There is no simple formula that explains human relationships. Why some relationships seem natural and easy while others are strained and difficult cannot be easily understood, and certainly cannot be worked into a universal formula. Relational complexity only increases when extending beyond two people to group dynamics. These rather obvious observations need to be front and center when thinking about walking alongside Hindus on the path of Jesus.
Recently, I’ve interacted with many Americans asking for guidance in their established relationships with Hindus. As I reflected on similar situations over the past few decades, I wanted to share a few principles I’ve learned.
The biggest lesson of all is that there is no formula to develop a deep and meaningful relationship. When such a relationship does exist, you must recognize that something important, yet also quite fragile and transitory, has developed.
Relational dynamics with Hindus have potential to grow and develop when relationships are central and programs and activities are marginal. Relationships with Hindus are likely to grow when there is deep respect and interest to learn about Hindu traditions and attitudes. Relationships will likely fail when there is a perceived agenda behind the relationship, or when time-oriented attitudes interfere with relational dynamics. Yet, these and similar pointers, while important, cannot guarantee that any particular person at any particular time will develop meaningful relationships with Hindus. This points to a focus on prayer for God to direct and intervene in relationships.
There is vast cultural distance between North American disciples of Jesus and their Hindu acquaintances. Individualistic Americans are much more open to explore and embrace counter-cultural trends, while most Indians have a much more family and community-related identity that makes them slow to depart from family traditions. Or, when departing from tradition (as in eating meat, which considerable numbers do, against their family traditions) it is not in an extreme manner (few resort to eating beef). Hindus in diaspora are forced out of comfort zones, yet tend to stick together rather than mix as individuals in multi-cultural gatherings.
Along with the complexities of relational dynamics and cultural distance there is also a power element in Christian relationships with Hindus. Western/Christian power is not often discussed by Christians but is often recognized by minorities and non-Westerners. Abuse of colonial power, and ongoing abuse of Western economic power, are facts that are dissonant with Western Christians’ attempts to live out the biblical focus on servanthood. Assumptions that one’s service will be recognized as selfless are often unfounded, as larger historical and global realities drown out the local experience.
Even when local Hindu friends are convinced that power dynamics are not in play in a relationship, this does not necessarily translate across in communication to Hindu relatives. Yet initiatives must be taken, and the central point of this brief essay is that deep cross-cultural relationships with Hindus are possible, and when God creates an opportunity for deep relationships, such opportunities must be prioritized and not squandered.
Living for Christ among Hindus is thus a dance under the direction of the Holy Spirit. As Tim Shultz writes, “…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” (Disciple Making Among Hindus, Pasadena: William Carey Library, p. 97).
It all comes down to relationships, at times taking initiative, at times waiting to allow a Hindu friend to process ideas and experiences, at times waiting to discern what God is doing, always praying for God’s intervention and seeking mutual learning and edification towards seeking God and his kingdom together. Cultivating reticence is thus a necessary part of relationships with Hindus. When in the course of interaction with Hindus there is an evident depth to interactions with genuine friendships developing, a kingdom-rich scenario has unfolded and the disciple of Christ needs to focus prayer and relational capital into such situations.