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Father’s example undergirds call of seminarian from India

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Thirty-two years ago, a young, malnourished Indian woman held her frail newborn inside her Sari dress to protect him from the cold December winds whipping through the broken windows of a dirty government hospital in northern India.
“From that hospital she cried out to her Lord God, and she prayed and dedicated me there in that hospital,” recounted Finny Mathews. “She said, ‘Lord if you will save this child, I dedicate him to full-time ministry.'”
Two days later, a family friend passing through the city arrived at the hospital with gifts of winter clothing and enough money to live off of for the next three months. “Miraculously, God saved me from dying at my birth 32 years ago and here I am today at Southeastern,” Mathews said.
Now a master of divinity student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C., Mathews said that reflecting on his past keeps his future in perspective. “That’s good enough to remind me that the Lord has a purpose for my life and (my mother) always reminded me of this,” Mathews said. The wife of an evangelical preacher, his mother even named him after the renowned 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney.
When Mathews became a Christian at age 15, he couldn’t understand why God would not deliver an evangelical preacher’s family, ministering in a polytheistic culture, from a life of severe hardship and poverty.
“I said, ‘The God that my father served in the ministry wouldn’t help get all the needs that I had,’ so I said, ‘Let me try my own way,'” Mathews recounted.
At age 18, Mathews turned to the violent world of politics in India while trying to achieve financial freedom. “My father had nothing to give us when we were young,” said Mathews, who slept on the floor alongside his five brothers and one sister inside a small, rented two-bedroom house.
“Father would lay hands on (us) children and pray, ‘Lord, I have nothing to give them but your blessings, I want you to take care of them.'”
Mathews said his mother would frequently remind him during his rebellious teenage years of the promise she made to God when he was born. “At night, she put her hands on my head and said, ‘Son you’re not meant for the world, you’re meant for the Lord,'” he said.
When Mathews turned 19, he committed his life to full-time ministry alongside his father, Cherian, who had been reading the Bible to Mathews each morning at 6 a.m. since he was 6 years old. “I didn’t like it then, but I don’t regret it today,” Mathews said. “I thank God for the investment they made into my life, and that’s why my dad is my hero. I’ve never seen a man like him, so committed, so strong in the Lord.”
Today, Mathews’ father is reaping what he sowed. All of his sons have joined him in his church-planting ministry in northern India, called Alpha Ministries, where over the past 14 years 100 new evangelical churches have been planted across five Indian states. The ministry also operates a Bible school to train ministers.
Yet, with more than 600,000 villages in India representing 950 million people, most of whom have never heard about Jesus Christ, the task is “monumental,” Mathews said.
“There’s a lot of people who haven’t heard the gospel, so our first priority is that they should hear it at least once,” he said.
The cost of Christianity in India is great, he said. “Once you become a Christian, you cannot take part in the temple rituals … . So, immediately you are an enemy to the society.”
Mathews said the Hindu culture of India readily accepts Jesus along with the 33 million other gods and goddesses, but Indians are quickly offended by the Bible’s teachings that only Jesus is the one true God.
“Hinduism is so much a part of the society and so much a part of the community and everything that goes on,” Mathews said. “Even in the homes, they have a shrine. Every community, literally 50 to 100 families, has its own temple in the middle of the village.”
The most effective way to penetrate a village with the gospel, Mathews said, is by showing the “Jesus” film. “Indians are crazy about movies,” he said. Before showing the film, Mathews said, a minister will preach a 30-minute sermon from John 3:16. He said the sermon explains that Christianity is not a foreign religion because Jesus was born in Asia, the same continent that is home to India.
“That puts the gospel in their own perspective, in their own context,” he said.
While many are quick to acknowledge Jesus as God, Mathews said unfortunately few are sincere at first. Over the last six years, 200,000 Indians have lifted their hands to acknowledge Christ as Lord as a result of their evangelistic efforts, but only 5,000 have been baptized, he said. “We only baptize people who say, ‘Jesus is our only God,'” Mathews said. “People must remove photographs and shrines of other gods from their homes. Baptism is very important.” Mathews learned early the importance of baptism from his father, Cherian, who was rejected by his own father and put out on the street when he practiced believer’s baptism by immersion. The state church in India, to which Mathews’ grandfather belonged, practiced infant baptism.
From there, Cherian Mathews packed his belongings in a pine box and moved his pregnant wife and 1-year-old child to northwest India near Bombay to pioneer an evangelical movement in Baroda City in the state of Gujarat.
The church started by Cherian now has 150 members, a large church by northern India standards. After graduation from Southeastern in the year 2000, Mathews plans to return as pastor of his home church where he ministered for 10 years before coming to seminary.
Since moving to Wake Forest, N.C., two years ago with his wife, Bindu, and three children, Mathews has busied himself speaking at churches along the eastern seaboard sharing the vision for Alpha Ministries. He works to raise funds to cover salaries of $30 to $120 per month for the 72 native church planters and pastors as they seek to claim India for Christ. “We really thank God for American churches,” he said. “They have really been open.”
Each fall, Alpha Ministries sponsors a national pastors’ conference to train Indian pastors in sound biblical doctrine. Mathews said Southern Baptist pastors are needed to help train the locals. “They can come and see the work and be a part of teaching and training national pastors and then go back home and be supportive in prayer and financial giving,” he said.
Alvin Reid, the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism professor at Southeastern, and Shannon Scott, a Southeastern alumnus and pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, Raleigh, N.C., will be preaching and teaching at the national pastor’s conference Oct. 26-31 in Gujarat, India.
Mathews said he is amazed at the lavish standard of living in America compared to the Third World country of India. “You have been blessed, immensely blessed,” he said. “The Coke that you drink every day is a luxury for 700 million people in India.”
But more important than the physical blessings, Mathews said are the spiritual blessings enjoyed by Americans. “They have more chances of knowing Christ, great seminaries, great preachers on TV and radio that India does not have. … What an opportunity in our lifetime to see the task of missions fulfilled, and Americans can be a very crucial part of it if they could understand the blessings that they have and share them with the nations.”

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  • Lee Weeks