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.”
HOW MANY CHRISTIANS?
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.”
HOW MANY SOULS?
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.