Recently I read an article from Hinduism Today where the Hindu author described a fairly common Christian practice at universities. Christians are taught to befriend Hindus and then try to get them increasingly connected to Christian activities, then Bible studies, then eventually conversion. “The subtle conversion program,” he opened, “which Christians call ‘friendship evangelism’ is becoming a common experience for Hindus of all age groups.” He then shared his own experience over several years of how these “insidious Christian tactics” are used to target and seduce young, unsuspecting Hindus.
When I hear stories like this, the Golden Rule comes to mind, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” How would I feel if a Hindu befriended me, then began to make it clear that the friendship was really intended to get me to become a Hindu, to change my religion and culture? I suspect I too would feel betrayed and let down, possibly manipulated and used for their purposes.
Tim Shultz observes this in his recent book, “Disciples of Christ must develop an authentic and sustainable relationship with the people whom they are trying to reach, for it is from this that the entire movement of growing discipleship toward the Lordship of Christ flows . . . Hindu people order their lives, make decisions, and pursue their interests through webs of meaningful relationships.”1
So how can we avoid leaving the impression we are using friendship for a hidden – or not so hidden – agenda? Let me suggest five qualities we must develop and cultivate to build authentic, respectful relationships with Hindus.
Do you have a listening spirit? Are you able to listen to their stories, their experiences, their cultural practices, their beliefs with genuine interest and concern? When you are with them, do your Hindu friends know without a shadow of a doubt that you are genuinely and deeply interested in them for who they are, not for what you want from them?
I know Christians who will listen for a while, but are always only half listening. They are looking for the quickest door to start telling their own Christian story and to get Jesus into the conversation. It’s interesting how many Hindus have experienced Christian evangelistic efforts over the years, and they are very sensitive to relationships and conversations being subverted to evangelistic and conversion purposes.
Can you listen without quickly judging and condemning the uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or undesirable (to you) aspects of their culture and experience? I talked not too long ago with a Christian woman who worked at a secular university. She described her discomfort with a colleague who regularly talked about his Hindu beliefs with another co-worker. If you have that level of discomfort in listening to a Hindu describe their faith, you will have little chance to help them meet Jesus. They will sense your condemnation and discomfort before you are aware you are exuding it.
I often tell Christians that they need to become much better at “story-listening” and set aside their “story-telling” for quite a while. Keep listening until the Lord and the Hindu let you know the time is right for introducing Jesus into the relationship in an appropriate way. Peter, after all, tells believers to be “ready to give an answer to those who ask you” (1 Peter 3:15). That implies that someone first asks, before we start “telling” the answer.
Do you have a praying spirit? This begins with prayer life in general. How meaningful, regular, and intentional is your prayer time? How much do you go through your day in a spirit of prayer–talking with the Lord about the various aspects of your life?
I know Hindus who meditate and pray for two hours each morning before they start their busy, work-filled days. That’s how much their spiritual life means to them. Some Christians would dismiss this, but if our spiritual devotion to Jesus means less to us than a Hindu’s devotion to Krishna, they won’t find much of interest in our spiritual talk.
Are you actively praying for your Hindu friend? Hindus are really open to prayer. This has been a powerful witness to the compassion, care, and even power of Jesus. But you must be careful here. Some Christians pray for Hindus in order to prey on them for the gospel. When prayer is simply used as a gimmick or manipulative “strategy” to “reach” Hindus, it’s hypocritical and damaging.
Anyone who wants to walk alongside Hindus needs a great deal of wisdom. Wisdom for how to listen. Wisdom for how to understand. Wisdom for when to be quiet and when to talk. Wisdom for how to explain Jesus when the time is right in ways our Hindu friends will understand. Not a day goes by that I don’t recite and follow James 1:5 repeatedly: “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask from God, who gives generously and without scolding, and He will give it.” I need wisdom for my life in general. I need wisdom for how to relate to Hindu friends in genuine, respectful ways. God promises to give that wisdom, if I ask.
I do pray that at the right time, in His time, that a door would open for Hindus to meet, consider, and follow Jesus in culturally appropriate ways. I regularly pray that they would come to find in Jesus the light (jyotir), salvation (moksha), truth (sat), peace (shanti) for which they often pray and long and seek.
Does your Hindu friend know that you pray? Does she see your genuine relationship with and faith in your Lord?
Does your Hindu friend know that you respect him? My Christian friends in India told me many tales of the harsh and disrespectful ways in which Christians had talked to and about Hindus there. Hindus can face the same condemnation and judgment in the US.
Peter instructed believers, when asked about their faith, to give an answer “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). Some people have portrayed Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17) as a strident, harsh, denunciation of idolatry. You haven’t read the passage or the spirit of Paul if you take that sermon that way. He has spent some time in respectful dialog and conversation with the Athenians in their public square (agora). He is finally invited by them to provide more details about the Jesus he has mentioned in conversation. He opens his message (verse 22) by giving credit where credit is due, “I observe that you are very religious in every way.” He does not agree with their worship, but notes the devout way in which the Athenians carried out their worship.
I once watched a Hindu woman stop in her tracks at the sight of the morning sun in an airport gate area in New Jersey. She stepped out of her shoes right there, folded her hands, closed her eyes, and bowed her head. She wasn’t showing off or making a big deal. I had to admire her instantaneous devotion.
There are many Hindu cultural values that I have come to respect highly, and I want to communicate that to those I meet. I read Hindu scriptures in order gain a respectful understanding of their own writings and beliefs. In my reading I have encountered sublime expressions and insights that actually opened my eyes to new perspectives on my own Scriptures.
I read parts of the Rig Veda to learn what their earliest scriptures teach. I have read retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana to orient myself to those epic stories. I am currently reading through the Mahabharata, the longest epic in the world, and have yet, after months, to reach its most famous part, the Bhagavad Gita.
It is important to keep H.L. Richard’s warning in mind, “Do not force Christian ideas into passages of Hindu scripture. We must be scrupulously honest in interpreting the scriptures of all religions, and must diligently study the larger context of all quotations. There are abundant points of contact between Christian and Hindu scriptures on broad thematic issues; claiming references to Christ where none exist only hurts our credibility.”
Does my Hindu friend sense that I respect his culture, his heritage, his literature, his arts, and his foods? Those are all part of his identity. If I reject, disrespect, or disregard those things, I will reject, disrespect, and disregard him.
Do you represent Jesus with a humble spirit? Jesus Himself was “meek and humble of heart,” and He calls His followers to humility. Years ago, H.L. Richard articulated several Do’s and Don’t’s for relating to Hindus that I have found repeated and reworked into other pieces of advice over the past few years. Eight points extracted from his list have stayed with me:
- Don’t criticize or condemn Hinduism.
- Don’t argue or debate on points where we disagree with our Hindu friends.
- Avoid all that even hints at triumphalism and pride.
- There must be no sectarian Christian appeal.
- Work into your life the traditional Hindu (and biblical) values of simplicity, renunciation, spirituality, and humility, against which there is no law.
- Empathize with Hindus.
- Be quick to acknowledge failure – personal and church.
- Be quick to acknowledge mystery and lack of full understanding.
When Christians push or present Jesus with a spirit of superiority (my God is better than your god) or triumphalism (Christianity is going to conquer), they come across as arrogant and proud. This spirit turns off most Hindus. Americans must particularly wrestle with this. Christian culture has a competitiveness and combativeness to it that likes to emphasize Christ’s superiority and conquest: Jesus is better, Jesus wins, Jesus conquers. It’s possible to carry that with a cultural arrogance that assumes we are better and superior because our faith, our religion, our Jesus is superior.
Yes, Jesus makes exclusive claims about Himself, but he never does so in an arrogant, pushy, abrasive way. He does so with a humble spirit and gives people room to accept or reject; he does not force himself on them arrogantly. So when you do represent Jesus to your Hindu friend, coworker, or neighbor, does he or she see genuine humility in the way you speak about Him and in the way you speak to them?
Do you have a timetable for when you think your friend needs to accept Jesus? When Hindus have already been exposed to Christian attempts at evangelism and conversion, they are extremely suspicious and reticent. If you rush into Bible studies or gospel presentations on your time frame, you will alienate them further and simply increase their concern.
I know of Christians who have targets and timetables for how many “Hindus” they need to meet, build “relationships” with, and move to Bible studies and gospel presentations and decisions. So many connections and presentations a week or month create an artificial urgency that precludes genuine relationships and will leave Hindus rightly feeling they have been used and targeted for someone’s evangelistic campaign.
Genuine listening takes time. Genuine prayer takes time. Respectfully understanding your friend and their life experience takes time. Certain life experiences take longer for them, they operate at a slower, less rushed pace.
When I go to India and step off the plane, I have to take a deep breath, intentionally slow myself down, and start moving at a less frenetic pace. When my wife and I walk along the street, we constantly have to remind each other to slow down to a pace that matches the Indians around us – that’s hard for my wife who loves to speed walk. She was once told by Indian friends that her rushed pace at a college made some others wonder why she was angry!
Westerners do not realize how much of their “evangelistic urgency” is really a product of their cultural urgency. The God who took 4,000 years from Abraham to today and 2,000 years from Jesus to today, is not, I suggest, responsible for Christians’ rush to get a decision “right now.” Instead their cultural urgency has been imposed on His more measured, patient “urgency.”
So slow down and give yourself time to become a genuine friend. Give your friend time to become genuinely interested in the difference Jesus makes in your life. Allow time for them to ask about your faith, instead of you imposing it on them according to your timetable. Give the Lord time to lead your relationship as He sees fit.
How are you doing at all these attitudes? Do you listen and pray? Do your Hindu friends sense respect, humility, and patience in your relationships?
I’ll be honest, my Christian upbringing inculcated certain attitudes that the Lord has been working out of my spirit as I have engaged with Hindus. My desire to talk and tell has had to be replaced by a deep desire to listen and learn, and to do so with respect, humility, and patience. Trying to rush people to conversations about Jesus on my agenda and timeframe is being replaced with a slower patience that lets them develop and express interest in Jesus at their request, rather than at my insistence.
- Shultz, Timothy. (2016). Disciple Making among Hindus: Making Authentic Relationships Grow (MARG). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library). p. 53.