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More than 1 billion souls call the subcontinent home. – MAP BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD

India and the subcontinent: A profile of churches

NEW DELHI, India — The nimble rickshaw puller squeezes between street vendors on the narrow streets of India’s congested capital.
Peering between the stands selling samosas and chai tea, two American church members glimpse a service at a Hindu temple. Worshipers, on their knees and covered in flowers, wait to get a blessing from the priestess.
After the puller dutifully unloads their bags, the visitors wade through the bustling train station and begin the journey south. It’s a 30-hour ride to their destination.
Through the train windows they see the crowds of people evaporate as the urban sprawl of New Delhi gives way to fields of endless rice. After a night sleeping on the train’s flat berths, the visitors awake to a changed landscape.
It’s hotter, more humid here, and among the Hindu shrines, Christian crosses dot the landscape.
The visitors disembark in Vijayawada, a city in the state of Andhra Pradesh — India’s Bible Belt. Although Hindu gods adorn buildings and taxi dashboards, Christian groups of seemingly every stripe are here too.
Churches of Christ are strong in Andhra Pradesh, Titus Chandrapaul tells the Americans. His family oversees the Jack Nelle Institute, a four-story ministry training facility and Christian school in Vijayawada.
Many of the converts come from Christian denominations, but some are from Hindu or Muslim backgrounds.
“People are seeking the truth,” Chandrapaul says. “They’re not settling for the old answers.”
The first evangelists from the Restoration Movement came to India in the 1880s. Missionaries from Churches of Christ arrived in the early 1960s. Gauging how much Churches of Christ have grown in the years since is difficult — and sometimes contentious.
Some Indian ministers estimate a humble 200,000 church members in India. But some workers here claim the number is much, much higher.
Ron Clayton, who has worked in southern India for more than 30 years, keeps detailed records from Indian evangelists of gospel meetings and baptisms. Clayton’s mission team lists about 60,000 Churches of Christ in India, with a combined membership of 1.3 million. That’s roughly equal to the total U.S. membership, but Clayton estimates that many church members in India are yet to be counted.
“India today is where we were in the U.S.A. some 150 years ago — in the midst of a great religious awakening, a restoration of the New Testament church,” Clayton said.
Some evangelists and missionaries doubt the accuracy of the numbers, claiming that reports are exaggerated or that those baptized quickly return to their former lives.
“I feel few in our brotherhood will ever be convinced that the church in India has anything like the numbers which we report,” said Jerris Bullard, who works alongside Clayton in southern India. He and Clayton said that India often is singled out for problems faced by churches and missions around the world — including the U.S.
Bullard said he’s seen evidence of phenomenal church growth in India. For example, he once preached for several hours to crowds in the East Godavari district of Andra Pradesh, But after multiple invitations, no one responded.
When he asked why, he discovered that pioneering missionary J.C. Bailey had preached in the region years ago and baptized many of its people.
“Those same people had in turn taken the Gospel to all the immediate surrounding areas,” Bullard said, “and congregations had been begun by the hundreds, and no white man had ever visited any of them.”
Even if India had 3 million church members, they would represent less than one-half of 1 percent of the country’s population. More than 1.1 billion people live in India — more than inhabit the entire continent of Africa. An additional 378 million souls live in the surrounding nations of the Asian subcontinent.
Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are dominant faiths across the region. Those who convert to Christianity often face persecution, loss of property or government services, or even death. Some regions have anti-conversion laws.
“Our people are religious, and they will hear any type of religious story,” said Krishna Gopal, a minister in Kathmandu, Nepal. But many are unwilling to convert “since they have to quit their religious practices,” he said.
The people of the subcontinent don’t take the decision to become a Christian lightly, said John George, who worships with a small congregation in Chennai, India.
George came to Chennai from Kerala, a state on India’s southwestern coast where some believe the apostle Thomas once preached. People of Kerala are tenacious, have strong traditions and are hard to evangelize, he said.
“But once they have converted, they will stick to it,” he added.
NORTH INDIA — Churches are small and evangelism is difficult in the capital, New Delhi, and the northern states of India. In 2008 a wave of anti-Christian violence broke out in Orissa state, on India’s eastern coast. Small Churches of Christ meet in Orissa and other Hindu-dominated states, including Bihar. Balchand Soren and several converts from Bihar attend ministry training schools in the south.
SOUTH INDIA — Some Christians in India believe that the apostle Thomas was the first missionary to India, and that he was martyred near modern-day Chennai. Nearly 2,000 years later, 59-year-old J.C. Bailey left his home in Canada and moved to the city, then called Madras, to preach the Gospel. Fellow Canadians David Hallett, Ray McMillan and Donald Perry assisted in the work.
Early converts, including brothers Joshua and Nehemiah Gootam, took the lead in evangelistic efforts.
Today, Andhra Pradesh is the heartland for Churches of Christ, with congregations spread across Hyderabad and the rest of the state.
To the south, churches are growing throughout Tamil Nadu state, Bangalore and Madurai. Indian Christians planted churches in Bombay, now Mumbai, India’s most populous city. Mark Hooper served as a missionary in Mumbai from 1985 to 1990. A mission team continues to work among the 21.3 million people living in Mumbai.
Evangelism in India’s big cities is a challenge, said Nehemiah Gootam, who directs the Kakinada School of Preaching in Andhra Pradesh. In general, Churches of Christ have experienced less success in large cities than in rural communities, he said.

NORTHEAST INDIA — The “Chicken’s Neck,” a corridor less than 15 miles wide at points, connects this region of 38.8 million people to the rest of India. The region has been a focal point of independence movements and border disputes between India and China. Christianity thrives here. In the state of Nagaland, nearly 75 percent of the people identify themselves as Baptists. Churches of Christ also are growing here. More than 450 believers meet at a congregation in Imphal, minister R. Sanga said. The minister oversees a children’s home and school of preaching. Christians from the region also train at ministry schools in southern India.
PAKISTAN — About 95 percent of this country’s 176 million inhabitants claim Islam as their faith. Missionaries including J.C. Choate and Parker French established Churches of Christ here. Gordon Hogan and his family moved to Lahore in 1961. “During the eight years we served I had the joy of baptizing 800 souls into Christ,” Hogan said. One of them, Asghar Ali, continues to preach in Pakistan today. An estimated 80 congregations meet in Pakistan. Christians “are trying to reach more people … to let them know that God wants them to be saved and loves them very much,” said Naeem Sabir, principal of the Sahiwal Bible College, south of Lahore.

NEPAL — Evangelists from India and the U.S. have helped plant churches among the Himalayas. Nepal’s 28.8 million people endured a 10-year Maoist insurrection that ended in 2008. “We praise our God for his blessing, protecting and caring for us,” said Krishna Gopal, minister for the Kamal Pokhari Church of Christ in the capital, Kathmandu. There are about 80 congregations in Nepal, but in recent years a “spirit of division,” fostered in part by missionaries, has hampered church growth, Gopal said.
BANGLADESH — The most densely populated country in the world, Bangladesh is about the size of Iowa and has a population of 153.5 million. Churches of Christ here have origins in the 1960s, when Bangladeshi students students enrolled in Bible correspondence courses. In the late 1980s missionary Jerry McIntosh moved to the capital, Dhaka, and helped establish churches. Today the nation is home to about 60 Churches of Christ, said Mike Brooks, a missionary who works with Christians in Bangladesh and Nepal. Minister Ibon Halder serves as assistant director of Khulna Bible College, a ministry training facility. George Roy, a native of Bangladesh living in the U.S., makes regular trips to assist Christians in the impoverished nation. Church members have received the love of Christ, Roy said, and “we must share that love with those suffering.”
SRI LANKA — A quarter-century of violence between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels has claimed more than 70,000 lives on this tropical island of 19.4 million people. Missionary J.C. Choate traveled here in 1968. Among those he baptized was D.R. Gnanasundaram, who helped plant churches in the capital, Colombo, and was instrumental in obtaining legal status for Churches of Christ. The minister, known as “Brother Reggie,” died in 2007. Asee Darla, a church worker from Nellore, India, has helped establish an evangelistic radio program here for World Radio Gospel Broadcasts. Darla said he has found “honest hearts that seek the truth” in Sri Lanka.
BHUTAN — Churches have made few inroads into the isolated kingdom of Bhutan.

  • Feedback
    Nice to read about you today, unexpectedly thro Internet.I am an Hindu convert, since, I heard His voice “Without shedding of Blood no rfemission Hebrews 9:22” and preaching this Gospel for the past 42 years.If you have any specific questions in Bible and Christians in India, I am ready to answer. God bless you
    Sundaram Gnanasekaran
    Laymen Evangelist
    Chennai, Tamil Nadu
    April, 21 2013

    dear brother in christ
    iam very happy reading sprituallmessges,more helpful inthe lordswork,please prayer for my area work,convey mygreetings to your congregations members,please cotact me.
    thanking you
    wyra,khammam, AP
    January, 26 2010

    our ch.news a few mths.ago had an article on phenominal church growth in (I think eastern India) which I meant 2 keep but cant find..I believe it claimed that one group ran a few schools,& orphanages, 3 bible colleges&were planting 7small house churches a DAY,do U have any information to corroborate this? Peter
    peter bardsley
    southport, QLD.
    January, 10 2010

    I have supported the work of Brother Clayton for years because of his dedication, purity of message, and method of evangelization. There is no doubt in my mind that there are well over a million Christians in India. I am grateful to be able to contribute to this great work.
    Nora Vincent
    Church of Christ
    Carrollton, Texas
    December, 23 2009

Filed under: Global South

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