As the gospel has moved into different cultures, it has adapted. The core message of Christ puts on flesh and blood and incarnates in different ways into different societies.
Christianity in North America
Most modern evangelical North American churches have these hallmarks:
- The defining criteria of community is geographic location
- Teaching is systematic and programmatic
- Larger groups are subdivided by affinity and/or age groups
- Events happen on a weekly basis
- Success is gauged primarily by attendance or membership
- Evangelism and conversion of neighbors, friends, and co-workers is a primary goal
- Worship is expressed primarily in large casual gatherings with songs and preaching with an emphasis on the comfort and experience of the attendee
None of these are biblical mandates. They are neither wrong nor right, but reflect the host culture. And, they have become the accepted norm of what it means to be a Christian and participate in Christian community in North America.
However, these adaptations cannot be applied blindly to other cultural contexts. Each culture has its own norms and the gospel has always been strong enough to adapt to a multitude of cultures.
Hindu Contexts Have Different Priorities
For example, in the Hindu worldview,
- The defining criteria of community is family
- Teaching is ad-hoc and unplanned
- Larger groups are subdivided by family units
- Events happen around life-cycle milestones
- Success is gauged by the legacy and standing of the family
- Conversion across social boundaries is frowned upon
- Worship happens in the home or in small gatherings sitting on the floor with singing and very old rituals
Clash of Expectations
Most Hindus are resistant or put off by evangelistic efforts from North American Christians for a variety of reasons:
- The style of most North American evangelical churches feels extremely foreign, and at times even irreverent
- ‘Becoming a Christian’ carries a lot of baggage from any experience in India – they may or may not have had a bad opinion or experience with a Christian in India
- ‘Becoming a Christian’ means departing from the social group of your birth and accepting a new one
- They feel Christians are not able to accept the validity of the Hindu worldview and view them as simple-minded polytheists
So what is the right mindset for a Christian to have who wants to walk alongside Hindus as they encounter what devotion to Jesus might look like in his/her life?
Changes We Can Make
Put family before local community. Alongsiders should show a focus, concern, respect, and deference to a Hindu’s family, especially parents, but even other older relatives. The good of the family should come before the good of the religious community. Similarly, the spiritual development of a bhakta should happen within the context of the family. Children should learn from parents and grandparents.
Put emphasis on relationships, not events. Your value as an alongsider has very little to do with how many people you can get to come to an event, but rather how close you are in that individual and family’s inner circle.
Repudiate authority. Alongsiders should not offer direct instruction to a Hindu’s life, but rather help bhaktas think through and make decisions based on the scriptures, family guidance, and wisdom from other bhaktas.
Have no agenda. Never enter into a relationship purely for evangelistic reasons. Your relationship will be strained if your friend gets the feeling that you have a primary agenda beyond friendship.
Focus on impact, not numbers. As a community, celebrate stories of transformation, reconciliation, and devotion, but not numbers or attendance.
Encourage families to attend events together. Any kind of event should be friendly for all ages; children should feel welcome during any worship time and need not be separated. Similarly, ensure that someone’s parents are welcome to attend any gathering.
Don’t force any teaching times to be limited to one topic. Teaching must be interactive, and discussions will be fluid and may go far from what is originally intended. This is an opportunity to learn about struggles in personal and family life and critical points where growth is needed. Don’t constrain a discussion to a certain ‘lesson plan’.
Don’t miss out on attendance and providing invitations for life-cycle events. A Hindu’s true community shows up for marriages, house-warmings, anniversaries, first birthdays, and other milestone events. Do everything possible to attend. Similarly, when you have similar events in your family, be sure to invite Hindu friends.
As a follower of Christ, you have a responsibility to allow your Hindu friend to see a path of devotion that mixes well with his/her cultural background and not simply in the way that is most comfortable for you. Be sensitive and knowledgeable to these differences and celebrate the gospel’s ability to establish itself in any culture.