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Reaching Indians Looks Different than Reaching Other Internationals

Reaching Indians Looks Different than Reaching Other Internationals

Author: Matthew Agrafiotis
Publication: Intervarsity.org
Date:
URL: http://www.intervarsity.org/ism/article/7620

India, known for its diverse spiritual richness, is the number one sending country of international students to the USA. A majority of these students are Hindu, believing in many gods, and are therefore open to including the Lord Jesus in their life. Yet, few Christian student ministries see extensive Indian participation in their activities. Perhaps the main reason Indians and other South Asians do not attend ministry events is that they do not connect with the style of ministry that is so attractive to East Asians. No matter how diverse each international student ministry strives to be, it will attract particular cultures more than others. Ministry leaders need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular style of ministry. Though there are many important cultural issues that can create roadblocks for student ministries to reach Indians and other South Asians, there are three issues that must be addressed: community, focus on conversion, and approach to spirituality.

Community is the conduit of trust

Community has a strong influence on Indians. A decision to attend an event may be influenced more by what others say than by a fancy flier or even the content of the activity. It is amazing how fast word of mouth travels in community. "Men and women take great pleasure in telling others what they know about and value most" (Sabbamma 152). Even a community back home will impact day-to-day decisions for students in North America. If Indians trust a friend, more than likely, their family members thousands of miles away will know that friend by name and other Indians on campus will know about that friend even before they meet. Rapport with individual Indians can be enhanced by building rapport within the community that influences them. Joining in festivals, visiting temples for special events, playing cricket, helping with basic needs, and enjoying a meal with students at their apartment are all ways to build trust with the Indian community.

Rethinking the conversion process

Since not all East Asians believe in God, many international student ministries first teach students to believe in God and then encourage them to have faith in Jesus Christ. If an atheist or agnostic comes to believe there is a God, ministry leaders get excited because that person is on the right track. However, most South Asian Hindus already believe in many gods or one God that is manifested through many avatars, so they may easily accept the incarnation of God into Jesus. Thus, ministries focusing simply on belief that Jesus is God may not be fruitful.

A better approach would be to consider that the Hindu will have no problem believing in Jesus. My Hindu friends say a Hindu believes in "n + 1 gods." So we should be ready to allow a Hindu to make Jesus of Nazareth the "+ 1" as they learn about Jesus. For the Hindu, the process of coming to faith in the Lord Jesus may first look more like syncretism (adding Jesus to their belief in many other gods) and later become singular devotion to Jesus as a "Yeshu Bhakt" (devotee). Ministries should focus on helping students experience what it means to be devoted followers of Jesus, rather than relying solely on intellectual or emotional appeals. Many Hindu students come with the preconception that Christians want them to convert, which they understand as leaving their family, disrespecting their culture, and aligning themselves with the Western culture that colonized them. Thus, they are very cautious about being a part of anything that is Christian. Insisting that they need to convert and leave idolatry, without giving them a place to experience devotion to the Lord Jesus, is unnecessary. As Hindus mature in their understanding of Jesus as Lord and experience faith in him, they may be ready to give up things that hinder them in their devotion to Jesus.

Thirsting for authentic devotion

Some East Asian students come from secular, atheist, or other backgrounds where public religious discussions are not common. They may arrive in North America with a lot of curiosity about the Bible and Christianity. Sometimes they may be very open to modern apologetic approaches to sharing the gospel. However, Indians have a very rich spiritual heritage. "Nominal Hindus" who uphold a fraction of their religious traditions find themselves much more devoted than most sincere Christians they encounter in North America. Fellowship meetings that are largely social entertainment may serve to solidify the idea that Christianity is a shallow and sterile faith. Indians enjoy good fun, but do not appreciate it as bait for religious activities. A more attractive approach would be devotion modeled by those following Jesus. Ideally this would happen regularly as part of daily life and not just at a religious meeting. Hindus should be welcomed to join in devotional activities, but not always directly invited until they expressed their thirst for such devotion.

Marks of Hindu-friendly ministries

Scripture clearly records that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). To reach out beyond our own culture, we must be students of the work that God has done in other cultures and build on that work as we share our faith. Too many times, culture has been lost as the collateral damage of sharing the gospel-this has been the case for many Indians who felt compelled to leave family and adopt Western culture to become Christians. "God loves people as they are culturally. As we see from the Bible, he is willing to work within everyone's culture and language without requiring them to convert to another culture" (Kraft 391). Ministries that connect well with the Hindu culture are marked by authentic friendships, focus on people and relationships (rather than on Christian programs), and demonstrate faith lived out through devotion, prayer, and study of Scripture.

Kraft, Charles H. "Culture, Worldview and Contextualization." Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, Third Edition, Eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. William Carey Library, 1999. 384-391.


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