Indian Megachurches’ Centripetal Mission

The growth in the number of megachurches around the globe is an interesting phenomenon. Researchers like John Vaughan1 and Scott Thumma and Dave Travis2 have defined megachurches as churches where two thousand or more attendees worship every weekend. Many researchers have been reporting about such churches from around the globe. Below I attempt to give an overview of these churches in India.

Three Indian Megachurches
Case studies of three megachurches revealed that Indian megachurches are a different breed of churches in India. These three were located in two major cities of India—Kolkata and Bangalore. Each had a humble beginning.

The Mark Buntain Memorial Assembly of God Church. Located in Kolkata, this megachurch was started by American missionary Mark Buntain, a contemporary of Mother Teresa. It began as a tent meeting, but today stands majestically as a marbled structure with air conditioning cooling the hot Kolkata air. The present senior pastor is a scholar. He believes in making Jesus famous rather than Christianity or the Church as an institution.

The worship services are conducted every weekend in eight languages: English, Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, Oriya, Tamil, and Telegu. This church has begun developing the cell group structure of operation, which (according to an associate pastor) is an effective way of reaching millions in Kolkata who belong to diverse faiths, cultures, and lifestyles.

Full Gospel Assembly of God Church. This megachurch is in Bangalore. It was started by an Indian, a theological graduate in the 1980s. He would walk through the lanes and streets of the city praying to God for a church. He and two others constituted the first church. After more than twenty years, this church claims to have seventeen thousand attendees every Sunday.

The founder, a man of prayer, is now the senior pastor. He prays that India will be washed by the blood of Jesus. Such radicalism has attracted many threats; but it has also attracted many attendees. Worship services are conducted in five languages: English, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, and Nepali. This church has begun focusing on media evangelism. The senior pastor claims to telecast the gospel through 32 channels with viewership of 300 million a week.

Bethel Assembly of God Church. This megachurch is also in Bangalore. It was started by Bible college teachers as a house church in the 1950s. By the 1960s it obtained land and erected buildings. Today, this church is located on the outskirts of the city and has sufficient space for parking—an attraction for many.

This church conducts services in four languages: English, Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil. It has grown through cell groups and volunteer leaders. One distinguishing feature is that it conducts days and nights of fasting prayer many times throughout the year.

Characteristics that Attract Non-believers
These Indian megachurches exhibit centripetal mission. The adjective centripetal implies moving or directed toward the center; centrifugal, on the other hand, means mission that is sending or moving away from the center. This may seem paradoxical, but it is not. The opposing implications of these two terms can be resolved if mission is considered in terms of church growth. 
 

Therefore, the activities or characteristics of a church which attracts or brings attendees (thus making the church grow in attendance) can be considered its centripetal mission. Below are ten characteristics these churches display.

  1. They are strong in giving. They believe that a giving church grows; thus they put a strong emphasis on giving. These churches are able to collect huge sums of money. They also believe that a growing church gives. And so they give away major portions of the offerings to help the needy. They also sponsor seminarians, give aid to church planters, manage children’s homes, maintain their huge buildings, pay full-time workers, and pay the bills of different projects and programs (like the production of CD-ROMS and TV programs and the publication of tracts and books for evangelism and other church-related ministries).

  2. They have magnificent buildings. These Indian megachurches have outstandingly huge and magnificent buildings. For an aam admi (average Indian), these buildings appear luxurious. The one in Kolkata is like a theatre where seats are cushioned. The two in Bangalore have enough chairs for everyone who comes to the worship service (this is unlike some churches in India, where according to gender, age, caste, or class, some or all sit on the ground). Worshipping in a huge congregation provides attendees a psychological boast in a place where belonging to Christianity makes one a minority, and highly susceptible.
  3. They are focused on developing full-time ministers. The Indian churches sponsor seminarians who become full-time ministers. Some become full-time ministers in the megachurches; others become church planters and pastors in areas beyond the megachurches.
  4. They have networks of cell groups. These churches have numerous cell groups of twenty members each. The senior pastor of the English congregation of one of the megachurches in Bangalore emphasized that these cell groups multiply mitotically after it has maximum strength. After attracting twenty members, a group divides into two of ten each. Both groups begin to function as separate units and continue to attract non-believers.

    The senior pastor of the Malayalam congregation of the same megachurch explained that each church member tries to be sensitive and look out for people in need. Anyone in need is attended to quickly. If they respond to this initiation, then they are asked to join a cell group. After attending the meeting several times (and if they want to continue), they are incorporated into the church.

  5. They focus on the participation of lay people in mission. The word-of-mouth form of witness plays a significant role in advertising Jesus in unreached India. Lay people invite neighbors and friends to their cell groups and Sunday worship services. They are also quick to help neighbors and friends who may be seekers or non-believers. Many who need healing and deliverance respond and are ultimately incorporated into the church. A sensitive cell group can achieve much, even in a religiously-plural country where people who are needy still look for divine help and guidance. Cell groups and lay persons become missionaries, carrying the good news of Jesus.
  6. They focus on training volunteer leaders. Many lay persons in the churches are interested in studying theology, but do not have time to go to a residential program. To such people, these churches offer courses on theology and leadership. They are given a certificate or diploma from a seminary with which the church is associated.

    For example, the South Asian Bible College identifies those who have taken courses from the Full Gospel Assembly of God Church in Bangalore. These certificate or diploma holders can join their seminary when they can find time, or they can become leaders of different cell groups or used elsewhere in the megachurch. Volunteer leaders range from youths to senior citizens. This is the strongest centripetal mission force found in the Indian megachurches.

  7. They have a strong emphasis on the senior pastor. The senior pastors are strong attracting agents. One said that it took many years to overcome many obstacles and discouragements to come to a point where his church (located in a mixed residential and commercial area) cannot accommodate more people, even after six worship services are held in a Sunday. He believes in prayer while the attendees look to him for meeting their needs. In the other two churches, the senior pastors were not the founders, but their charisma has been found to be the source of attraction. Their gift of preaching, leadership, healing, and blessing are highly sought after.
  8. They emphasize fasting and prayer. In secular India, where advancement in medical research provides some hope, even those who belong to other faiths seek help and healing from these churches. In fact, it is prayers that sustain the growth of the churches, said the senior pastors of both megachurches in Bangalore.
  9. They emphasize charity and meeting physical needs. When a tsunami struck the southern part of the country, one of the megachurches in Bangalore was one of the quickest churches to respond. Attendees emptied departmental stores, loaded goods in trucks, and sent the items to the people in distress. Homes for lesser fortunate children are built to provide education and proper care. Trainings are offered to help the least fortunate stand on their feet.
  10. They have seeker-friendly worship services. The reduction in the use of offensive words is one of the centripetal forces. The megachurch in Kolkata calls believers “Jesus’ followers”, “Jesus’ disciples”, or Yesu bhakt rather than “Christians”. India was colonized for many years and the experiences of the people by the dominating power is not forgotten by many Indians. Moreover, although baptism is a must to avail membership, anyone can attend these churches. They wait for a seekers to make their own decisions to be baptized. The reduction of pressure on seekers to get converted or baptized helps them feel at home.

 

Two Approaches
Indian megachurches have two different approaches: a non-provocative approach and a fortitude approach.

Non-provocative approach. Speaking the truth in love has been the approach of the megachurch in Kolkata. The church has been highly cautious not to offend seekers. It has also shown that waiting upon the Holy Spirit for convicting seekers yields an increase in believers. Moreover, the sensitivity of this church helps to avoid intimidation of those from other religions. In a pluralistic India, where Christianity is a minority and is often in a persecuted state, this church gives a good model of doing mission with safety.

Fortitude approach. Being bold even when the odds are high has been the approach of one of the megachurches in Bangalore. The founder and senior pastor has not wavered from his desire that India one day be washed by the blood of Jesus. There have been reports of threats to the pastor and the church. Some Christian mission strategists fear that such a church instigates opposition from fanatics in India. But this church is still standing; I believe, in many instances, it is its sheer size and strength that has dispelled real opposition.

Endnotes

1. Vaughan, John N. 1993. Megachurches & American Cities. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

2. Thumma, Scott and Travis Dave. 2007. Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from Mega-church's Largest Churches, First Edition. Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series. Indianapolis, Ind.: Jossey-Bass.


Imchen K. Sungjemmeren (Meren) was a missionary teacher for two years at South Bank Baptist Mission in Assam, India. After which he and his wife joined the Par Terok Mission, which supports a church in Arunachal Pradesh. He is now on faculty in the Department of Missiology at Union Biblical Seminary in India.