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.
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.