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Education and fellowship build church in India


Ben Wiebe, front row centre, with Union Bible Seminary faculty and staff in celebration of the first year of a ministry for women begun and directed by a former student from UBS.

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June 25, 2007
- Deborah Froese

CHHATTISGARH, India — Ben Wiebe has seen God at work in India.

The former Ontario pastor recently spent two months on a special Mennonite Church Canada Witness assignment teaching seminary students at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) in Bangalore and Union Bible Seminary (UBS) in Pune.

Wiebe has been to India several times – but this time was different. Traveling with UBS faculty member Premanand Bagh, Wiebe had the chance to attend an annual gathering of Mennonite Conference churches in the District of Chhattisgarh.

It proved to be one of the highlights of his trip. In an atmosphere of celebration – a Mennonite Mela – he met with over 25 pastors to hear their stories. He sensed a deep gratitude from them for his willingness to listen.

Ten years ago, Wiebe observes that churches were divided over issues of leadership, worship and how to spend North American financial aid. Church growth stagnated and people were discouraged. Today, conference churches in Chhattisgarh have experienced moderate growth and even a few new church plants.

Wiebe also noticed that people are drawn to the church for different reasons, such as family connections, an invitation to bible study, or service projects. A Hindu man converts to Christianity, and before long a small church is born. In the north, a Muslim discovers Christ and then travels to UBS for education in ministry.

Church leaders are encouraged by the progress but a sense of isolation lingers. Fewer people are coming from abroad to offer financial support or the life-giving blood of fellowship. “If they [Indian church leaders] step out and do things,” Wiebe says, “it’s not because of our resources, but because we are there to think with and encourage them.”

Education fosters church growth and there are programs available at SAIACS and UBS for those in ministry. However, courses are not always accessible for rural residents, and course content is not geared toward other areas of church leadership. More training across a wider spectrum is needed. For example, Wiebe suggests that, with adequate resources, a small church in Janjgir that currently offers English language and sewing lessons could also offer Bible studies for area church leaders.

UBS faculty member Shekhar Singh has a vision that includes bringing in and supporting groups of pastors from outlying areas for study. He would also like to see more outreach programs. UBS currently has a development project that helps poor women in the area. Going into the slums where these women live, workers teach skills – like sewing – and then teach the women how to train others.

Wiebe is encouraged by what is happening in India’s churches, and particularly by the spirit of cooperation he witnessed at the Mennonite Conference gathering in Chhattisgarh. There is “joy in the fact that they are working things out,” he notes.

In 2008 the conference will celebrate its Jubilee and hopes to host partners from around the world.