PMT 2016-090 by Jeremy Weber in Christianity Today
Gentry note: Christianity is experiencing growth in many unexpected parts of the world. Let’s pray for its continued growth and its growth into Reformed maturity.
The world’s most unexpected megachurch pastor might be an illiterate, barefoot father of five.
Bhagwana Lal grows maize and raises goats on a hilltop in Rajasthan, India’s largest state, famous for its supply of marble that graces the Taj Mahal. He belongs to the tribals: the cultural group below the Dalits, whose members are literally outcasts from India’s caste system (and often called “thumb signers” because of how they vote).
Yet every Sunday, his one-room church, with cheerful blue windows and ceiling fans barely six feet off the ground, pulls in 2,000 people. His indigenous congregation draws from local farmers, whose families’ members take turns attending so that someone is tending the family’s animals. The cracks in the church’s white outer walls are a source of pride: They mark the three times the building has been expanded.
Thousands of colorful flags stream down the sanctuary along the blue beams that support the corrugated metal roof. Their rustling approaches a roar.
When asked the reason for the flags, Lal responds, “For joy!” laughing heartily. The decorations are normally used at weddings. “The same feeling should be inside the church. People should feel this is God’s place.”
Yet consider a contrasting megachurch in southern India. A taxi drives under the shadow of Hyderabad’s four-story elevated train, whose massive support beams are marked with alternating colorful gods and goddesses. The roadside, lined with movie posters and squatter tents, gives way to clusters of large stone elephant-headed gods waiting to be painted with customary bright colors. The taxi turns into a dense traffic jam: a mile-long jumble of buses, motorcycles, and pedicabs surrounded by a throng of people on foot.
Amid the chaos, one detail jumps out: Many people have Bibles in hand.
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An ad above the corner bus stop reveals why: “Welcome to the largest church in India.” The crowd is departing from Calvary Temple-its 6 a.m. service, no less. The church can accommodate 35,000 people and fills each of its five Sunday services. Its Sunday school teaches 7,000 children.
Founding pastor Satish Kumar has just returned from speaking at Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church Conference. He speaks between a thick fabric cross and a pulpit that replicates the facade of the church. When he asks his congregants to open their Bibles and turn to 1 Corinthians 13, the rustle of pages sounds like the rushing wind back at Lal’s church.
“Many Americans think nothing is happening among Christians in India,” says Kumar after the service. “We have to change that opinion.”
Christianity Today circled India from north to south and back again for two weeks in order to witness the innovative and successful mission efforts of Indian evangelicals-this, despite rising persecution from Hindu nationalists. In fact, evangelical leaders across India agree that their biggest challenge is not restrictions on religious freedom, but training enough pastors to disciple the surge of new believers from non-Christian backgrounds. They believe the church’s future in India is not a persecuted red (or rather, Hindu saffron) but a rosy one.
The best estimates of Indian Christians range from 25 to 60 million, with the majority being Catholics. That’s a tiny minority amid 1 billion Hindus, but still sizable enough to rank among the 25 countries with the most Christians, surpassing “Christian countries” such as Uganda and Greece.
This is why a US missions agency now trains its new cross-cultural workers in India alongside Indian counterparts. “This is real collaboration by the global church,” says P. Singh, a leading scholar at a respected Christian institution.
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Addressing mixed groups gathered at eight tables flanked by flags, Singh asks the trainees to share three stereotypes about each other’s homelands. The Indian lists for Americans include: “Hollywood, burgers, Donald Trump”; “punctual, disciplined, educated”; and “rich, white, luxury of choice.” The American lists for Indians include: “Hinduism, food, Bollywood”; “rickshaws, cows, bright colors”; and “productive, crowded, mysterious.” Singh asks, “Do you mean productive in terms of population?” Everyone laughs.
But Singh has a point: It’s past time for Westerners to shed their stereotypes of majority-world Christians as poor and persecuted. When Western missionaries largely left India after independence in 1947, he says, God raised up indigenous Indian workers whose efforts are bearing more fruit than churches can harvest. “It’s the missio dei,” says Singh. “God will always find a way to bring salvation to his people.”
From Graveyard to Vineyard
Indian Christianity is hard to quantify, as one would expect in a diverse and dense nation of 1.25 billion. (This story restricts itself to evangelicals, and excludes India’s heavily Christian northeastern states.) But whether pastoring churches in the wilderness or in city centers, evangelical leaders across the subcontinent agree that God is moving like never before.
“North India was known as the graveyard of missions,” says Isaac Shaw, president of Delhi Bible Institute (DBI). “It was the heartbreak of evangelism.” Now these descriptions feel as dated as colonialism.
While Christianity previously flourished primarily in South India, today the clear trend is robust growth in the North. For example, in the 1980s, DBI discipled and sent out 100 students per year to pastor in the North. By the turn of the century, it was sending 1,000. Last year it sent out 7,600 students. Its goal for 2016 is 10,000-and it’s achievable, says Shaw. “You can see how the leaven of God’s truth rises slowly but surely.” . . .
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