Editor’s Note: We have adopted the term ‘Alongsider’ to describe someone who wants to help Hindus explore what devotion to Jesus means. The foundation for this term comes from a paper written by HL Richard, which in turn was based on a paper by John and Anna Travis.
What follows is an edited summary of HL Richard’s paper.
The emergence of a global Christianity with thousands of local expressions raises again the question and problem of the cross-cultural worker. Particularly when Western missionaries have a record of failure in the Hindu world, is it perhaps time to throw in the towel and let others do the job? But the Hindu world remains a challenge beyond comprehension, and engagement by non-Hindu disciples of Jesus is essential. With tens of thousands of Hindus now resident in cities throughout the Western world, rather than withdrawal, there is a need for new terms of engagement with Hindus by Western followers of Jesus—terms that must be radically revised from the modus operandi of earlier missionary encounters.
Three crucial assumptions are necessary before examining possible roles for those wanting to walk alongside Hindus.
First is that Hindus need to be the decision makers of any kind of movement that occurs, and outsiders who take a role of standing alongside need to cultivate reticence and insist on the principle that leadership must come from those within.
Second, the identity of the alongsider plays a crucial role. Who are you? What are you doing? And why do you want to befriend Hindus? Alongsiders must have a clear identity, and that of a salaried worker with a professional career is definitely best.
Third, intercessory prayer and strong personal relationships undergird all of the roles I will describe.
Four Roles of the Alongsider
Roles are very dependent on spiritual gifts and the calling of God, but also on the situations in which God places us. The first of the four roles is that of an evangelist. In technology, the evangelist is the one who builds support among the masses and establishes a particular software as a standard. As of yet, there have been extremely few people who have been able to connect with large groups of people and clearly explain how becoming a devotee of Jesus is a legitimate path for a Hindu to follow. Evangelism is not just sharing a message; it is meeting heart to heart with another person. Everything is based on a vibrant relational foundation, and prayer is vital beyond all measure. I don’t think there are many truly gifted evangelists around, and even such persons will find a patient process is necessary with Hindus. Nevertheless, we can all aspire to learn (and practice) what is required for this role.
The second role relates to discipling or coaching gifts. The tragedy in mission history which has been repeated regularly up to the present time is that Hindus who begin following Christ are not properly or adequately assisted to grow in their faith. This role can be further divided into biblical and pastoral discipling.
While all valid discipleship must be based on the Bible, the first aspect to be emphasized here is a discipleship into biblical understanding. Everyone recognizes the need to develop biblical understanding, but sending people to Bible colleges is not the answer. This necessarily removes a person from their familiar context and introduces alien Western thought patterns. Perhaps still worse, particularly in India, attendance at a Bible college is almost inevitably a step into the world of dependence on Western financing. Not a few Hindus in Christ have found Bible colleges suffocating, and have abandoned their course of study. Many others have become fine Christian leaders, but Bible college graduates usually do not go on to make a significant impact in their own Hindu family or community, largely due to the foreignness of the Christianity they absorbed in the course of study.
Discipling your Hindu friend into maturity in Christ within his or her Hindu context is a massive challenge. There are no current programs or curricula that can be followed. And the vast variety of Hindu contexts should indicate to us that many different expressions of discipleship to Jesus need to develop with varying terminologies and emphases.
The core issue is that alongsiders simply do not know exactly what discipleship to Jesus in a particular Hindu context should look like. A process of exploration and development is necessary; decisions must always be made by Hindus due to their intuitive grasp of their own context, and due to the fact that they will live with the repercussions of each decision.
When a Hindu comes to faith in Christ there are massive familial and social issues which must be faced. Traditional missions have failed in this area by too casually accepting the rupture of family ties. Pastoral gifts must be used with an approach of humility—of learning together— because you do not have all the answers for Hindu contexts. Pastoral concerns are even more complex than theological questions. Who has the wisdom to negotiate the problems and challenges of Hindu families?
Issues of caste and idolatry are central, but caste is much less an issue today than in previous generations. “Family” among Hindus is much more than parents and siblings, and this broader meaning is also the biblical meaning. Individualism is assumed in America, but is often deeply unbiblical; don’t make an individualist out of a Hindu and think you are making a disciple of Jesus. The complications of pastoring and assisting a Hindu who is in Christ are many, and every Hindu home practices idolatry with significant differences of intensity and meaning. Outsiders simply cannot answer the complicated questions that arise, but we can support and assist Hindus in “working out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
God wants a Hindu who turns to Christ to bring blessing to her family, not to alienate her family. In Christ we can affirm the dharmic values of the centrality of family and respect for elders. In all teaching and coaching, a concern for being a blessing to the family and clan must always be kept in focus. Sensitive understanding of Hindu life based on case studies from the past, biblical familial examples and the careful discernment of realities in Hindu families can provide a basis on which Hindus in Christ can find their role among their own people for the kingdom of God.
If you feel helpless, know that this is how many Hindus in Christ feel: they need pastoral engagement, biblical counsel, and especially encouragement—even just the encouragement that someone cares enough to listen and pray. You cannot say what is right and wrong to do in a Hindu family; you can support someone through his or her failures and successes in Hindu contexts. Older people can perhaps best fill this role, but everyone involved with Hindus will be in this highly sensitive role to some extent.
3. Friendship and Networking
Friendship and the offering of human encouragement are alone important contributions. There are millions of Hindus in the United States, and few have a Christian friend. If you feel like this is all you have to offer, it is more than enough.
In all the roles outlined here the question of contextual practices by non-Hindus is important and complex. Hindus are rarely, one dares even to say never, offended by sincere engagement by alongsiders in “Hindu” practices such as contextual worship, traditional arts, or festivals. The alongsider will never become an insider, but can and should participate in aspects of insider experience not only corporately but even in private life.
A key here is to supplement this role with being alert and willing to link sensitive Hindus to other Hindus who can point them to Christ. The centrality of festivals in Hindu life means there will be many opportunities to observe and participate in events in Hindu homes, and these opportunities should be embraced without fear. This then opens the opportunity to invite a Hindu who serves Christ to come and share in your home with your Hindu friends during a Hindu or Christian festival. Some work needs to be done to find people who can effectively do this, but it is a strategic supplement to friendship. Be the aroma of Christ among Hindu friends, and network others into the lives of Hindus who are spiritually needy and open. Much prayer and strong relationships are again vital.
4. Artistic Involvement
Appreciating the place of art has been a huge oversight in walking alongside Hindus historically and here I will only note the need. Writing is difficult and a lot must be learned before one can even think about writing into the Hindu world. But all types of edifying literature are needed, including better Bible translations that make sense to Hindus. This is certainly a long-term project, but God bless those who take up the development of better literature for Hindus. Painting, drawing, dance and music are all wonderful realms to explore. Anything related to communication and art needs to be pursued and developed for the glory of God among Hindus. More people need to step into these vitally important roles.
Four Qualifications of the Alongsider
Regardless of the role or roles you play as an alongsider, there are four characteristics that must be continually developed.
1. Biblical Character
Basic biblical character traits and disciplines of biblical understanding, prayer, humility, love, integrity, zeal, submission, transparency, and spiritual mindedness must all be manifest and increasing. Most of these are rather obvious and easy to learn about; if only they were as easy to actually learn and live out! The last one on spiritual mindedness is an old Puritan idea. My point with it is that we should not be centered on doctrines or traditions or rituals, but rather on matters of the heart, on the spiritual core of biblical teaching. In practice this means that as alongsiders we embrace personal spiritual discipline over perceived correctness of any kind.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean by this challenging point. We must be ready to say, “Okay, I know I am right on this point, but it is more important for me to be humble and go along with what seems to me to be an error (perhaps a misunderstanding of a biblical text or an unwise act in a family) rather than for me to be right and stand for the right.” This is not about murder and adultery, but certainly relates to caste and idolatry issues as well as biblical interpretation. Even if I think I “know” what should be done, more often than not I should not say anything, considering this a part of building humility and spiritual mindedness. Pointing to applicable biblical passages and sharing stories of how other disciples of Jesus faced similar situations can provide helpful data without usurping decision-making authority. We teach far more by what we do than what we say. To think I always know the right answer and that I should give the answer is modeling something unChristlike. I must model deep humility. If I always have to give my opinion and state the right answer, I am modeling something else. I need to go along with some things that I am uncomfortable with. As you, in turn, practice this reticence, you will find sometimes that what you “knew to be right” was not actually right, and you will be glad you kept your opinions to yourself.
If you don’t have biblical understanding, prayer, humility, love, integrity, zeal, submission, transparency and spiritual mindedness you will find yourself in big trouble; if you think you have all these, then you are in even bigger trouble! Lord, help us to learn these things. Emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence are also vital, particularly empathy. These are the core requirements, the biblical character traits that God wants to develop in each of us.
2. Acceptance of Limitations
You must see how little you can really do that is effective, how little you will really even understand. Worse still, you will always do harm. You will always be an outsider. You will always be severely limited. You will always, by what you are, compromise what you believe and teach (because you are not and cannot be a Hindu disciple of Jesus). From a biblical perspective this should not be a problem, and this perspective should not defeat us as we understand how God uses the weak and inadequate to shame the wise and fulfill his purposes. This is the treasure of God in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7). This is Paul celebrating weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Are we ready to learn, and are we constantly learning? After nearly 30 years of study related to Hindu contexts I am constantly surprised by new things that I never heard of before. There is so much diversity in Hindu beliefs and practices. If you need one word for Hinduism, it would be diversity. Never assume that you know anything, because really you do not; accept your limitations.
Related to this is the need to be adaptable. This is part of being modern, certainly part of survival in India. There is no choice but to be adaptable and to accept change. So accept your many limitations, expect disappointment, and persevere through all types of change, failure, and necessary adaptation.
3. Submission to the Leadership of Hindus in Christ
This is not an easy one. It is already a real problem at this stage that more and more internationals are engaging Hindus but there are very few Hindus who are mature in Christ; and Hindus who are mature in Christ need to be engaging Hindus, not primarily internationals. We alongsiders have visions and goals and we can lead, but we cannot afford to do so in our own name; somehow we need to be under the authority of fellow believers who are Hindus in Christ. You may need to work for a decade or more to create this kind of situation. Maybe this ideal is simply out of reach for those who serve in North America, but we should be seen to be functioning under our brothers who are Hindus in Christ and we should go to great lengths to make this a reality. We have inherited a terrible tradition that can only be considered both colonial and dollar-driven. These are patterns that must be broken and must be manifestly seen to be broken, and I would make this a fundamental requirement for effective service.
I remember being invited to a meeting of insider advocates a few years ago and being shocked after arriving there and learning that it was a gathering of insider advocates and their right-hand men (insiders). I did my best to point out that no insider advocate should have a right-hand man or woman, rather they need to be right-hand men and women. Initiatives and leadership must come from the insiders, and if we are privileged to serve at the right hand of such people it is a great honor.
4. Cultivating Reticence
Only the reticent individual can be an effective alongsider. J. H. Bavinck’s concept of possessio defines how we view the gospel and cultures—that we take possession of culture for Christ; but this is triumphalistic and imperialistic despite it being biblical. The key is that this taking possession of cultures is not for internationals to do; we must back off and see that insiders do the real thing. This is not my role and responsibility; I am not qualified for this. I must keep backing off and allow others, genuine insiders, to take initiative and move forward. God bless those who want to be right-hand persons in this process. These issues in Hindu ministry are not our issues. Internationals are zealously engaging with these matters, and while I want to encourage that, I fear we do not know anything about reticence; this is a quality we need to study more carefully and zealously cultivate.
We are in the Hindu world as guests, and it is not our world. It is at the largesse of our Hindu friends that we are there; in all matters we defer to others, in all matters we are constantly stepping back. Even theologically we must shift back from the matter-of-factness of our doctrinal statements to a sense of mystery. Doctoral statements are often our rather desperate attempts to define biblical mysteries, and usually end up defining those mysteries with extra-biblical terminology. All Protestant doctrinal statements are clear (at least implicitly) that they are not final; they are flawed attempts to explain sacred scripture. We go with the mystery of the infinite and eternal God into the complexity of new languages and cultures. We can help if we truly go to serve, but we need to break many of our own cultural patterns and cultural habits.
It is not unusual to hear calls for catalysts and change agents among Hindus. But, technically, a catalyst is the last thing we want to be. In a scientific formula, a catalyst introduces change without itself changing. Alongsiders especially need to expect to learn and change and experience a transformation themselves that is beyond what they can even imagine. To that end, these roles and qualifications have been outlined.