When Anand Mahadevan was in third or fourth grade, someone from Gideons International gave the Hindu boy a Holy Bible. Growing up in India, Mahadevan had never encountered Christian teaching. He started reading the Bible and he liked the story of Christ. “But I never understood why they crucified such a good man,” he recalls.
He won’t know for a decade.
During his second year of college, a friend invited Mahadevan to pray with him. “I went there because I didn’t want to offend her,” he said. “And maybe I was a little curious.”
That evening, years after his only other experience with Christianity, Mahadevan’s two Christian friends prayed a short prayer for him. He was moved. “Just the thought of talking to God — being able to talk to Jesus — and that powerful prayer helped me see God in a way that I had never seen Him before,” Mahadevan says. “I can’t explain it rationally, but the minute they finished praying, I knew I had to follow Christ all my life.”
This life included a career in business journalism, with Mahadevan editing a magazine and later leading a team of newspaper feature writers. This now includes serving as a founding board member of TGC India and pastoring the New City Church in Mumbai, a pastoral vocation that grew out of Mahadevan’s background in journalism.
Over the years, as Mahadevan met CEOs and other high-level professionals, he was gripped by the spiritual need among the most financially successful: “I saw very little influence for the gospel. This is not just a problem in Mumbai. The growth of Christianity in the predominantly Hindu nation has occurred mostly among Indians with low incomes and little social influence.
This means that the church planting work of Mahadevan and others in similar ministry represents a minority within a minority, as they reach out to a kind of unreached group of people in India: professionals urban people who often have significant influence in their cities, but who are underserved. by the church.
Urban church planting in India is a ministry to a minority within a minority.
It also means that pastors must adapt to a rapidly changing India, where complex cultural and spiritual traditions are now transforming in ways Mahadevan did not expect years ago when he embraced the Christ for the first time. “I think that’s India’s puzzle,” he says. “I call it in-stream ministry.”
Higher and harder to reach
As Mahadevan grew in his Christian faith in the years following his conversion, Christianity also grew in India. Census figures from a decade ago indicated that the number of Christians was less than 3% of the population, but unreported figures could be much higher.
Either way, even 2-3% of a population close to 1.4 billion people would put the number of Christians in India at over 30 million. (Muslims are the largest minority religion in India, numbering nearly 200 million.)
About half of the country’s Christians live in southern India, although other regions have also seen growth in recent years. Much of this growth has come from the poorest people in a country with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but also widespread poverty.
A 2021 study by Pew Research reported that Indian Christians disproportionately identify with lower castes and that “most converts come from poor backgrounds, i.e. they report having had recent struggling to pay for food or other necessities”.
Arvind Balaram is pastor of Delhi Bible Fellowship in Gurgaon, a financial and technology hub just south of New Delhi. The congregation of English-speaking urban professionals is part of a network of churches around the city that also includes churches from predominantly economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Balaram says that the growth of these congregations and others like them has been substantial over the past seven or eight years: “There is no doubt that God is mightily at work in India.
He is deeply encouraged by this growth, but Balaram also aspires to see growth spread to other segments of the population, including among urban professionals in the city he serves: “With people who belong to a higher economic class, it’s just a lot harder to reach those people. »
Part of the difficulty of Christian outreach is the stigma attached to embracing another religion in a nation where Hinduism is a deeply rooted part of cultural, social and national identity. Stigma often leads to family tensions, but in parts of India it has also led to increasing pressure and persecution of Christians.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that religious freedom conditions in India are “taking a drastic downward turn, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities.” .
The conditions of religious freedom in India are deteriorating drastically.
This certainly creates a climate of deep concern, but Mahadevan says the challenges of ministry in Mumbai and other urban areas often come from another source: trying to understand the evolution of worldviews and changing beliefs among many young Indians.
While many want to retain their Hindu identity, they also often adopt a relativism aimed at letting them choose what they want to believe. Mahadevan recalls a newspaper ad submitted by a mother seeking to arrange a marriage for her son. She cited a potential suitor’s favorite caste, but also indicated that her son was gay. Mahadevan reflected on the contradiction: “This family is postmodern enough to publicly embrace same-sex marriage, but at the same time traditionally Hindu enough to want a same-caste spouse.”
It’s a relativistic dynamic common all over the world, but with a uniquely Indian twist. “India has really become post-Christian without ever being Christian,” says Mahadevan. “I’m an insider, but I’m still trying to figure it out.”
For those who embrace Christian teaching, Mahadevan says one of his pastoral priorities is to show how the gospel affects all of life, including working life. In a culture deeply focused on performance, the pastor says the message of salvation by grace is refreshing.
In a culture deeply focused on performance, the message of salvation by grace is refreshing.
He tries to encourage his congregation to reject the legalism that some churches lean heavily towards, while embracing the Bible’s teaching on how God uses their work in the world.
It is a theme of TGC India, the newest international coalition associated with The Gospel Coalition. The group’s website has both a show and a revelation function: it tells how God works through the gospel, and it also shows Indian professionals immersed in putting this theology into practice.
The articles on faith and work feature interviews with a product strategist for a major Indian company, a public relations specialist for a leading company in Mumbai, and a longtime doctor in New Delhi. Others explore the Bible’s teaching on poverty and meeting the needs of others, instead of focusing solely on personal success.
Many resources address topics common to Christians around the world: how Christian parents can engage with social media with their children, how the gospel can bring unity to a diverse church, how Christians can think biblically about depression.
These resources are a reminder that church planters in New Delhi face many of the same challenges as church planters in New York and other urban areas: how to help Christians embrace the gospel and stand a tired world. One of the most read articles on the TGC India site is by Tiya Thomas-Alexander, an Indian journalist living in London, who has written about the spiritual reality of Christians living and serving in exile, wherever they live.
“In exile, we participate in the work of reparation as God himself prepares a new city by redeeming old things”, writes Thomas-Alexandre. “We, the intermediaries, follow the path of Christ, who bridged the chasm and prayed to the Father to bring heaven down to earth. He died on earth on a hill, this side of eternity – a permanent job in a fragile world.