.
“Today we are five lakh in number and the growth appears to be tremendous in recent years. Maybe it is because there is growing unrest in most frontline traditional churches,” says Sam Kuzhikala, media coordinator of the IPC. Divine Feast, a Pentecostal church that opened in Kottayam just three years ago, has grown to a congregation of 8,000 in the town alone.Apart from established Pentecostal churches, there are many independent fellowship groups that regularly congregate at homes.
Their members are unhappy with mainstream churches but are not fully integrated with the Pentecostal establishment. One such group is the Heavenly Feast, which is popular among neo-converts since it permits members to wear jewellery, unlike the more austere Pentecostals.But the Pentecostal progress has had its repercussions.
The Hindutva brigade, which finds its streetcorner hallelujahs and barbs at Hindu gods offensive, has often retaliated. Joseph William Cooper, a bishop in the New Jerusalem Universal Church, a Pentecostal fellowship with its headquarters in Ohio in the United States, was injured in an attack on a ministry near Thiruvananthapuram in January 2003. Such was his zeal that Cooper told Ohio newspapers that his hand was “healing nicely” from the machete cut he received in Kerala, and “if the Lord wants me to return, I‘ll still go back”.
WRITER’S E-MAILshaji@tehelka.com


Anonymous said...

Your arguments may be correct. But the way you are presenting things highly irreverently. Why such an attitude to God and Christians?

Joseph thomas

ajuinjesus said...

Mr. Shaji,
I read your article, first of all, thank you for writing about this aspect of Christian Church transition in Kerala. I especially liked the title: ‘Holy Ghost on Malabar Coast’!
But I was surprised at the amount of factual errors in the article, considering the accolades that you can boast of in journalism!

Though I am a born-again Pentecostal I do not want to debate about some of the aspects that you have mentioned- since I believe that everyone is entitled to their own points of view. But I should point out some of the errors in the article.

Kindly correct me if the following are not factual errors (I am not a certified journalist so could go wrong- plz correct me!)….

• … “The state has 60.5 lakh Christians — the highest concentration in the country…” this is factually wrong- concentration refers to percentage of the population, not sheer number. In Nagaland, Christians form 90% of the population while in Kerala- it is only 19% (Ref. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nagaland & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerala )
• There is no ‘Divine Feast’ that I know of, it is ‘Heavenly Feast’- you have mentioned both intermittently
• IPC stands for ‘Indian Pentecost Church’, not ‘Indian Pentecost Council’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India_Pentecostal_Church_of_God

Other not so factual errors, but errors due to lack of knowledge of Christian Doctrine and history of the world & Indian churches:

1. ….you have said: “Catholics and Syrian Christians, bred on the sacrosanct tenet of the Immaculate Conception…”

My answer: The Tenet of Immaculate conception is part of Roman Catholic Dogma and that too, only from 1854- and I quote: “The Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in his constitution Ineffabilis Deus, on December 8, 1854…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immaculate_Conception

The rest of the Syrian Christians have accepted it in differing dimensions, not as much as it has been embraced by the Roman Catholic Church.

2. ….you have said: Many NRIs get influenced by Pentecostal teachings outside India and force their families here to convert.
My answer: That is too much of a generalization that you have done here- My take: nobody can force anyone to convert in Kerala, especially their own family members! I would ask you, would you be forced by your relative to convert? If not, how can you assume the same for others. You know & I know that blogging is different while writing articles in peer reviewed journals and international newspapers is different. Will you be allowed to make such a sweeping statement without supporting facts? Where are the numbers? What is the sample? How many did you interview to arrive at this conclusion?

3. ….you have said: “fundamentalist Pentecostal outfits”, can you define the same?

My answer: A fundamentalist in Christian terms refer to: … “a movement …that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming. ( http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fundamentalist) .Please bear in mind that given this definition, most of the Churches come under this ambit! So you cannot say ‘fundamentalist’ in the air- please define the context first, adhere to journalistic principles, don’t do a shoddy job, just on the pre-text of a blog!

Errors due to lack of knowledge of Church History:

The term ‘Catholic’ means ‘Universal’. Hence it originally referred to the universal Church. But once Emperor Constantine became a Christian, the Church at Rome (seen in Paul’s letter to Rome in the new Testament, which was only 1 among the many local churches across the world), assumed greater importance. Later on the Roman Catholic Church evolved to the present state after Emperor Constantine. ( Quote: … “The accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church, generally considered the beginning of Christendom….” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_I_and_Christianity )

Churches in India have not always been under Roman Catholic Church or its doctrine. In fact, the Catholic Church is a late entrant in India, only in the 16th Century- introduced by the Portuguese ( I Quote: …. “Although Christianity in India dates to the 1st century AD,[1] Catholicism was introduced much later in the 16th century by the Portuguese…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholicism_in_India ) .
There are separate earlier streams of Christian faith in India under the St. Thomas tradition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Thomas_Christians ) , Eastern Orthodox Church (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Church ) , Knanaya Christians etc. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knanaya ) as well as Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches in India.

Here you will find that, it was the Portuguese Roman Catholics who started converting people in India from other forms of Christianity to their own version.

I quote: …. “Saint Thomas Christians remained in communion with the Church of the East until their encounter with the Portuguese in 1498.With the establishment of Portuguese power in parts of India, clergy of that nationality, in particular certain members of the Society of Jesus, attempted to Latinize the Indian Christians…” + … “Those who accepted the West Syrian theological and liturgical tradition of Mar Gregory became known as the New Party (Puthankuttukar).Today they constitute a number of individual churches mainly and Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church (Jacobite), Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Indian Orthodox Church), Marthoma Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
The Old Party (Pazhayakuttukar) remained in communion with Rome and constitutes the Syro-Malabar Church.The Present Syro-Malabar Church is only a fraction of the ancient Indian Church of the Thomas Christians…” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syro-Malabar_Catholic_Church )

Now coming to the Marthomite Churches & Jacobite Orthodox Churches:
These churches themselves are outcomes/subjects of reformations and changes in the past.
Please check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar_Thoma_Church & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coonan_Cross_Oath as well as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malankara_Jacobite_Orthodox_Church_(before_split)

Now my Hypothesis:

This is all part of the continuous evolution that has been happening in the Christian Church in India. It has always happened in the past. In fact some of the popular mainstream churches of the day that the author has pointed out are in itself, products of such schisms or reformations of the past. Hence what is happening in the Church pointed out as a move towards the Pentecostal Churches is only the extension of the same happening in this age & time.

In fact I would go 1 more step further. Being a Pentecostal of IPC background (a nearly 100 year old denomination of Traditional background who still do not allow wearing ornaments), the growth is not happening in the traditional Pentecostal (non-ornament wearing churches) right now. The growth is happening in Born-again Churches, which have the doctrinal aspects of a Pentecostal Church but not the external restrictions of a traditional Pentecostal Church. As a traditional Pentecostal, I should be feeling angry at this new generation churches, to which some of the traditional Pentecostals are migrating now-a-days! But then I understand this reality, that there is always a search, for better, for more clarity, for more live experiences and not just dogma.
The point is, if there is another group which would come with a better version of Christianity, which is more akin to the original one envisaged by the Lord & the Apostles of the early Church, I have no doubt that there would be migration to that side also!

So what I would personally advise the Catholic Church is: They are very good in organizational aspects, building infrastructure, building amazing institutions & social service & educational institutions. But somehow, they have somewhere missed on the Christian experience. The faithful always needs the experience, the fruits; not just dogma. If the main denominations can give that, along with whatever good that they are offering now, it will stop any such migration to other faiths.

Why did the protestant movement start? Martin Luther protested against wrong practices that were in the Catholic Church at that time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_Reformation ). Now what if the then Catholic church had examined its practice under the Word of God & made a change in the right direction, would there have been the Protestant movement & the new wave of churches? No!

So the point is- reform; examine oneself under the canon of the Word of God, understand the pit-falls and take corrective actions to make ourselves better; migration to other churches will stop. I would urge that each denominations do the same, why blame our laziness on the poor faithful who run after better experience & things that they believe is truth-according to the Word of God! Peace.

Aju John Varghese.

For details on me: http://ajuinjesus.info
For reading the same response in my personal blog: http://ajuinjesus.info/blog/?p=43#more-43

shintoj j said...

your article is correct and precise.pentecostal new age cults are stealing other church members showing money as the main thing.
those churches are not at all real belief.

Anonymous said...

I know personally atleast 3 deaths that has happened because of Pentecostal cult's divine healing. So many people are dying because of this cult's stupid rituals. But who cares?