by Vishal Mangalwadi
North India’s religious landscape is changing. For over a century, the Church was a tiny urban phenomenon. It was clustered around colonial era churches, educational and failing medical institutions. Now the leaven of the Gospel is penetrating the countryside and creating a significant social revolution.
This movement began as a lower castes’ revolt against the Hindu social order. But any open-minded person can see that it has powerful supernatural dimensions.
The religious revolution is redefining North Indian Christianity. The question is: will it transform North India?
A wide variety of churches are mushrooming, yet, most of the “faith” movement is “churchless.” That is, a majority of the new “believers” don’t belong to any organized church.
The established Church played no intentional part in this movement. Hardly any one remembers that the worldview upon which the movement rests was planted by the Bible. That is why it rejects traditional fatalism, seeks human equality and dignity, and desires just progress.
The revolution began with those who marched in the name of Baba Saheb Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Soon many of them realized that Ambedkar’s neo-Buddhism was a dead end – spiritually as well as socially. Therefore, millions decided to explore Jesus.
Most people who quit Hinduism found the existing ‘Body of Christ’ quite disappointing. My (unscientific) guess is that as many as ninety percent who came to Jesus did not find a church they could call home. They remain outside the old or new churches.
Can this churchless Christianity produce the fruit God promised Abraham – the kind of fruit that came out of the West’s “Reformation” and the great spiritual “Awakenings?”
The established church has ignored, even despised this movement. But thanks be to God that many energetic leaders rose up with new wine skins and took up the responsibility to love the weary and the heavy-laden.
Reliable statistics don’t exist. My guess is that in one state alone, as many as 1 Crore (10 million) people may have “received Jesus” as their savior. Yet, no more than 2-3% of them are a part of a local church. Many of these Christ-believers also worship idols. As many as 10,000 may have gone through 6-12 months of intensive Bible Study and 2000 or so may have completed 2-3 year Bible course.
The Revolution’s Sociology
A Sociologist studying the revolution could trace it’s origin to 19 February 1981. On that date, 800 Dalits formally converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu in South India.
That “mass conversion” outraged some Hindu groups. They came together to build a political movement to overthrow the Congress Party’s soft Hinduism, acquire political power, and ban religious conversions.
Babu Jagjivan Ram was then the Dalit face of the Congress Party. He went on to become India’s Deputy Prime Minister. His response to “militant” Hindu’s political gauntlet was to launch the Bhartiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi (1984). Under S. P. Sumnakshar’s able leadership, the Akademi began promoting Ambedkar-inspired pro-conversion literature. Most of this literature is still “underground,” yet practically every Indian university is using some of it, especially the biographical texts. Recently, several universities in the US, UK, Canada, and France have begun studying this literature.
Christianity brought printing and mass literacy to India. The Brahmins did not write their sacred scriptures, the Vedas, let alone print them. Their sacred language, Sanskrit, does not even have a script. The decision to use the Nagari script to write Sanskrit was made only in the 1870s. Sadly, the post-Independent church stifled creative writing. Its corruption destroyed the publishing houses established by Western missions. Operation Mobilization (OM) championed literature evangelism but took no interest in developing Indian writing.
Nevertheless the Lord used movements such as OM to distribute 25 million pieces of literature in 12 languages at 26 sites in UP during the 1997 Hardwar Kumbh Mela. During the Allahabad Kumbh in 2001, at least 5 million pieces of literature were distributed in 6 Indian languages at 15 different sites in UP. This was not an OM project, but the timing of these efforts was providential.
Also in 1984, Kanshiram, a former officer in defense services, founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which built North India’s anti-Brahminical movement upon the Dalit literary renaissance.
Our Sociologist will soon learn that the 1987 by-election to the Allahabad Parliamentary Constituency was one of the most significant milestones in this religious revolution. Kanshiram was an unknown politician then. He decided to run against V.P. Singh – a national hero. Singh, the Raja of Manda near Allahabad, had revolted against Rajiv Gandhi to launch the Jan Morcha, which merged with the Janata Dal. He was UP’s former Chief Minister and a Union Finance Minister. The media’s darling, Singh was the united opposition candidate against a “corrupt Congress.” It is likely that Singh financed Kanshiram’s election against himself to undermine Congress’ “Harijan” vote-bank.
It worked. Kashiram got 64,000 people to vote against Hinduism. He lost, but the electoral defeat did nothing to derail his life mission. Kanshiram labored relentlessly to grow the Dalit movement into an anti-Hindu political platform. His herculean effort catapulted Ms. Mayawati to UP’s Chief Ministership in 1995, ’97, 2003 and ‘07. These successful literary and political movements prepared North India for the spiritual earthquake which I had predicted at the end of that 1987 by-election.
Every successful evangelist is tempted to assume that he, the sower/harvester, is the key to his own success. The Lord Jesus taught that a good harvest depends more on the soil than on the sower, his seed, or strategy (Matthew 13: 1-20).
A sociologist has a different temptation. A skeptical academic environment bullies him to study spiritual movements exclusively in non-supernatural terms. A materialistic worldview prevents him from examining the power of prayer and spirits – demonic or divine. Nevertheless, anyone familiar with the religious dimension of the revolution knows that it cannot be understood without paying due attention to the power of prayer, faith, and the ‘word’ that heals and delivers.
For decades South Indian Christians had prayed for the North. In 1963, Tamil Nadu’s Friends Missionary Prayer Band (FMPB) turned these prayers into an organized movement. Other forums such as Kerala’s Quiet Corner helped fuel the prayer. Inspired prophetic words of blessing were spoken. By the early 90’s, every year, over 5000 people were meeting in Nalimavadi for 3 weeks to fast and pray for India.
Only a few North Indians participated in this prayer movement. But in answer to those early prayers, in 1995, a spirit of earnest prayer began to rain upon North India. That was the year in which the then aggressively anti-Brahminical Mayawati became UP’s Chief Minister.
This monsoon of prayer produced the spiritual life that is currently pulsating in UP’s parched land. Politics could not keep the Schedule Castes (SCs) and the Backward Castes (BCs) united. Mayawati went on to forge an alliance with the Brahmin vote bank to fight the backward castes. That required downplaying the anti-Hindu card. But the genie was out of the bottle.
The surprising fact is that in spite of its sociological context, UP’s Christian movement did not rest upon anti-Brahminism. It has nothing to do with Dalit Theology. Although it is a lower caste movement, it welcomes Brahmins with open hearts. It is uniting castes seamlessly.
Intelligence officers, journalists, lawyers, even High Court judges – all high caste Hindus and skeptics – have visited centers of this spontaneous and unorganized revolution. They have cross examined Jesus witnesses who testify that the Lord Jesus has healed specific physical, social, or spiritual ailments.
Authentic documentaries of these witnesses are yet to be made. Evolutionary philosophers of language are yet to come to terms with the empirically evident fact that “words” deliver mentally deranged from their demons. At times, “words” bring back to life people declared clinically dead.
Unscientific Estimate of UP’s Churchless Christianity
This religious movement is waiting for a sociologist to study key players, history, statistics, theology, philosophy, and outcome.
Some foreign funding has been at play, but the new faith striking roots in UP is not dependent on that funding. Our sociologist will find that foreign funds have helped as well as hindered conversions. For example, if one person gets paid to bear witness, ten don’t want to witness, unless paid to do so.
Immediate factors producing faith are believers’ positive experience of the risen Christ and/or credible testimonies of their neighbors and relatives. The movement has to be seen in the larger context of the positive cultural impact of (often corrupt, yet) respected Christian educational institutions. These institutions have not participated in this revolution. Some of their leaders are far too snobbish to identify with the poor, illiterate, lower castes. Nevertheless, their reputation is a relevant factor behind this movement.
Only some Jesus-believers see themselves as “converts” to Christianity. Yet, their new faith does imply an implicit dissatisfaction with Hinduism, disappointment with unspiritual education, corrupt governance, and frustrating economics. It suggests a loss of interest in neo-Buddhism, Islam, or atheism.
Many Christ-believers call themselves ‘Hindus’ for social or economic reasons. Their disgust with established Churches is understandable. Nor is there a problem with a thoughtful person calling himself a Hindu follower of Christ. However, this brief inquiry is concerned with questions such as:
- Why are 95% (?) believers in Christ outside a local Church?
- Should they be organized into strong churches – spiritually, intellectually, and economically?
- If ‘yes’ – how?
Why are so Many Christ-followers ‘Churchless?’
For the vast majority, the important factors are theological, social, and financial.
Theologically, the problem has two sides: Hindu and evangelical.
A Hindu believer understands and values the “Temple” but he comes to Christ without a prior notion or experience of the Church. He participates in evangelistic and healing meetings and may be encouraged to take Baptism, but far too often he does not even see a church.
Modern evangelism is interested primarily in taking souls to heaven. Its interest in building strong churches is, at best, secondary. This is because mainstream American theology lost the biblical perspective on Church almost a century ago. The damage was done by the ‘Dispensational’ misinterpretation of 70 sevens in Daniel 9: 24-27, and by a widespread expectation that Jesus was coming back in the 1940s . . . or 50s . . . or 60s or . . . certainly in AD 2000. He was supposed to bind Satan and begin his utopian reign, though limited to a thousand year period.
By and large the American church perceives itself as a bride waiting for the bridegroom. In the Bible, the church is the body of the ascended Christ. It is his army making his enemies his footstool. The Bible expects the church to do greater things than Jesus did on earth because her Lord is seated at the right hand of God until his enemies are made his footstool. (John 14: 12; Hebrews 10: 12-13; 1 Corinthian 15: 24-28) The theology that Jesus is incapable of binding Satan from his throne in heaven, that he has to come to this earth to fight the devil, has weakened the American church – almost mortally.
Of course, no one can read the New Testament without forming some idea of the church. Yet, most of American theology has made itself clueless of the fact that Christ’s bride is the ‘holy city’ which is light for the nations walking in darkness (Rev 21: 9-24). It is the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of sick nations (Rev 22: 1-2). It is difficult for Indian theologians trained in American theology to grasp that the biblical church is God’s “angel” sent into the world to spread truth that will bind and restrain Satan from deceiving the nations (Revelation 20:1-9; Isaiah 11: 1-9).
In Revelation chapters 2 & 3, seven times Jesus asks John to “write to the angel of the Church in Ephesus . . . Sardis . . . Laodicea . . . Philadelphia” etc. Was a courier service delivering these letters to angels in heaven?
John had already told his readers (Rev. 1:20) that the seven stars in Jesus’ hands were the angels of the seven churches to whom he was writing. If Jesus already has the seven angels in his hands, does he need John to send letters to their heavenly address?
Obviously the letters were sent to the human leaders of local churches to be read to entire congregations. So, seven times in chapters 2 & 3 the word “angel” is used for a weak, fearful, even sinful local church. That is one reason among many why the “angel” of Revelation 20 who binds Satan for a thousand years is the church, not Jesus. It is to his earthly body of weak and fallible believers that Jesus gave the authority to bind demons. The God of peace is already crushing Satan under the feet of poor, illiterate believers in North India (Romans 16:20). God will transform Rajasthan and Bihar because his body is the tree of life for healing nations.
If the Gospel is about a soul going to heaven, why should anyone bother going to the church? Especially, when he can get heavenly music and sermons for free on his cell phone?
For the apostle Paul the church was of paramount importance. He wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church” (Colossians 1: 24). Paul shed his blood because the Lord Jesus himself shed his blood for His church– not just for our souls. (Ephesians 5:25)
The Temple and the Church
The Hindu idea of the Temple as a sacred place where one goes to gaze upon God is good. Because it is so powerful, criminals hire crooked priests to abuse it, grab public lands, and lure the public to part with their hard earn money. Even though temples become dens of robbers, God accepts places dedicated to him. That is why the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and the Temple became vital aspects of spirituality of Moses, David, Solomon, the Psalmists, the prophets, and Jesus. The fullness of the Godhead dwells in His Son bodily; yet, it was for the Messiah that the Scriptures said, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2: 17).
The Bible gives solid grounds to sanctify the Jewish-Hindu idea of the temple, strip it of idolatry and abuse, and adopt it for contextual Christianity. Every week, hundreds of Hindus come to kneel and prostrate themselves in a “Yeshu Mandir” in UP. Demon-possessed begin to scream and convulse. Many experience dramatic healings.
In many situations, a house-church may be the only realistic possibility. But the house-church movement turns that existential need into a principle. It insists in building only house churches. But in a caste-ridden society, the house-church movement degenerates into a camouflage for covering racism. This hurts the truths that (a) God agrees to dwell in a physical and public place that is dedicated wholly to Him, and (b) God’s temple is “a house of prayer for all nations.” It is not a place for breaking bread only with one’s own caste.
Most Hindus, who come to Christ for salvation, healing, or deliverance, have no clue that the real temple that God wants to build is an ecclesia – a body, an assembly, which unites high and low castes. Therefore, they have to be taught that God wants them to be spiritually alive stones bound with other believers with the bonds of holy love.
New believers have to learn that the triune God is active in their history because he wants an “angel” in every village, colony, and town. He seeks a human community in every locality to be His visible body – an earthly abode for His Spirit.
No church will ever be perfect. But every church is created to be the means of God’s grace and power. It has to take care of the poor, the oppressed, the widows and the orphans, because it is God’s light for a world in darkness. Through the local church God makes known His manifold wisdom and power to principalities and authorities in the heavenly realm as well as to the rulers of this dark-age. (Ephesians 3: 10 etc.)
The second important reason for Churchless Christianity is a castes’ social pressure upon new believers. By its very nature, the Caste system is oppressive. It survives by making individuals weak. While the legal right to convert is essential for an individual’s freedom and dignity, it is far from enough for a weakened individual or family. Jesus-believers can transform a caste’s network of oppressive, exclusive, racist relationship, if they can find an alternative and loving community that embraces them along with all other castes and tribes.
The Lord Jesus came to bring wandering, vulnerable sheep into his “fold” (John 10: 16) Modern evangelists want the sheep to be ‘raptured.’ To them ‘Jesus is the good shepherd’ means that they don’t need to shepherd the sheep. (John 20: 15-17).
Finance is the third factor creating Churchless Christianity. A pastor may lack an adequate theology of the church, but he will organize the sheep into a nurturing, worshipping, and serving community if his salary comes from their tithes. If neither his theology nor his salary requires a local church, then he has little incentive to take care of Christ’s sheep. When an evangelist thinks that he is paid to bring people into the baptismal tank, he has little reason to toil to keep Christ’s flock into His church.
I am not suggesting that a pastor should build up a church to earn his living. However, I am suggesting that financial arrangements explain why established churches have shown little interest in welcoming new believers. Where educational institutions generate the revenue to pay the clergy, local churches have little incentive to increase their membership or tithe.
Evangelists funded from abroad have the same problem. Their missions need to generate enough reports to keep the funds coming. They don’t need to build local churches that support them. To build a local church that gives is to invite avoidable headaches. Local donors demand accountability. They exercise authority. Life is much easier if you can get a salary without the employer supervising every detail of your life and work.
A Few Proposals to Build a Church that Will Transform North India:
1. Bi-vocational, Paul-like, tent-making ministers
A student studying in a Bible School can be helped to learn driving and vehicle maintenance. If he is really excited about the Gospel he will plant churches while earning his living as a driver. If his wife is also studying in a Bible School, she can be taught cooking. This will enable her to earn her family’s bread and butter by running a “Tiffin” service from her kitchen.
Why don’t Bible Schools give such simple training along with the Bible?
In some cases it is because missions get to raise more money if they have “full time” evangelists who need “support.” In other cases a leader measures his own greatness by how many full-time staff work under him. He wants staff that he controls, not brothers who earn their own living. A third factor is a lack of understanding that building strong churches requires biblically literate Elders and Deacons. In the Acts of the Apostles we do not see Paul building churches around paid pastors.
The preaching of a bi-vocational shepherd will have greater credibility than that of a paid evangelist. He will release resources for ministers who require outside support – say, a Bible translator or a church planter in a stone-age tribe.
Bi-vocational missionaries will need two streams of continuing education: biblical and vocational. Their vocation may require them to learn business, accounting and managerial skills. Their ministry will need ecclesiology, applied theology, as well as pastoral and counselling skills. For example, following Moses and the Old Testament, the apostle Paul built churches upon elders and deacons. Currently most churches are organized around a paid evangelist or pastor. I have never heard anyone talk about the significance of elders in the OT – the basis of modern Protestant democracy.
This new breed of ministers will be strengthened by a steady stream of literature, audio, video, and digital content. Structured courses for continuing education ought to include face-to-face meetings with peers and mentors.
Continuing education becomes a punishment when it is made a pre-condition for wages and employment. Students love a teacher who has mastered the art of making learning its own reward – a delight.
If North India is to be discipled, the bi-vocational missionary it needs is a preacher-teacher. This is because (a) to disciple is to educate (b) state-education is a total and currently unredeemable disaster, and (c) private education is oriented for career without character or truth. Private education may be effective for getting a well-paying job, but without virtue it offers no hope for building a great nation.
My proposal is that from Monday to Friday every church should function as a discipleship-cum-coaching center using web-based curriculum that combines knowledge and skill development with worldview and character formation.
Students should learn English via web-based curriculum, using the Bible as text. Once they have acquired enough English, they should use programs such as Khan Academy to learn math and science. Then they should be offered a globally accredited High School curriculum that includes everything needed to get a High School or Intermediate diplomas from State Boards or the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS).
The web-based Global High School Diploma, taught in local churches, should include courses on the Bible, worldview, world religions, world history, virtue, leadership, and community service.
Once churches have become centers of daily discipleship and education, a village pastor can use web-based curricula to also offer college degrees. Some disciples who graduate can be trained to start primary schools.
3. Mobilizing Woman Power for World Mission
For every one man who comes to Christ, as many as four women are becoming Christ followers. Rural North India offers little opportunity to young women. A majority of them can look forward to nothing but a life of gathering cow-dung to make cakes to fuel their kitchen. Yet, these young women have the potential to transform their states and disciple nations.
During 19th and 20th centuries the Western church sent thousands of nurses to bless India. Now we have the opportunity to motivate, train and send nurses to disciple nations. A fraction of their tithes will build local churches and contribute to the state’s economy.
Countries such as China face a major crisis. For decades the Chinese state championed a misguided ‘One Child’ policy. Now hundreds of millions of elderly Chinese have no one to care for them. For different reasons, Japan and the western nations have also made themselves incapable of taking care of their elderly.
India is rich in woman power. A young woman needs (a) Vision, (b) High School Diploma, (c) English, and (d) a computer to get started on a road to serving the world in Jesus’ name.
A village pastor who sends two nurses abroad will build their lives and families; he will help reach the world; and he may get decent support for his ministry from his own protégés.
Some high caste Hindus who have kept low caste women in slavery for thousands of years will hate a church that equips poor girls to serve abroad. But a shepherd must bear the reproach of taking care of his sheep.
Economies of Kerala, Punjab and Gujarat received a major boost from ordinary people who went out as professionals, farmers and moteliers. House maids and fruit pickers are blessing Mexico more than its politicians and pundits. Today entire districts in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are transforming their economies by exporting youth. There is a prevailing negative attitude that prevents churches from undertaking such a mission. Middle Class, urban Christians feel that the privilege of “going abroad” ought to be reserved for their children. It can’t be offered to poor, low-caste girls. They should learn sewing, not nursing for foreign markets.
4. Building a Financial and Social Force for Transformation
Rural believers cannot run educational institutions that serve as the financial base of urban churches. They can’t even enroll their children into private Christian schools, without first improving their family’s income. Churchless Christianity needs a business which will serve as the base upon which to build Christian families, churches, and a transformational mission.
Sociologists such as Max Weber explained how the Protestant Reformation transformed the European economy. What follows is my (yet to be researched) proposal on how UP’s unorganized church can be organized to take over fifty percent of the State’s milk business.
After adequate research, project preparation, team-building, and resource mobilization, UPs (or Bihar’s) new believers ought to launch:
• A genuine cooperative movement to build 100 dairies under one brand.
• Each of these could have (say) 10 distribution points called Ice Cream Parlors (totaling 1,000). These will sell processed milk and milk products.
• The franchise for these distribution points should be given to bi-vocational pastors.
• In a moral (not business) partnership with local churches, each of these 1,000 distribution centers should offer micro loans to 100 new believers for buying cows, buffaloes, and goats. That will mean 100,000 poor Christian families producing milk.
• The distribution centers should also serve as collection points for raw milk.
• While technical, business, accounting, and managerial skills should be taught in vocational schools or on the job, Sunday Schools should be equipped to teach the work ethic, virtues, skills, and leadership required to run effective cooperatives. This is because the church is meant to be a “factory” that manufactures a society’s moral and social capital.
• The vision will require UP believers to own and run a cooperative bank. This is unthinkable today, but the South Indian Church has plenty of experience (and enough theology) to train and support their North Indian brethren in running a bank.
- A buffalo will make a difference to a family’s income from day one.
- A bi-vocational leader with an Ice Cream parlor can go on to add vegetables, fruit, fruit juice and other processed foods.
- A church with a thousand distribution points will encourage many young people to get into food processing and marketing businesses.
- A cooperative movement with its social roots in a Bible-teaching Church will become our version of North Indian reformation.
As a robust biblical Christianity engages with a corrupt and broken market, law, government, civil services, science and technology, it will build spiritual muscles, gather intellectual capital, and spiritually sensitive political leadership that can transform UP and India.
5. Develop Godly Leaders to Govern India
States such as UP have many respectable church-owned schools, but none of them has produced a single Christian IAS officer since Independence in 1947. Because our seminaries produce pujaries, not leaders, the Indian church has lost 450 reputed hospitals that it inherited from western missions.
To remove this shame, a Christian university has taken a major step in opening a School to coach students in preparing for IAS prelims and other competitive exams required for entry into civil services. This center will produce godly leaders only if the church motivates and equips young disciples with a vision to build a great nation. Poor youth from backward castes are the most motivated. But they cannot benefit from coaching without first acquiring the required language skills.
God chose Abraham to build great nations. Contemporary theology has little place for nation, let alone the vision to build great nations. The Hindi Bible consistently and foolishly translates nations as “jati” or caste. It says that God (not the devil) made all the castes. (Acts 17: 26)
As mentioned earlier, every Sunday School needs to start a leadership class. In the first phase, the curriculum should take students through biblical leaders who built Israel as a nation and rebuilt it when it self-destructed. In the second phase the curriculum should focus on how biblical leaders became the inspiration for godly men and women who built modern nations.
Likewise, Christian Schools and colleges ought to have leadership clubs that help students learn about the leaders who built our world — men and women who explored the continents, the oceans, and space; scientists who helped increase our understanding of God’s creation; technologists who empowered us in establishing our dominion over earth and sky; physicians who found ways to fight diseases; statesmen who built or transformed nations.
I have met poor, high caste Hindus who study at temple grounds to prepare for entrance exams for civil services. The RSS deserves praise for fostering this culture of leadership development. The organized church, on the other hand, needs the humility to recover its responsibility to disciple nations. It must become a place and a community that enables young people to develop their potential to lead our nation.
Pastors and Elders should mentor youth in godliness. Experts should provide intellectual content online to prepare godly men and women for leadership in every sphere, including civil services, judiciary, journalism and the governance.
These proposals will be dismissed by missions that are in a hurry to ‘finish the task’ and hasten the Second Coming by reaching the last unreached people group. They will be despised by those who are out only to populate heaven or build their own empires.
The proposals are for those who pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in North India as it is done in heaven.”
© Vishal Mangalwadi
Facebook: Vishal Mangalwadi
Note: This paper grew out of a lecture given
at a conference at the Allahabad Bible Seminary