Disciple Making Among Hindus – Review by HL Richard

Editor’s Note: We’ve featured this book earlier, but wanted to also share this review from HL Richard. 


Disciple Making among Hindus: Making Authentic Relationships Grow

by Timothy Shultz (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2016)

reviewed by H. L. Richard

This book is short and in simple and clear English directly makes its points; yet it carries a challenge that few will be able to digest in just one reading. A total change of paradigm for evangelism and discipleship is called for when Hindus are engaged with the message of Jesus, and though the content is not complex the application of it will be revolutionary.

The author shares from his own experience of learning from deep engagement with Hindus; as he says in his Introduction, “everything I have written here I continue to experience as a journey of discovery that stretches me” (citing from Kindle Cloud Reader edition, third paragraph from the end of the Introduction). He rarely cites another author, but writes with deep emotional engagement (including failures and pain), reflecting on his own experience. This gives the book an authenticity that is often lacking in more theoretical writing.

The first chapter, Learning Curve, lays out a lot of background information that must be understood for effective communication with Hindus. Of course, an understanding of Hinduism is vital, and in introducing a very helpful discussion Shultz suggests that “Hinduism is actually a comprehensive way of life within which the gospel may be translated, rather than a religion that people need to reject in order to confess Christ” (last sentence of the third paragraph in the fourth section, “What is Hinduism?”). The rich concept of dharma is briefly introduced as a key concept, and the exhortation is given that, “As Christ’s disciples we must be extremely careful not to be too prescriptive in how we come alongside Hindu people as they assess how the gospel changes their dharma – as it most certainly will do” (from the next to last paragraph in the fourth section, “What is Hinduism?”).

The Hindu family comes into focus as part of this introductory learning curve. The iconic status and central function of family (as opposed to Western individualism) are helpfully discussed. This leads into a discussion of caste, again very helpfully done with a focus on practical concerns and modern realities. A final introductory topic is about Indian Christianity. Shultz points out that “The Indian church has come to believe that Hindu civilization and global Christianity are ultimately incompatible, and in many ways Christian experience in India, particularly since Independence, seems to prove that assumption” (first sentence of the third paragraph in the final section, “The Church in India”). But this book is all about presenting an alternative paradigm to that belief.

The second chapter on Obstacles and Approaches looks at four obstacles and three approaches before closing with a case study. Before starting on the obstacles there is an important discussion of the challenges of Hindu ministry. The vast differences from traditional Christian ministry mean that people will “face a disorienting learning curve” (second paragraph in Chapter 2). It takes time to figure out why Hindus are not interested in our “good news,” and once one begins to understand and adjust to that there is an inevitable distancing from other Christians who expect and insist on traditional patterns.

The first obstacle is that of foreign religion. Hindus are so deeply convinced that Christianity is not for them that they can be quite shocked to learn that Jesus is indeed for all people. Hindu identity is a closely related second obstacle. This goes back to the understanding of “Hinduism” as a “comprehensive way of life.” A Hindu converting to Christianity must change that comprehensive way of life, thus Christianity as a foreign religion. But Hindu identity can and must be affirmed in Christ; as Shultz says,

Until Christians understand how to apply the message of Galatians to a Hindu context and stop thrusting Hindus into an identity crisis, millions of Hindus will continue to resist any call to faith in Christ. (last sentence in the section “Obstacle #2: Hindu Identity”)

Indian Christian identity is the third obstacle, related to the caste system and the low caste roots of most Indian Christians. Spiritual blindness is the fourth obstacle, and Shultz is strong on the point that Satan is the only enemy, and a number of his common wiles among Hindus are helpfully explained.

The first approach (still following the content of chapter 2) is contextualization and the second is contextual skills. The first is more theory and the second is intensely practical, including properly learning Hindu names, food culture, understanding courtesy as practiced in Hindu cultures, understanding family structures, understanding Hindu worship and deities and festivals and philosophy, and learning language. This is an excellent practical section to guide people starting out in befriending Hindus. The third approach is “building a witness,” again very practical and of great importance. It is stressed that “an effective witness is something that must be built over time” (first sentence in the section “Approach #3: Building a Witness”). Quick verbal proclamation is “woefully inappropriate” (next to last sentence in the first paragraph in the section “Approach #3: Building a Witness”). because of the cultural gap and the massive misunderstandings that Hindus have about Jesus as part of the foreign religion of Christianity. But the core paradigm shift for Hindu ministry is clearly stated:

The paradigm-breaking truth is that Hindus themselves actually build a positive response to the gospel that is centered on practice rather than knowledge. (next to last paragraph in the section “Approach #3: Building a Witness”)

This becomes a key to the rest of the book and is central to the very moving case study that closes the second chapter.

The following four chapters spell out the approach to Hindus that Shultz developed over his decades of interaction with Hindus. The first and central point (chapter three) is relationships; a true, vital and natural relationship with a Hindu must be the foundation for sharing the good news of Christ. The focus on natural relationships suggests that this approach is not for full time gospel workers as much as it is for dedicated Christians in normal jobs and for tent-makers. There is much excellent practical advice in this section, including how relationships develop and (in many cases) do not develop. Shultz suggests that “Relationships in Hindu culture are covenantal in nature,” and this is a very helpful perspective (first sentence in the second section, “Covenantal Relationships”). There is no reason to be reticent about Christ, although there is much reason to avoid “evangelism.” The reason natural relationships can lead to fruitful sharing of Christ is because

Open and sincere spirituality without any trace of coercion is a very desirable perception—one that we as believers actually want the Hindu family to have of us, because many Hindus respect people of faith who are genuinely conscious of God. (fifth paragraph from the end of Chapter 3)

Chapter four leads from genuine relationships to Hindus having an experiential encounter with Christ. Shultz considers “the apologetics of Jesus” to be experiential rather than rationalistic, citing and explaining John 14 (in the first section, “The Apologetics of Jesus). Shultz refers back to his discussion on dharma, and introduces the new concepts of anubhav and bhakti, experience and devotion, as keys to how Hindus will recognize Christ as good news. When Hindus encounter Christ in prayer and worship, by seeing answers to prayer, experiencing his peace, etc., the barriers related to foreign religion will begin to break down. This is rich and rewarding reading, needing re-readings and deep meditation to internalize this ministry paradigm.

The fifth chapter goes on to talk about clarifying the experiences. Hindus who experience blessing in the name of Jesus are ready to hear good news about who Jesus is. Shultz suggests three scripture passages for presenting Jesus to Hindus; Matthew 27-28 for the story of his death and resurrection, Romans 8.31-34 on his current status as Lord, and Philippians 2.5-11 that ties the story and current reality together. There are too many practical and insightful points in this exposition to even allow for a summary here. The end goal is full surrender to Christ as Lord, although this often is the end of a considerable process, as Shultz points out:

Hindus sometimes seem to surrender to Jesus in a series of stages. The stages have to do with a growing trust or faith in Jesus as their exclusive Lord. They begin by praying to Jesus among their original deities. Then they will pray to Jesus as their chief deity. At the next stage Jesus becomes their Ishta Devata, their chosen and exclusive Lord, and finally they acknowledge him as the supreme Lord of everybody in the world. (third paragraph in section five, “Surrender”)

Chapter six is on “Intentional Discipleship” and considers a number of important perspectives on both the meaning of discipleship and particularities related to Hindu discipleship to Jesus. Central is the concept that the Christian does not understand Hindu realities and can only learn them from the person s/he is relating to.

…the disciple who initiates ministry is a cultural outsider, and they actually need help from the people they are trying to introduce to the gospel to be able to communicate effectively. (third to last paragraph in the first section, “Intentional Discipleship Reboot”)

Christians are in a collaborative ministry with Hindus from the very beginning as they share areas of need and growth and help each other explain the gospel and grow in Christ. Thus Hindus actually help their mentor evangelize and disciple them! (next to last paragraph in the first section, “Intentional Discipleship Reboot”)

In this scenario the Hindus help their mentor interpret the biblical teaching and apply it to their lives wisely and practically, and the mentor lets them do so, because they trust the work of the Holy Spirit and humbly accept that the Hindus are fully capable of understanding how to live out biblical teaching in their own lives. (last paragraph in the first section, “Intentional Discipleship Reboot”)

The centrality of family is again in focus here, and discipleship means learning how to follow Jesus within a Hindu family.

If discipleship to Jesus means that the Hindu believer must break covenant with his or her family, Hindus will continue to view Christianity—and by extension, Christ himself—as a real threat to the Hindu community. Sadly, this reality is all too common, and it is the exact opposite of good news for the world.

In light of this Shultz spends some time on Bible passages that seem to suggest that a break from family will (or should) often happen when someone follows Christ. The crucial issue of marriage is also addressed before turning to three broad points on discipleship in Hindu contexts. The first is that one cannot really teach Hindus, but rather should coach, recognizing that all decisions and actions are for Hindus to work out within their family context. A second point is that discipleship means bhakti (devotion) and seva (service). Finally, the principle of translation, conveying biblical meaning into another cultural context, is discussed with notes also on syncretism. What this can mean is then outlined in relation to church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

A brief closing chapter comes back to the challenge of the cultural difference between Hindu and Christian worlds. It is suggested that the Christian engaging deeply with Hindus will often end up leading a compartmentalized life, relating to both the communities in complex ways. But perhaps some should leave the Christian world to integrate their life within the Hindu world; and others may at some point move in the opposite direction. Shultz is not trying to sugar-coat reality; he rather suggests that “You will have moments—or extended periods—in your life when you are certain that nothing is right” (fourth paragraph before the end of the chapter). But this is not to discourage, but to forewarn. Clearly it is a great, transformative privilege to engage Hindus in the way Shultz outlines.

An appendix takes this very practical approach to ministry and makes it even more practical; how to first meet Hindus, how to develop relationships, how to evaluate what is happening as relationships with Hindus develop. This is repetitive with some of the earlier content, but reinforces the broad paradigm that has been presented while providing action steps that any disciple of Jesus can begin to implement. A glossary of Indian terms is also included.

This is a landmark book in the history of Christian engagement with Hindus. The daunting challenge of representing Jesus among Hindus is not made easy, but it is made conceivable and the way to move forward is made clear. This book needs wide circulation among concerned Christians who live among Hindus, and networks of such Christians need to develop for mutual learning and encouragement. Nothing this reviewer had read over the past thirty years provides as much hope for the future as this simple volume; where now are those who will take up the challenge of living this kind of life among Hindus?

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