Bihar, India, is known as “the graveyard of missionaries.”
A Hindu-majority northeastern state bordering Nepal, Bihar is known as the birthplace of Muslim kings, Sikh gurus, and a Hindu goddess; it’s home to the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Bihar continues to practice the caste system, keeping millions in poverty and illiteracy. One of India’s most populous states, Bihar has more than 100 million people, but fewer than 200,000 of them (less than 1 percent) identify as Christian.
When Biju Thomas first received an offer to work in Bihar, he turned it down. But one day, the young ministry worker with Trans World Radio (TWR) decided to fast and pray so he could give his director an honest answer. “The Lord led me to Romans 10:14: ‘How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?’ Although it was a book and passage I had read many times, I was never struck by those verses before.” In 1995 Thomas moved to Bihar.
Working with TWR throughout the 1990s, ministering to rural villages outside the state capital, Thomas was struck by the people’s unmet needs and saw the importance for development work alongside sharing the gospel. He resigned in 2000 to form a new ministry: Transformation India Movement (TIM).
“The Gospels testify to Jesus making people whole,” Thomas says. “In the villages I went to, I saw people who were without basic care and infrastructure—clean water, education, an income to support their families. Most of all, these people had never heard the name of Jesus. We began to ask, ‘How can we make the gospel more relevant to them? How can we show them that we are interested not only in their spiritual care, but also in meeting their basic needs?’”
Each village has a tight-knit social structure, often dominated by the caste system. Providing clean water became the key that allowed TIM to gain access to a village, develop relationships, and teach the gospel.
“The clean water not only quenches their physical thirst, but it also provides the opportunity to share about the living water Jesus gives to quench their spiritual thirst,” Thomas says. “When we do literacy and job training, people see that we care for them. It opens up all kinds of opportunities.”
The Start of a Movement
In 2003 TIM opened its first church in Patna, the capital city of Bihar, and soon began a discipleship program to train local leaders to become church planters in the surrounding villages and countryside.
Early on in the ministry, Thomas recalls opening a women’s sewing school in a small village: “One husband came and enrolled his wife in our program. Our church planter and his wife spent time with the women and asked how they could pray for them. This particular couple were devout Hindus, and the wife suffered from chronic headaches.” After the church planter shared the gospel and prayed with the woman, God healed her, and she and her husband became believers.
Their transformation was astounding, Thomas says. “When they came to the river to be baptized, this couple brought a big bag of all their household idols with them and said, ‘We don’t need these anymore—we have Jesus in our lives.’”
To Thomas, the change he witnessed in this couple embodies the power of the gospel. “If that is what the gospel of Christ can do, I don’t mind being in a place like Bihar. In the 21 years my family and I have been in here, God has been so faithful. We’ve seen thousands of people come to Christ through TIM’s various church-planting and development programs.”
Ministering in the Hindu Community
Church planters have encountered particular resistance when sharing the gospel with members of higher castes. Although India officially banned the caste system in its constitution in 1950, the social hierarchy persists and is especially prevalent in Bihar. But Thomas and his church planters have found the Dalit and other lower castes to be open to the gospel.
“In the caste system, they were barred from education and from using the same wells and water sources as upper caste members,” Thomas explains. “But as Christians they are children of God, not a lower or second class. Now they have access to education for their children and ways to make their lives here better. They benefit materially from being welcomed into a family of equals.”
Amid the people’s hunger for the gospel, the church planters have to innovate to overcome illiteracy and a shortage of study materials. Thomas says Christians in Bihar relate to the Bible particularly through music and stories. “Our church planters often write songs from Bible stories,” he says. “It helps their church memorize a story and enables them to discuss the passage and come to an understanding of its application.”
By sharing the gospel with the poorest members of society, Thomas sees the Transformation India Movement reaching out to the kinds of people Jesus would have ministered to. “The people commonly referred to as ‘backward classes’ are open to the gospel because they don’t have acceptance in their own religion. People who have been unloved outcasts for their whole lives are suddenly hearing about Jesus and his love for them.”
Despite such success, Thomas knows his work is far from over. His goal has always been to see India transformed by the gospel in his lifetime, and there are 100 million people in Bihar who haven’t heard the good news. “I believe it is the birthright of every person in Bihar, India, to hear the name of Jesus at least once,” Thomas says. “I also believe it is the responsibility of the global Church to give them an opportunity to know who Jesus is, and I invite the Church to join what God is powerfully doing in the state of Bihar.”
In partnership with Jesus’ Economy, Biju Thomas and TIM are renewing Bihar India. They’re creating jobs for impoverished women, planting churches in unreached villages, and drilling water wells. Learn more at JesusEconomy.org/RenewBihar.