Contextualization: Can a Muslim or a Hindu be a Christian?

Contextualization was the word of the week during our time in Chandigarh. We spent 3 days with a good Hindu-background brother who is doing contextualized church planting, which got us thinking and talking a lot. The idea behind contextualization is that people’s response to the gospel and the life of the Body will never look exactly the same in different cultures. The less the Church contextualizes, the more it will look exactly the same in any culture in the world. The more it contextualizes, the more it can take many different forms.

The challenge for us Westerners in understanding contextualization is that we tend to divorce religion from culture. In our minds, Hinduism and Islam are religions people must leave in order to follow Christ, and we often presume they can do so without leaving their culture. The problem is that, for many people in the non-Western world, religion and culture cannot be separated. When people say they are Hindus or Muslims (or Catholics in Mexico, perhaps), they are not just stating their adherence to a particular religion, they are telling who they are. For non-Westerners, the physical and spiritual worlds are not separate; everything in life has a spiritual aspect to it. Westerners separate the two, and can therefore make a distinction between culture and religion, but for most non-Westerners, the two are inseparable.

If we understand this, is the only option for a person in India to cease being a Hindu or a Muslim (Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, etc.) and become a Christian? Or can a person be a Hindu or a Muslim who follows Christ and serves the one true God alone? Before jumping to any conclusions, let’s consider the matter.

Our host in Chandigarh, who oversees several house fellowships, is contextualizing his work in the local Hindu and Sikh cultures. In other words, elements of Hinduism or Sikhism find expression in the lives of these churches. In saying this, I do NOT mean the people worship false gods–the elements of culture present among them are part of their commitment to Christ, rather than compromising it. This leader is sometimes criticized by ministers from more traditional churches, who would like to see him completely break away from anything having an appearance of Hinduism or Sikhism.

An example of this contextualization is the name by which the believers call their fellowship. They call their community a satsang, which is a Hindu word for a gathering seeking truth. Some say it is wrong to use this Hindu term, arguing that it is a pagan concept. The brothers and sisters we met, though, believe the use of the word helps those of a Hindu background draw near to God. Another example is the use of a coconut for the Lord’s Supper. Coconuts are often incorporated into Hindu worship; therefore, Hindu-background believers break them open and take the flesh and the milk to represent the body and blood of Christ. Something really neat we learned is that, for Hindus, a coconut means fullness of life. So Christ’s body was broken, and through him comes fullness of life.

It can be easy to criticize such contextualization of the gospel in other cultures, and those practicing contextualization have faced their share of attacks. I’m not sure it’s right to criticize, though, until we have had the opportunity to live for an extended period of time in the culture in question, gaining a good understand of the practices and worldview of the people. How else can we understand whether a cultural expression is pagan or not? In our short time with our brothers and sisters in Chandigarh, as far as we could tell we found them to be full of the love of God and committed to Christ and the work of the kingdom.

Ministry in a Muslim context provides some significant contextualization questions that other cross-cultural church planters have had to deal with. Here are a few of these questions:

  • By what name do you call God? Do you tell people that Allah is not God and then try and introduce them to the one true God, giving him some other name? Or do you say that Allah is the one true God and then try and help lead people to a clearer understanding of his true nature?
  • Can a believer worship God in a mosque? Or should s/he never go to a mosque again after beginning to follow Christ?
  • Muslims customarily kneel and pray five times a day. Is this an okay practice for a follower of Christ to continue, or should a Muslim-background believer be encouraged to avoid it?

For the conscientious cross-cultural church planter, questions of contextualization are difficult. If one decides to contextualize, then the question arises of which cultural elements should be practiced as part of obedience to Christ. A good guiding question here can be, “Does this practice help people access God, or does it restrict access to God?” Many traditional churches here in India are quite contextualized in a way. People meet in big “temples” where they come to hear the teachings of a spiritual “guru” who everyone recognizes as being on a higher spiritual level than the common people. But you can make the argument that this model promotes a temple-and-priest Christianity that is closer to the Old Testament than the New, and it restricts access to God. Flowers, candles, incense, and coconuts, though, may all be elements of Hindu culture that can help people draw near to the one true God and worship him. They can especially be powerful when Hindus realize these elements can be part of accessing God personally, rather than having spiritual gurus as mediators between the gods and man.

So what thoughts do you have about contextualization? Can you think of ways the gospel has been contextualized in our Western culture?

27 thoughts on “Contextualization: Can a Muslim or a Hindu be a Christian?

  1. suziebarden

    I can definitely see where this would be good for making people feel comfortable, but it seems like you could easily be walking a very fine line. It seems that most religions have some very good things in them so it would be easy to incorporate them into Christianity. BUT we must make sure we are not just putting a new title on the other religion. I understand that Christianity is not going to look the same in India as it does in America. Cultures are different, freedoms are different and worship styles are different. Someone that has grown up in a Hindu family might not feel too comfortable in an American rock-style worship service.

    How is Christianity contextualized in our Western Culture? Well, many churches have messages based on movies. I’d definitely say that this style of message is bringing in common culture into the church and using it to relate to people on a level they can understand. Our contemporary style of worship could be thought of as contextualization. We have moved away from the hymns and are styling our songs after the rock style of modern music that we hear on the radio. What about when we celebrate Christmas? The date that was chosen has nothing to do with the actual date we think Jesus was born, but more to do with some other king’s birthday. And what about the way we celebrate Christmas? Christians are just as guilty about buying everything in the store as non-Christians. We make it more about our gifts than celebrating Jesus’ birthday. Or what about Easter? So many churches have Easter Egg Hunts. What does an Easter Egg have to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection? Nothing! There are so many things that we as a church do that have to do with culture more than what the Bible says to do. So before we get all upset about a church in India that chooses to call it’s gatherings a satsang (which has a very deep meaning in that culture) then we should re-evaluate how we ourselves are doing church.

    Ok, that was quite the rant. Sorry. I have other stuff to say, but that would be a very long reply. I’ll save it for another date.

    Suzie

  2. chris Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Suzie!

    I hear you about the Hindu thing. Here is what is starting to make a difference for me, based on what I’m learning on this trip: I had always understood Hinduism to be a religion, but based on the people we’re talking to here, it should be understood as a culture that incorporates people of various religious beliefs. More than one person has explained to us that there are monotheistic Hindus, polytheistic Hindus, and atheistic Hindus. If Hinduism is a (false) religion, then we see all elements of it as demonic and people must completely break all ties to it. But if Hinduism is a culture with various religious beliefs, it becomes possible for a person to follow Christ in the context of that culture.

    Those are good thoughts on contextualization in the West. I’ll add a couple of my own:
    –The style and length of our sermons (the West is very into lectures as an academic exercise)
    –The fact that most of our services involve a large room with people sitting in rows of chairs or pews and a speaker up front at a podium

    Thanks for joining the conversation. Does anyone else want to throw their two cents in?

  3. Jason.Barnett

    Divorcing religion and culture…I think this is a very confusing issue in Western society and around the globe. I was recently talking to someone about religion and nationality and several words were being used interchangeably. For example, someone asked if a Muslim could be an American. In my mind, of course. But the problem I was facing when discussing it with this person, was how Muslim is a follower of a religion (Faith based) as American is a nationality based word. They wanted to use Muslim as a nationality based word, instead of a religious word.

    So, to use religion and culture I think we have to understand or try to define the usage of these two words. Culture being, “The accumulated habits, attitudes, and beliefs of a group of people that define for them their general behavior and way of life; the total set of learned activities of a people.” And Religion, “A religion is a set of beliefs and practices generally held by a human community, involving adherence to codified beliefs and rituals and study of ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience.”

    Looking at these two words, you can see that Religion is more part of a culture, as culture being part of a religion. Granted you can argue that there is a religious culture, yes. But, not is the fact that religion is the same as culture.

    I am not saying that the two words would be completely divorced, just that one (culture) holds the other (Religion). This being that you can have several cultures that hold the same religion. Not the best example, but, I asked a friend who recently returned from Iraq if people in Iraq say they are an Iraqi or a Muslim. He said they would refer to themselves as an Iraqi. Iraqi being a nationality or citizenship that holds religion.

    I do agree with the other response…there is definitely a thin line. In Oaxaca, you can share the gospel of Christ at the same time preserve their culture. Part of their culture is as simple as not shaking hands very hard when you greet them.

    However, I am not sure if one should refer to themselves as a Hindu if they are Christian. In that, Hindu is a religious follower of Hinduism, as Christian is a Religious follower of Christianity. Now to be a Christian Indian that still holds onto their Indian culture, then yes. ( I think). It is just that Religion and Culture have so many grey areas and run so close together, and have fed off each other throughout history it is hard to start separating the two.

    Bottom line is my disclaimer: I have no clue. I must be rambling. Thoughts?

  4. Jason.Barnett

    Maybe this…a bit shorter too :)

    Can a muslim or a Hindu be a Christian? (As stated in title)

    No, but an Indian can be a christian who holds on to many things in their culture that have developed because of the influence of the Islamic or Hindu religions. An example may be…a disciplined and rigorous prayer time as a Christian, because disciplined prayer is something of your culture because of the influence of Islam.

    I could be sooooo wrong in this…I have no clue :)

  5. chris Post author

    Hey Jason, my internet time has been limited the last few days, so it’ll probably take me a couple of days until I get back into the U.S. to respond to your comment.

    But for now, thanks for chiming in, and anyone else is welcome to as well.

  6. Jason.Barnett

    No problem. This post you did was very interesting. I am still not exactly sure where I stand. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  7. shummer

    Hey Chris. I wish I would’ve seen this post earlier so that we could’ve talked about this in person. Some questions that I would’ve asked the Hindu Background Believer is how he became a Christian. Does he call himself a Christian or a Hindu follower of Jesus? Is his identity w/ Christ? Did some western missionary say to him that the cost of following Jesus is not very high, you can just do the same thing you did as a Hindu, but just substitute Jesus instead of whatever deity. Or did he, as an Indian, actually come up w/ this contextualized way of ministry?

    If religion and culture cannot be separated, and we know that the religion part is wrong, why are we trying to preserve the culture or elements of it? The Israelites dabbled in this for years and it caused a lot of problems (see OT). I see western culture being able to separate religion and culture as a kind of syncretism. Christians in the states should be living so counter-culturally that it rubs society the wrong way, but in general we don’t. The road to the cross is not parallel to the road to the American dream. They are so drastically different, but you couldn’t tell the difference for the majority of Christians. Eastern cultures seem to already know that becoming a Christian is a big deal and means drastic changes. Who is going in and telling them it’s not that hard, see you don’t have to change so many things? We are a new creation and that’s not simply an inward expression. What about all those Transformations videos? Those societies are not doing the same forms with different meanings, they started doing things differently.

    Daniel and his peeps didn’t simply keep the form of bowing down to statues and give new meanings to it w/ prayers to God. Jesus was controversial. He was counter-cultural (see Mark 7). All through the book of Acts, the apostles were bold and did not conform to the culture. They stuck out like a sore thumb. Look at all the martyrs throughout history. What can we learn about how they lived in their respective society? Why are we trying to blend in now? Why are we conforming to this world?

    I’m definitely rambling now. Sorry for being all over the place. My main points are culture not being neutral and our identity in Christ.

  8. chris Post author

    Hey guys,

    Thanks a lot for your comments, and sorry it’s taken me a while to reply to them.

    I’m going to try and stick to discussing Hindus for the rest of this, because I’ve at least learned a little about them. I know what some of the difficult questions are for Muslims, but beyond knowing the questions, I can’t speak with any authority whatsoever.

    I re-read my post, and the second paragraph where I mention divorcing religion and culture is kind of confusing. Jason fairly well summarized what I would like to communicate, though–Culture can hold various religious beliefs.

    And Jason, I agree with you a lot right up to the last paragraph of your first comment, then I differ a little bit. At that point I agree with Rob’s comment on another post. I think you and Andrew are both getting hung up a bit on what people call themselves and that that is missing the point. I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that we’re commanded to call ourselves Christians. The Bible only comments (Acts 11:26) that the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. The point is that we identify ourselves with Christ (as you said, Andrew) and follow Him.

    The more contextualized believers in India do not call themselves Christians. They call themselves “Yeshu backta”, which means something right along the lines of “devotee of Jesus”. So they identify with Christ, they just don’t use the name “Christian”, for much the same reason that we don’t use it much in Oaxaca.

    In Oaxaca, we call ourselves Christians infrequently, and we never tell people we’re evangelicals. The reason is that if I say I’m an evangelical Christian, many people don’t hear, “I’m a Christ-follower who loves and obeys Jesus.” Here’s what they hear:

    “I don’t love you, or anyone, for that matter. I’m against your culture, I’m against your traditions, and I’m against you. I’m better than you, and I look down on you. I care nothing for your practical needs; I’m just here to force my ways on you. I have zero regard for the fact that, as a Oaxacan Catholic, you may already have some desire to know God and follow Him. It’s all evil, and I’m here to change your religion and make you leave it all behind.”

    If that’s what people are hearing in Oaxaca by us calling ourselves Christians or evangelicals, is it wrong to leave those terms aside and just explain to people that we love Jesus and do our best to follow Him? Translate than all into Hindu terms, and that seems to be more or less what it’s like for a person in India to call themselves a Christian. In India, Christianity is a Western religion, while being a Yeshu backta is an Indian religion. If a New Testament had been dropped into India and the people started using it to follow Christ with zero Western influence, there’s no way that their expression of following Him would have come out the way it looks today in many of India’s more traditional churches. If Hinduism is a culture that incorporates multiple religious beliefs, I see absolutely no reason a Hindu can’t be a follower of Jesus.

    The Yeshu backtas are not compromising in order to keep a foot in the world and avoid persecution, although Westerners might try and tell them they are. They are sold out for Jesus. They identify with Him. One of they key issues in all this, I learned, is the extraction of people from their communities. Westerners convinced people that, to follow Christ, they had to reject their families and every Hindu custom and element of culture, and that brings a lot of persecution. BUT, we learned that if a non-Christian couple from a village leaves and marries against their families’ wishes and then returns, they will often be beaten or maybe even killed. When you hear that, you have to ask if people who reject their communities and are extracted from them to follow Christ are really suffering for the name of the Lord or just for doing something that was very ill-advised and brings the same wrath on non-Christians who do it.

    Yeshu backtas don’t avoid persecution. They are taking their licks for their devotion to Christ instead of other Hindu gods. They just aren’t taking licks for turning a back on their communities. Because they remain in their communities, they are in a much better place to reach them with the gospel.

    Andrew, I wholeheartedly agree with what you’re getting at about not being conformed to the world. If many Hindus are devoted to Shiva, that in no way should be embraced by a follower of Christ. If Hindus often burn a widow alive when they cremate her husband, the practice should be denounced as wrong and done away with (as it was by Christians and has now almost completely been eliminated in India). I just think sometimes we focus on the wrong things when we try and be non-conformist.

    Here’s a North American example: Does tee-totaling help us be more faithful followers of Christ, or does it create an unnecessary separation between us and our culture? The Bible says that drunkenness is wrong, but it never said it’s wrong to drink a glass of wine. If a person doesn’t want to drink, fine. But when churches say that no one can drink, how is that helping the kingdom? I believe it’s misguided, because having a drink is not a sin. The dominant values of the American Dream, however, should be wholeheartedly rejected, because Jesus made it very clear that we are not to store up treasures on earth. (If anyone is unsure about this, check out Luke 12:15-21).

    Okay, this is very long, so I’d better hold it there and see if you guys have any more thoughts to chime in with. I appreciate the discussion! Please know that I’m learning, thinking, and discussing, not getting extremely set in beliefs and trying to apply them to every situation in the world.

  9. Jason.Barnett

    Soo…that was a lot to process and a great response, although I am going to have to think it over before I reply :) However, I do have one question. In approx. your 7th paragraph at the end you mentioned that Hinduism is a culture. So in your mind is Hinduism a culture or a religion, or both?

    For me, it is a religion that has influenced the Indian population, helping to develop many of the practices in their culture.

    What did you observe in India on this?

  10. chris Post author

    Yeah, sorry for the long post :)

    Okay, this was the big thing that changed the ballgame for me in India. I had always understood Hinduism to be a religion, therefore false, therefore people need to turn away from it. Several of the people we met in India, though, were quite emphatic that Hinduism is a culture that incorporates a variety of religious beliefs, not a religion in and of itself. To repeat what they said, there are monotheistic Hindus, polytheistic Hindus, and atheistic Hindus. So it’s perfectly acceptable to Hindus for there to be a Hindu who is devoted exclusively to Jesus Christ. I mean, they might not like that the person doesn’t worship other Hindu gods like Shiva and Ram, but being devoted only to Jesus certainly fits within Hinduism.

    So Hinduism is a culture, a civilization. Here’s what makes contextualization possible in that case:

    Most of us would recognize Mormonism as a false religion that one needs to turn away from, not a culture. There are certainly not polytheistic or atheistic Mormons; there’s more or less one standard set of beliefs. (I would agree.)

    But take Native Americans, or Jews. We view those as cultures. We believe people in those cultures have certain religious beliefs they must turn away from in order to follow Christ, but they can still belong to their culture and incorporate elements of it in following Christ. I’ve never heard anyone balk about a Jewish follower of Christ calling himself a Messianic Jew, rather than a Christian, and continuing to celebrate Passover.

    I always put Hinduism in the Mormon category, but it should actually be in the Jew and Native American category. I was interested to learn that you can only ever be born a Hindu, you can never become one; you can’t convert to Hinduism. In their minds, one cannot cease to be Hindu any more than you or I can cease to be an American, or a Jew can cease to be a Jew. A Hindu can change his/her religious beliefs, though, as can a Jew, as can a Native American, as can an American.

    Remember the big issues the early Church ran into when the Jews wanted to make Gentile believers be circumcised and follow the law in order to be disciples of Christ? It was incredibly freeing to the Gentiles when they learned they didn’t have to become Jews–in essence, change their culture–in order to follow Jesus.

    Same thing with Hindus. When Western missionaries first came in to India, many unwittingly tried to make Hindus leave their culture to become Christ-followers. It has been very freeing for many Hindus to learn that they didn’t have to reject their civilization to be believers. We heard some powerful testimonies of people who had gone the more traditional Christian route later coming back and asking forgiveness of their families and communities for rejecting them. God has used this to bring about powerful reconciliation.

    Taking it back to an example in our own culture, which of the following would go over better with you if you were a non-Christian parent in the U.S.?

    –Your kid comes home, says he’s accepted Christ, he continues to live in your community as an American, and you see a radical change in his life, OR

    –Your kid comes home, says he’s accepted Christ, he’s therefore no longer of this world, so he renounces his U.S. citizenship, refuses to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance, burns his passport, will never watch a baseball game again because it’s the American passtime, and abstains from apple pie because that’s also too American.

    In a nutshell, I now understand Hinduism as a culture, not a religion. That makes a big difference. I understand Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses to be religions, so I see a lot less room for applying these contextual theories in their cases. Though I have some initial opinions, I don’t know enough about Buddhists or Muslims to say.

  11. Pingback: » Contextualization called Confusion Ministry Of Grace: Let Us Pray For The Muslims And Share The Gospel Of God’s Love With Them

  12. Ignatius Anand

    Hi there,

    Just thought I’d give my 2 cents worth. I am an Indian Christian, who lives in Malaysia, which is predominantly a Muslim nation. In Malaysia, we have one country with many races, almost all the eastern religions, and still manage to somehow co-exist.

    I am an evangelical Christian in the Assemblies of God Malaysia, studying in Bible College while working in the church. My current subject is Critical Issues in Assian Missions and Theology. I’m doing a research paper on Contextualization and somehow stumbled across this blog.

    I think there is a little misrepresentation in terms of your use of the term ‘Hinduism’. In the broad sense a Hindu is someone who is a follower of Hinduism. And as you have clearly stated, there are many forms of Hinduism.

    However, I feel you are confusing the the culture of being an Indian and the culture derived of being a Hindu. There are 52 sub groups of the Indian race in India. I myself am a part of the Indian race and diaspora, my grandfather coming to Malaysia in the early 1900s.

    You have to go back to history to see how much Hinduism is entwined in the indian culture. So much so that most Indians nowadays don’t know which part of their lives are cultural and which part are religious (kinda like having a latte where you can taste the coffee and the milk)

    Through the thousands of years that Hinduism has been in India it has intertwined with the culture so much, that early British Missionaries that came in with the British East India company, chose to imprint a western form of Christianity in order to ‘convert’ them to Christians. They wore western clothes. Began to speak only English and their church services were almost exactly like that of the Church or England or the Catholic churches across Europe.

    This brought about another people group referred to nowadays as the Anglo-Indians. Of course there was some intermarriage as well.

    But I digress. My point is that Contextualization in the Indian context can be very difficult. It might come to splitting hairs but that might actually be necessary in order to determine what is cultural and what is religious.

    The Indian marriage for example. The ‘thaali’ or a gold locket on a yellow string is tied around the neck of the bride by the groom, with three knots, each symbolizing something. This locket is actually in the shape of the ‘Lingam’ or the penis of a deity which is worshiped as a Demi-God. Indian Christians also tie the thaali, but reshape the locket into a mere locket with a cross on it. the yellow string which also has a religious significance is replaced with a Gold chain.

    However in recent years, the rise of Evangelical Christians in India, has seen rise to Worship and songs being sung in the various Indian dialects and the entire service being conducted in tamil or the like.

    Ok I’ve said a lot… Just thought I’d give you an eastern perspective.

  13. Chris Post author

    Ignatius,

    Thanks so much for offering your perspective; it’s very valuable for those of us trying to understand these things from a western mindset. My understanding of Hinduism and of contextualization issues is admittedly very limited. One thing I was struck with in India was the complexity of the country, the culture, and of ministering there. Ministry in India seems to raise some very difficult issues. This might necessitate, as you say, splitting hairs. You offer some good food for thought–thank you.

    May God bless you!

  14. Tabitha

    Your comments and the related discussion regarding the contextualization of Christianity is a very important one and even more so in light of the challenges facing us in this rapidly changing time. I was just recently reading the book “Unveiling Islam” in which the authors, two brothers born into a devout Muslim family who later accepted Christ, address this very sensitive issue. They make a very clear distinction between contextualizing and culturalizing the gospel.

    Learning to communicate the gospel in such a way that builds bridges or links the uncompromising truth of the Word to the cultural context of the listener is contextualization. Examples of this would be innocuous changes such as using a coconut for communion rather than bread and wine, or contextualizing the phrase “bread of life” to ‘rice of life’ or ‘tortilla of life’. Both these Biblical examples are symbols in the first place, and such adaptations to culture do not change the meaning or truth behind the symbols. Contextualization should always be the goal of the church. Paul did it when he used his knowledge of the Stoic philosophers and Epicurians poets to help his Greek listeners to grasp the truth of the gospel.

    However, Paul did not compromise the elements of the gospel in any way. He didn’t shy away from making a clear distinction between the false religious practices of his audience and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Compromising or blending Christian fundamentals (and here I mean the true core of the Christian faith rather than religious trappings)with elements borrowed from false religions is not contextualization, it’s culturalization. Paul didn’t culturalize or “blend” God’s truth with man’s erroneous ideas in order to fit the gospel to the culture of the hearers.

    As a concrete example, the authors present a clear argument for the fact that Allah is not just Yaweh under a pseudonym. Allah is nothing like the One True God, the God of Abraham and Isaac. Allah is a counterfeit with characteristics that at times seem close to those of the Lord God Jehovah, but when examined closely reveal otherwise. Trying to share the gospel by telling a Muslim that they really do believe in the true God, but simply don’t understand his true nature is misguided and dangerous, according to these former Muslims.

    It is true that Hinduism is a complex religion with literally hundreds of gods and it’s followers have much freedom in choosing to which of these gods they will be devoted. As a result, all Hindu worship does not look the same. There is a wide spectrum of Hindu religious practice ranging from extreme polytheism to monothesim with hundreds of gods to choose from. However the Lord God Jehovah, by any name, is not one of them.

    In Don Richardson’s book, Eternity in their hearts, he also explains the distinction between circumstances where a people group is actually worshiping the true God under a different name, such as Melchizedek who was a righteous king worshiping Jehovah under the name El Elyon; and those worshiping a false God. We cannot assume that because a religion is mono-theistic that we are talking about the same God.

    I believe we need to keep in mind that although religions like Hinduism and Islam do permiate all aspects of life in the cultures in which they are practiced, they are still first and foremost religious systems. No-one is born a Hindu or a Muslim; they are born into cultures dominated by these false religions and indoctrinated into their teachings, and they need to be set free by the truth of the gospel. Hinduism and Islam are not simply lifestyles, they are belief systems that are completely incompatable with the true gospel.

    Though it is clear that we should not encumber anyone with the burden of trying to recreate the American idea of what ‘church’ should look like, we have to accept that making the way of the cross an easy one is not our job. Choosing Christ within many cultures does require much more than what we, here in the United States had to face in order to follow after Christ. It may not be required of them to abandon all elements of their cultures, but in order to follow Christ on His terms, they will have to turn their backs on much of it. The cross that these converts will have to bear will be much more difficult and, though we might have a deep desire to do so, we cannot change that fact. We should not be looking for ways to minimize the impact of choosing Christ within these cultures, but rather praying for those who would receive Him to have the courage and strength to bear their crosses for the sake of the gospel. That’s tough to consider, I know, but let’s remember that Jesus said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword that would divide and at times require one to lose everything to follow after Him.

    We will all face this issue, if not already facing it, in the coming days. We will all need godly discernment to know how to contextualize the gospel without compromising it. We must guard against the temptation to put a new spin on false teachings to make the gospel easier to swallow. We should pray for one another, for wisdom and discernment and for love and passion for the lost to guide us.

    Tabitha

  15. Chris Post author

    Thanks for weighing in, Tabitha!

    If Hinduism is a religion, then you’re absolutely right. The people we talked with in India, though, were adamant that being Hindu means belonging to a culture, not a religion. They emphasized that within the Hindu culture is a polytheistic religion that most Hindus follow (which we call Hinduism). Likewise, I understand a distinction exists between being Muslim (a culture) and Islam (a religion to which most Muslims adhere). If this is the case, then if a Muslim can’t be a Christ-follower, a Jew can’t be one either. Jews belong to a culture into which they’re born, and most Jews adhere to the religion of Judaism. Messianic Jews are then Jews who don’t adhere to Judaism; rather, they follow Christ.

    A Jew can’t cease to be a Jew any more than a Mixed Person in our area can cease to be a Mixed Person or a Tree Person can cease to be a Tree Person (pseudonyms). I understand that this extends to Hindus and Muslims. A Hindu can’t cease to be Hindu, but they CAN follow Christ instead of following Hinduism. A Muslim can’t cease to be Muslim, but they CAN stop following Islam and start following Christ.

    These issues are very complicated, and they are tough for us to get our Western minds around, as Ignatius Anand has pointed out in his comment. We have been trained to view being Muslim and being Hindu as completely synonymous with belonging to the religion of Hinduism or to Islam, but this may not actually be the case. Those of us involved in one way or another in cross-cultural ministry really need to wrestle with these issues, and we need to approach other cultures/religions with extreme caution. We need to be learners. In some cases, Western missionaries have done a fair bit of damage by coming in as teachers before being learners and making assumptions about the cultures and religions we’re dealing with that we ought not have made.

    We are wrestling with these same issues in our work. When people in our area say they’re Catholic, they don’t necessarily mean what we think they mean. The lines here between religion and culture are blurry. We’re trying to learn to not make assumptions.

    I think you nailed the most important thing. We must preach the pure gospel. Too often, we Western missionaries have bought into preaching religion rather than preaching Christ. If we simply preach Christ, we can trust the Holy Spirit to bring conviction and to show people exactly how they need to apply the commands of Christ in their lives. The Holy Spirit working in the heart of the believer can discern these issues far better than we can.

    Thanks a lot for your input, Tabitha. I appreciate your being part of our conversation!

  16. Sarah

    Hi Chris,
    I love your heart. I just happened upon your blog this morning, so apologies for entering this conversation a year and a half late.

    I wanted to comment on your comparison of Hinduism to Mormonism vs. Native Americans or Jews. I live in Utah, and Mormonism is every bit as much a culture as Hinduism is, in my opinion. There are Latter-day Saints who believe in multiple gods, there are Latter-day Saints who believe in one God, and there are people who culturally identify as Latter-day Saints who are agnostics and atheists. Also, there are Latter-day Saint followers of Jesus. There is wide diversity of belief within the LDS Church and culture. I don’t mean to be nitpicky, as what I want to say actually has little to do with Mormonism.

    Is it possible that everything we consider to be a religion is really a culture, including American evangelical Christianity? That it is part of our jobs, as followers of Jesus, to incorporate into our walks the parts of our culture that are conducive to faith in Christ, and reject or reinterpret the parts that aren’t?

    Westerners tend to view contextualization through a lens of “how do we contextualize the gospel for this foreign culture” without realizing that it is contextualized even for our own culture. I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that it’s not until I’m able to see the ways in which I have erroneously viewed evangelical Christianity as the uncorrupted, doctrinally pure faith (when really, it is a culture in its own right) that I’m able not to look down on other cultures. I want to be able to internalize the fact that a Hindu follower of Jesus is not a second-class Christian, that she is every inch as much a part of the Kingdom as I am, and that I have my own cultural baggage that I bring to the gospel, just as she does.

  17. Chris Post author

    Sarah, thanks for joining the conversation, I love what you had to say. In my opinion, I think you’ve nailed it about the contextualization of the gospel in every culture. That’s a very interesting perspective you shared on Mormonism; I hadn’t heard that before. God is teaching me a lot right now about the difference between religion and the kingdom. It seems that any religious activity outside of what God defined as pure religion only ever stands in the way of knowing God. In light of that, I think your statement about religion as culture is very interesting, and I love what you said about incorporating the good and rejecting or reinterpreting the bad.

    I hope you continue to be a part of discussions on this blog!

  18. Billi

    Hi Chris,

    I’m finding this post (and your blog in general) so interesting. I am currently a Seminary student studying the Hindu religion for the first time, and I too am running into many of the quandaries you and others have discussed here. I had no idea that a Hindu could be Hindu in culture without being religiously Hindu. The more I study, the more I realize how little I actually know. It’s all so fascinating!

    A question I would like to pose to you that I have struggled with regards the incarnation of Jesus and its comparison to the Hindu idea of Avatars. Our class discussion this week has been in reference to this topic, and I have seen commentaries from various Christians that go both ways. Some believe the two are similar enough and it may be beneficial for the sake of evangelizing Hindus to relate the incarnation of Jesus to something they understand. Others believe there are enough differences between the two that trying to compare actually them limits the power of Jesus and what He did for us by coming to earth and dying for our sins. I’m finding that I’m leaning towards the latter idea, but I was wondering if you had any experience with this and what your thoughts are on the matter.

  19. Chris Post author

    Billi, thanks for joining the conversation. I think your question about avatars is a very interesting one to explore. I wish I understood the idea well enough to try and offer an informed answer, but I just don’t. If anyone else wants to weigh in, though, it would be cool to hear.

  20. Nirobindu

    Hi Chris,

    “To be in flesh (body)” might be the meaning for “In Carnation (carnal)”
    Avatar generally means, as I understand, “to get into a form of someone, something, or pretending to be someone”. I hope this may bring confusion. The simple understanding of the term has to do with “Incarnation.” God coming into the flesh form. (Pls see John 1:1-14, esp. 14).

    I appreciate your experience in Chandigarh. Its an eye opener.
    I have never thought of coconut being used for Lord’s Supper. But have often wondered if this history were to take place in India, what fruit would Jesus use, would he have used mangoes and its juice? and so on.

    Contextualizing the Gospel: God speaking to mankind through mankind, in their language, context (place), as He did by the sea of Galilee: fishm, net; on the mount–sower and the seed . . . .
    As long as we do not dilute the message of the Plan of Salvation which is a free gift of God (Eph 2:8-10), and that we aught to follow Him if we love Him (John 14:15).

    May God bless you as you serve the Lord.

  21. Luke Emrich

    hi chris,

    your thoughts on contextualization are great. thanks for being brave enough to have the conversation. i am a pastor in wisconsin. i was in northern india for a few weeks this past february. later in my trip i traveled to varanasi and joined a great contextualized group worshipping there. it was a really eye-openning experience and led me to rethink a lot… the end result has led to a clearer understanding of Jesus Christ, simply being a follower of Christ, and a greater love for people of every culture. the “after-trip” conversation with my church was very beneficial. i feel we have a greater understanding of the gospel and the culture we live in. and, we are far more effective at reaching people now here in our community… i’m planning on a trip next spring that will have me in china, then tibet, and finally india. my heart aches for asia and i want to learn as much as i can. i’m reading a great book by swami dayanand bharati “living water and indian bowl”. also, vishal mangalwadi’s book “truth and transformation” is great!

    thank you and God bless you.

  22. Chris Post author

    Nirobindu and Luke, I’ve been on a trip and not online, so sorry to just now reply to your comments.

    Nirobindu, thanks for sharing your thoughts on avatars and the Lord’s supper.

    Luke, that’s so cool that you got to experience contextualized communities of believers in India, as well. That’s cool that it’s had a positive impact on you and your church. I found the same thing–what I learned about contextualization in India has greatly helped me as a missionary in Mexico and I know would also help me a lot if I were ever ministering once again in the United States. I hope you have an awesome trip back to Asia next spring. While in India I was handed a copy of Living Water and Indian Bowl but haven’t ever gotten around to reading it yet. What have you liked about it?

    Blessings to you all!

  23. Jojo Bive Jr.

    Contextualization is one area of Christianity which I find so fascinating. For one, it is one of those topics which provoke so much diverse opinions but does not necessarily divide as in the case of Open Theism, Dispensationalism, Water Baptism, etc.. I still try to hang between pro and con on this issue. On the one hand, I find the inevitability of contextualization. If Jesus Christ did not contextualized, there would have been no redemption. If the Bible translators did not contextualized we would all be discussing this issue in Greek or Hebrew. And if missiologists did not contextualized in terms of the language used, more than half of the world probably have never yet heard of the Gospel. Even many of the theologians who speak at length against this issue contextualize their treatises with the use of the modern multi-media. One baptist indignantly cried, “Spurgeon never knew of such a thing!”

    On the other hand, I also look at contextualization with a grain (or kilo) of salt; it borders in syncretism and cultural appropriation. I share with the fear of many that a soiled Gospel, or a contaminated Gospel is no Gospel at all. However, I could not ajudge those who are in the field risking their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Theologians can easily ramble words they knew from the bookshelf yet never had one face to face enounter with a Hindu, Buddhist or Moslem save the internet. They are bold in imposing the line between this and that yet have not won a single soul for Christ. I guess their only contribution on this issue is to define terms in behalf of those who are not as verbosed and knowledgeble as them.

    As far as practice is concerned, those who rub elbows with people of other faith have a great deal to say about contextualization. I just hope that they do not break the thin line which they thread on. No missionary is ever above this danger and they might as well heed the warning of many including mine.

    As far as I’m concern the use of certain local terms and produce (like coconut for the Lord’s Supper) are no big issues just as long as they are properly explained to the locals that these are symbols or words that pertain to Gospel. The New Testament writers borrowed from Greek culture and shrouded them with Christian meaning. The Greek words Hades and Ekklesia among others, and the use of Roman numbers were contextualized. If contextualization is wholesale heresy then we were all tricked by a heretical Book. Paul never left his being a Jew, Jesus grew, spoke and acted as a normal Jew. He did not break away from being a Jew. In fact the Samaritan woman at Jacob’ well recognized Him as a Jew.

    I only have this one last quetion dangling in my mind, Chris. You said that it seems that you agree that it’s OK for a Hindu to remain Hindu and be a Christian. Doesn’t that make the statement, “It’s OK for a Christian to be a hindu and remain Christian,” true?

  24. Chris Post author

    Jojo, thanks for chiming in. In answer to your question, it depends on how you’re defining “Christian” and “Hindu”. According to one of the premises of this blog post, it’s impossible for a person who is not a Hindu to become a Hindu, because Hinduism is a civilization, not a religion. Being Hindu is akin to being a Jew. If you’re born one you’ll always be one, and if you’re not, you’ll never be one. So with that understanding, a person born a Hindu can become a Christian (Christ-follower) and will still be Hindu, but a Christian who was not born Hindu can never become one. Can, however, a person be a Christ-follower (Christian) and at the same time declare allegiance to Hindu gods and engage in polytheistic religious practices common among Hindus? No.

    I agree with you that Christianity has been contextualized since its earliest times and that it’s a fallacy to insist contextualization is wrong, assuming that we don’t already do it. The question, then, is not whether we’re going to contextualize, it’s how.

  25. Goutam datta

    Hi every one talking about what is Hindu Yesu bhakta means:- I am a hindu Yesu bhakta if you have any question please ask me. keep few things in Mind You need to know what is Hinduism and how the name came from?
    Beginning of history Human is conditioned by nature and Culture. Every theology came to us with some type of culture.
    Remember we are in conflict between two different worldview, please read below the story:-
    One day, a sage called Narad came to Mount Kailas, a mango in his hand. Kartikeya’s eyes widened when he saw the mango; Ganesha’s mouth watered. “Who is it for?” they asked in unison. “It is for Shiva’s better son,” replied Narad, a mischievous glint in his eye. Parvati realized what Narad was up to: the cunning sage had taken upon himself the impossible task of making parents choose a favorite child.

    All eyes turned to Shiva. “Better son? What’s that?” Shiva wondered, “Sons are sons. Some are older, some are younger. Some are taller, some are fatter. Some are stronger, some are smarter. How can one be better?”

    “Here is how,” said Narad, “You create a measuring scale. He who measures better is the better son.” Shiva looked at Narad not quite understanding what was said. So Narad elaborated, “Well, creating a measuring scale is easy. You can say that my measuring scale is obedience – he who is more obedient is the better son. Or you can say that my measuring scale is money – he who makes more money is the better son. Or you can say that my measuring scale is achievement – he who can do the impossible is the better son.”

    Shiva burst out laughing. “That is the most stupid thing I heard. A measuring scale! This is so funny.” Narad retorted immediately, “Do you realize that you are laughing only because you have a measuring scale that measures stupidity? In that measuring scale, my ideas are stupid. But I have another measuring scale. In mine, my ideas are brilliant. Who is right?”

    Shiva was impressed by Narad’s words. “I am pleased with you, Narad. You go ahead and decide a measuring scale that will measure a better son for me,” said Shiva to Narad, “That son can have the mango.”

    “The better son is the son who goes around the world three times,” declared Narad. No sooner did he say this than Kartikeya leapt onto his peacock and set out to be the better son. Up into the sky he rose and through the clouds he flew, determined to go around the world faster than Ganesha.

    Ganesha, however, stayed where he was, on Mount Kailas, playing with his mouse, much to the surprise of Narad. “Why don’t you go around the world?” he said to the elephant-headed lad. “Let him do what he wants,” said Parvati indulgently. “But he will lose,” said a concerned Narad. “So what?” said Shiva, “Its only a mango.” Then Shiva smiled, “Look Narad, yet another measuring scale, one that belittles that wonderful mango you have given so much value to.”

    Kartikeya went around the world once. He did so twice. He glanced behind for a moment, checking to see if Ganesha was catching up but Ganesha was no where in sight. Kartikeya wondered where his brother was, a little concerned about his brother’s wellbeing, and a little anxious about his own victory. As Kartikeya began his third circle around the world, he felt a little uneasy about Ganesha’s behavior. What was he up to? He knew his brother was no simpleton!

    Sure enough, just as Kartikeya’s peacock was about to land on Mount Kailas, Ganesha got up and quickly ran around his parents. Once. Twice. Thrice! “There,” he said, “I won.”

    “What do you mean, you won,” said Kartikeya angrily, alighting down.

    “Well, brother,” said Ganesha, “I say I won because I went around my world three times. You say you won because you went around the world three times. Tell me, brother, tell me, father, tell me, mother, tell me, Narad, tell me all of you – what matters more? My world or the world.”

    “Is there a difference?” asked Parvati. “Yes, there is,” said Shiva. “Observe how ‘the’ world is objective. It contains the plants, the animals, the sky, the mountains, the clouds, the rivers, the stars, the ants and the people around us. But ‘my’ world is subjective. It contains our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and our memories, that is known only to us. What do you think matters more – what everyone sees or what we alone feel?”

    Nobody said anything. But somehow everybody knew the answer. And it was clear who the winner was. Kartikeya smiled, went up to Narad, took the mango from his hand and gave it to his brother, after giving him a tight hug.

    Ganesha cut the mango in two and offered one half to his brother. The two brothers then cut their respective shares and shared it with their parents. The seed inside the mango was given to Narad who said, “In my world, with my measuring scale, the seed is the best part of the mango.” Mount Kailas was filled with sound of everyone’s laughter.

    The difference between east and west is like My world ( subjective,emotional,personal. belief,) and The world ( objective,logical,universal,factual, science).
    We old and new Indians are struggling between this both.

    Goutam

  26. Chris Post author

    Goutam, it’s so good to hear from you! Thanks so much for sharing your story and bringing your perspective to this conversation. It’s so good for those of us who aren’t Hindus to hear the perspectives of those who are. We welcome any other thoughts you want to share about what it means to be a Yesu bhakta. In fact, if you ever wanted to email me some thoughts I could make them into a new blog post guest written by you. My email address is chrisleake AT cten DOT org, or you can reach me using the contact form on this website.

    I hope you’re doing well!

  27. Abraham

    Dear All,
    We are all not perfect, we are not wise enough. We all need God and ask God. I appreciate what is your point my friend who comes from other culture to local culture. I believe it is good for all of us not to make rules for practices of faith without understanding the true meaning of culture. There are many missionaries from west. They do two major mistakes when sharing Gospels:
    1. Preaching western practices and culture than preaching pure Gospel alone. or
    2. Contextualizing in such a way that they become like the people of the land not to offend them, or be accepted and lack of understanding of spiritual significance or spiritual meaning tied to that practices.
    For Example:
    1. Our church should have Guitar and western drum, and we don’t use local music to play in worship….. Actually it is not bad to have western music but that doesn’t mean we should abandon or not like local music to play in worship… guitar, national dress, local dress, natioanal anthem, food etc…
    2. Shiva linga or any form of stone worship, buti and mantra necklace, rakchhya bandhan and Prasad, Tika, Magal Sutra, Sindoor etc which are either base on, established later with some meaning, spiritually significant or just cultural practice of the people of the land………
    Some of these are things let’s say in general outlook it is just stone, piece of cloth, thread etc but it has used with purpose for certain spiritual practices and has spiritual unseen faith, power, belief. You can’t just say these are just stone, piece of cloths or thread….if someone do that he has lack of knowledge, understanding and wisdom because such practices has spirtiual consequences……which could be either christian or hindu or of any faith…..He is just outwardly explaining not having spiritual sense or meaning ……

    1 Corinthains Chapter 8:
    8:1 Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.

    8:2 And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.

    8:3 But if any man love God, the same is known of him.

    8:4 As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.

    8:5 For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)

    8:6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.

    8:7 Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

    8:8 But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.

    8:9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your’s become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.

    8:10 For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;

    8:11 And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

    8:12 But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.

    8:13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while
    Our Job as a follower of Christ is follow Christ, but not to promote or convert someone to from one culture to another culture. We should focus on sharing the message of Christ. We are not to much focus on food, cloths, ………When someone knows the Christ, loves Christ will know set the boundaries for himself what he should do what what he shouldn’t do culturally, because he knows the best of his culture which is spritually meaningless or meaningful…. what could be not beneficial ….. Not all Hindu culturally is wrong, and not all right. Not all people in the land practices are just culturally significance, and not practices in the land are free from any kinds of influence, originated, practice or tied to different local beliefs which could be hindu, budhist……. or of any kind.
    Don’t try to Make following Christ, either hard path or easy path setting up method…..there are many nominal people in any faith who call themselves spiritual, have book knowledge but lack spiritual authority and power, not filled with the power of God, filled with human wisdom and ways or lacking heart God and hating other practices, culture etc…..there are also people fulfill all christian duties but lack spiritual in the sense of filling with spirit of God so they don’t bother practicing anything in the name of making easy, be friendly,etc or people who are ignorant about spiritual meaning,, or people who things own culture and practices are the better than others etc…… this problem of contextualization existed in every centuries not only today…. either in Christ’s day to today……looking back to the history contextualization bring forth and establish culture and costume which could be either blessings or sometimes hindrance to the practice of faith, true Gospel ……..lets think about christmas celebration…. good friday and easter…there are country where people goto church but practices riligious costumes which is meaningful to the spiritual practices and belief of the people of the land… so there you no transformation at all ….
    My point: Let’s preach Gospel, practice true faith in action….what to eat and wear is minor but be careful when set the things which has both positive and negative …
    Like Paul said
    7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

    9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

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