Outreach in the Hindu Context
Go (Matt. 28:19). Christ's commission to the church is to proclaim the gospel to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people" (Rev. 14:6)."His work is to go forward in cities and towns and villages." 1
The Lord has given "to every man his work" (Mark 13:34), and this is to "carry the Word of God to every man's door."2 "Our work has been marked out for us by our heavenly Father. We are to take our Bibles, and go forth to warn the world. We are to be God's helping hands in saving souls channels through which His love is day by day to flow to the perishing."3
Nearly 2,000 years have passed since Jesus gave His great commission. Yet more than half the people of the world today have not heard the gospel. And of those who have heard, many have only a superficial understanding. With world population increasing at a rate of 90 million annually, there will be more unevangelized people in the world by the end of this century. Consider India. Its population will be close to a billion by the turn of the century. Of this, 80 percent are Hindus and some 18 percent include Muslims and other non-Christian belief systems. Certainly this is a challenge to Christian witness.
Slow church growth in India
Church growth in India has been slow, averaging a little more than 2 percent, or about 21 million in a population of 950 million. Adventists number 225,000, one for every 4,250 people.
India is a land of many religions. It has given birth to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and opened its doors to Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Even as these religions and numerous animistic traditions keep religion in the foreground of Indian life, the search continues for life's ultimate meaning. To such a religious people we need to present the Christ of the Bible as the way of salvation. Christ is "not willing that any should perish," but that all should come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:9). Our challenge is to show our non-Christian friends that the gospel of the Saviour is addressed to them as much as to any other group of people in the world.
The issues in mission
The Seventh-day Adventist church in India is 104 years old. It operates nearly 300 educational institutions, 12 health-care units, several welfare centers and service organizations. However, the church faces the challenge of more than 350 population segments of 1 million or more where there is no Adventist presence.
India freed itself from colonial rule in 1947, and since then has come a long way in developing democratically, socially, and economically. Can we say the same about the life and growth of the church in India? One has to be honest: both Christianity and Adventism in India have not grown commensurate with growth in other areas.
Many sincere Christians who want to witness seem unable to relate to persons of different religions and cultures. Even as we coexist with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others, why do we find it difficult to share our faith with them? Is it possible that we have not taken time to understand them and their worldview, and not discovered what aspects of Christianity may be in the minds of non-Christians in India? What are the common misunderstandings and hindrances in the minds of non-Christians as Christianity comes to them? In my professional life I have inter acted with a number of Hindu professors and scholars, and it was eye-opening for me to hear some of their views on Christianity.
Following are two main issues facing Indian Christians, and then some suggestions or approaches as we reach out to share Christ with Hindus particularly.
Misconceptions about Christianity
One of the main issues facing Indian Christians is becoming aware of misconceptions non-Christians have of Christianity. Some of these are: Christianity is an authoritarian religion. Many Hindu friends believe that Christianity is authoritarian, with dogmas and demands whose uncritical acceptance is essential for salvation. The Christian witness must carefully and tactfully handle this misconception and show that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of God's grace in which the operating principle is love and love alone.
Christianity is a Western religion. Non- Christian friends link the Christian religion with the West, particularly its recent colonial past. The Christian missionary is often considered the purveyor of Western political and cultural interests. The Indian church has given possible justification for such a view by Christians adopting some not-too-pleasing aspects of Western lifestyle. But is Christianity a Western religion? Was Jesus born in America or Europe? Is Christianity synonymous with Western culture? The answer is obviously no. Although blunders have been made during the colonial past, projecting a false image of Christianity, the current challenge to Christianity is to show that the gospel is universal and that Christianity came to India in the first century A.D., long before it reached the Western world. The truth is that even today it is easier for an Asian to understand the life, teachings, and character of Christ than it is for a European. In 1898 P. C. Mozumdar wrote a book that has become a classic, The Oriental Christ. This book ably defends the Asianness of Christ. The Christian faith is built on the universal Jesus the Saviour of the world. He is the Lord of all people, every culture and every nation.
The Bible is foreign and meant only for Christians. This is another common misunderstanding. But the Bible, by its very definition, is a self-disclosure of God to the entire human race (see Heb. 1:1,2). It is true that William Carey of Serampur translated the Bible for the first time in Indian languages, and since then it has been available in almost all Indian languages. But modern translations do not make it Western. Its message is universal, and it speaks to the deepest needs of every human being.
Christian practices are baffling. Many non-Christian friends find Christian rituals baffling. The presence of idols, icons, prayer through saints, confession to priests, and other practices of Christianity are confusing to thinking Hindus, who have some similar practices. What's the difference? they ask. The answer lies in looking to Jesus. Christianity is not a system of belief, ritual, or tradition, but is centered on Jesus, the One who loved humanity so deeply that He gave His life for us all.
Christian life is no better. Our non-Christian friends find very little that is better in the lifestyle of most Christians. For the most part Christian witness is hurt by nominal Christians, "having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Tim. 3:5, NIV). The church is in need of spiritual renewal. We constantly need the Holy Spirit to stir the church into spiritual action and account ability. Just as Christianity without Christ is dead, so is a Christian without the presence and power of Christ.
The second major issue in witnessing to Hindus is a failure to understand the Hindu ethos. Hindus would like to consider their religion as Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana means eternal, having no beginning or end. Dharma derives from the Sanskrit root "Dhr," meaning "that which upholds." Thus Hinduism makes its claim to be that which upholds the universe from the beginning, without any end. It is a religion that is very inclusive. Even though other Indian-originated religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and other animistic systems may not agree, Hinduism claims them as its own. It involves the entire culture, spiritual values, and general way of life of the people of India.
Hinduism does not have a founder. Adherents believe it came into being when God came into being; as such, no dates can be fixed for its origin. The religion evolved through the ages, and its authority is the religious experience of ancient sages.
Hinduism is not based on any particular set of dogmas preached by one person or any set of teachers. It has a number of scriptures, the foundational one being the Vedas. These Vedas did not originate in any historical prophet or person, but in the religious experience of sages of antiquity. Hindus believe that the Vedas are eternal and impersonal.
The most pervasive influence of Hindu ism on Indian Christianity is in the area of terminology. Bible translations, worship orders, lyrics, and theological works in various Indian languages bear witness to this. In our conversations with our Hindu friends, usage of these terms would make it easier for them to follow the gospel message.
Approaching Hindu people
In such conversations, how should we regard the admirable qualities and religious beliefs of Hindus? What type of relationship should we cultivate with our Hindu friends?
Paul's ministry in Athens (Acts 17:16- 34) gives us a clue. "He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols" (verse 16, NIV), and "so he reasoned in the synagogue ... as well as in the market place day by day with those who happened to be there" (verse 17, NIV). Paul's speech was a controlled, carefully reasoned enunciation of Christianity (verses 22-31).
In Paul's approach and attitude to other religions we see that on the one hand there is a firm belief in the wrongness of life apart from Christ. On the other hand, there is a respect for all individuals, because they are intelligent human beings endowed by God with the privilege and responsibility of choosing to accept or reject the gospel. This caused Paul to reason with them. This is an exemplary Pauline model for us to follow.
We also have the cases of modern missionaries who attempted to create a dialogue with Hindus. Roberto de Nobili, a young Jesuit missionary who came to India in 1605, realized that he could never come close to the people of India when he lived a European lifestyle. So he decided to follow an Indian lifestyle. He studied the Vedas, presented Christianity to the Indian people in their own language, made others study Hinduism, and depended for his mission on the support of local people. No wonder he was a successful missionary and regarded thus even by the Hindus.
Then we have Joseph Constantius Beschi, who came to India 100 years after De Nobili. He mastered the literature of Tamil, perhaps the oldest language of south India, and decided to make his own contribution. He wrote a famous Tamil epic on the life of Joseph, Thembavani, which employed many Hindu theological concepts to convey Christian teaching. There is also William Carey, who not only translated the Bible in many Indian languages, but plunged into social reformation, and with the help of great Indian leaders brought an end to child marriage and widow burning. Later Sadhu Sunder Singh, a converted Sikh, did not hesitate to take Hindu parables and illustrations to exemplify gospel teachings.
The time has come to create a dialogue between Christians and Hindus. What does this dialogue involve? First, a readiness to listen to what the other person has to say about his or her belief system. Second, study the Hindu scriptures and try to understand them. Third, meet our Hindu friends in Christ, believing that Christ died for them too. Fourth, show them the true face of the unknown Christ.
The vision to venture
The Lord desires that we bear not only fruit, but much fruit. This requires a vision to venture into unchartered waters and nontraditional approaches. I suggest that we go back to the three-step apostolic formula.
1. Work with accord. Unity of believers is the need of the hour. Like the disciples in the upper room, we must gather together with one accord to "make every effort to keep the unity of Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3, NIV). Old differences must be forgotten (Isa. 11:13). All walls of separation that divide us must be broken down (Eph. 2:14). Leaders and members alike must manifest a harmony such as the world has not ever seen. "Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13, NIV), we will have nothing to show to the non-Christian.
2. Pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). The promise is sure: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8, NIV). "How greatly do the workers need a baptism of the Holy Spirit that they may be come true missionaries for God."4 "I entreat the church members in every city that they lay hold upon the Lord with determined effort for the baptism of the Holy Spirit." 5
3. Seek the empowerment. Where there is unity and the working of the Holy Spirit, empowerment results. This empowerment led the early church to experience:
- 3,000 baptisms in one day (Acts 2:41).
- Daily additions (verse 47).
- Rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem, involving the conversion of a large number of priests (Acts 6:7; 9:31).
- A commitment to the Great Commission.
As a result, a unified church emerged to take the gospel to the uttermost parts of the world. The task remains the same today. And the essential of doing it has not changed.
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1 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p.
2 Ibid., p. 434.
3 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948),
vol. 9, p. 150.
4 Ellen White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1938), p. 155.
5 Ellen White, Counsels on Health (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1951), p.