Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, India

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Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, India
In-map.gif
India: World Factbook, 2009[1]

Location

Contact information

Date established

1899

Presiding officer

P. B. Arnold

MWC Affiliated?

Yes

Number of Congregations

840 (2012)
[2].

Membership

103,488 (2012)
[2]
Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, India (Mennonite Brethren Church, India) is a Mennonite conference in India that is officially associated with Mennonite World Conference. It is the largest of the 5 conferences in India affiliated with MWC. In 2012 the conference had 103,488 members in 840 congregations.[2] In 2015, it was estimated that there were as many as 200,000 members and 962 churches in IMB Church.[3]


The group of Mennonite Brethren in India were started mainly by Mennonite Brethren missionaries from the Russian Mennonite Colonies, as well as missionaries coming from the United States and Canada. This church is one of the oldest MB churches as the missions efforts started in the late 19th century. Abraham Friesen and his wife were the first MB missionaries in India. They came down to India from Russia independently in the late 1989. The area that Friesen focused his mission work, Andhra Pradesh, already had an established relationship with the American Baptist Mission, who gladly gave over part of their mission to Friesen.

Jump to today (2016), and the church today has experienced huge growth, and continues to grow. The church currently has over 200,000 members and 1,000 congregations.

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History

Early Years: Missionary Settlement (1880-1900)

The Mennonite Brethren Church has been transplanted to India through foreign mission effort. The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia sent its first missionary, Abraham Friesen, to India in 1890 and a mission was begun among the Telugus in the southeastern part of the Hyderabad State. Since this work was affiliated with the American Baptist Telugu Mission, the resultant indigenous church was Baptist and with the discontinuance of the MB Mission from Russia, when World War I broke out in 1914, the whole work was taken over by the Baptist Mission.

The American MB Church sent its first missionary, N. N. Hiebert, to India in 1899 and a mission began among the Telugus in the southern part of the Hyderabad State, west of the field worked by the Brethren from Russia. In this field, which has from time to time been enlarged so that it covered an area of 10,000 square miles having a population of 1,500,000, the work greatly prospered.

Growth (1900-1919)

1902-1904 held a very busy time for the growth of missions in Andhra Pradesh as Rev. and Mrs. JH Pankratz and D.F. and Katharina Bergthold all arrived In India. While more and more MB Missionaries were showing up in India, the mission grounds where the MB missionaries worked and lived were owned by the American Baptists, who invited them to work jointly in their missions. This relationship carried on until the late 1930s. In 1910, Abraham Friesen retired from mission work. At this point the Mennonite Brethren Church in India has around 3,000 members. In 1916, FA Janzen, an American missionary, started an Indigenous Church in Nagerkurnool, as well as a school and a hospital.

Established Mission Years (1920-1949)

The conference had by the 1950s sent 46 missionaries to this field and had eight main mission stations, where it operated the work. Evangelism was strongly emphasized in the mission and occupied the major part of the missionaries' time and effort.

1920 was an important year as the Mennonite Brethren Bethany Bible School was started in Nagarkurnool by American Mennonite Brethren missionaries. The school, taught in Telugu, had the goal of training local lay people to become church leaders and to have a seminary that was closer to the church body.

The Mennonite Brethren Church of India officially began in 1924 in Kalwakurthy. The church was started by a native missionary, R. Rathnam and his wife.[4]

In 1937, two large Baptist Missions become part of the American MB Mission (AMB Mission), growing the conference substantially. This purchase by the MB Mission brought not only growth in membership numbers, but a significant amount of land.

Establishment as an Independent Conference (1950s)

The mission started medical work on their new land in Jadcherla in 1952, which eventually grew into a hospital. Another significant advancement for the MB Church was that they were given even more land in 1954, a Telugu Village Mission, was added to the property of the MBs.[5]

In 1958, the AMB Mission transferred administrative power over to the Conference of the MB Church of India (IMB Church).[6]

Departure of Missionaries (1960-79)

The 1960s and early 1970s were a time of transition and learning for the leaders of the church. In 1976, the properties owned by the AMB Mission were finally transferred over to the ownership of the MB Property Association of India.[7] A significant amount of work was done from 1970-73 in order for the transition to no missionary leadership to go smoothly. [8] Only one missionary on the Liaison Committee and other missionaries served on committees by invitation only.[9]

Growth independent of missionaries (1980-present)

In 1989, in celebration of the centennial of MB missionaries in India, the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches of India established the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Biblical College.

The IMB Church has used evangelism and church planting to help the church grow faster through the conversion of many people. [10]

In 1990, church membership of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren is a little over 65,000 people. By 2012 the conference of Mennonite Brethren in India has grown rapidly to 103,488 members in 840 congregations. In 2015, it was estimated that there were as many as 200,000 members and 962 churches in IMB Church. [11]

The church is growing even more rapidly, as just a year later, the church now has over 1,000 congregations.[12] The church currently has a committee of around 30 people who are making decisions about where leadership will go when it is time for a change, and also looking to solve the problem of a lack of leaders in an ever growing church.[13]

Challenges: Present, Future

In a phone interview with Mr. I.P. Asheervadam, he explained that the church is going in a great direction currently. However, the church is currently facing a few difficulties.

  • The church is facing challenges knowing where to find leaders for their ever growing church. As of 2016, the church has over 1000 churches, and is in need of an expansion in eligible leaders.[14]
  • The church is also facing the problem of not knowing where their next leadership for the conference is going to come from. Many of the people who are in the highest leadership roles in the church have been in their positions since they were appointed by the missionaries in the 1970s. This means that those leaders not only have been in those roles for 40 years now, but they are also getting old and the church is planning for what to do in the event that one of them cannot lead anymore.[15]


Paul Wiebe also participated in an phone interview and expressed some of the challenges that the church is facing:

  • He says that there are many factors challenging the MB Church in India today, including divisions such as rural/urban within the church. The urban church members are much more focused on progress and put an emphasis on learning English, use of mass media, consumerism, and interaction in the broader world. However, the churches in the more rural settings are still tied fast to traditions, and don’t have as much of an urgency to participate in the events of the broader world. The majority of the IMB Church is located in rural settings.[16]
  • He also expressed that, like any group, there is a the conflict between people who are more consumeristic, and are striving for more prestige and power, versus the people who are focused on the church and on evangelism.[17]
  • There has also been some issues with threats of persecution from other major religions due to evangelism. Although threats are not nearly as imminent as they have been in the past, or even in other parts of India, the church still has to stay within the constraints of their church communities. Evangelism happens mostly through service and care for others. That is not to say that revival meetings do not happen, but an public emphasis on telling people if they are right and wrong based on their religious beliefs would be frowned upon.[18]

The Future of the Church

The IMB Church is continuing to grow rapidly. The church is continuing its emphasis on evangelism in rural villages. The church is hoping that a transition into future leadership (for the church conference, and for the individual congregations) goes smoothly. The church currently has a 30 person discernment committee that is working towards organizing leadership and overseeing transitions to make sure they go as planned and that there aren’t any problems.[19]

While the church is now facing a time of exciting growth, there is also imminent change where new perspectives on evangelism are being offered. Paul Wiebe explained that “As the old boundaries of India are broken down, that gives the message that people can find this faith that is both social and spiritual and together those can make a formidable force” (Wiebe). Wiebe believes that there will be much more emphasis on seeing the all encompassing Christ that in others with different beliefs, as opposed to an emphasis on telling people that what they believe is wrong, and that they need to come to Christ. Wiebe explained that the simple message of service in relation of a new way of coming together without labels, is something that is compelling in to people who have been marginalized by society in the past[20]


Confession of Faith & Identity

The theological beliefs of this Mennonite Brethren group, as shown through their Confession of Faith, seem to still line up fairly closely to those of the 16th century Anabaptists. The group uses communion as a time of renewal of faith, and also regularly invites new members into the church through adult baptism. Their Confession also has an emphasis on topics such as the simplicity of the worship style, the importance of family, and the participation of members within the functions of the church. One thing that appears to be missing in this confession, that would have been crucial to the early Anabaptists, is that there was no mention of the importance of pacifism and nonresistance.[21]

Right from the beginning of the MB Church's influence in India, a huge number of converts into the church came from the Dalit caste within Hinduism. In the book The Church in Mission, the authors make a note that "the good news of a loving God embodied in Jesus Christ offered Dalits something unique that governments or other religious faith could not provide [...] an opportunity to be an integral part of the worship and fellowship of the faith they professed."[22]

Weddings, birth celebrations, services of baptism and communion are all events that the church community holds at a very high importance. These are all times when the church comes together in a time of fellowship and thanks for the life of their community. Bigger celebration events are held for occasions such as church anniversaries, harvest festivals, and holiday parties.[23]

An indigenous church has sprung up, known as the "Andhra Mennonite Brethren Church," which in the 1950s totaled over 12,000 communicant members. This church holds to the doctrinal principles of the American MB Church and is similar in organization and church polity. The membership of the whole constituency was composed of 57 local churches. In each of the eight station-fields these churches were organized into a "field association." All the churches of the whole mission area were organized into a convention, which corresponded to the MB Conference in the homeland. This convention bore the name "Andhra Mennonite Brethren Convention," and held its meetings annually.


Educational Institutions

Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College (MBCBC)

The Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College is located in Shamshabad, Telangana (previously part of Andhra Pradesh), a suburb of Hyderabad. The school was officially established in 1989, despite having some roots that reach as far back as 1920.

In 1920, the Mennonite Brethren Bethany Bible School was started in Nagarkurnool by American Mennonite Brethren missionaries. The bible school had the purpose of training local lay people to become church leaders and to have a seminary that was closer to the church body. At this time, the school offered a Certificate of Theology, taught in Telugu. After some growth and establishment, the school moved to a location in Shamshabad. In 1958, the school initiated a Graduate of Theology, taught in English, and changed its name to Brethren Bible Institute & Junior College. 1967 brought changes for the institution as they again changed their name to be Mennonite Brethren Bible Institute. In 1988, the school added a Bachelor of Theology degree. Because of the addition of a bachelors' degree, the school was officially renamed and opened as the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College in 1989. The name is in commemoration of the centennial of the first Mennonite Brethren missionary arriving in Andhra Pradesh in 1889. in 1995, the college became associated to the Senate of Serampore College.

The school now offers degrees in Bachelor of Theology and Bachelor of Divinity, among other certificates.[24]


Key Individuals in Church Life

Dr. P. B. Arnold

Dr P.B. Arnold is the current president of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, India. Arnold has held this role since . Arnold grew up in the IMB Church and was the son of two MB preachers, PB Benjamin and Sharamma Arnold. Dr. Arnold's life work is in the MB Medical Center in Jadcherla, where he has worked since he received his degree in medicine in 1966. Dr. Arnold's leadership has been somewhat controversial over the past decade, as he has pretty much been in leadership as the president since the missionaries transitioned the church into local leadership in the 1970s.

C. S. Joel

C. S. Joel is the Registrar of MB Centenary College and professor of Communication.

Rev. I. P. Asheervadam

Rev. I.P. Asheervadam is the current principal of the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College since 2011. Asheervadam is a scholar, having written several books and articles about the history of the MB Church in India. Asheervadam is a graduate of Osmania University in Hyderabad from which he completed a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology. He also completed his B.Th. from Union Biblical Seminary in Pune. Asheervadam is very accomplished and has also completed a M.Th. and D.Th.[25]

Current General Council Members

As of 2012, the Mennonite Brethren General Council members are Dr. P.B. Arnold, Katta Veeraiah Purshotham, and Perumalia Samuel Arun Kumar.


Electronic Resources

Mennonite Brethren Centenary Biblical College


Annotated Bibliography

Interviews

Emma Koop Liechty conducted several interviews for an undergraduate research paper on the IMB Church (History 318: Anabaptist History, Goshen College, Fall 2016).

Phone

  • Mr. I.P. Asheervadam (December 13, 2016)
Mr. Asheervadam is a leading scholar in the church history of the IMB Church. He is currently the principal and a professor at the MBCBC.
  • Paul Wiebe (December 13, 2016)
Mr. Wiebe grew up as a child of missionaries in India. He is a historian, and specializes in the history of the MB Church of India.

Written Sources

  • Asheervadam, I. P., Junichi Fujino, and Ray Harms-Wiebe, comps. "Mennonite Brethren Missions in Asia: India." The Church in Mission: Perspectives of Global Mennonite Brethren on Mission in the 21st Century. Comp. Victor Wiens. Winnipeg, MB, Goessel, KS: Kindred Productions, 2015. 195-203. Print.
This book gives an in depth look at MB missions in general, and only includes a small section specifically about the church in India.
  • Aseervadam, R. S., The Mennonite Brethren in Andhra Pradesh India: A Historical Treatise. Hyderabad: Osmania U, 1980. Print.
This book has an excellent overview of the history and beliefs of the Mennonite Brethren in India. The book was completed as an author’s dissertation for a Doctorate in History. This book will have the best and clearest outline of the happenings in the church during its early years.
  • George, Bhoompag Aaron. The History of Mennonite Brethren Church A.P. India. Secunderabad: Vani Press, 1990. Print.
This book is helpful because it gives information on the history of the church, especially of its beginning. Unfortunately, while this book does give a lot of information on the early beginnings of this conference, it mostly focuses on the work of the western missionaries who were there and does not give as much detail in the reactions and contributions of the local church members. The book is a bit confusing, as it often loses context, and jumps around a lot.
  • Mennonite Brethren English Church, Hyderabad: First Decennial Year Celebrations 1982-1992, Order of Worship & Bulletin. Print.
This short order of worship and bulletin is a good resource to have in showing us the growth and variety that is within the Mennonite Brethren church in India. The pamphlet was created for a special service held in Hyderabad at the first English speaking Mennonite Brethren fellowship in India. The pamphlet will gives some context of the current happenings in the church, and its growth.
  • "Our History." Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College. Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016. [1].
This source gives a brief history of the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Biblical College and the progress it’s made since missionaries initiated the school in 1920.
  • Penner, Peter. Russians, North Americans, and Telugus: The Mennonite Brethren Mission in India, 1885-1975. Winnipeg, MB, Canada: Kindred Productions, 1997. Print.
This source gives an in-detail overview of the mission years of the MB Church in India. This is an excellent source for deeper explanation into the specific events of that time period.
  • Purushotham, Rev. Dr. DN, comp. Mennonite Brethren Theological Graduates with Their Life History and Literary Contributions (1920-2011). Hyderabad: GJ Douglas, 2012. Print.
This book tells the stories of the leadership within the Mennonite Brethren in India. The book gives detailed accounts of each of the students who have graduated within the Mennonite Brethren Church in India for close to the last century. The book’s goal is to encourage youth to go to seminary and to validate and celebrate the accomplishments of these scholars. The book will gives insight into the types of things Mennonite Brethren leaders have worked on over the years.
  • Wiebe, Paul D., and David A. Wiebe. The Colors of the Mennonites in Andhra Pradesh. Goessel, KS: Kindred Productions, 2013. Print.
The book includes many pictures and descriptions of different aspects of the lives of Indian Mennonites living in Andhra Pradesh. The book gives information on celebrations, the rural and urban churches, special functions, living and working, colleges, and buildings that are important in Indian Mennonite community.

Citations

  1. "India," CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/graphics/maps/small/in-map.gif (accessed 20 September 2009).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Asia & Pacific." Mennonite World Conference. http://www.mwc-cmm.org/en15/PDF-PPT/2006asiapacific.pdf (accessed 17 October 2009)
  3. Asheervadam, I. P., Junichi Fujino, and Ray Harms-Wiebe, comps. "Mennonite Brethren Missions in Asia: India." The Church in Mission: Perspectives of Global Mennonite Brethren on Mission in the 21st Century. Comp. Victor Wiens. Winnipeg, MB, Goessel, KS: Kindred Productions, 2015. p 202. Print.
  4. Ibid. p 200.
  5. Ibid. p 199.
  6. Ibid. p 200.
  7. Ibid. p 202.
  8. Penner, Peter. Russians, North Americans, and Telugus: The Mennonite Brethren Mission in India, 1885-1975. Winnipeg, MB, Canada: Kindred Productions, 1997. p 253. Print.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Wiens. p 202.
  11. Ibid.
  12. I.P. Asheervadam, Personal phone correspondence with Emma Koop Liechty. (13 December 2016)
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Paul Wiebe, Personal phone correspondence with Emma Koop Liechty. (13 December 2016).
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. I.P. Asheervadam, Personal phone correspondence with Emma Koop Liechty. (13 December 2016).
  20. Paul Wiebe, Personal phone correspondence with Emma Koop Liechty. (13 December 2016).
  21. George, Bhoompag Aaron. The History of Mennonite Brethren Church A.P. India. Secunderabad: Vani Press, 1990. Print.
  22. Wiens. p 199.
  23. Wiebe, Paul D., and David A. Wiebe. The Colors of the Mennonites in Andhra Pradesh. Goessel, KS: Kindred Productions, 2013. Print.
  24. "Our History." Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College. Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College, n.d. http://www.mbcbcindia.com/our-history.html (Accessed 12 Dec. 2016)
  25. Purushotham, Rev. Dr. DN, comp. Mennonite Brethren Theological Graduates with Their Life History and Literary Contributions (1920-2011). Hyderabad: GJ Douglas, 2012. Print.

Acknowledgments

Emma Koop Liechty compiled much of the information presented here in a student research paper written for an Anabaptist History Class at Goshen College (Fall 2016).