Review of Christian Barriers to Jesus

Editor’s Note: We are excited about the recent release of Dr. Paul Pennington’s book, “Christian Barriers to Jesus”. You can get a copy through the William Carey Library, Amazon, Pothi (India Only), and even Walmart :-). Follow with Paul here


Dr. Paul Pennington has written a valuable book about the Christian-Non-Christian interface in India. In my opinion, “CB2J” is required reading for people who are interested in the gospel in India. Pennington tells the truth, and sometimes, as this time, the truth hurts. Pennington is not an armchair critic, though. This book is authentic because it is filled with the emotion that accompanies first-hand stories. Pennington’s tears speak just as loudly as his facts. He also has the missiological “chops” to take the sights, sounds, feelings and stories he has experienced and weave them together into a meaningful learning experience.

The first three barriers are what Pennington refers to as “fundamental” barriers. They effectively unpack two big ideas. Christians have either completely segregated themselves from the mainstream Hindu people of India or, they have inserted their churches and their traditions between non-Christians and Jesus. This has led to the staggering disconnect that currently exists between Jesus Christ and the non-Christian majority of India.

In the Interlude chapter, Pennington presents options and then deconstructs them to assess their value in dealing with these 3 foundational barriers. He does this throughout the book, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to dealing with these barriers. This is an analytical device that he uses effectively and in a focused manner; one doesn’t lose sight of the forest while considering the trees.

The fourth barrier addresses the very off-putting experience of a “demeaning, condemning and arrogant tone” that can characterize our preaching and evangelism (pg. 85).  He contrasts this with the advice the apostle gives in 1 Peter about the incarnational mentoring of people toward discipleship to Jesus, which Pennington advocates as the much better approach.

The fifth barrier addresses conversion and naturally follows the fourth.  Pennington defines conversion in the following way: “…we find that conversion, as it is commonly practiced in India today, first extracts new converts from their socio religious community to a separate Christian community- the separation of chapter 1. It then requires conformity primarily to external church rules rather than inner conformity to Christ. The external markers are often markers that reject the former socio-religious community and demonstrate allegiance to the new. As such, this conversion practice has led to considerable debate in India for decades.” Pennington then appeals to the testimony of Hindus, the facts of Indian law regarding conversion, and the legalism which so often characterized Christian gospel ministry in India. This is important reading for American Christians who frequently have absolutely no idea what happens with respect to conversion in India; mainstream Americans would never allow religious activists to do this to them.

The sixth barrier is about how people think about baptism in India and how it is practiced in the context of religious conversion. Hindus who are not converting often see it as a violent act that separates their families and feels in some way like the triumph of Christianity. Pennington closes this chapter with a thorough discussion of how to think about baptism in this context.

The seventh barrier is Christian styles of worship that are usually more Western than Indian. Pennington’s point of view is obvious and elementary. After reading this chapter, ask yourself how anyone could somehow not understand this? The answers come from the fundamental barriers in the first 3 chapters.

Barriers 8 and 9 go together and address the very difficult issues of money and dependency in India. Pennington offers a very helpful definition of dependency on page 184 which connects financial support to obligation and a temptation to not really tell supporters the truth. Hindus believe this is a fundamental characteristic of Christianity in India. Pennington closes this section with an explanation of financial inducement of the poor in India to convert to Christianity. I have never met a Hindu who does not assume that this is standard practice.

These nine barriers are real and long-standing obstacles to the spread of the gospel in India. We have inherited some of them and we have perpetuated all of them. Pennington offers hope in the form of Biblical and practical advice on overcoming each barrier, but it will not be painless obedience.

In terms of missiology, this long overdue, counter-intuitive book calls into serious question the modern and fiercely defended interpretation of missions as church planting which is supposed to position an “indigenous” Christian community to evangelize the rest of a larger, unreached people or nation. Clearly, it has not lived up to expectations.

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