Undoubtedly, the most significant story in the Nepali church of the last 20 years is the movement to Christ of a large number of Tamangs.
The Tamang people live mostly in hill districts surrounding the Kathmandu valley. Speaking a pair of related languages, they are thought to have originated from Tibet and migrated into their present heartland many centuries ago. Tamang villages are inhabited by up to 4,000 people, who scratch a living from the hillsides, between about 4,000 and 10,000ft above sea level.
The movement of Tamangs to Christ can be traced back to two significant events in the 1960s. In one, the arrival of two missionary Bible translators led to their language helper and co-translator receiving Christ (see accompanying testimony). Through him, others in his and neighbouring villages began to turn to Christ and form churches.
Secondly, two other men in a neighbouring district came to Christ and began to lead many others to the Lord. Persecution forced many of these Tamang believers to migrate some days’ walk to a low-lying valley, where they built houses in the jungle and farmed the nearby flood plain.
Some years later, as I sat with him in the bright winter sunshine, Tashi (not his real name) told me his story:
‘I used to be a village lama (Buddhist priest) in the hills. I held a very respected position. Then my wife became sick. I tried everything I could think of to heal her but she did not get well. Then one day I found a Gospel of John and was impressed with its message.
‘Soon after, Christians from a nearby village came to visit me. They were being persecuted so they asked me if they could stay in my village. Through these people I heard the gospel and soon trusted Christ myself. They also prayed in Jesus’ name for my wife and she was healed.
‘Further persecution forced these believers to migrate and settle here in this valley. I moved here some time later and established a church’.
Conversion to Christ continued in such a pattern for several years. But things had changed by the late 1980s with a great movement to Christ in the foothills of the Himalayas.
In 1990, while I was on another visit to his village, Tashi informed me that 20,000 Tamangs had trusted Christ. It would appear that this turning was largely a spontaneous movement.
Although based in another district, Tashi would take regular trips to visit these villages several days walk away, carrying only his Bible and umbrella.
It wasn’t long before news of this great turning began to attract much attention in distant quarters. During the 1990s, certain leaders of powerfully connected churches in the capital began to woo these Tamang congregations to join their denomination. These men approached many pastors with offers of large sums of money to construct church buildings if they would affiliate with them.
Later, certain missionaries – with no previous experience of Nepal – arrived and began offering the very same churches even larger incentives to leave the first denomination and affiliate to their own! Huge buildings were constructed in villages where most people hardly had enough to eat.
The introduction of all this foreign money had a dramatic impact. Some local pastors, who till then had lived on a subsistence income, simply absconded with the cash and built houses for themselves somewhere else.
A number of competent and educated men fell. Other men less able have taken their place in the leadership of local churches, leaving the majority of believers with no trained ministry. It is not surprising to hear of a dearth of Bible teaching.
It is remarkable that the introduction of the Word of God, in a translation understandable to the people, has been significant to this movement, in spite of widespread illiteracy. Pastor Tashi – the lama whose religious life focused on sacred texts – was first drawn to Christ by a John’s Gospel.
However, traditional Tamang conceptions of sacred texts are not compatible with biblical views. When one researcher asked Christians how they cured themselves, they said they would place the Bible on their foreheads and pray!
Clearly then, along with Bible translation, there is a need for good literature that explains how we can best use it.