Counting isn't easy
A trip to Chennai, in southeastern India, changed everything Dyron Daughrity knew about carpooling. The native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, saw five people decide to put on Christ in baptism after a Sunday service in early February. Many more wanted to accompany them to the water.
“Crowding 19 people into the vehicle was no easy task,” Daughrity said. “So many wanted to come out to the baptism, and we simply couldn’t refuse them all!”
Hundreds of other ministers have had similar Sundays, and one India missionary claims that the total numbers of church members in India easily tops 650,000. But other India workers say those numbers are hard to believe, and caution that “baptisms” don’t always translate to “adherents.”
Daughrity spent time with Indian evangelist R. D. J. Roy Knight, of the Arise Shine church. Knight, who is fluent in the Tamil language of the region and English, worked from 7:30 a.m. until midnight that Sunday, visiting church members in remote villages and a church-supported orphanage.
“This is a vibrant, dynamic ministry that is remaining faithful to the Gospel, meeting the needs of many needy people, and is growing,” Daughrity said. “Indeed, this ministry is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Putting a number behind Daughrity’s enthusiasm is difficult. The nation’s population is estimated at more than 1 billion, with no less than 15 official languages. Multiple churches of Christ support missions in various regions of the country, and many evangelists work in remote regions without support from outside India, making an accurate count difficult, if not impossible.
Nevertheless, Ron Clayton is attempting to do just that. Clayton, a missionary based in Hyderabad and supported by the Central church, Cleburne, Texas, has assembled a directory describing the locations, ministers and membership for 27,000 churches of Christ in India.
The information is geo-coded, detailing each church’s latitude and longitude. Some data are available for search on www.churchzip.com, said Earle West, of the Monmouth church, Tinton Falls, N.J., who maintains ChurchZip.
Clayton’s research shows 650,000 church members in India. What’s more, “We are not even close to being finished,” Clayton told the Chronicle Feb. 11, “because we have only listings so far from 10 states and two union territories. India now has 28 states.
“I think it will take quite a while to get a fair representation of how many churches there are in India,” he said. “My estimate is that there are at least 60,000. Many are indigenous works, without any ties to us missionaries. Getting in touch with them will be a real task.”
Clayton coordinates his work through multiple indigenous preachers, who go into remote locations, baptizing and setting up churches. They report numbers back to Clayton, who keeps detailed computer records. Although each evangelist may see only a few baptisms at a time, those numbers add up. But other Indian evangelists, including Knight, say that numbers don’t describe the challenges to ministry in India.
“One of the main problems (in India) is that many people get baptized over and over. Some people have been baptized 10 times I know,” Knight said.
Retention of new converts can also be difficult, Knight said. “One major problem here is that many ministers don’t urge the people to receive good solid training before being immersed. They just baptize them as soon as they possibly can. ... I believe baptism must come after proper teaching and after the person realizes they are making a life-long decision.”
Babu Pothan, an Indian worker with the Mylavaram church, agreed. “Most people remain faithful when proper teaching is done,” he said. “Many brothers and sisters in the local congregation are Hindus who (have been) attending church from many years. There are few who fall away as the old devil grabs the weak.”
From the February 2003 Archives Christian Chronicle