Jesudas M Athyal

Diaconal Ministry of the Church

Passion of the Christ of the Indian Road
From Permeation to Protest:
The Lost Tribes of Andaman
Conversion Debate in India
Metropolitan Chrysostom's Message
Ethical and Economic Challenges for Education in a Globalized Era
Identity And Mission: Towards A New Ecclesiology
Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue
Gospel And Cultures: A Subaltern reading of the history of Christian Mission in India
Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens
Gospel and Cultures: An Indian Perspective
New Challenges for Dalit Theology
Diaconal Ministry of the Church
Public Mission of the Church
Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society
The Return of the Sacred
Contact Me

An Exploration of the Diaconal Ministry of the Church


(Presented at the third meeting of ‘Interrogating Mission’ (CTI-UTC Joint Study Project) held at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ, May 6-9, 2004)


Diakonia is generally understood as the “responsible service of the gospel by deeds and by words performed by Christians in response to the needs of people”.[1] The term diakonia in common Christian parlance generally means the charitable services the church renders in society. This would include the contributions of the church in the sectors of education, health care, disaster relief etc. There is no doubt that this form of diakonia or charitable service has been a permanent activity throughout the history of the church, rather like koinonia (fellowship), kerygma (witness) and didache (teaching). In the modern ecumenical parlance, however, diakonia is also seen as used in a larger sense. At the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in New Delhi in 1961, the term ‘social diakonia’ was used to distinguish it from charitable diakonia and to emphasise the church’s action to change the structures of the society in the direction of justice.[2] While considering the identity and mission of the church in their totality, such an extended meaning of the diaconal ministry may turn out to be fruitful.


This paper will examine both these meanings of diakonia and seek to explore their significance for the contemporary mission of the church. My thesis is that while the rich contributions of the church in the field of charitable diakonia need to be cherished and maintained, in the light of the church’s mission to renew the society and build its cultural and spiritual foundations, the extended meanings of the term diakonia too need to be addressed and that both the charitable and social forms of diaconal mission should be rooted in a sound theological basis and social analysis.


The paper is in four parts. The first part provides a brief outline of the areas in which the church has traditionally been involved in charitable service and the second part discusses the larger socio-economic realities which form the context of ‘social diakonia’. In the third part, the search for relevant patterns of ministry is discussed. [3] The last section deals with the need for a shift in the theological and ecclesiological understanding of the diaconal ministry of the church.


While several issues discussed here are relevant for the mission of the church at the Asian and global levels, this paper specifically addresses the context of India.





Though the history of the church in India can be traced back to Apostle Thomas, there are no clear historical records of the life and witness of the church in the early centuries or of the church-state-society relations then. There is however, an oral tradition, that permeation was the pattern of Christian witness in India in the early centuries. Philipose Mar Chrysostom says:


 The mode of Christian witness of our ancestors was not preaching but permeation. They went and lived with the people. That is the incarnation principle…  This was our missionary pattern till recently. Today, however, the missionary work follows an efficiency method, where we have strategies and targets. The idea that mission is a programme with a specific department of the church assigned that task, is a pattern that followed this understanding of mission. Evangelism is possible only by permeation.[4]


Following the coming of the European missionaries to India from the fifteenth century onwards, the understanding of mission as ‘a programme with a specific department of the church’ began to develop in India. Integral to such an understanding was the need to set up institutions such as schools and hospitals, both as a means to propagate the gospel as well as for the diaconal ministry of the church. What follows is a brief review of the major institution establishing trends of the Indian church.


As Christian institutions play a crucial role in the life and witness of the church, it is important to consider their past contributions, present situation and possible role in the future, in our discussion on relevant patterns of diaconal ministry.[5] While there are a few institutions that exist outside the formal control of  churches, the larger and more visible patterns are the church - controlled institutions in the form of schools, colleges, technical institutes, hospitals etc. Church - controlled and church - related institutions have their own strong and weak points. Being a part of a formal and well - structured organisation like the church brings with it considerable recognition, respectability and a sense of security. In the church – related institutes, the values and ideals represented by the church are reflected to a certain extent. Even in a country like India where the overwhelming majority of people profess other faiths, the public by and large respect and acknowledge the values of integrity and equality represented by Christian educational and medical institutions. These are undoubtedly positive aspects.


There are however problems too. The control of churches and mission boards over these institutions has in several cases, led to the promotion of institutional and sectarian interests not always in tune with secular, and sometimes even Christian ideals. The ‘minority consciousness’ of the Christians has caused the dual damage of keeping the community away from the mainstream while creating a sense of dependency among the Christians. Minority consciousness has made serious in-roads into these medical and educational institutions. Yet another problem is the unhealthy interference of the churches in the administrative and academic life of the institutions. Since the financial resources are often controlled by the churches, there is also the danger of using finance as a bargaining point.


 Christian Educational Institutions


‘The Declaration of Purpose of Christian colleges’ prepared by the All India Association of Christian Higher Education (AIACHE) a few years ago stated: “The specific contribution we Christians make in the field of education depends primarily on the Christian spirit which we have derived from the gospel of Jesus Christ, a spirit which should animate all our endeavours”.[6] The statement goes on to say that in India’s struggles for the establishment of a just society where people are liberated from the bonds of poverty, ignorance, superstition and exploitation, the whole academic community – Christian and non-Christian staff and students – acting as catalysts of change, must help to bring about a deep and urgently needed transformation of the unjust socio-economic structure that exists today.


In tune with this Declaration, it can be stated that the work of the church in the past in the field of education has provided the social ferment in most parts of India. The educational mission perhaps played the most significant role in imparting Christian values in the society at large. However, many of these institutions are today plagued by a crisis since the development of leadership, particularly with an attitude to serve the people, has not been a priority. Sadly, as a consequence, many outstanding Christian service institutions have closed down or there has been a sharp decline in their witness. This is a matter of serious concern, for it has a bearing on providing Christian leadership and direction in the shaping of the destiny of the country.


The ‘unjust socio-economic structure’ of which the AIACHE Declaration speaks has become even more unjust today. The crisis in education in India has been the subject of enquiries by many commissions. The privatisation and commercialisation of education has weakened and demolished the concept of compulsory and free education for all, a principle to which the country is formally committed.


This may also be the place to consider the specific challenges before the Christian educational institutions today. While being committed to the development and welfare of the whole society, it can be argued that in the present Indian context, these institutions should have a special responsibility to a particular section of the community viz. the Dalits, and more especially the Dalit Christians. Even after conversion to Christianity, the social and economic plight of the Dalit Christians remains more or less the same as earlier, raising serious questions about the direction of the diaconal mission of the church.


Medical Mission


A major area of the outreach ministry of the church is the sector of medical mission. The phrase 'medical mission' implies professionalism and technical expertise required to be involved in a particular form of mission. It therefore minimizes the participation of people, particularly when we are thinking about the Church as a healing community. In the context of increasing awareness about the wider implications of health and healing and emphasis on people's participation in facilitating these, it becomes necessary for us to understand healing as a form of ministry and as an important aspect of the Church's mission in which the whole people of God need to be involved. 


Health is not only an individual’s responsibility; it also involves the social and political sectors of the society. In its wider sense, health implies integrating the movement of all creation, creating a web of life, perceiving and claiming connectedness and efforts to build one world. Interwoven in this search for wholeness through health are life attitudes which have become marked for us as we trace our corporate journey. This points to a greater social responsibility as against an individualistic approach to ensuring a balanced ecology for healthy living.


By and large, in the design and implementation of health care, the social context has not been taken seriously or sufficiently into consideration. Thinking along these lines, what is important from a diaconal perspective, is that the affordability, accessibility and availability of health services today are beyond the reach of most people.


Media & Culture


Against the backdrop of a rich and varied heritage, there is today in India a cultural crisis. The mass mediated culture threatens the composite cultures and challenges the values, cherished especially by the grass root cultures. Value conferred on ‘utility’ is being shifted to ‘exchange’. Money brings in 'value' in the sense that the costliest is being projected as the most 'valuable'. Instead of needs, wants are being communicated as needs. Luxury is made to appear as necessity. Anything 'imported' is taken as superior.  Advertisements and other messages create false needs and expectations among the people, leading to frustrations to the larger segment that cannot afford to buy the products.


Beyond consumer items and other products, mass media is selling concepts, values and life-styles. The projection of 'achievement' as standing apart and being different from the others, fosters individualism and competition, which challenge the gospel affirmation of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. Consumerism challenges the integrity of creation and reduces 'creation' to a commodity. The media emphasis on the exterior and the projection of beauty as exterior, counters the worth of the human being.[7]


The focus on diakonia as a major mode of Christian mission was a contribution of the western missionaries. The thrust during the early stages, especially in the educational and medical sectors, was on reaching out to the most needy in the society. The question however is whether, with the increased institutionalisation of the church, the diaconal service too has to a certain extent become elitist and ‘quality oriented’. Social activism of the members of the church on issues confronting the community and particularly its weaker sections, should be actively encouraged and supported by the congregations. This is one area in which the church, especially local congregations, can effect vital links with secular groups in the promotion of justice concerns.




As the church exists in the world, it would be futile to discuss diaconal ministry without reference to the affairs of the world. Matters that profoundly influence the course of the society would be of utmost concern for diakonia. Few developments have influenced the course of world history as much in recent decades as the clash of identities and globalisation. A brief reference to these and their impact on the church would be in order to put our discussion on diakonia in perspective.


The Clash


It is undisputed that the modern period is characterised by various global ‘clashes’. According to Samuel Huntington,[8] the basic source of conflict in the new world will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations therefore will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. Huntington’s thesis can be summarised as follows: While during the cold war the world was divided into the first, second and third worlds, those divisions are no longer relevant. It is far more meaningful now to group countries not in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development but rather in terms of their culture and civilization.


Huntington provided an original thesis about ‘a new phase’ in world politics after the end of the cold war, but several of his arguments relied on a vague notion of something called ‘civilizational identity’ and the ‘interaction among seven or eight major civilizations’, of which the conflict between two, Islam and the West, gets the lion’s share of his attention. Edward Said noted:


In fact, Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make “civilizations” and “identities” into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religions and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing. This far less visible history is ignored in the rush to highlight ludicrously compressed and constricted warfare that “the clash of civilizations” argues in the reality.[9]


In a remarkable series of three articles published between January and March 1999 in Dawn, Pakistan’s most respected weekly, Eqbal Ahmad, writing for a Muslim audience, analysed what he called the roots of the religious right, coming down very harshly on the mutilations of Islam by absolutists and fanatical tyrants. He affirmed that while fundamentalist movements and parties existed in all religions, their future is limited and quite bleak because, ‘their links to the past are twisted. Their vision of the future is unworkable’.[10] The internal struggles against fundamentalism too is a phenomenon in all religions, the latest case being the Malaysian general elections where the National Front coalition crushed the fundamentalist Islamic opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). What Huntington seems to overlook in his analysis is the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition and interpretation of each culture.


Looking at the theory of ‘the clash’ from the Christian theological perspective, Harvey Cox maintains that the real clash of religions (or even civilizations) may be going unnoticed. “I am beginning to think that for all the religions of the world, however they may differ from one another, the religion of The Market has become the most formidable rival, the more so because it is rarely recognised as a religion”.[11] He accepts the radically different views held by the various world religions and civilizations but affirms that in Market’s eye, other contradictions become irrelevant. “The Market prefers a homogenised world culture with as few inconvenient particularities as possible”.


The new found interest among theologians on ‘the market’ and the implications of these insights for the diaconal ministry of the church necessities a more detailed discussion on the new economic policies that have so radically influenced the course of modern history.


The Market as God


Matters of economics have, at all times in history, been a decisive factor in shaping the quality and direction of human life, but at no period in the past has the impact of economics been felt in such an ‘omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent’ manner as it is today. Several contemporary theologians in fact refer to ‘the striking resemblance’ of the business pages in the current newspapers to classical literature on religion and theology. In Harvey Cox’s picturesque words: “I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematised for a whole new Summa to take shape.”[12] David Jenkins, the retired Bishop of Durham in the United Kingdom too refers to the theological challenge inherent here when he says that the market is a good that has been turned into a god – and that is the problem.[13]


What goes along with the divine characteristics of the market is ‘the goddess of TINA,’ an acronym for the theory justifying the inevitability of market economy despite its adverse impact on the poor sections - there is no alternative. Over the last decade, the power of ‘Goddess TINA’ appears to have become even more entrenched. The currently dominant model of globalisation is rooted in the principle of free market.[14] The driving force of the new economic policies in fact is free market capitalism. Though globalisation is a concept that is widely used, it has different meanings for different people. The stress here is on the dominant impact of economic globalisation - the neo-liberal economic policies pursued by the government of India during the last one decade or so – on sectors such as health care, media, ecology and environment and the implications of these changes for the diaconal ministry of the church.


Globalisation and Health Care


A major driving force of globalisation is the 'profit at any cost' principle, leading to a commodification of services, consumerism and competition. These have had an adverse effect on the basic health of the poor. While there has been some spill over of the globalisation process in terms of information sharing on varied services, improvement in the exchange of ideas and the possibility for an increased level of awareness and quicker information exchange, these have by and large been the privilege of a small segment of society, once again stressing that the overall impact of globalisation on health care has been negative.


Two major components of people’s living standards are education and health. Both have in recent years become victims of the prevailing emphasis on privatisation and commercialisation. The public education and health systems, on which the overwhelming majority of people depend, are today in a state of decay. Prakash Karat points out: “There can be no escape from the state’s responsibility for ensuring education as a basic right and making health for all realisable. Government expenditure in these vital sectors has, however, been shrinking”.[15]


Ecology & Environment


The present pattern of development has not only created problems for human society but has also caused extensive damage to the environmental and ecological balance across the universe - the loss of forest cover, pollution of water, air and the depletion of the ozone layer leading to global warming, to name a few. Identifying and analysing the problem has helped in the emergence of new patterns of development aimed at the slowing down of the process of destruction caused by the greed and avarice of some. The negative aspects of globalisation may seem irreversible in the immediate future but they can be slowed down to a great extent, where the church, NGOs and ecumenical groups aligning with similar bodies of other faiths and ideologies, take up the mantle for the mobilisation of people and the creation of an ecological awareness among all people.


Media and Market


The free market ideology has strengthened the hold of the transnational corporations, particularly in the field of telecommunication and mass media. The media - market relationship is dialectical in nature in the sense that free market enhances communication globally and the media reinforces the market. The ‘global media’ itself resembles the market in its pattern of organisation, production and distribution. As a result, the media is now monopolised in pursuits of profit and power, by the multinational corporations of the developed nations and the big business houses of the developing societies.


Communication and mass media are not evil in themselves. The media can and does make positive contributions to a better understanding of pluralism, a heightened awareness of human dignity and sensitivity to ecological and other social issues. The tragedy is that even these are being projected to suit the economic agenda and power concentration in a uni-polar world where ‘diversity’ is celebrated, but ‘pluralism’ denied. According to Sociologist T. K. Oommen, diversity is a fact, an empirical reality, but pluralism is an attitude, a value-orientation to that fact. Pluralism is “the dignified coexistence of the different elements in society, for which equality is a prerequisite”. [16]  Diversity permits inequality and indeed thrives on it, but equality is essential for pluralism.


Globalisation of the mass media poses at least two challenges to religions in general and in particular to Christian witness and mission. Firstly, this process mediates a sort of 'religion' in terms of ultimate values and reduces the expression and experience of faith to a personal realm. For Christian faith which should concern the whole society and creation, this is a grave challenge. Secondly, the prioritisation of money and power interests as operative forces in this process of communication, runs counter to the priorities of a transcendental dimension. All the same, an analysis of the marketing dynamics of mass media communication helps us to discern similar trends in the mission communication strategies of the church also.


In 1999, Thomas Friedman wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization[17] to underline the integral relation between the latest in technology, aesthetics and organisational sophistication (‘Lexus’) and the most ordinary and down to earth (‘Olive tree’) in globalisation. Though primitive in comparison to the luxury car, the olive tree represents everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world. Friedman is convinced that the ideal form of globalisation should be able to hold together the exclusive and the inclusive. Yet, he feels that the developed nations, while not being in charge of globalisation, are the society with the greatest ability, for the moment, to shape the coalitions that can manage globalisation geopolitically. Knitting together of the world with economic forces as the main agent, according to him, is now proceeding with rapidity and a completeness that were heretofore unimagined.


The olive tree represents the ‘little traditions’ of the world - “everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world.” It sustains life, yet is today being crushed under the speeding Lexus. In a socio-economic order that is fast becoming uni-polar and hegemonic, the little traditions struggle to remain aloft.




Relevant Patterns of diaconal ministry:


As the church emerged from the phase of a nascent movement (often in protest against a dominant religion or culture) into an institution, the dynamics of ‘institutionalisation’ including power and preservation became a dominant concern. The institutionalised image that the Indian church acquired over the centuries leading to the modern times also meant that the church’s diaconal functions too have become institutionalised. At this stage of discussion therefore, we need to accept the reality that the church has a track record in diaconal ministry, that has been ambiguous and varied. The churches in India have been primarily geared towards social service rather than social action, charitable diakonia within the framework and patronage of the status quo powers rather than social diakonia involving participation in revolutionary ideological and political movements. Gabriele Dietrich sums up the situation thus:


Christians can hardly claim that they have been forerunners in radical social and political action in India… This is not the case simply because they are small in numbers. Their numerical weakness has not prevented them from becoming prominent in setting up medical and educational institutions or in furnishing so much of managing cadres for flourishing industries. As a majority they are inclined to play safe in politics. Their self-perception as a minority community, the self-made golden chains of prestigious institutions, and their church-centred activism have combined in creating a politically conservative opportunistic attitude among Christians at large.[18]


There has however been a tangible change in recent years when certain sections of the church and the theological community have taken the initiative to impart a broader meaning to diaconal mission. Various peoples' movements, social action groups and voluntary organisations, some of them Christ-inspired but outside the church structures, have emerged in recent decades, working at the grassroots level and on justice-peace concerns. The emergence of people's participatory forums and bodies such as the Panchayat raj and gram sabhas too indicate that power issues can be raised by the people themselves. The marginalized sections of society, particularly the Dalits, Tribals and women are now involved in a process of re-reading history and the scriptures from their perspective, a process of correcting the injustice of the past and towards the liberation of the oppressed people.


The Church as a healing community


In the diaconal ministry of the church, we need to respond through the Christian institutions to the comprehensiveness of mission. In the sector of health care, there is the need to acknowledge the presence of small communities of committed people who could present alternative models of being the Church. Today health has several dimensions and being concerned about health involves many issues. If the church wants to be a community of healing, then the issues of justice, peace, environment, etc., need to find an important place on the agenda of the Church. These issues imply that the restoration of brokenness is both personal and corporate and that we need to heal the brokenness in human relationships among themselves, with creation and God. This is where an increased participation of the local congregation becomes crucial in the ministry of healing.


The wholeness of the human person and the totality of life are the important concerns of the Biblical faith. God's revelation in human affairs as recorded by the people of the Old and New Testaments testify that the God of the Bible is one who affirms life, life in all its fullness, and life for all. Healing was an important part of Jesus' ministry. The Church which is formed around the person of Christ who lived, healed, restored, died and rose again, cannot afford to abdicate its responsibility to carry on that mission, but must participate in this as a community and not only through institutions and experts. It must also be said that just as the way Jesus rejected many easy and comfortable options to carry out his ministry and chose to confront the existing power structures, reach out to people in need, to restore the human person and to reconcile broken relations, the Church needs to follow her master by overcoming its cumbersome institutional bottlenecks. While emphasising that the mission of the Church needs to be life-affirming just the way the mission of Christ has been, we hold that this process of repentance and re-visioning of both the Church and its mission is possible through the lived experiences, spiritual expressions and perspectives of the poor. Unfortunately, the poor who constitute the majority of the people who form the church have had little role in the life of the Church in a noticeable way so far.


The Media in God's mission 


The theological understanding of the nature and functions of communication is derived from the Bible. In the Bible, the human ability to communicate is seen as a divine prerogative which God shares with human beings. It is therefore a privilege and a task which must be exercised in freedom and responsibility. The basic Biblical insights regarding communication may be summarised as follows:


a. The God as revealed to us is a triune God. The communion that exists among the three persons of the trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - is itself the best paradigm of communion and community.


b. The God of the Bible communicates. God's first act of communication was creation. God communicates, God utters the word and the world comes into being. God's communication is dialogical. In the creation, God has endowed human beings and even nature with the ability to listen and to respond to God and to one another.[19] God enters into conversation with the human beings and with the rest of the universe.[20] After the fall, God's communication is intended to restore the broken relationship between God and humankind. It brings peace and reconciliation among human beings and in their relationship with nature.


c. God became human and dwelt among us that God might share the human life with all its vulnerabilities, except sin and out of that life experience, redeem humanity. So the humanity of Jesus is for human beings and the life of Jesus is the beacon for them. The mission of the church is to be understood in this context. Evangelism is part of the life and mission of the church, where the good news that God has spoken, would reach the fellow beings in their life situations.


d. The media are fruits of God given creativity and ingenuity. They must be employed critically and creatively to liberate and not to enslave humankind. In this age of communication revolution when the influence of the mass media is all pervasive, the church has a prophetic task. It must encourage and emphasise the use of the liberative power of the media while challenging and attacking its oppressive use. Mission is one way of putting the media to good use as it can play a vital role in building relationships in a broken world.


The Gospel is the story of God's salvation. It is the account of God's salvation revealed in the person of Jesus, crucified and risen. It is a message that challenges the listener to accept the values of the kingdom and to suffer for its sake. Christian involvement in the media as salt and light demands prophetic encounter and participation. This mission involves, preserving and promoting what is good of mass media, as salt. It also involves a daring to be as non-conformist as a candle light in the night.


Urban – Rural Sector


In India, the ethical challenges thrown up as a result of the neo-liberal economic policies pursued by the government are enormous in the rural and urban areas. The withdrawal of state protection at the level of essential services has led to devastating consequences. Robert Pollin, the American economist, in his recent book,[21] examines in detail the crisis in Andhra Pradesh, India, where the farmers are being driven to suicide because of their inability to repay debt given the reduced viability of cultivation. The new economic policies have destroyed the capacity of many of the traditional societies to achieve anything like the growth rates of even their own past. Ashis Nandy sums up thus the declining role of the village reality:


…our vision of India no longer involves the imagination of a village. The village for us now is primarily a place where strange people live, where sati and untouchability are practised, where Hindu-Muslim riots have been taking place for centuries, where the inhabitants continue to pursue the sports of homicide and robbery.[22]


Mahatma Gandhi saw the village as the organising principle of the Indian civilization and thought of the future of India around what could be done in or to the village.[23] The question remains as to what are the implications of this rural reality for the mission of the church. The urban and rural sectors as the context of the diaconal ministry of the church are a significant component of mission discussion in the modern period. Social scientists are of the opinion that there will be a revolutionary change in the lives of the people in this century. Life styles, standard of living, food habits, health, education and communication network will develop fast to cater to the needs of those who can afford it. The cry of the marginalized, poor and middle class in this process however, should be a matter of intense concern for the church.


In the urban areas, attempts need to be made by the churches and Christian institutions to relate to the poor and the rich. The urban poor in the cities exist largely in the slums and on the pavements. Poverty, illiteracy and unhygienic conditions are the major problems there. Children are undoubtedly the most vulnerable section among the urban poor. Though in a limited and partial way, some churches, schools and colleges have become involved in these problems by opening pavement clubs and schools, taking tuition, providing food etc. While the larger problems in the urban areas remain unresolved, these efforts sensitised several Christians to the urban challenges. A workshop held in the context of Mumbai (Bombay) on the theme, Urban – Technological society as the context of mission and evangelism, noted:


…the church has to play a prophetic role in this free market, techno-automatic world. This role is demanding and uncomfortable, for it has to begin from within. It calls for an internal transformation, making it to shed the 'Master' role granted to it by virtue of its institutional strength; and become a servant of the suffering millions in the slums and the pavements of the megapolis. This identification with the poor and the marginalized can be costly as it can alienate itself from the protective shield of the powers that be that rule the society today. Yet living out its servant/prophet role is the mission of the church towards the oppressed and marginalized in today's urban context.[24]


Another area of concern for the church in the urban areas should be the growing middle class segment, especially youth. This is a section that has material security in terms of employment, education and status. Yet, the fast pace of life and the success-at-any-cost attitude to life leaves most people with a sense of frustration and meaninglessness, leading many to a state of depression, the abuse of drugs, alcoholism etc. In a context where the family values and ties are eroding and where traditional religion is on the decline, can the church provide alternative models of ministry to this growing segment?


While accepting that to respond to the challenges of social and economic injustice, the presence of people’s movements, social action groups and voluntary organisations is a significant step, we are also forced to acknowledge that today in several instances, these church-related movements too have got structured, institutionalised and have got themselves distanced from the poor and the marginalized and lost the initial zeal as pointers towards new patterns of diakonia. This to a certain extent has affected seriously the life, mission and witness of the churches. While acknowledging the liberative action of God in social action groups, basic Christian communities and people's movements, there is the need to recognise the potential for sin and deviation in these movements too. To be authentic and genuine however, this criticism should not be an excuse for cynicism and inaction but a tension that should be maintained as the church aligns itself with the life-affirming forces in order to be a participant in God's reign. The theological perspectives that evolve in the rural and urban contexts should determine the content and focus of an authentic diaconal ministry of the Indian church today.




Towards a new ecclesiology


The church is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered. Sacraments and teaching form the focal point in the life of the congregation; very often they remove the diakonia of the church and the world of society and culture to the margins rather than have them as an essential aspect of the church in the world.[25] The question with which the universal church grappled in the early part of the twentieth century was whether there was an integral link between the Faith and Order and Life and Work streams of the ecumenical movement. The Oxford Conference of 1937 on, ‘Church Community and State’ saw the importance of the concept and doctrine of the church for the struggle for the universality of human rights in society as well as for peace with justice in the world of nations and races. Following this, in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council defined the church as the sign, sacrament and instrument of the unity of humankind.[26] It was thus affirmed that there is an integral relationship between the Faith and Order and the diaconal mission of the church. Diakonia, in that sense, becomes not only the charitable acts of the church in relation to society but also prophetic ministry including participation in the struggles for justice.


In his analysis of the diaconal ministry of the church, Hans Kung distinguishes between ‘private gifts’ and ‘public functions’. Gifts such as exhorting, giving aid, faith, the utterance of wisdom and of knowledge and the discernment of spirits are more private gifts and virtues given by God. There are however other gifts – of apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, deacons, elders, bishops, pastors – which are public functions within the community ordained by God and which must be exercised regularly and constantly. This second type of especial charismatic ministry is what constitutes the diaconal structure, a particular side and aspect of the general and fundamental charismatic structure of the Church.[27]


After a detailed discussion of the theological significance of the various offices in the church, Hans Kung points towards the significance of the prophetic role in the diaconal ministry of the church:


What becomes of a Church in which the prophets are silent? What becomes of a Church in which there is no one who gives direct expression in words to the promptings of the Spirit, even if in a different form from the prophets of Paul’s time; a Church in which there is no one with a conviction of his calling and responsibility to illuminate the Church’s path in both present and future in a particular situation? A Church in which prophets have to keep silent declines, and becomes a spiritless organisation.[28]


Here diakonia including prophetic ministry and participation in the struggles for justice becomes an essential part of the church. The prophetic task should be as much directed towards the traditional diaconal sectors of the church such as education and medical care as it is to a wider mission in terms of the transformation of the socio-economic structures. Addressing specifically the area of education, Rudolf Heredia says: “Our educators cannot be just the apostles, scholars and gentlemen as of yesterday; they must also be the prophets, activists and witnesses for today”.[29] The Christian mission to society becomes true diakonia only when the social and charitable work of the church is understood as part of the prophetic witness of the church. Prophetic religion affirms the spiritual alienation of the human being and therefore is an instrument of checking corruption and empowering the oppressed and exploited in the name of justice.


When Indian Christians discuss the diaconal mission of the church, their own identity as a minority religious group is bound to colour their response. This is inevitable and to a certain extent understandable as in ideological and religious discourse, there is nothing called objective or detached analysis. Therefore, while it is true that experiential factors play a major role in shaping our perception, it is also important to note that for a Christian the guiding principle in all ideological and faith matters should be the universal nature of Christ’s message and our mission must be the faith response to it. In our discussion on diakonia too, the concerns of the common humanity which we share with others, need to be our dominant concern.


While it can be argued that in modern history it was often the institutional and expansionist interests of a messianic church that shaped the diaconal mission of the church, there have been instances in the past where the Indian churches and Christian leaders attempted to transcend the minority consciousness of the community by getting involved in radical political action. The courageous protest of a few church leaders in India to the human rights violations inherent in the National Emergency (1975-77) is an instance of prophetic participation in the life of the wider society. The overwhelming majority of the Christians of the country took the position that it is the duty of the Christians, as responsible citizens, to abide by the dictates of the rulers. A few however maintained that Christians should have ends and loyalties beyond the State. Defending this minority, M. M. Thomas emphatically said: “No criticism of religion meddling in politics should prevent the Christian community from expressing its concern for the protection of the right of dissent and from protesting against attempts of any government to liquidate that right”.[30] What was implied in such a stance was the affirmation that civil liberties and democratic rights for the people is not mere charity doled out by the rulers, nor even a matter of human rights and social justice, but that it should be the vision of a just and participatory political order, not the communal or the institutional interests of the church, that should guide the political choices of the faith community.


Diakonia is integrally related to ecclesiology. What should be the form for the church in societies such as India? According to Aloysius Pieris S.J. of Sri Lanka, the two characteristics of most Asian societies are religiosity and poverty and therefore, “this involves the church in a double-baptism, one ‘in the Jordan of Asian religiosity’ and the other ‘on the cross of Asian poverty”.[31] We have seen that the diaconal ministry represented today by the highly institutionalised church is often a hindrance than a means for effective Christian witness. How can the church be restructured in such a way that the existential realities of the people around it become the major focus of ministry? A conference held in India on the theme: ‘Our churches and communities of the poor’ noted:


If the Church has to become a community in solidarity with the poor, both within and outside its walls, it has to restructure its existing structures, worship patterns, ministries, which have been primarily inherited from the west and carried on without adapting them to the Indian cultural contexts and felt-needs of the poor…The given structures of the church (churches) do not enable the life of spirituality of sharing…Kerygma and Diakonia have to be integrated for the correct life, witness and service of the Church in the world.[32]


 In short, the existing patterns of church have become largely irrelevant in a world that is fast changing and therefore, the question comes back: how can the charitable and social diakonia enrich the kerygma – witness – of the church?  As the church seeks to relate its mission to the world outside in diakonia, it should also be prepared to undergo a process of self-criticism where structures and identities irrelevant to the mission are repeatedly challenged with the central message of the Crucified Jesus and the fellowship of the Lord’s Table. It is in the tension between the mission to the world and the openness to meaningfully transform one’s own structures, that the church should seek patterns of diaconal ministry relevant for our times.  



[1] Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1991), 276

[2] M. M. Thomas, A Diaconal Approach to Indian Ecclesiology (Rome: CIIS & CSS, 1995), 9

[3] This section discusses the deliberations and outcome of a national study project on ‘Christian witness in the pluralistic context of India’ (1996-99) the findings of which have been published as three volumes: (1) Relevant Patterns of Christian Witness in India: People as Agents of Mission (2000), (2) Mission Today: Subaltern Perspectives (2001), (3) The Community We Seek: Perspectives on Mission (2003) (All published by CSS, Tiruvalla).

[4] Jesudas M. Athyal & John J. Thatamanil, Metropolitan Chrysostom on Mission in the Market Place (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2002), 80

[5] See Relevant Patterns…, 125

[6] Quoted by Ninan Koshy in “The Task of a Christian College Today,” The Community We Seek…, ed. Jesudas M. Athyal, 55

[7] Relevant Patterns…, 136

[8] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1997)

[9] Edward W. Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” in The Nation (October 22, 2001).

[10] Eqbal Ahmad, “Profile of the Religious Right,” in Dawn (7 March 1999).

[11] Harvey Cox, “The Market as God” in The Atlantic Monthly (March, 1999), 23

[12] Ibid., 18-19

[13] David Jenkins, Market Whys and Human Wherefores: Thinking again about Markets, Politics and People (Cassell, 2000)

[14] Rajni Bakshi, “The Market as God” in The Hindu (March 18, 2001).

[15] Prakash Karat, “Issues for the Elections” in The Hindu (March 25, 2004).

[16] See T. K. Oommen, “Reconciling equality and pluralism,” in The Hindu (April 28, 2001).

[17] Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (updated and revised edition: New York: Anchor Books, 2000).

[18] Gabriele Dietrich, “Laity in Secular Social Action,” in NCC Review (February, 1987), 94

[19] Psalm 19:1-4

[20] Genesis 1-3

[21] Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (London: Verso Books, 2003)

[22] Ashis Nandy, “The Village: Its Decline in the Imagination,” in Times of India (March 18, 1996).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Relevant Patterns…, 163

[25] A Diaconal Approach…, 10

[26] Ibid., 10-11

[27] Hans Kung, The Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 394

[28] Ibid., 433

[29] The Community We Seek…, 53

[30] George Mathew (ed.), Towards Christian Humanism: An Indian Perspective (New Delhi: Juhanon Mar Thoma Memorial Committee, 1983), 20

[31] Quoted by M. M. Thomas, Risking Christ for Christ’s Sake: Towards an Ecumenical Theology of Pluralism (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1987), 119

[32] Statement of the Conference on, Our Churches and Communities of the Poor (WCC Theology of Life - India Case Study; Chennai, India, August 29-31, 1995).