When the Indian government asked foreign missionaries to leave India in the 1970s, Christians feared that a small, weak church would founder. Since then the Indian church has remained less than 3 percent of the population, according to government figures. (Some question the census accuracy, suspecting many Christians remain unidentified.) But Indian missionary organizations have grown.

A handful of indigenous missionary organizations existed at independence, but now the India Missions Association (IMA), largest of several networks, claims 192 member organizations. Operation World counted 44,000 indigenous missionaries in 2000.

Many of them could be considered cross-cultural missionaries. The southern state of Kerala, with its strong Christian heritage, first launched missionaries to the rest of India. The cultural distance they had to cross can hardly be exaggerated. As a Delhi church leader told me, "When I go to the South, I literally can't read where the bus is going. If I stop and ask where the bus goes, that person doesn't understand me." Christians from Kerala have settled all over India, preaching the gospel and establishing churches and other ministries.

They typically operated as individuals. Beginning in 1967 with the Friends Missionary Prayer Band, a missionary movement from the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu began a more institutional approach. The south-to-north pattern continued, with some agencies sending out and supporting over 1,000 missionaries. "It's easy to be a cross-cultural missionary in India," says K. Rajendran, general secretary of the IMA. "There are so many different cultures living next to each other."

Most Indian missionary activity has targeted rural Dalit or tribal communities. Because these groups are poor and despised in Hindu society, they are frequently open to Christianity. India is so vast that, despite thousands of Indian missionaries, the majority of postal areas still do not have a single Christian worker residing in them.

Furthermore, "We have never touched the middle class," Rajendran says. "Christian missions have always gone to the poor." Since most Indian Christians come from lower-caste backgrounds, they often find upper-caste Hindus intimidating. "I'm challenging Westerners that your place is not in the rural areas, but with the middle class."

Many Indian missions depend on western financial support. Some Christians fear that the government will restrict foreign funding in the near future, though so far no such moves have been made. "Money is a very vulnerable point," says Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. "If it were to stop today, some of the missionary work would come to a grinding halt."

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India's First Dalit Archbishop Holds 'No Grudge' Over Predecessor's Attack | Once "untouchable" Dalits make up bulk of country's Christians. (May, 11, 2001)
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Plans to Resolve India's Interfaith Tensions Face Delays and Accusations | Did India's National Commission for Minorities plan a meeting to discredit Christians? (July 20, 2000)
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Christians Say Sikh Book Threatens Centuries of Harmony Between Faiths | Author arrested on three counts, including "derogatory language." (June 11, 2001)
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Militants Blamed for Death of Three Missionaries in India | 5,000 attend funeral, Catholic schools close in mourning. (June 7, 2001)
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Despite Tensions, Indian Churches Agree to Talks With Hindu Groups | Mainline churches will join talks, but other Christians say "partisan" meeting is dangerous. (Apr. 11, 2001)
India Relief Abuses Rampant | Radical Hindus hijack supplies in quake intervention. (Mar. 20, 2001)
In Orissa, You Must Ask the Government If You Want to Change Religion | Christian church leaders say they're trying to ignore the controversial law, but police aren't doing the same. (Mar. 12, 2001)
Churches Angry that Indian Census Ignores 14 Million Christian Dalits | Only Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist members of "untouchable" caste being counted. (Mar. 2, 2001)
India's Christians Face Continued Threats | We must preach what we believe in spite of Hindu pressure, says Operation Mobilization India leader. (Feb. 15, 2001)

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