But something amazing has happened in the last 20 years. Millions are turning to Christ. When I first went to India in 1981 there were few if any large local churches. Today many megachurches dot the landscape and they're multiplying rapidly.
Behind the scenes, knowledgeable missiologists believe the percentage of evangelical Christians in India now may be at eight percent or even higher. This astounding spike in numbers of Christians in less than a quarter century is unprecedented.
Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council (AICC), observes, "Typically the persecution of Christians in India has been about the compassionate reception Christians are commanded to give to those who are oppressed, violated and dehumanized." It is Christians who are feeding the poor, educating the masses and caring for the sick in striking contrast to Hinduism's paralysis in the face of need.
While response to the gospel has been thrilling, the immensity of the task remains daunting. Some 455,000 villages in India do not have a single church. The largest cluster of unreached people groups in the world is in northern India, where there is only one Christian worker for every 472,000 people.
This battle for the hearts and minds of 21st-century Indians is played out every day. The stakes are high. Extreme Hindus would even like to rename India "Hindustan," implying that there is no place for religious minorities. What they call "cultural nationalism" is, according to one Christian leader, "a direct acquisition from Nazi nationalism." But in this case, the despised ones are not the Jews but the Dalits–India's untouchables.
One in every four persons in India is a Dalit, which means oppressed or crushed. Hinduism has debased them with the dogma of karma and the cultural chains of the caste system. This inhumane system divides people into four main groups: brahmans (priests and teachers), kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers), vaisyas (merchants and traders) and sundras (workers).
The Dalits are beneath all these groups—outcasts from even lower rungs of society. These 250 million people aren't allowed to enter upper-caste houses, temples or fields. As literal untouchables they can't even draw water from village wells.
Although the 1950 constitution of the newly independent India officially abolished untouchability, sanctioned oppression continues on a broad scale. Mohandas Gandhi, while sympathetic to the plight of the Dalits, urged a continuation of the caste system fearing that its abolishment would cause calamitous upheaval.
"Fifty years after independence, caste prejudice and discrimination continue as a persistent disease," D'Souza laments.
Finally, on November 4, 2001, millions of Dalits had had enough. Their cry for dignity could no longer be squelched. There was a mass defection from Hinduism at a rally in Delhi attended by 100,000 oppressed people. Gospel for Asia's K.P. Yohannan and other Christian speakers expressed solidarity with the Dalits and declared the love of Christ and of Christians for them.
Sadly, exaggerated hopes for "up to a quarter million baptisms in a single day" were widely touted by a few American ministries. This triggered a stern reaction from India's government. Fearing mass conversions to Christianity, rally permits were rescinded and hundreds of thousands blockaded from attending. Still, masses renounced Hinduism that day in what had to be the largest exodus ever out of a religion.
Dalits who become Christians continue to suffer. Under present laws they could lose even the menial rights they may have had previously. Recently a case went before India's Supreme Court to determine whether discrimination can be made on the basis of one's religion. The government's counsel has tried to get the case dismissed so that legalized discrimination can continue. The hearing has been deferred to a later date.
"The church worldwide must understand this is not a passing fad," warns John Gilman, president of Dayspring International. "Those who receive Christ in this context will likely face persecution and further oppression until this 3,000-year-old bondage is shattered."
Many mission leaders believe if the government-endorsed sanctions against Christian Dalits are lifted, as many as 35 million formerly Hindu Dalits will declare their allegiance to Jesus Christ. This would be one of the most astounding evangelistic victories ever.
As in Jesus' day, the poor have the gospel preached to them and they receive it gladly. Every Home for Christ has blanketed India at least three times with gospel tracts. Operation Mobilization, Dayspring International, Christ for India, Gospel for Asia and other ministries are witnessing throngs of people responding to Christ. The ministry I serve, Global Advance, has trained thousands of Indian leaders to plant churches among the yet unreached.
An astonishing 113 million have seen Dayspring's life of Christ film, Oceans of Mercy, produced with all Indian actors. Close to nine million people have prayed to receive Christ at the film showings! Along with Campus Crusade's Jesus film, 70 of India's 407 living languages now have access to the gospel on the screen.
"When villagers see Jesus whipped and nailed to the cross, they realize that God doesn't despise them, that they're not sub-human and that they are loved," Gilman says. No wonder Mark Buntain called Oceans of Mercy the greatest evangelistic tool ever for India.
Millions of former Hindus are now in a spiritual vacuum. People cannot long remain in a religious "no man's land." Without large-scale evangelism now, millions could turn quickly to Buddhism or Bhooshaiti, a new-age style spirituality that deifies mother earth. Islam, as well, is training thousands of its own preachers targeting the Dalits.
Dalit leaders are pleading with the church in India, "Tell us about your Jesus. Teach us your Scriptures." Two-thirds of India's Christians come from a Dalit background. Thanks to the power of the gospel, throngs have broken free from the chains of untouchability. Their transformed lives defy the fatalistic Hindu assertion that one's lot in life can't be altered. They are truly born again.