Evangelicalism in India – the past 40 years

Jyoti P. Chakravartty
01 February, 2007 4 min read

After China, India has the largest population in the world (1,080,264,388 in 2005) and 16 million are added every year. India is a vast country, so that even indigenous missionary work within its own borders often has to be cross-cultural.

North and Central India are mainly inhabited by Indo-Aryans (75% of the total population, with over 90 different languages) while the South is mainly populated by Dravidians (23%, over 20 languages).

So, for example, an Indian missionary sent from Kerala (South Indian coast) to Arunachal Pradesh (North East Indian mountains) must adjust to a completely different environment, climate, language, diet and culture.

Response to ecumenism

For the purpose of this article, our time-line begins in 1947 when two significant events took place – India achieved independence from the British Raj and the Church of South India was formed.

The latter was a flagship for the modern ecumenical movement, followed in 1970 by the Church of North India. Both Churches were ecumenical unions between Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and other denominations.

Although many of the constituent churches had an evangelical history (North Indian Baptists, for example, went back to William Carey), their testimony was sapped by the unbiblical basis of the union.

In response, in 1951, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) was founded in Yavatmal, Maharastra State, as a national alliance to provide a voice and platform for Evangelicals. This was instrumental in establishing several evangelical institutions, including the Union Biblical Seminary.


Also, during the 1950s and 1960s the Lord raised up several indigenous missions that provided a strong evangelical input into the Indian church scene and gave rise to a vigorous missionary ethos among Evangelical churches. Also during the 1950s many denominational Bible colleges were established.

Foremost in mission during the 1950s and 1960s were South Indian Brethren assemblies, independent Baptist and Pentecostal churches. These sent missionaries to North India through such societies as the Kerala Young Men’s Evangelical Fellowship, the Gospel Fellowship Trust of India, Friends Missionary Prayer Band, and the Indian Evangelical Mission.

The churches in North East India were already largely evangelical, as a result of missionary work undertaken by American, Australian and New Zealand Baptists and Welsh Presbyterians. They were prominent in sending missionaries into the rest of India as well as other parts of South Asia – using such agencies as the Nagaland Missionary Movement, Zoram Evangelical Fellowship and Mizo Presbyterian Synod.

Student movement

The Union of Evangelical Students in India (UESI) was founded in 1954 by Professor H. Enoch, Dr T. Norton Sterrett and others. This played a major role in reaching students with the gospel. Until recently it was conservative in its theological stance.
Many evangelical theological colleges in India and South Asia are affiliated to the Asian Theological Association (ATA) which today, sadly, evidences neo-evangelical tendencies.

There are numerous Bible correspondence courses – in that sense theological education has become more accessible. But they have not been able to inculcate high academic standards, with the ability to study God’s Word systematically and with understanding. Many seminaries are non-denominational, leaving candidates confused on important secondary issues. For example, a conservative Evangelical Baptist church will now quite possibly consider calling a Pentecostal to be its pastor.

Operation Mobilisation

In 1964 the Indian church received a new evangelistic impulse with the arrival of the first Operation Mobilisation (OM) team. Early OM leaders from Europe and America were enabled to mobilise the Indian church for mission and discipleship.

Team effort was stressed, and nationals and foreigners toiled together for the sake of the gospel. Gone were old paternalistic attitudes, as OM foreign nationals worked under Indian team leaders.

Literature evangelism and one-to-one personal work were used to bring many to a saving knowledge of Christ. Good, affordable study-materials were made available for Christian workers.

Forty years on we can see how much OM influenced lives in the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps 80% or more of India’s evangelical leaders have interacted with OM teams at some point in their lives.

Charismatic movement

During the last 40 years there have been a number of other influences at work on the Evangelical churches in India.
Firstly, the Charismatic movement arrived in the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s Indian Evangelical churches were infiltrated by charismatic teaching and new Charismatic groups formed all over India, often with funding from the West.

Other agencies prominent in this movement were Youth With a Mission (YWAM) – heavily influenced by American Charismatics on such issues as spiritual warfare, demonology and worship – and John Wimber’s Vineyard group.

The end of Europe’s ‘Cold War’

Throughout the Cold War era the Indian government had been friendly to Soviet communism and had restricted the activities of foreign missionaries. Indeed, in 1975 India stopped issuing entry permits to missionaries. This draconian measure compelled the Christian church in India to further develop its own leadership.

But from 1990 onwards, with the collapse of the iron curtain, many Western missions shifted their focus from the Indian subcontinent to former communist countries. At the same time, the numerical and doctrinal decline of Evangelical churches in Europe impacted India with decreased funding for missions there.

This included a drop in publishing activity by the Bible Society of India and the Scripture Gift Mission (which now no longer operates in India).

Further problems

In recent years there has been a significant rise in militant Hindu fundamentalism. All over India, Christian missionaries, evangelists, churches and institutions have been attacked. The Indian states of Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have either passed anti-conversion bills or are attempting to do so.
Partly as a result, from the 1990s, the buzzword in evangelical circles has been ‘unity’. Churches and missions have come together to share resources and hold trans-denominational prayer meetings and worship. But this has been heavily influenced by neo-evangelicalism, with roots in Charismatic doctrine and unbiblical ecumenism.

Coupled with this has been a shift of emphasis from Word-based ministries to social ministries. The one-to-one personal approach in evangelism has given way to a ‘people-group’ approach – but something vital has been lost both in evangelism and discipleship.

Encouraging signs

There have, however, been some encouraging signs of late. There are some good reformed ministries, including ‘Grace to India’ established by John MacArthur. This has brought in teaching materials, established a pastors training institute and organised an annual expositors conference. This is gaining in popularity.

There are other reformed ministries emerging across India, but we have a long way to go. ‘Know the Truth’ came into existence three years ago to promote the doctrines of grace, through media, literature and conferences.

The first Sola Scriptura Conference in October 2006, in Siliguri and Kolkata, with Pastor Peter Ninnis from Truro Evangelical Church as speaker, was well attended. Also earlier in 2006 the Creation Science Association of India was able to conduct its first Creation conference in South Asia. This was a two day event with Prof. Andy McIntosh and Dr Nigel Robinson as speakers.

We need prayers that the Lord will help those who still hold to a conservative evangelical position and uphold the doctrines of grace.

The author is Director of Know the Truth and founder of theCreation Science Association (further information on www.indialink.org.uk)

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