Pioneer Church Planter in India

An extended version of ordinand Shirley Murphy’s account of her experiences during a placement in her native Chennai

The Evangelical Church of India (ECI) is a major Christian denomination in India. ECI is a branch of the United States-based One Mission Society (OMS), which has units in Japan, Korea and China. ECI´s first church in India was opened in 1954. No movement in the Indian church history can be compared to the uniqueness of Evangelical Church of India, especially in its area of being a model of hope and in the area of transformation.

Bishop Ezra Sargunam, the President of the Evangelical Church of India, took church planting to a new level. His heart towards planting churches in every corner of India took the gospel to the masses. His aim was to plant 1,000 churches before the year 2000 which they achieved by 1997.  It is worth noting here that until 1972 there were only 30 churches in the ECI, but after 1972 churches began to grow rapidly under Bishop Ezra’s dynamic, persuasive, caring, loving and shepherding leadership and by 2016, which was their Diamond Jubilee, they had planted 5,700 local churches and 5000 house churches.

Christians are only about 2% of the state’s population, but many have flocked to convert in recent years, especially Hindus due to the constant work of Bishop Sargunam and his team.  The ECI have established churches across India, at a rate of one new church every week and their target is a church in every Indian village.

Bishop Sargunam is also well known for daring to be different. In 2012 India’s first transgender pastor, a 25-year-old, was ordained by Bishop Sargunam. When I asked him if the ECI had made a policy decision to allow the ordination of transgender people, he simply smiled and said the church’s constitution is silent on it. However, he indicated that the decision to ordain her was purely based on her exceptional conduct and devotion.

He went on to say Bharathi (the transgender) who has been a pastor now for five years, is well accepted by her congregation, and “that they found that she was sure of her calling and mission,”. I need to point out here that transgender people are generally ostracized in Indian society. The news of her ordination came as a surprise to many Christian leaders in India.

Bishop Sargunam made the headlines in India again when, in 2015, he ordained a former witchdoctor Arjun King from Andhra Pradesh  who used to travel all over India invoking evil spirits to help him predict people’s futures. Arjun’s sister, who became a Christian first, began witnessing to him. A few years later, he attended an Evangelical Church of India church in Madras and gave his life to the Lord. Bishop Ezra Sargunam baptized him, along with 13 members of his family and renamed him Paul. After becoming a Christian, Paul studied theology at the ECI Bible School in Vijayawada in the state of Andhra Pradesh. While he was a student, he planted two village churches and today, Paul oversees 19 ECI churches.

Bishop Sargunam is well known for his work in India and has a very clear vision. His Great Commission is to plant 100,000 churches, disciple 10 million people and to train and equip 30,000 frontline Church planters by their centenary year in 2054. This may sound impossible to many but he said their trust is in the Holy Spirit which they are constantly experiencing. He also went on to say ” We expect great things from God and attempt great things from God” just like Williams Carey, the father of the Modern Missionary Movement.

Bishop Sargunam said they have a clear track record of achieving their goals as they started with the aim of planting 100 churches in the 70’s, then moved on to 1,000 churches in the 90’s when ‘God’s promise to us was ,”a little one shall become a thousand”,  which we achieved, and so we went on to dream big and open 2,000 churches by the year 2000’ which, by God’s grace, they achieved.

Bishop Sargunam celebrated his 79th birthday on 19th July this year which was observed as Day of the Oppressed.  On this day many social welfare programs were launched for the poor and downtrodden in the society.

I would like to conclude that my time spent with Bishop Sargunam was an incredible, unbelievable and awe-inspiring experience from which I learnt a lot about him and his passion for the unreached souls in India and I strongly believe we need more like him.