Scratching the surface
India is a land of striking depth and beauty. You might think of busy streets, ornate temples, warm spices, painted tuk-tuks, and roaming cattle. Yet India is hugely diverse. Its beautiful landscapes range from the towering Himalayas in the north to deserts, rainforests and beaches lining the coastlines. Vast megacities are home to some of the world’s biggest slums, contrasting against the riches of Bollywood and the tech world. A huge array of ethnic backgrounds, languages and religious expressions are reflected across the states and 8 union territories. The main distinction is seen between the north and the south, with characteristic differences in language groupings, music styles and curry blends. Indian people are widely known to be gentle and warm, with a lighthearted sense of humour. They place a high value on harmony with others and take great pride in their identity.
The scale of the task
The statistics for India’s population are staggering. India is soon anticipated to overtake China for the world’s most populous country, with 1.4 billion people making up over 17% of the world total. There are over 2,300 people groups speaking more than 230 languages. A remarkable 90% of these groups are unreached. It is difficult to imagine the scale of what this means for gospel work, but we trust in God’s plans for this nation.
India’s religious makeup consists of majority Hindus (80%), followed by Muslims, Christians and other small/ethnic religions. Islam makes up only 14% but translates to 190 million - the third largest population of Muslims in the world. The majority live in the north.
Islam and Christianity
Islam arrived in India as early as the 7th Century, entering the south via sea trade between the Arab Peninsula and Kerala, and the north via Persia. A close connection with the Arab Gulf still exists in the south today. The region is more affluent and has a distinct Arabic flavour to its Islamic practice and style of clothing. Islam continued to extend throughout the rest of the country, with the greatest spread between the 13th and 16th Centuries, achieved mostly through military campaigns from neighbouring empires.
Many believe that Christianity was first brought to India in AD 53, by the apostle Thomas. By the 1600-1800s the country was being shaped by British arrival, trade, and rule. This period was also marked by the evangelistic efforts of missionaries like William Carey in the late 1700s. Despite exciting growth in the past, the church today is small, at roughly 2% of the population. It spans a range of Christian beliefs, meaning that evangelicalism is smaller still.
Challenges and opportunities for the gospel
There are several barriers to gospel growth in India. Due to a lack of missional urgency many churches don't have a desire to reach Muslims. This is coupled with the very real threat of persecution. In recent years there has been a growing ideology promoting Hinduism as the true Indian religion. Social pressure and, in some cases, extremism, has created fear around sharing the gospel. Another great difficulty is access to the right translation of the Bible, which is rarely available in regional dialects.
These obstacles, together with the monumental scale of the task, mean that most Indian Muslims remain unreached. However, there are pockets of significant gospel work dotted around the country, including recent reports of high-caste Hindu converts reaching out to Muslim background believers for help on discipling new followers of Jesus! Indian cities present unique opportunities for sharing Jesus. These are only likely to increase as their populations expand. It is so important that the global church responds now, by praying for Indian cities and sending people to be the hands and feet of Jesus there. May the God of Hope usher many Indian Muslims into his Kingdom.