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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