The Power of Near Culture Missionaries to Muslims in South Asia

One of the questions of this blog is to answer the question, “How can a billion South Asian Muslims be reached with the gospel?” One of the realities of this question is that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Luke 10:2). One of the greatest needs to reach the Muslims of South Asia is to mobilize a missionary force capable of bringing the gospel to the greatest concentration of Muslim lostness on the planet. 

A Christian worship service in South Asia.

Let us begin by looking at the problem. In 2010, Todd Johnson showed that South Asian received the least missionaries of any area globally.[1] Johnson reported that in 2010, South Asia received eight foreign missionaries per million population versus the global average of 58 foreign missionaries per million. In contrast, Latin America received 172 missionaries per million people.[2] Therefore, Latin America receives over twenty times as many missionaries per capita as India and Pakistan. Here is what that looks like on a graph.

In positive news, Johnson reported that South Asia has 734,000 national Christian workers.[3] These are pastors, evangelists, or other Christian workers who are from South Asia. While some foreign missionaries focus on Muslims, most national workers in South Asia are focused on Hindus and Christians rather than the Muslim population. Many anecdotes express this reality. For example, I was once at a Christian meeting in Lahore, Pakistan. Although two hundred Christian leaders attended the meeting, only a handful had real experience in evangelizing Muslims, even though Lahore is 94.5% Muslim. The vast majority of Christians in Pakistan are either unwilling to share the gospel with Muslims or have no idea how to do so.

Here is more positive news. Low-caste Hindus in both Pakistan and India are highly receptive to the gospel. Since there are more Hindus in India than in Pakistan, widespread church planting has occurred more in India than in Pakistan.[4] David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements contains one study of the incredible growth rate of the Indian church. Garrison gave data on a handful of movements where tens or hundreds of thousands of Hindus came to Christ in a relatively short time.[5]

The Indian Census places the Christian population at 2.30%, or approximately 31.7 million in 2020.[6] However, the number of Christians is substantially higher than this figure due to Hindu movements to Christ. Believers from Hindu backgrounds are generally counted as Hindus under the census since officially changing one’s religion in India requires a court process that results in loss of rights for those in scheduled and backward castes and invites undesired scrutiny. Therefore, a very conservative estimate would place the number of Christians in India at more than 50 million (3.6%).[7]Many are Christian only by heritage, while others have a fresh vitality in their faith.

Mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach unreached peoples is a long-standing strategy in world missions. However, mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims has not been a heavily adopted strategy. Historically, the most famous failure in mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims relates to the Coptic church of Egypt. Famous missionaries, such as Samuel Zwemer and Temple Gairdner, gave lifetimes of service in Egypt and had no measurable success in mobilizing Coptic Christians to reach Muslims.[8] The primary reasons for this limited success have been assumed to be ongoing persecution and ostracism of Egyptian Christians, a lack of spiritual vitality in Coptic Christianity, and historical barriers between Muslims and Christians in Egypt because of centuries of violence.[9] The historical failure to mobilize Copts to reach Egyptian Muslims has led some to shy away from mobilizing near-culture Christians to reach Muslims. 

However, the situation of South Asia is significantly different than the case study of Coptic Christianity. First and foremost, South Asia churches have been experiencing substantial growth for many years, especially among Hindus. This growth has also led to a great vitality among many Christians, especially first-generation believers. Therefore, the churches of South Asia are in a very different place than the Coptic Church of Egypt. Additionally, India is one place where Muslims are a minority. Instead of persecuting Christians, both Christians and Muslims are being persecuted together by the Hindu majority. This dynamic also marks a stark difference between the situations of India and Egypt. However, the Christians of Pakistan have been persecuted by the Muslim majority in a way that mirrors Egypt. Persecution will likely remain a significant barrier to mobilizing Pakistani Christians to reach Pakistani Muslims with the gospel. However, there are segments of the Pakistani church with a high degree of vitality in Christ. Many of these Christians are ready to engage the Muslims around them with the gospel. 

            More has been written on mobilizing Pakistani Christians to reach Muslims than mobilizing Indian Christians to reach Muslims. Frederick Stock’s People Movements of the Punjab details the early spread of the gospel through Presbyterian missionaries in what is now known as Pakistan. He reports how the conversion of an illiterate low-caste Hindu man named Som Ditt in 1873 sparked significant growth. From 1881 to 1891 the Christian community in the Punjab grew from 660 believers to 10,165.[10] By 1930, over 100,000 believers were reported in multiple denominations in Pakistan.[11] The results of this movement today are seen in the strength of the Punjabi church in both India and Pakistan. However, this movement has had little impact on the majority Muslim population of Punjab.[12] While Stock asserted that some Christians “proved gifted” in ministry to Muslims,[13] he provided no information on Muslims coming to Christ. 

            In 1999, Samuel Namaan wrote a dissertation asking, “what are the obstacles that prevent the Church of Pakistan in Sindh[14] from evangelizing Muslims in Sindh?” and “How can the Church of Pakistan in Sindh develop an effective strategy to evangelize Muslims?”[15] For his research, Namaan could only identify ten Muslim background believers (MBBs) in Sindh province.[16] An attempt to circulate a survey among MBBs yielded “no response as none of the Church of Pakistan workers were directly involved in Sindhi Muslim evangelism.”[17] According to Namaan, the barriers inhibiting Pakistani Christians from evangelizing Sindhi Muslims included:[18]

  • Muslim hostility to the British. Atrocities committed during British rule in South Asia created deep wounds. The British built the historic churches in most Pakistani cities, creating a permanent link in Pakistanis’ minds between the British and Christianity.
  • Sindhi hostility to the Punjabi majority. Punjabis dominate Pakistani politics, causing animosity between Punjabis and Sindhis. Since most Pakistani Christians are Punjabi, additional cultural tension exists.
  • Pakistani hostility to the West. Western military action in the Middle East is perceived as Western Christian military action against Muslims.[19]

Pakistani and Indian cultures have remarkable similarities, having been a common territory until partition in 1947. However, according to current census reports, Pakistan has a 96.4% Muslim population, while India is only 14.2% Muslim. Because of a difference in each country’s relative population, they have roughly the same number of Muslims at about 200 million each. The dynamics of reaching Muslims in India versus Pakistan are substantially affected by majority versus minority dynamics. For example, in Pakistan, Christians are burdened by blasphemy laws, prejudicial legal systems, and terrorist attacks. In India, Muslim angst is generally against the Hindu majority.

The millions of Christians in South Asia comprise a major workforce that can be mobilized to reach the Muslim minority. The most remarkable growth and vitality in the South Asian church is occurring among Hindus. Hindus are coming to Christ in large numbers in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.  Therefore, these Hindu background movements are the most significant opportunity for mobilization. Recent years have also seen an increased desire among South Asian Christians to engage Muslims with the gospel. 

Considering our question, “What is it going to take to reach a billion Muslims in South Asia?” One need is to mobilize the South Asian church to reach Muslims. It is unlikely that enough foreign missionaries can be mustered to reach 600 million Muslims in South Asia. However, suppose even a small fraction of South Asian Christians can be mobilized for this task. In that case, the number of indigenous missionaries will dwarf the potential of foreign workers.

[1] Johnson, Todd M., David B. Barrett, and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2010: A View from the New Atlas of Global Christianity,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34.1 (January 2010): 29-36.

[2] Ibid., 31. 

[3] Ibid., 31. This number is undoubtedly higher in 2020 than it was in 2010.

[4] Extrapolating from Census estimates for 2020, India has about 1.1 billion Hindus while Pakistan has about 3.6 million Hindus.

[5] Garrison, David, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World. Arkadelphia, AR: WIGTake Resources, 2004, 35-48. See also Garrison’s book, A Wind in the House of Islam.

[6] Extrapolating from the 2011 Indian Census data based upon the 1.87% anticipated growth rate in India. This figure includes all Christian groups, including Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, and others.

[7] Author’s estimate. However, some put the number at 5% or even higher. The highest estimate that the author has heard is 12%.

[8] Tucker, Ruth A., From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, 241, 245.

[9] Hassan, S.S., Christians Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 17-53. Rowe, Paul S., “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt in the Wake of the Arab Spring,” Digest of Middle East Studies 22.2 (2013): 262-275.

[10] Stock, Frederick and Margaret, People Movements in the Punjab. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1975, 64-68.

[11] Ibid. 111, 237, 253, 259, 274, 283.

[12] Ibid. 15.

[13] Ibid., 199.

[14] The Church of Pakistan is a denomination in Pakistan with Anglican heritage. Sindh province is a province in southeast Pakistan with a population of approximately 48 million.

[15] Naaman, Samuel E. “Revisioning Outreach to Sindhi Muslims: Proposals for Christians in Pakistan.” (DMiss diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 1999), i.

[16] Ibid., 87. 

[17] Ibid., 190.

[18] Ibid., 21-23.

[19] Naaman’s study was completed before 9/11 and the United States’ subsequent military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tensions are more pronounced now than at the time of Naaman’s writing.

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