An Interview with An Indian Christian In A De-Westernized Ministry
The following dialog is between an Indian Christian who has de- westernized his Indian Christianity. His family along with others are involved in getting the Gospel into the Hindu mainstream of India.
(Note: "I" represents our Indian friend being interviewed and "A" represents comments and questions presented by American Christians.
A: What caused you to change your approach toward Hindus?
I: It all started 10 or 12 years ago. We looked at our respective spheres of influence. As a professional I looked at how I relate to my Hindu associates. For each of us in the group this was a different sphere, but none of us was making headway in reaching Hindus. We read a book by Jim Peterson called "Church Without Walls." We adapted this to the Hindu situation and realized that Christians in India are carrying more of their culture than the Gospel, and this is very irksome to the Hindu. Much of this culture was brought in by the British missionaries, including change of clothes, western-style buildings, massive pipe organs. Before a Hindu listens to the Gospel of Christ he has made up his mind that he wants nothing to do with it because it will alienate him from his heritage.
Paul had a similar struggle with Jews who would say that to be a believer you have to be circumcised. Over several years we realized that there were many things we had to drop to move effectively into Hindu culture. We have to drop our Western baggage rather than ask the Hindu to drop his cultural baggage. Unfortunately, many Evangelicals see it the other way around.
For example the Bindi--the red dot on a woman's forehead--means that she is married and belongs to her family and that she is not a widow. For an Evangelical, the Bindi is the third eye of the devil. Somehow we, Christians, have got to see that we are not just dealing with individuals, but with their social sphere. The mainline Indian Christian crowd will not accept this [the approach to individuals].
We were able to introduce the Gospel without cultural trappings. You, who are from the outside may be more sensitive to realizing these concepts than the Indians who are in India.
Many Indians feel that to become Christian they have to change their name. But there are now many pockets of godly, believing people in India who would never call themselves Christian but who are living for Jesus. Some of them allow the idol to stay in their house for the sake of the Gospel so that they can still communicate with their peers and family about the change which has come in their life. It is very different from our Western approach. None of these people have a date when they prayed and asked Jesus into their life. For the Hindu reading the Bible, it takes about 2 to 3 years to cleanse their mind and their heart and follow Jesus more and more closely. By the grace of God there are today quite a few Hindu believers providing leadership for a growing circle of believers among the Hindu main stream in India.
A: I was a little shaken by the idea of idols staying in the homes, but as I've been sitting here praying I felt the Lord speak to me that we have idols in our homes as well--TVs and cars and other things which our culture idolizes--so that we can communicate with our neighbors, even though the power of these things over true believers is broken.
[Continued in the evening in a smaller group:]
I: 99.9% of the problems with the church in India is because of funding from the West.
If the money can stop flowing from here, and the existing works can be dropped like hot potatoes, then there is some hope of the church in India recovering. The moment you give a dollar you are choking the church in India.
A: Whose responsibility is it to identify the problem.
I: This is not going to come from the Indian leaders who are dependent on the money.
A: How can Hindus avoid rejection as they come to know the Lord.
I: Those who are taught not to put on an outward show for Christ find that they are transformed profoundly from within, and this is recognized by their family, and the family becomes interested. Such a believer does not run away from the Hindu ceremonies. He is still a part of his culture, but he knows now that Jesus is the Lord of all and a solid foundation is laid in him. The new believer moves from a place where he has understood Christ as one of the gods to a place where he now realizes that Jesus alone is God. One by one you find all of them coming to know Jesus Christ without a radical conversion. It happens in small increments, and the family moves with them slowly into the fold. They don't go to church. They don't have any association with anything which is mainline. They know nothing about U.S. dollars.
A: How are these people being fed spiritually?
I: The families meet informally and talk about the Bible. These people are not secret believers. They share with their family what they are learning from the Word.
Some of the people fueling this movement are from a Christian background, but they have left "Christian" forms behind and are even raising their children to be believers who maintain Hindu forms.
The leaders of these groups meet once a month for six or seven hours. We don't have Christian worship, but we discuss whatever is relevant to our Hindu spheres of influence.
A: What are some of the issues on which you have changed your perspective over the last five years?
I: Those of us who grew up in the church have found it very difficult to separate ourselves from the [Western] "church culture." We have found that we have to separate ourselves completely to have a voice among the Hindus. [instead of attending church the Bangalore families come together for study...] There are 40-60 people meeting as an extended family (which is a big thing in India) for systematic study of the word, using Navigator Bible study [materials].
A: Do you find that the Navigator approach itself is full of American culture?
I: There is a strain of Navigator teaching in India which has thrown American culture out of the Navigator teaching in India. An American Navigator might feel that the Indian Navigator approach is heretical. There are other Navigators taking the traditional American Navigator approach to work with the churches in India. This is not a problem. This is like Paul and Peter; Paul was called to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. There are similar things going on among the Muslim mosques [not in India, R: is referring to mosques outside of India].
A: What difference is there between a Christian allowing a Christmas tree or an Easter Bunny into his home and not allowing a Ganesh (Hindu idol) into his home?
We went to one Christian conference in India at which they had pictured a tribal man beating his drum, with the caption "Satan's festival." Below the picture of a Santa Claus was the caption "Christian festival."
It is not the offense of the Gospel we are presenting, but the offense of the presenter.
A: The thing that really hit me in India was that the Bible itself is very acceptable, but the offense of the presenter keeps the Hindus from accepting it. I began to realize that if we were going to reach Hindus we would have to stop going to church.
Is part of this movement a rebellion against Western influence?
I: In a sense, but this is really an effort to separate the gospel and the culture and make the pure Gospel mobile and remove the add- ons to the Gospel. There is so much that we have added in our Church culture which scares off the Hindu before he can even consider the Gospel.
A: How do you treat tithing?
I: We raise our own support in our fellowship. We are all generous. We believe in raising our own funds. There have been occasions when visiting friends have offered a check, but we have refused it.
A: The add-ons to Christianity in our own country are also a barrier to the Gospel here. I myself recall looking at Christianity before I became a Christian and felt turned off by the Christian culture.
There is a businessman in our church who meets each week with 22 businessmen to discuss their objections to the offense of the church in bringing them to Christ. He is not bringing them into our church, but instead to faith in Christ.
Bruce and I were talking a while ago about the mobility of the Gospel, just as you are, beyond this person to the next person to the next person. Present day missions in India are focused on addition, where you are focusing on multiplication. You are trying to drop cultural baggage for the sake of the mobility of the Gospel. I'd like to see a listing of contrasting paradigms.
This approach has tremendous relevance for reaching our own unchurched populations in the U.S.
We are talking here at the U.S. Center for World Mission about the ultimate goal of reaching people groups. Even though Billy Graham may not be relevant to some people within our culture, there are still some in our culture with whom he will be effective, while among many people groups in India there is no movement growing yet.
In India the Gospel is expanding in a Western way among people who are receptive to receiving a Western Gospel. Around the world the Gospel will spread in a certain stratum of society. Oppressed castes and Tribals are a major sphere in which the Western gospel has spread. Will the Christians from these groups be able to reach the unreached groups in India, or should they focus on other parts of the world knowing the Hindus won't respond to messengers from these oppressed groups?
I: When we speak of de-Westernization we may leave a miss-impression that we need to replace one form with another. I don't mean contextualization in that sense. Rather we are seeking to make the Gospel appropriate to the Hindu through lifestyle evangelism.
A: How can our Perspectives course be adapted profitably for Indian Christians? Should we mobilize Christians in India to use a non- standard approach to missions? If they use a Western approach Indians may only be effective in reaching certain segments of the Hindu sphere?
I: The current approach to reaching Hindus is extracting, rather than planting a seed which can grow and multiply. It extracts someone so that they have no further influence. Keep a tribal man in his culture so that he can now beat his drum for the Lord. Don't call this Satan's ceremony. Then the Gospel will become mobile and go anywhere.
A: At one of our recent meetings here in India an Indian mission leader mentioned that they were realizing that they need to start targeting whole families.
I: Good, but their strategy will break down if they are unwilling to allow believers who have to marry an unbeliever because of their family culture. To them this is a violation of their Western understanding that "unequally yoked" has to do with faith rather than culture. The yoking should be within a culture. The faith will spread as you are faithful to the Lord within the context you have been brought up in. In our society the decision of whom you marry is not up to the participants, but to the parents who select the boy and the girl. This is one reason marriages do not collapse in India as they do so often in America. You in America make the decisions without the benefit and backing of the extended family.
A: In India, when you "yoke" in marriage you are not yoking individuals (as in the West), but you are yoking the new couple into one or the other of the existing extended families?
Can you give us an example of how this has worked in India?
I: Chandra, an Indian student in San Jose, California, came to know the Lord there through the Navigator ministry. When he arrived in India we needed to spend a couple years "de westernizing" him. When it came time for him to marry he had two choices, to listen to the church and defy his parents, or to listen to his family.
The fellowship church had a nice girl they wanted him to marry.
We, on the other hand, taught that all marriage is blessed by God, whether the spouse is Hindu or a Farsi or a Sikh. God invented and blessed marriage. What is so uniquely "Christian" about marriage? Marriage is a marriage. God is committed to honor His word and His covenant. Paul mentioned when the Gentiles obey the law of God [God is pleased]. When a man speaks the truth he benefits regardless of whether he is a Hindu or a Farsi or a Sikh. We say, listen to your parents when it comes to marriage. They are your parents, God's gift to you.
So, this man listened to his parents. His family is now believing and God's blessing is on his home. Suppose he had listened to the fellowship church. That would have been the end of Chandra's opportunity to reach the rest of his home. In fact, that did happen to another man whom the church convinced to be baptized and marry their choice. The parents have now for five years refused to talk to him and consider him dead. He has made sacrifices, but the sacrifice he has made is of his opportunity to reach his family for Christ.
I want my people to know the Lord. I want them to know the joy I have. There are two perceptions: The church says "take a stand for the Lord. " In that case people are extracted from their soil to sit in the church downtown with the pipe organ. The convert then gets acclimated to that context in a few months and forgets his family and his background in a nice "Holy huddle." Reaching others becomes a theory.
A: What comes to my mind is "having the form of Godliness but denying its power." We want the outward forms because they make us comfortable. But we don't believe that Jesus in our hearts will change the lives of all those we touch. No matter what strategies we develop, Jesus has to do the job.
I remember you telling me that when you read Dr. Winter's comments about "The Re-Amateurization of Missions." You agreed. What are some of the problems you see with a re-awakened church plunging into missions? What is some of the negative impact you see in India? For example: in a single weekend, we heard, "550,000 people responded to Reinhard Bonke," which is ten times the number the newspaper had indicated--as if the number of Christians had increased in Bangalore by 30% over one weekend!
I: Dr. Winter is saying the same thing we are saying. He quoted "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Christians approach the Gospel as if it is a gospel to be sold. Due to my line of work, I was there when Reinhard Bonke was questioned by the media. They asked him many embarrassing questions, and although he is a nice man, the Hindu will completely misunderstand his answers.
A: One friend of ours has observed four means of sharing the gospel. The first is prayer. The second is living the life. The third is responding to a question, and the fourth is making a presentation. When we do the latter and push a person to make a decision before the Lord has properly prepared his heart, we are giving him an opportunity to harden his heart.
Do the followers of Christ in India who retain a Hindu background have a common way of referring to themselves and distinguishing themselves from other Hindus?
I: We say "a person comes to be a believer in Christ, or a follower of Jesus." Sometimes a person approaches us and says "I am so interested. You have Hindu elements in your home, but you have some 'Christian' elements in your life!"
A: How many people in India know about Christianity?
I: Most city dwellers and even village dwellers know about "Christianity." But in all the motion pictures they know Christians as drunks and thieves, always the villain, usually with the name Paul, Peter or Matthew. The Christian [Westernized] minority is well known and has raised quite a stink. The word "Christian" is better known than "Jesus."
A: What, if anything, has catalyzed the various movements of Hindus becoming believers?
I: There is one Navigator who came to India 20 years ago. After five years of ineffective ministry he threw out all the Western baggage, adapted an Indian lifestyle, went through an in-depth process of studying the Bible in an Indian context. This approach is spreading now among both Hindus and Muslims. How do we deal with Muslims who become believers and they come with four wives? Christ has set us free. We have to be led by the Spirit as this unfolds. Throughout the country, at the leadership level of this movement, 80% are Hindu from different castes. There are almost 200 keen leaders now sown all over the country, kind of like a time-bomb.
A: What can we do to facilitate? What needs to happen for Hindus to respond to the Gospel in much larger numbers?
I: Your Perspectives course has done wonders in communicating to people. It would also be your responsibility to see how you can discourage all kinds of foreign funding, particularly to help individual Christian workers in an area. You need to turn such people to the Scriptures and show that you want to be generous but that kind of help is hurting the growth of the church. It takes wisdom and prayer and discretion to provide wise funding.
A: What can a Westerner do to help facilitate the kind of thing you are experiencing?
I: We will have to think about this further. It was probably a good transition for R & J coming to India first to stay in a safe compound. But now I would encourage them to go into the heart of a Hindu community and live among the people. God could have written the gospel in the sky, but instead he chose to come and live among us. They will find the Hindus to be very warm and friendly. If R & J do nothing for the next couple of years except live among the Hindus and cut themselves off publicly from the "Christians," this would be helpful.