From the world of education to the streets of Calcutta, Dr Ivan Satyavrata, the chairman of World Vision International, has followed the call of God to serve his generation. In this interview, he shares his journey and what social outreach looks like in India.
Dr Ivan Satyavrata grew up in the city of Mumbai, India, in a middle-class, Christian family. While his family was not wealthy, he never felt that he lacked anything growing up.
However, his family went through a crisis that altered the course of their life. Dr Satyavrata remembers being unhappy most of his childhood and growing up a dysfunctional teenager. Even though his family went to church, he felt that it was more like a social club and he never believed in God.
One good thing that came out of the crisis was that it drew his father closer to God. When Dr Satyavrata was 17, there was a four-day rally organised by Operation Mobilization taking place in their town, and his father wanted him to attend. He went just to please his father.
On the last day of the rally, the teenager stood at the back of the hall, listening to the preacher challenge young people to read a simple apologetics book written by Michael Green.
“What it did was, for the first time, I was exposed to the gospel and the person of Jesus without the paraphernalia of Christianity,” Dr Satyavrata said. He read the book the moment he reached home and finished it at two o’clock in the morning. “And I just felt this tug. Is there really something to this that I have missed? So, I prayed that prayer at the end of the book, and I said, ‘Lord, if this is real, I want You to come into my life.’”
He went on to join a Youth For Christ group and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He described, “And suddenly, it was like I had gone from a pitch-dark room to a brightly lit one. I was so caught up with Jesus and my new life—as if nothing else seemed to matter.”
Every day, he would meet up with his group to read the Bible and pray. Occasionally, they would go out to the streets to share the Good News. “Wherever we could find a football field, some hostel, some college, we’d share our testimony. Eventually, I started preaching—I had a Saturday evening pulpit—in the shadow of the Gateway of India. I shared the gospel and would see people come to Christ in the slums of Mumbai. I thought I would do that all my life,” he said.
GOING THE DISTANCE TO OBEY GOD
Little did he know the adventure God had in store for him. It began when he started to have questions about the Bible that no one had answers to. He came to hear about Bible college, and even though his family was keen for him to study medicine, Dr Satyavrata decided to study the Bible instead.
“I never knew what it (Bible College) was. I got the addresses of three colleges, and I wrote three letters. I said, ‘God, I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. Close two doors, and open one.’ That’s how I ended up in a place called Southern Asian Bible College in Bangalore,” he recalled.
After serving in a church for three years in Bombay, God called him to teach in the Southern Asian Bible College. Having a passion for the lost, Dr Satyavrata was resistant to a teaching role at first but soon realised that he could impart a passion for mission to his students who came from different parts of India and Asia.
He went on to do a ThM programme at Regent College in Canada and obtained his PhD at the Oxford Centre for Missions Study.
In 2004, Dr Satyavrata was invited to lead the Assembly of God Church in Kolkata. The church was and still is heavily involved in humanitarian work, feeding the poor and providing education for children in need. By then he had become used to life in Bangalore and was unwilling to make the move to Kolkata. Nevertheless, Dr Satyavrata and his wife prayed and fasted over the invitation.
At a church meeting one day, a visiting evangelist who was speaking at the church turned to Dr Satyavrata and told him it was time for him to leave the college. “Those were the exact words which God had spoken to us earlier. The evangelist didn’t stop there. He added, ‘I’m sending you to a polluted, dirty city towards the north of India.’”
Thus, for the next 16 years, Dr Satyavrata served as the senior pastor of the Assembly of God Church in Kolkata. He also served on the board of World Vision India before being elected as chairman of World Vision International in Nov 2022.
Dr Satyavrata was a speaker at the Global Pentecostal Summit last November, presenting a paper titled “The Voice of Truth in the Christian Encounter with World Religions”. City News sat down with him for a chat.
You’re a scholar and a pastor. How did you get so involved in social outreach?
When I was a young street evangelist in Bombay, I did a lot of work in the slums as well. But I had no concept of how to help them in the long run. During my years as a teacher, theologically, I looked at the whole issue of social responsibility.
When I came to Kolkata, they already had this strong programme—feeding 7,500 people who live on the streets every day, feeding the children in our schools, and providing vocational training. We were empowering the poor, with both short-term and long-term interventions.
I really feel that in a context like India—although I feel it’s true everywhere—people need to earn the right to be heard. It’s one thing to have a lot of preaching but when I looked at the ministry of Jesus, very often His preaching was an explanation for His acts. Acts can be miracles of healing, works of compassion. We’ve found that in our context, when you do unconditional expression of Christ’s love, sooner or later people will ask, “Why do you do this?” When you then tell them about the love of Jesus, there’s credibility.
You talked about “earning the right to be heard” in your paper, and you also talked about preaching the gospel in a pluralistic society. How do you do that in your society, when there are so many options when it comes to religion?
There are two aspects to it. One is in Acts 17: Paul’s only incident in the New Testament, which explains in detail [how to preach] to a Gentile audience. The framework that I try to follow and recommend is, first of all, the importance of showing respect. I was so warm to hear Pastor Kong Hee talk about that.
Our basic problem as followers of Jesus is that we have Christ as the answer, and we want to push it down people’s throats. We don’t realise it, but there is arrogance when we approach somebody for the first time. So, show respect.
Secondly, find points of contact. The gospel and Jesus, I’ve discovered over the years, don’t need me to defend it or fight for it. I have found that if we find a way of presenting Jesus, in all His uncluttered beauty, love and grace, people will be attracted to Him. We need to find points of contact and find out where they are in their journey, rather than telling people, “Oh, my way’s better than yours.” Every human being was created for fellowship with God. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has set eternity in our hearts.” So, we have to have the confidence that people are hungry and thirsty for God though they may not realise it.
We need to find a point of contact: Where is that person of their journey? We can only do that if we show respect and listen, then we build a bridge. For me, the climax is at the end, when we tell our story—the story of Jesus written through our lives.
When we do that—somehow find a way, and build a bridge—then we get a person of another faith to read a portion of the Gospel—just the story of Jesus. So it’s not just some Jesus of experience, but it’s the Jesus in the Gospel. Then, they have to come into contact with a group of believers, either a church service or a small group service, where they can experience the Holy Spirit. When they experience the touch of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God and they have the word of God, which explains the root of the faith, and they see Jesus as He is in the Word, experience Jesus as He is by His Spirit, I find that we can then move out of the way.
We have in our church a significant large number of people of other faiths who have come. In the Indian culture, Christianity as a religious system, is seen as a colonial thing. In fact, in India, when you say you’re a Christian, they’ll say, “Oh great, so you can drink, you can smoke, you can play a fool with girls.” That’s a caricature of Christianity in India.
What we do is, we distance ourselves to the extent possible from Christianity as a religious system, and we focus on the Person of Jesus. We don’t do extraction evangelism. Just like over here (in Singapore), the communities in India are very strong and if you want to follow Jesus, you have to effectively leave your family. But we encourage people of other faiths that when they come to Jesus, not to insist on changing their name from a Hindu name to a Christian name—because I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a Christian name. Just don’t worship idols, don’t serve other gods, follow the Bible. As much as possible, stay connected to your family and to your community. Even if there are religious festivals, we say eat the food and enjoy. Just don’t do the ritual—that you have to make your stand clear.
We find in most cases, not only does it create minimum objections from the family, but sometimes, because of the connection to the family, the family sees their lives are different and it draws the rest of the family to come to church.
The social environment and the hunger among the young people is unprecedented. We are seeing people come to Christ in significant numbers all over India. We’re making sure the gospel is not a potted plant, but that it’s rooted in the soil of India.
Please share with us some of your thoughts about the Summit.
I feel very privileged to be here because I somehow feel that the whole Pentecostal Summit should not be seen in isolation. It is what we call a kairos moment. I feel in my heart that the Spirit of God saying three things.
One, from the time of Constantine, the spread of Christianity has been Europeanised. We’ve seen the Latin captivity of the church, and it has become a Western religion. At the end of the last century and early this century, the centre of gravity shifted from the north to the south, from the Western hemisphere to the Eastern hemisphere. Now very clearly, it’s come full circle—the faith was born in Asia, it has come back to Asia and the Pentecostal movement has been at the vanguard of that shift. What we’re seeing today is one of the largest churches in Asia, having an event of this nature, which has a global impact.
Two, through much of modern Christianity, most denominations—even evangelical denominations—the academy and the church have had a somewhat tenuous relationship. That is especially true among Pentecostals. Pentecostal pastors, especially pastors of the black churches, have looked with suspicion at the academy; theological institutions and scholars have their own arrogant stance towards the church.
I have never witnessed anything like last evening (the opening session of GPS), when the senior pastor of a church stands up and challenges the congregation to take theological foundations seriously. Then he calls on scholars to lay hands and pray for people, so they will have an anointing of wisdom and knowledge. This is totally unprecedented. I’ve asked a couple of people older than me, and they say they have never been to anything like this. This was a kairos moment because I believe when the academy and the church—powerful churches like this—come together, the world has yet to see what a church that’s informed and theologically rooted can do in terms of impacting the world.
For most of these global events in the recent past, the power centre has been the West, in terms of economic power. This is an event that City Harvest Church funded and to that extent, you’re seeing the rise of the Asian church. I think it’s very, very significant.
It’s a compliment to this church that God has chosen City Harvest Church, and its leader Pastor Kong Hee, to be at the forefront of what He is doing. There’s no doubt when you hear Pastor Kong speak—his humility and charisma, which is a rare combination, is the sort of blend that God could entrust to spearhead what lies ahead.
I think that the future is really exciting. We’re going to see a paradigm shift in how the Pentecostal church speaks to the world prophetically and engages the word missionarily in the days to come. What we need to pray for is that God will keep us humble and that we will steward this new direction responsibly and wisely.
Interview by Chiong Xiao Ting. Story by Dawn Seow