tl;dr- There are many reasons why people choose to leave the ‘Indian Church’ and this blog post explores just a few of those reasons and how the ‘Indian Church’ can respond today.
It’s hard enough to grow up ethnically Indian immersed in American culture, but add in a layer of conservative Christian culture and you may understand why the hashtag #malupentewoes was created; shorthand for Malayalee Pentecostal Woes. In my 26 years of life, I’ve seen the Malayalee Pentecostal Church grow and evolve in ways that my nine-year-old self could not imagine. This nine-year-old self who was told with a beaming smile by my mother that maybe at the age of 15 she’d let me wear clear nail polish. Clear nail polish. Can you even imagine something more bland? But wearing nail polish at all was an idea that felt so rebellious that I bragged to my Sunday school class friends about it.
Despite how much the Indian church as a whole has evolved over time, it would be naive to assume that these changes, that I and many others now enjoy, came with open hands. Instead, they were often fought for, and I believe they may have never come unless some people in generations prior to my own and even in my own age bracket had the courage to leave.
The Old and New Cycle
You may be wondering: why thank those who left? Shouldn’t they have stuck it out? Fought for real change and made it happen, rather than running to the megachurches already filled to the brim with loyal and tithing members? Well, why do people boycott companies? Why do workers go on strike? There is value in leaving; value in showing what you will and will not stand for.
It became an unwritten rule that there was a way the Indian church cycled people out. You stay from birth and fight in your corner, making changes where you can, and then you get married and after a year or two, you are done. You have paid your dues. No more fighting for things that are just expected in other churches. And after some time passes, some of those ‘prodigal sons’ return; but this time, with their arms holding children, filled with nostalgia for the slightly traumatizing but somewhat homey childhood they left in the Indian church. Though I’ve never seen this myself, I’ve heard of this happening.
I know that I’m not alone in holding this belief; when I asked Charles Samuel, who wrote the blog post, ‘The Indian Church Must Die’ and later wrote, ‘I Still Believe the Indian Church Must Die’, about whether it was the ‘norm’ for him to see people leave his church growing up, he admitted, “I want to say I was probably the first person in my church who left on my own terms.” He explained how he had also seen a similar ‘cycling’ of people, “Prior to me leaving, it was totally normal to see people get married and then immediately bounce (or go to school and stay away for a long time). It was a running joke as teens that we couldn’t wait to get married so we could all finally leave. It just felt like the necessary step to the exodus.” For many millennials, it felt as though the only real way to ‘escape’ the overly conservative Indian church was to wait to one day be able to leave.
That was the way things were supposed to happen, and then the script was rewritten.
People began to leave earlier than a few years into married life, much like Samuel who left on his own terms. They left as college students. They left the minute they lived on their own and didn’t have to face the ramifications of disappointed parents. They broke the familiar pattern that our churches began to depend on, and then our churches were left with this void that their talent once filled. And this new cycle brought to the surface larger issues within the Indian church that needed to be addressed. Issues that reached beyond traditions that could be seen as conservative, and into bigger grievances within the Indian community.
Pastor Cecil Mathew acknowledged the impact of this cycle, “Yes it has changed but change is slow. The pace is not satisfactory to many who have left. Some have thrived outside the Indian church while others have wandered and now disconnected from church and maybe God. That’s not to say that if you attend any church you are automatically connected to God.” He brings up an idea that could be explored in a different post. What about those who are so jaded by the Indian Church that they leave their walks with God altogether?
The Pros & Cons of a Deeply Connected Community
After taking time to talk to people from different regions across America, I realized that some reasons why some of my friends down South chose to leave the Indian church were very different from the issues I personally saw.
One friend, who asked to be anonymous, shared that she had developed somewhat of a bad reputation in her church and wouldn’t consider attending another Indian church because she felt as though anywhere she went, those churches would know what other people had said of her. Because of how interconnected the Indian church was in nature, having a bad reputation was hard to really ‘escape’. She recounted that for her home church, she once felt such passion that she was, “willing to die for this church.” Ultimately, her reasons for leaving her Indian church stemmed from issues within her church community.
I was surprised to hear that her church was, for the most part, willing to adapt and change in many ways. But this felt contradictory when she also shared how she was treated somewhat poorly for making the decision to pierce her ears. She explained that her home church was relevant because, “If the song ‘Blessings’ came out, next week their choir was singing that.” Ultimately, some of the division within her church came from their differences in opinion on what was permissible within a church environment; “Some of the youth wanted to play Travis Scott. Others would feel that wasn’t right, that this was a church.”
Choosing to incorporate certain music is one thing, but division grew further when her youth disagreed over whether drinking was okay or not. She recounted stories of her church youth drinking on Friday nights and then leading worship the next day.
But this community that was the reason my friend did not feel safe to return to a different Indian church, was the same community that Dr. Rhema Jacob, from Texas, appreciated, “I value the Indian sense of community especially during times of crises as well as shared cultural and spiritual values.” This community is so interconnected that when one person is sick and in need, chances are that many churches, sometimes across the country, will know and be praying for that person. This was something shocking I experienced when my uncle, who is also my pastor, first became sick. I didn’t need to tell any of my Malayalee Pentecostal friends what happened. They all knew and reached out to me, extending their prayers to me and my family.
However, Jacob argues that true contentment in a church is not reliant on a leader or the community within a church. “I’ve learned over time that the key to being happy in a church cannot be rooted in trust or faith in a spiritual leader or a specific social group/circle of friends – it has to be totally God-focused… “ I’ve often heard people say that they leave churches because they didn’t feel they were ‘fed enough’, rather than asking what they can offer to whatever church they are attending.
We aren’t done just yet
In case you missed it, I have a recording of a talk I had with Simi John that was originally shared through my instagram. John shared this very idea of shifting our focus to what we can offer whatever church we are attending. This talk was inspired by a random Instagram conversation between John and myself. She is now the wife to a pastor at a multicultural church, but comes from the Indian and specifically Pentecostal church. Despite not being a part of the current Indian church, she still saw the value in this church today; voicing how many people could be better used in their ‘small’ Indian churches than if they were to leave for the megachurches of the world.
Even Samuel acknowledged that there are reasons why people would still choose to attend a cultural church, “Asian-American church exoduses over the past few decades (e.g. the Korean-American community) is seeing a resurgence because second-gen kids who left a few decades or so ago to “American churches” are RETURNING for various reasons, including seeking cultural commonalities for their own kids and a sense of underrepresentation in those American churches”. At our core, there is something comforting about going to a cultural church even if one identifies as ‘American’. Minorities are often invisible in mainstream media and the cultural church can be a reprieve in which one does not have to ‘explain’ themself. Even while writing this post, I realize that I could take time and clarify myself more to the ‘white gaze’. The ‘white gaze’ is an idea that Toni Morrison, an American novelist, has written about and admitted that at the beginning of her writing career, she was cognizant of this ‘gaze’ and felt the need to explain herself in her writings that tackled issues related to race. I find solace in knowing that there are people who understand the community of Kerala Christians, even without me needing to explain it, and this same ease is often what I experience in the Indian church.
Dr. Rhema Jacob who attends an Indian church in Texas appears to mirror Samuel’s sentiment, “I have attended several Indian and American churches and I prefer the Indian church for spiritual as well as cultural/social reasons.” She continues to explain, “Also, the Indian churches that have been responsible for my spiritual growth did not resort to only social activities and feel-good sermons, but would preach the unadulterated word of God that is life-changing, unlike diluted sermons to attract the masses”. From Jacob’s point of view, even the messages that she heard within the Indian church resonated with her more than those she heard in other churches.
However, it is important to acknowledge Samuel’s point that, “We probably won’t see totally community-centric churches in the South Asian community until the older generation of decision-makers pass on.” He argues that some of the real ‘change’ that millenials and gen-z long for may only be possible further in the future. But if the Indian church waits too long, their pews may be empty before new people from these cohorts can step into positions of leadership.
Samuel does acknowledge that “the underlying thing that’s worrisome about a lot of Asian churches is the idea of phyletism […] Conflating the success and progress of one’s culture with the success and progress of ‘The Church’ leads to more bad than good — isolationism, focusing inward rather than outward, doing community work but keeping the community at arm’s length”. And it makes sense that this same community that feels comfortable for Malayalee Indians can leave others who try to join this ‘Indian church’ feeling like the ‘other’, and ultimately unable to be a part of an authentic community simply because of their ethnic background.
Pastor Cecil Mathew’s church in Elmont, New York seems to have addressed this issue. His church began an an ‘Indian’ church and later transformed into a multiethnic one, “We have Indians in our church. We have transformed into a multiethnic church. We still have ministries specific to the Indian demographic because that’s how our church started.”
Sometimes it is better to leave
Ultimately, there are many reasons why some choose to stay or leave, as Samuel mentions, “Some feel called to stay or leave. […] There are deeper reasons worth digging into about any of those decisions”. Those who felt deeply unhappy with the Indian church should, without judgement, be able to find communities that they did feel happy to be a part of.
The decision to leave can lead to healing in a church because ultimately, if people are unhappy while attending a congregation, this inevitably leads to conflict. Reverend Abe Joy from my church once pointed out the scripture about Paul and Barnabas to me. Acts 15:37-38 shows how there was a disagreement between them, “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work”. In verses 39-41 we see how this disagreement ultimately led to them parting ways, “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches”.
Some would view this separation as a failure, but Joy pointed out another way to look at it: this separation allowed both parties to experience peace while continuing to minister for God’s kingdom. Even within my own church, it was really hard to see people leave over the years. But many people in my church youth have admitted that it was only after some people left that they really had a chance to get involved because there was now a need for them to minister in a particular area of the church.
Whether you choose to stay in the Indian church or go to the multiethnic church or the megachurch or choose a completely different type of church, it is okay to part ways and seek out the community that you want to be a part of. And for those who are still a part of the Indian church, I believe that there is still potential for real growth and community that we would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Edit (Thursday, May 21, 2020): This post was edited to include information from a few responses from Pastor Cecil Mathew at First Church of God in Elmont, New York.