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This is a question that I have asked myself many times over the past few years as I have observed the landscape of the Church in America, and more specifically the Indian Church in America. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to blend my Indian heritage and the faith of my ancestors with how Christianity looks in America? These questions are but a small look into a greater conversation of integration that young-adult Indians and other South Asians have been wrestling with for many years now.  

This summer I spent 5 weeks in India traveling from the South to the North, and these questions were fresh on my mind throughout the trip. This was not a mission trip. The purpose of my time in India was to learn about and experience the Christian faith in the Indian context. The primary way I experienced faith in India was by spending time with church leaders, Bible college faculty and students, and saints involved with parachurch ministries. I set out with the goal to sit under the wisdom of women and men of God who are committed to seeing the gospel made known in India. What’s interesting about India is that even with the many religions that are practiced in the country, secularism seems to be on the rise. Many young people in India are not finding the same meaning in religion as their parents and grandparents. This is the case for young people across the globe. We see this in America as well. As an Indian American, my question about the relevance of the faith of my forefathers and foremothers is one that I take seriously. 

Christianity has been in India since the first century when the Apostle Thomas left Jerusalem and took the good news of Jesus to India. The journey of Thomas in India is fascinating in that it gave India knowledge of the gospel many years before other places. While I was in India, I visited a few historical sites that are believed to be locations where the Apostle lived and engaged in his calling. This calling was to be a witness to all that he had experienced with Jesus, to all the ends of the earth. In Thiruvalla, Kerala, I visited St. Mary’s Orthodox Church Niranam, one of seven and a half churches that Thomas established in India. Stepping into the doors of this ancient harbinger of the gospel of Jesus in India, I was brought to tears. Up until that moment, I had only ever imagined what it would have been like for Thomas to share Jesus with Indian men and women in such a way that would lead them to accept Jesus as Lord over their lives. As I walked into that church, I thought deeply about what it means to share a name and faith with one who touched the wounds of the Lord Jesus. Later in the trip, I went to the city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu and visited the cave where Thomas is said to have hid from his pursuers and was later martyred. Within that cave, there is a large stone with indentations left by the arms of Thomas as he prayed and called out to God. Over many centuries this stone has become smoothed over from the hands of onlookers reaching out to touch what Thomas touched. 

What stood out to me when I saw this place of earnest prayer was that this stone may represent the modern perspective of Indian Christianity. 

Thomas’s arrival and ministry in India mean so much to Indian Christians because it offers us a direct link to Jesus. Over time the message of Jesus has been taken to all ends of the earth, and this is a great thing, but what has also occurred as a result is the colonization of the gospel. What is interesting is that sometimes when I speak to people about Christianity in India, I am met with responses of disagreement on its importance and relevance because of the idea that Christianity is a “white person’s religion.” The idea that Christianity was brought to India by way of colonization is not completely true. Yes, churches and ministries were built and started during the time of British rule, but India has known Jesus far longer than a few hundred years. Thomas did not bring with him any sense of church as we know it today. Thomas, a Middle Eastern Jewish man, delivered the gospel of Jesus the Messiah in its original, whole context. There was no concept of colonizing the gospel at this point because as a faithful follower of Jesus, Thomas went to the ends of the earth to make known the truth that transformed his life.

It is easy to see this rock and be moved to tears by the thought of Thomas taking refuge upon it. But with as much ease, we walk right out of the cave that holds such an important piece of Christian history and treat it as a relic of days long gone. Has Indian Christianity become like this stone? Do we go to church and experience our faith in such a way that allows us to briefly recall what once was and quickly go on with our lives as if our lives have not been completely transformed by Jesus? I speak from my own experience, and I have witnessed this mindset by my fellow Indian Christians begin to take hold in our thoughts about church. 

What would happen if the Indian-American Christian experience ensured younger generations they would be cared for and discipled throughout their entire lives? Over the past few years, I have engaged with many young-adult Indian Christians who have a myriad of feelings toward the Indian churches they grew up in. A common sentiment among young Indian Christians is one of concern for the future of their Indian churches:

 “If they don’t listen to us now, who will they listen to when we all leave?” 

What this younger generation of Indian Christians in America is yearning for is not power–we  have seen enough abuse in that area–what we want is our voices to be heard. Our parents raised us to seek education and knowledge because the two can open doors for our futures. I think the same principle can be carried out in our interaction with the Church. Many Indian Christians have observed and endured negative situations at the expense of their church that have pushed them away from church or even the faith as a whole. Many of my peers who have grown up in Indian denominational churches, such as the Indian Pentecostal Church, the Mar Thoma Church, or Syro Malabar Catholic Church to name only a few, have expressed common sentiments that people in their church who hold authority often fail to listen to young people. I remember a specific conversation with a friend who grew up in an Indian church. I was telling my friend how I was encouraged to believe that the younger generations can seek and establish change in our churches, but my friend’s response was disheartening. He told me that at one point in his life, he also believed this, but after trying to share his ideas and hopes for his church, he was met with opposition and discouragement because since things have worked well for so long there is no need to change anything. This story is too common for young people in Indian churches, and it breaks my heart. If Christians take seriously the words of Paul to Timothy; “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (‭‭1 Timothy‬ ‭4‬:‭12‬ ‭NIV‬‬), then this verse applies directly to young Indians who feel ostracized from their churches because of their inability to impact their communities. Young people need to know that they can contribute to creating positive change in their churches. 

Young Indians must know they have a voice that needs to be heard. 

To be Indian is an experience that cannot be easily summarized. The Indian subcontinent is one of the most diverse places on the planet. Consisting of 28 states, over 100 languages, and a myriad of expressions of religion, India is a country where fitting in is directly tied to one’s connection to each of these three domains; geography, language, and religion. Many Indians have direct ties to the places their family comes from, the language they speak at home, and the religion that has been practiced for generations. The beauty of this reality is that Indians can always find commonalities even among our potential differences. 
Enter the Indian-American experience. To be Indian in the homeland means one thing, but to be Indian in America is a completely different conversation. Many of us who have grown up in America have struggled to find our identity as Indian and American. Sometimes we feel too Indian for American communities, or too American for Indian communities. This conundrum has existed for ages for people living amidst multiple cultures. Fitting in is something that all people yearn for in one way or another. The importance of having this conversation about identity as Indian Americans lies in the reality that we have never had the space or freedom to do so. Indians make up the largest global diaspora and that is seen in America, as Indians are the second largest immigrant group in the country. These statistics only support the idea that younger Indians in America are leaving the church. Our numbers are large while our resources for retention and engagement are limited. There is a dire need for young leaders to be raised up to empower and engage young Indian Christians. We need more people to know that they have a voice and that without them, Indian churches in America will potentially fade out over time. My hope for my generation and for generations to come is that we will find ourselves in the Church as those who are beloved sons and daughters of God. Our identity lies first and foremost in who the Lord says we are, and from that everything else flows. A Christian’s spiritual identity has a large influence on our beliefs of our ethnic and cultural identities. If we believe that we are loved, then we can also begin to believe that we have something to offer our communities. Christianity will never lose its relevance or power, but communities can easily forget the power of the gospel of Jesus. As disheartening as the world around us can be, I have hope that a great return can happen among the hearts of Indian Christians in America. Indian Christianity still matters, and it always will as long Jesus remains the center of all we believe, preach, and live.

Alex Thomas is an Indian American pastor, speaker, and friend. He is passionate about seeing the next generation of South Asian Christians find their place within the Church. Instagram: @alexanderkthomas

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