Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hyper-Conversion . . . or Hyped Conversion?

Photo by Gary Gnidovic
(Image from Christianity Today)

I found of interest this article, "India's Grassroots Revival," written by Tim Stafford for Christianity Today (July 8, 2011) on conversions to Christianity in India, which are apparently occuring rather rapidly these days, but the magazine might be hyping this a bit:
With its people turning to Christ in waves, India hosts more believers now than at any time in its 4,000-year history.
Given that Christianity has been around for only about 2000 years, I wouldn't be astonished to hear that there are more Christians in India now than any time before Christ, but upon reading the article, I discovered that the comparison was only between now and any time since Christ. Here are some figures:
The newly Christian India is found mostly at the bottom rung of society, among . . . typically poor and illiterate "broken people" (the literal meaning of Dalit). Numbering 140 million or more, Dalits and Tribals (a grouping similar to the Dalits) have begun to shake the foundations of India's social order. They think in ways their ancestors never could have imagined. More of them are following Christ than at any other time in India's history, ministry leaders told CT [Christianity Today].

India's church has grown and is getting larger. It now comprises over 70 million members, according to Operation World. That makes it the eighth largest Christian population in the world, just behind the Philippines and Nigeria, bigger than Germany and Ethiopia, and twice the size of the United Kingdom.
Over seventy million . . . but how much over? More figures:
Across the vast nation, a visitor hears of unprecedented numbers of people turning to Christ. Operation Mobilization, one of India's largest missionary groups, has grown to include 3,000 congregations in India, up from 300 in less than a decade.

A hospital-based ministry in north India has seen 8,000 baptisms over the past five years after a decade of only a handful. Operation World's detailed statistics show that the Indian church is growing at a rate three times that of India's Hindu population.

The 2001 Indian census placed Christians at just over 2 percent of India's population. But currently, Operation World puts the figure near 6 percent and notes that "Christian researchers in India indicate much higher results, even up to 9 percent." Many Indian Christians say that doors closed for centuries are swinging open.
That all sounds rather impressive and fast-moving . . . but some caution is in order:
No one can be certain of such trends in this vast and complicated country. Religion statistics are poor, and enthusiastic reports from mission organizations may reflect only local conditions.

Todd Johnson, director of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's Center for the Study of Global Christianity, says he has opted for more conservative estimates than Operation World's. The center's Atlas of Global Christianity estimates 58 million Indian Christians, not 70 million. Most of the difference lies in Operation World's "unaffiliated" category. The unaffiliated may be part of independent fellowships, or be "insider" Hindu or Muslim followers of Christ.

Nearly all reports of rapid growth come from independent mission and church groups. "I'm waiting to see how they settle," says Johnson. "It's a very volatile situation. Exciting things are happening. That's real. Our methodology is to wait and see, and do our best to track it. But it is remarkable. Everybody agrees with that. It is something new in the last ten years, especially in the north."
While the figures are debatable, the rise in numbers of conversion seems clear, so the question is "Why?" The article goes into some detail on this, but three points that struck me indicates that Christianity in India is associated with the vision of a fairer society: education, democracy, and equality. The article connects this to the so-called "social gospel":
Western Christians shy away from social programs. They take for granted the possibility of economic progress and think it has little to do with faith. In India, however, such programs make the full implications of Christian faith visible.
While this quote doesn't explicitly develop the point, I think that we can suggest that people at the bottom of Indian society probably see Christianity as a means of social mobility and convert partly for that reason.

Does that make such conversions 'genuine'? Interesting question. Read the article.

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At 9:37 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"Western Christians shy away from social programs."

Huh? Ever worked at a homeless shelter in DC or northern Virginia?

(Or am I misunderstanding what the writer means by "social programs"?)

At 2:01 PM, Blogger dhr said...

people at the bottom of Indian society probably see Christianity as a means of social mobility and convert partly for that reason.

As far as I know, your conjecture is absolutely right.
But, things are not so easy. Some years ago a Catholic parish priest destroyed the wall, inside the church, which kept the Dalit separated from the members of the other castes. It was a scandal.

Does that make such conversions 'genuine'?

'Philosophically' speaking, the question seems to be unanswerable, both in India and elsewhere.

Anyway, from a sociological standpoint, many communities of nuns in Italy, even belonging to ancient Orders, can survive just because they receive novices from India, etc.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know, Kevin, but there is some suspicion of the social gospel among evangelicals, and they are the ones pushing the worldwide missions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Something there is that doesn't like a wall . . ." if I might hazard a Frosty remark . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:01 PM, Blogger dhr said...

"All in all you're just another brick in the wall..."

At 6:03 PM, Blogger dhr said...

there is some suspicion of the social gospel among evangelicals

... especially when they are 'fed' by the multinational corporations.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Most evangelicals have little or no direct connection to corporations. The suspicion of the social gospel has other sources.

It's a complex issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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