Off a thinly inhabited road at Gurala village in Amritsar, Punjab, Karnail Singh holds his parishioners as a conductor holds his devoted audience. "Praise the Lord," he chants. A group of 150 men and women throw up their hands, puppet like, and repeat the praise. On site there is a bragging generator, a parked Maruti Omni and a poster of Jesus Christ on the wall. Singh's church is called Church of Jesus Love, one that both mainstream churches and Hindutva parties love to hate.
Singh is one of the thousands of preachers who have come up across the country, altering the way the gospel is spread and conversions are carried out. These freelancers of God are growing while mainstream churches are facing a decline in their missionary activities. Even as Hindutva groups raise concerns over Rs 10,000 crore in foreign contributions coming into India every year from abroad, mostly for missionary activities, independent churches are turning out to be the biggest beneficiaries of the funds.Singh, a first generation convert from Sikhism, has been spreading the message of Christianity for the last 10 years. "During the last one year, I started attracting more people to my church. Last year alone I baptised over 34 Sikhs and Hindus," says Singh. The 58-year-old former farm worker mixes music with his preaching. "This is my choir," he says, pointing to his daughters, who have just completed a diploma course on Bible preaching. "I run my own church. I don't want to report to any other mainstream church. I report to God," he says.
A kilometre away from Singh's church is the Believer's Church in Gurala, which came up in December last year. It is one of the newest links in the "church planting" movement, a process that involves setting up a new church under a preacher with a membership of 10 to 20 believers. These churches are almost always unaided by formal missionary structures but remain connected to their network.The Believer's Church was set up by the Texas-based Gospel for Asia (GFA), an evangelist group founded by K.P. Yohannan, 61, one of the front-runners in the church planting movement. The GFA's mission is "to be devout followers of Christ and fulfill the Great Commission among the unreached in Asia through training, sending and assisting qualified labourers to win the lost and plan local churches in partnership with the Body of Christ".
"When I completed 20 baptisms, I wrote to the headquarters for setting up my own church," says Tarsem Lal, who runs the Believer's Church. He conducts Sunday prayers and regularly visits homes of people belonging to his church. Many of the parish members are encouraged to start their own churches, which operate from new buildings or residences of the members.The growth of independent churches is also attributed to foreign contributions that reach individuals through the church planting network. GFA has donated Rs 596 crore to various church planting movements in India. Mission India, one of the leading evangelical movements based in the US, seeks donations from US citizens for the church planting programme in India. "India's over one billion people are hurtingâ€¦ they are seeking... and they are responding to Jesus in record numbers. This nation of nations offers extraordinary opportunities to bring 'Good News' to millions of unreached," says one of its brochures.
The hostility towards evangelical activities in India has also necessitated the need for promoting individual preachers instead of old missionary structures. "India's Christians are capable and committed to carrying the Gospel into their communities. They know the languages and customs and can work effectively in sensitive areas where a Western missionary could never set foot," says a Mission India brochure, requesting donations from the US.Most of the new preachers are picked up from the masses without much formal training. At Wanjawala near Amritsar, Prakash Messi, a borewell-operator-turned-preacher, holds his Sunday prayers in the living room of one of his parishioners. He asks a group of 25 men: "Alcohol is sin. What is the reward of sin?" They answer in unison: "Death". The preaching is simple, the demands to the Lord are less complicated. "Jesus, son of Virgin Mary, make our journey on cycles and motorcycles safe," prays Messi. The prayer group includes converted Hindus and Sikhs and even former Catholics.
From Messi's prayer hall, the road curves to cross a wheat field. On the far side stands St James Catholic Church. Set up in 1994 by the former bishop of Jalandhar, Syphorian Keeroath, known for building many Catholic schools and hospitals across the region, the church has been closed down. Many of the parishioners have joined Messi's prayer group and the rest travel to nearby Ajnala town for Sunday mass.
The Catholic Church is not amused. "These preachers are not trained in theology. They often play with the sentiments of people and lure them with incentives and create communal tension. We are forced to take the blame for their wayward preaching methods," says Sister Annie, the principal of All Saint's Convent School in Ajnala, who has been working in Punjab since 1984. Messi retorts, "If you close your doors, your church will also be closed. We travel among the people and visit homes of our parishioners regularly. Catholic missionaries have no time for the poor and the needy." Most new pastors work among Dalits in the region. They also widely use faith-healing methods, which are not popular among mainstream churches. Political parties such as the Congress and the Akali Dal have refused to make conversions a controversy and the VHP and Bajrang Dal have accused both parties of playing to the Christian vote bank.On the outskirts of Delhi at Mahavir Enclave, Mode of Deliverance, another church planting mission, is making huge inroads. "Our goal for church planting for 2009 was 2,000 new churches. The Lord enabled us to see 3,496 new churches planted, which make a total of 11,564 churches and cells throughout the sphere of the ministry. We trusted the Lord for 20,000 baptisms during the year. The Lord blessed us with 33,674 new first generation Christians baptised," says the annual report of the ministry, run by Rodrick Gilbert and his wife.
In Orissa, where Maoists are strengthening their hold, churches are also drifting towards the Left. "You are breaking the rules. I will sit on the floor whenever you sit on the floor," Pastor Tirupati Rao tells a Kuvi tribal who has brought a chair for him. His group, organised under an NGA called Assist, preaches liberation theology in Raigarh district, discussing and reading the Bible from the perspective of the the poor and downtrodden. "God created mankind equal. Nobody has the right to crush fellow humans. All of us have equal right to a life of dignity," he tells a group of 50 sitting in the middle of a double-rowed maze of tribal huts.
There has been a spate of new, independent churches in Orissa after attacks by Hindus on Christians in Kandhamal in August 2008. After the riots, Maoists said that they were prepared to protect the lives and livelihood of the minorities. "The violence in Orissa forced many Christian missionaries to leave the state. Nothing is as precious as life and the security of nuns and priests," says Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. But liberation theologists have found an opportunity in these areas. Maoists had driven away middlemen in the tobacco and spice trade in tribal districts and Assist has set up volunteer groups among tribals to sell their produce. "We have three such groups in Mukundpur, Jimidipeta and Keshingapur where we collect the produce, store it and sell it when prices go up. The income from the sales is used for the welfare of the tribals. They are given soft loans and they are helped financially during medical emergencies and marriages," says Yunesh Mandagni, a preacher associated with Assist.
These groups never baptise tribals and form "base communities", as the grassroots building blocks of liberation theology are called. They believe that the church's job is not just to bring people in contact with God but to ensure direct collective action against injustice. The idea has always been opposed by the Catholic church, which, under Pope Benedict, has gone against such movements in Latin America, calling the theology of liberation "a singular heresy".
In south India, the new churches are led by telegenic public speakers. Tamil Nadu has attracted most of the independent churches, thanks to foreign contributions, which stood at Rs 775 crore during 2002-03 and went up to Rs 2,244 crore during 2006-07. Chennai tops the list of cities receiving foreign contributions: Rs 363 crore in 2002-03 to Rs 929 crore in 2006-07. Paul Dinakaran and Mohan C. Lazarus are the leading evangelists in Tamil Nadu. It is said that actress Nagma took to Christianity because of Lazarus's preaching. His Jesus Redeems Ministry is quite popular in the state's southern districts such as Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli, where conversions are said to be rampant.
Andhra Pradesh also hosts many independent churches. The late chief minister YSR Reddy's son-in-law Anil Kumar's church, called Anil World Evangelism, has prospered in different parts of the state.
Hindu organisations have long been crying hoarse about conversions in Kerala but recently, those in the forefront against conversion have been the traditional Christian churches themselves. Evangelical and charismatic churches, which swear by the "gospel truth of the Bible", attract more Christians from traditional churches than members of other religions through mass prayers marked by hysterical outbursts of faith, passionate addresses by articulate pastors and emotional sessions conducted for "miracle healing" of terminal ailments.
The number of churches attached to the Kerala-based Pentecostal Council of India (PCI), an umbrella organisation of five Pentecostal groups, has gone from 700 in 1996 to nearly 3,000 and is still growing. According to PCI, more than 1,000 applications for affiliation are pending. The membership strength of these churches has increased to one million from 25,000."The rise in wealth and hierarchy of thetraditional churches have distancedtraditional churches from ordinary believers who are attracted by the personal,emotional and evangelist appeals of the new groups that offer instant wealth and health through prayers," said Father John Isaac, a Catholic priest. A new church, Divine Feast, in Kottayam, Kerala, hasattracted more than 8,000 members within three years of its formation.
The continuing exodus from their flock has shocked the state's traditional churches, which have a total membership of more than six million, or 19 per cent of Kerala's population. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC)-the apex organisation of bishops from the Catholic church, the largest traditional Christian church-has made a fervent appeal to its flock to distance themselves from the "new generation churches" and prayer groups. In a pastoral letter, the kcbc condemned the new evangelists' fundamentalist attack on Indian traditions-such as Christian women wearing a mangalsutra-by calling them non-Christians. "Messages like these would harm communal amity," warned the KCBC.
It is difficult to count the number of independent churches in India. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), an umbrella group of evangelical organisations in India, has around 35,000 independent churches under its wing. "These are strictly registered churches with a certain level of maturity and 5,000 such churches have come up during the last five years. But there are many independent churches which are not registered and they are not part of us," says Richard Howell, general secretary of the EFI.
The flexibility of these new churches allows them to take on opponents like Hindutva parties and mainstream churches. Their grassroots links permit them to work all over the country. In Punjab, unlike in Kerala where Christianity had taken root much earlier, churches are using the local language and traditions to assimilate faster. Pastors are encouraged to retain their Hindu or Sikh first names. They greet each other with "Jai Messi ki".
"Listen to this gospel song that sounds like Gurbani (hymns written by the Sikh gurus)," says Singh, as his daughters play the song. Then he calls out to his wife, who is also a pastor, with complete Punjabi flair, "Pastorni, pastorni."
- with M.G. Radhakrishnan