A vibrant Christianity in South India

Despite the government’s desire to eliminate non-Hindu faiths, churches thrive in the nation’s diverse south.

For anyone interested in the state of global Christianity, India represents a real anomaly. With around 40 or 45 million believers, Indian Christians constitute a tiny proportion of that country’s vast population, perhaps just 3.5 percent of the whole. Realistically, nobody expects that India is on the verge of a mass Christian conversion. At the same time, India is so large that its Christian population is comparable in scale to those of the largest European nations, and levels of practice are significantly higher. In recent decades, some of the local stories of growth have been explosive—especially in India’s southern states.

In recent years, India’s right-wing national governments have presented a vision of the country that is strikingly homogeneous, in which the true or real nation is both faithfully Hindu and Hindi-speaking. Little room is left for such minority believers as Muslims or Christians, however long they might have lived on Indian soil. For many years, the Indian national census has consistently underestimated the number of religious minorities, often grossly.

This intolerant vision is hard to sustain in the south, where most people speak one of the tongues from the Dravidian language family, such as Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, and where ethnic and religious diversity is a basic fact of daily life. In southern states like Telangana or Karnataka, Hindus definitely predominate among religious believers, but the Hindi language is spoken by only 1 or 2 percent of the people. Christians are strongest in such southern states as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where some churches can plausibly trace their spiritual ancestry to apostolic times. Newer evangelical or charismatic congregations are obvious in the booming high-tech centers of Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai, all of which count among the nation’s largest and most globalized urban communities.