Global Analysis

Surfing the Third Wave of Missions in India

Contextual Challenges and Creative Responses

Prabhu Singh Mar 2017

‘The singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural’, writes Indian scholar Shashi Tharoor.[1] This quote highlights the diversity as well as the complexity involved in trying to decipher contemporary India, as the nation is going through seismic changes and tectonic shifts.

Three waves of Protestant missions

While Christianity in India is as old as Christianity itself, the Protestant Christian missions in India—spanning three centuries—can be broadly classified into three waves:[2] the foreign cross-cultural era during the colonial period (1706–1946);the Indian cross-cultural era in post-independence India (1947–90); and the indigenous era[3] in post-liberalization India (1991–).

First wave

Indians too played a crucial and catalytic role in the rapid spread of the gospel.

The first wave started with the arrival of the first Protestant missionary, Bartholomew Zieganbalg, in 1706 to Tamil Nadu in South India. The next 250 years saw a steady influx of missionaries from different parts of Europe and America to India, which was then under the colonial rule. This wave began to ebb by the early decades of the twentieth century and lost its thrust by the mid-twentieth century. While mission was primarily understood as uni-directional—West to Rest of the World—during this period, new studies show that Indians too played a crucial and catalytic role in the rapid spread of the gospel.


Second wave

After independence in 1947, resistance to the presence of foreign missionaries resulted in their phased withdrawal in the 1950s and 1960s. While many wondered what would happen to Christianity in India (a similar apprehension to that in China after Mao’s ascendancy to power), a new wave of Indian cross-cultural mission movements started, particularly from the 1960s onwards in the South and Northeast, with a specific focus on taking the gospel to the unreached in North and Central India, particularly among the Adivasis.[4] This wave began to ebb by the 1990s as India underwent cataclysmic changes during that decade.

While this wave had a significant impact, there were serious limitations as well:

  • Mission was confined primarily to tribal and rural settings, resulting in serious neglect of missions among the urban.
  • Too much focus on ‘numbers’ resulted in a lack of discipleship and falling away among new believers.
  • Uncritical importation of South Indian (Tamil/Kerala) cultures and worship patterns was inappropriate among the Adivasis and others in North India.

Third wave

The third wave began in the 1990s as India liberalized its economy unleashing a new era of globalization. This period also saw the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism and its targeted persecution of the Christian community. However, Christianity continues to grow in fresh ways, particularly in parts of North India.

I shall briefly highlight five key themes that define this third wave and the missional challenges during this period:

lga-india-glocal1. Glocal complex connectivity

India liberalized its economy in 1991, ushering in a new era of glocal (global and local) complex connectivity. The current iteration of globalization and its ramifications are felt in various realms: the rapid dissemination and consumption of information; the rise of the new middle class(es), along with rampant materialism and consumerism; massive urbanization and migration; and a new sense of interconnectedness and interdependency at the global and local levels. The younger generation (more than half the population is under 25) is often dubbed the ‘Google generation’ and ‘Twitter teens’. They are huge consumers of global popular culture, particularly those in the urban areas.

lga-india-culture2. Heightened cultural sensitivity

India is an ancient civilization known for its rich heritage of cultural diversity and religious plurality. The Anthropological Survey of India’s People of India project has identified 4,693 communities in India.[5] It claims that Indian diversity is marked by linguistic heterogeneity, ecological diversity, biological variation and cultural pluralism.

While some scholars claim that globalization is inevitably shaping the world into a homogenized Western mould, in India, globalization and economic liberalization have also led to the fragmentation and tribalization of society, with each community attempting to assert its identity. This is evidenced by the formation of numerous caste organizations, regional political parties, and religious movements in the last two decades. This heightened cultural sensitivity seems to be one of the key factors in the rise of religious fundamentalism and terrorism during this third wave.

lga-india-gospel3. Exciting gospel receptivity

The Spirit of God is blowing across the land in fresh ways as many ‘Christward movements’[6] are occurring, not only among the tribal and Dalit communities but also among other faith communities that are historically resistant to the gospel. This is empirically verified by the one of the largest ongoing research initiatives in the Majority World—an exploratory study of the new Christward movements in North India that I lead at SAIACS (South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies). This exciting fresh wave of movements also challenges our conventional methodologies and motivates us to rethink our traditional mission models.[7]

lga-india-alarm4. Alarming religious animosity

While India has always had a religiously plural ethos, contemporary India has been polarized along religious lines with the advent of the Hindu nationalist political party to power in 2014 with an absolute majority. Hindu nationalism is an ideology that seeks to create a Hindu rashtra (nation) by redefining ‘Indianness’ on the basis of religion and culture. It is a hegemonic attempt to essentialize and homogenize India as a Hindu nation. Even though the origin of Hindu nationalism can be traced back more than a century, the systematic sowing of hatred and targeted violence against the Christian communities, particularly in Gujarat and Orissa, happened during this third wave.[8]

lga-india-economy5. Widening economic disparity

Post-liberalized India has grown richer, but the gap between the rich and the poor also seems to be widening. Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate Indian economist, claims that the twenty-year span (1991–2011) of economic liberalization and globalization has seen GDP grow, but that many of the benefits have not reached the poor.[9] While the number of billionaires has dramatically increased, there is also the tragic fact that in the last fifteen years, 250,000 poverty-stricken farmers have committed suicide, which is probably the largest wave of suicide in human history. While disparity has always existed between rich and poor, the gap is more pronounced in this period.

How do we surf this third wave?

Failure to understand the times, as well as the people in their cultural contexts, renders us ineffective in our missional endeavors

In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, a Christian evangelistic outreach was organized some years back. As part of an advertisement blitz, some Christians wrote on the street walls the slogan, ’Jesus is the answer’. However, the next day, some perceptive Hindus wrote underneath the words, ‘What is the question?’[10] Failure to understand the times, as well as the people in their cultural contexts, renders us ineffective in our missional endeavors, as we end up answering questions that people are not asking and not answering those that they are actually asking.[11]

During this third wave, it is imperative for Christians, cross-cultural witnesses, and missional leaders in India and abroad to recognize that Christian mission in India is different from previous eras, as the contexts and conditions have dramatically changed in many places. Perpetuating uncritically the mindset and methodologies of previous eras will be detrimental to the cause of Christ.

The Bible clearly exhorts God’s people to understand and appropriate the times in which they live. I believe the need of the hour is to ‘understand the times’ (I Chron 12:32), carefully ‘interpret the times’ (Luke 12:56), and serve appropriately in ‘such a time as this’ (Esth 4:14).

Christian mission in this third wave needs to show three characteristics:

lga-india-creativity1. Creativity

In contemporary Indian missions, there is a welcome shift from the tribal/rural focus to urban settings. There is a creative surge of innovative approaches in ministry in an urban context, particularly among young people and professionals. Exciting missional ventures through arts, sports, business, and electronic media are being explored, and cutting-edge technology is being employed for missional purposes. Calvary Temple in Hyderabad, South India, with more than 100,000 members, is the largest church in India and probably the fastest growing church in the world. As the church struggled to follow up their members for pastoral care due to the influx of so many new people, they came up with an innovative idea. Members have been provided with smart cards and are encouraged to swipe them in machines placed at the entrances of the church building. The data is stored and analyzed for the church leadership team to engage in follow-up on members who were not able to attend the worship service.

lga-india-context2. Contextualization

Sadhu Sunder Singh, the famous Indian evangelist from a Sikh background, gave a succinct description of contextualization in the Indian context. He said, ‘It is giving the water of life in an Indian cup.’ As mentioned earlier, there are at least 4,693 cups within India that need the water of life. While there have been sporadic attempts to contextualize the faith, the need for cultural relevance and sensitivity in missions has gained greater salience in the third wave, particularly due to the rise of Hindu nationalism and growing attrition among new believers. Contemporary studies on attrition among new believers reveal that one of the major reasons is lack of cultural fit.As a trained missiological anthropologist, it is refreshing for me to see a new sense of openness among mission leaders and practitioners to contextualizing the gospel among peoples of different cultures and faiths in this new era.[12] For instance, a southern Indian agency, serving in Punjab for many years, had earlier encouraged new believers from a Sikh background to cut their long hair and shave their beards as an evidence of their new faith. However, during a recent visit, I saw many followers of Jesus wearing their turban, as the agency seems to be more open to indigenous cultural forms. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the exponential growth of the church in that region, as locals begin to realize that a Punjabi need not become a ‘madarasi’ (colloquial term for South Indian) in order to be a follower of Jesus.

lga-india-courage3. Courage

it is imperative to recognize that Christian mission in India is different from previous eras.

The missional community that incarnates the gospel must exhibit the life of Christ and embody the love of Christ in a context that is increasingly becoming hostile to missional endeavours. Authentic Christian mission is prophetic and it involves sacrificial service, no matter which era we live in. As Latin American scholar Rene Padilla rightly points out, ‘The missiology the church needs today ought to be perceiving the people of God not as a quotation that simply reflects the society of which it is a part but as “an embodied question mark” that challenges the values of the world.’ [13]

Even as we are sensitive to the contextual realities of our times, may we never be reduced to a mere ‘quotation mark’ that uncritically reflects the views and values of the society, but let us be emboldened to be an ‘embodied question mark’ during this era of missions in India.

May our Lord give us grace to be creative, contextual, and courageous ‘fishers of men and women’ in this third wave!


  1. Shashi Tharoor, India: From Midnight to the Millennium (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2000), 8.
  2. ‘Wave’ as an analogy has been employed by scholars and historians – like Kenneth Latourette, Alvin Toffler and Robert Schreiter – to categorize and periodize history. Waves are a suitable analogy for periodization as they represent the ebb and flow of time, people, and events in a particular period. More importantly, it also reminds us that the periodizations are not watertight compartments, as they tend to overlap with each other.
  3. The term ‘indigenous’ is used here to mean ‘local’ and not ‘primal’.
  4. Adivasi is a term often used to denote the various indigenous tribal communities in different parts of India. It means original, primal inhabitants (‘Adi’ – first, ‘Vasi’ – inhabitant).
  5. K.S. Singh, People of India: Introduction (New Delhi: Anthropological Survey of India/Oxford University Press, 2003, Revised Edition), 289.
  6. By Christward Movement, I mean a movement of a significant number of people from a particular cultural community towards Christ, within a relatively short span of time. These movements are Spirit-enabled, indigenously facilitated, and often result in fresh cultural expressions of faith. The focus is more on ‘Christ’ than the ‘church’ as we know it traditionally (although they meet together as small groups) or the religion ‘Christianity’.
  7. There are at least five empirical PhD studies among these groups that deal with various aspects of the new expressions of faith.
  8. Editor’s Note: See article by Tehmina Arora entitled ‘The Spread of Anti-conversion Laws from India’ in the May 2016 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  9. Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (London: Penguin Books, 2013).
  10. Cited in Dayanand Bharati, Living Water and Indian Bowl (Delhi: ISPCK, 2001), 2.
  11. Editors’ Note: See article by Tom Price entitled ‘Evangelism and Apologetics Confusion’ in the September 2016 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  12. There has been exciting response from mission leaders and practitioners across the country for participation in our training event ‘Christ & Cultures Seminar’, initiated by Centre for Intercultural Studies at SAIACS, which seeks to deal specifically with issues related to gospel and culture in the Indian context. Editor’s Note: See article by Rabbi Jayakaran entitled ‘Delivering the Good News to Hindus’ in the July 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
  13. Quoted in Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 168.