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Beyond Hinduism & masses in poverty, India full of diversity

EDITORS’ NOTE: “That All Peoples May Know Him” is the theme for this year’s season of prayer for international missions in Southern Baptist churches across the country. For the next five days, Baptist Press will feature stories and photos that highlight the challenge of reaching the masses in India with the Gospel. The national goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $150 million — every penny of which will be used to send missionaries and support their ministries. The International Mission Board relies on the Lottie Moon offering for 51 percent of its annual income.

MUMBAI, India (BP)–Where can you find thousands of millionaires, and nine of the world’s richest billionaires?


Who makes more movies than Hollywood?

India — by far. “Bollywood,” the vast film industry based in Bombay (now Mumbai), churns out about 1,000 pictures a year, roughly twice as many as Hollywood. Hindi movies burst with melodrama, action, sexy stars and big musical production numbers — and gross $3.5 billion a year in worldwide ticket sales.

Which nation boasts the world’s biggest democracy?

India. And it still works, as demonstrated by this year’s stunning upset victory by the underdog Congress Party over the ruling Hindu nationalist alliance.

Which country now counts more than 24 million Christians — nearly 19 million of whom are evangelicals?

You guessed it: India.

If your most vivid impressions of India come from old National Geographics and Rudyard Kipling’s jungle stories, update your mental file with these facts:

— India’s 1.07 billion people — second only to China in total population — are 80 percent Hindu. But more than 130 million Muslims call India home (some estimates range above 150 million). That rivals the combined population of all countries in the Arab Middle East.

— Indian teenagers spend $3 billion a year on fashion accessories.

— The Indian middle class (those earning $2,000 to $4,000 annually) now numbers 300 million — larger than the entire U.S. population. It’s expected to approach 450 million within the next five years.

— Massive rural-to-urban migration will likely double the population of India’s cities within two decades. That’s equal to “all of Europe, all of a sudden, needing water, sanitation, drainage, power, transportation, housing,” says an Asian Development Bank official.

— Want to tap into a youth movement of gargantuan proportions? No fewer than 555 million Indians are under the age of 25.

— Indian universities produce more than 1.5 million graduates each year.

— The booming Indian economy was forecast to grow 8 percent this year as Indian industries match or surpass some of the world’s top producers.

— India has some 200 million English speakers. The nation’s vast collection of peoples also speaks several hundred other languages and dialects.

— Three Indians made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most powerful and influential people this year: Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and IT industry mogul Azim Premji (reputedly the world’s fourth-richest man).

Make no mistake: India still faces enormous problems of poverty and need. The poor in some 800,000 towns and villages still account for the great majority of the population. About 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day. As many as 3,000 Indian farmers in a single state (Andhra Pradesh) have killed themselves over the last six years because of debt and drought.

India has the world’s largest number of working children (up to 115 million); many toil in sweatshops. At least half of the population cannot read. Meanwhile, many of the graduates pouring out of the nation’s universities can’t find decent jobs. Despite economic growth, too many applicants are competing for too few positions. The government counts 40 million jobless workers, while the vaunted Indian info tech industry employs fewer than 1 million.

But India has made amazing progress on many fronts — economic expansion, education, technology. Its scientists, academics, computer specialists, entrepreneurs and entertainers are challenging — and often surpassing — the best other countries can offer. Expectations are soaring.


Here’s a tip to avoid cultural schizophrenia in India: Realize that you can find anything you look for there. Staggering wealth and appalling squalor. Showbiz fantasy and harsh reality. High-tech companies and age-old cottage industries. Instant business deals and molasses-slow state bureaucracy. Mega-cities and remote forests. The latest trends and ancient traditions. Go-go capitalists and doctrinaire communists. Holy men and atheists. Intense spirituality and crass materialism. Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, tribals.

Hundreds of India’s ethnic, religious and caste groups live in geographical or social isolation from each other, looking at the rest of this vast “nation of nations” with curiosity or suspicion. Many a south Indian, if set down somewhere in the north, would be as bewildered by the customs and languages as someone from the U.S. heartland parachuting into Scandinavia.

In other places, particularly the cities, different peoples and cultures mix and mingle in seemingly countless combinations. Mumbai, India’s largest city, is a world unto itself.

With more than 17 million people jammed into a 180-square-mile peninsula, Mumbai is the financial capital of India, the film capital, the organized crime capital, the AIDS and prostitution capital. It is the home of India’s most expensive real estate — and Asia’s biggest slum. You can live under plastic tarps on the streets, as multitudes do, or dine with old money at the exclusive stadium cricket club (joining fee: $30,000).

On Mumbai’s sidewalks and crowded commuter trains, you can rub shoulders — or trade elbows — with stock traders wearing cell phones and $1,000 suits, beggars, college students, Muslim women covered by black burqas, Punjabis, Tamils, Kashmiris, Bengalis, Assamese, Gujaratis, Keralites.

On one bustling street, a plush mansion built as a set for Bollywood movies stands empty, while at least 100 squatters live in lean-tos along the outside wall. “That’s Mumbai,” shrugs one resident.

That’s India.

“Diversity is India,” observes a leading Christian strategist who lives there. “You can lose yourself in all the challenges and unlimited horizons for missions in this country. You could pour a thousand lifetimes into India and never exhaust it.”

But even a thousand lifetimes dedicated to spreading the Gospel won’t make a real dent in India — unless they are lives focused on multiplying disciples and churches.

Of all the surprises and superlatives of India, here are several of the most important:

— India’s 24-million-member Christian community is growing, but remains a small minority of the national population of 1.07 billion.

— India and its immediate South Asian neighbors have more than 200 people groups with populations exceeding 1 million.

— Nearly half of the world’s unreached people groups live in India and the South Asian region. They have yet to be touched by the Gospel in any significant way.

— India alone is home to 14 different “super-mega” people groups (more than 10 million members each) who are currently “unengaged” by a church-planting movement strategy. In other words, Christians are not yet focusing on any of these groups in a way that will result in growing, self-sustaining church movements. Just one of these ethnic peoples, the Rajput, totals 40 million souls.

— South Asia, which includes India, has half of the world’s Last Frontier population — more than any other region.


The three global “giants” standing between the body of Christ and the fulfillment of the Great Commission in our day are China, Islam and India — each with a population of more than 1 billion.

Two of these three meet in South Asia: India — and the nearly 400 million Muslims living primarily in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“As India goes, so goes the Great Commission,” contends the Christian strategist. “And how is India doing? Not that well, quite frankly. Not because it’s inaccessible — because it’s neglected. If this is truly the last of the giants, God is giving it to us on a silver platter. It is a friendly place, an inviting place.

“There is no excuse for not getting the Gospel out here. I’m overwhelmed at the openness.”

That assessment seemingly contradicts frequent reports of persecution of Christians in India, resistance to evangelization and the resurgence of Hindu extremism. True, violent opposition is very real in certain areas, but it’s often a reaction to the Gospel’s spread — which persecution can’t stop.

India’s (and majority Hinduism’s) renowned spiritual tolerance also lives up to its reputation in many ways, both as bridge and a barrier for the Gospel.

“India skipped modern,” observes a Christian worker. “It has always been postmodern.”

How so? The philosophical idea that many paths lead to God or truth probably originated in India — and now strongly influences the West. It challenges the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ to lordship, but opens many doors in India to talking about Him.

In the cities, at least, Christ’s followers can readily gain a hearing in the noisy Indian marketplace of ideas. In the more traditional and resistant villages, growing numbers of believers are boldly proclaiming the Good News.

“We’ve seen so many people come to Christ, so many churches started — hundreds, maybe thousands of new churches,” says the strategist.

“This is an incredibly responsive place. We just need more people implementing church-planting movement strategies. That means moving from planting an individual church and bringing a few people to Christ to saying, ‘What’s it going to take to see a movement that sweeps through a people?’

“In God’s economy we have a vital role to play: a role of encouraging, training and multiplying ourselves through hundreds and thousands of national partners.”

It’s already happening in some places, like the huge north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where more than 5,000 house churches have sprung up in less than two years.

It will happen in many more places, because wherever the light of Christ is lifted up, He draws people unto Himself.

“Our job,” says a believer, “is to turn on the light, turn on the light, turn on the light!”
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges