Category Archives: India

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?

India Days 3,4

I’m writing from a McDonald’s here in Chandigarh, because that’s where we could find a wireless connection. It is Monday afternoon our time. We have been here since Saturday morning and will be spending one more night. Tomorrow we take a train back to Delhi, layover for a few hours, and then take an overnight sleeper train to Varanasi.

The last few days have been really good. We have met with several ministry leaders, both Indian nationals and foreign workers who are all doing some great work for the kingdom of God here in northern India. It has been great to get a wide variety of perspectives on ministry here, where the needs are, and how Westerners might be able to fit into what God is doing in India. We still have a number of meetings scheduled for the next 9 days before we leave.

Later on I’ll have to write more about what’s going on, but in the meantime, here are some photos from the last couple of days in Chandigarh:

The biggest highlight of being in this city was attending a satsang on Sunday. Satsang is a Hindi word used to describe a fellowship. This was a meeting that happens every couple of months where about 6 home groups come together. It was really neat to see the Body of Christ in a Hindu context.

There are a lot of water buffalo where we’re staying right now. Their dung is made into cakes and burned for cooking.

Me and Rob on the train for Chandigarh.

On Saturday we went to a produce market to help our hosts buy food for the meal that was part of the satsang fellowship.

In a country where marriages are often arranged and things like religion and social standing are very important, the following photo makes sense. This is a section of the newspaper that has classified ads asking for brides and grooms. For an advertised bride, her looks are described, it gives her height, tells what kind of family she comes from, and what kind of groom the parents are looking for. Some ads say that no dowry (money paid to the groom by the father of the bride) is required, and others advertise that one’s caste is not an issue.

We visited a lake in Chandigarh yesterday that had a small amusement park of sorts.

We also visited the Rock Garden in Chandigarh. A highway worker started collecting throwaway materials, such as clumps of dross from the steel-making process and broken pieces of porcelain. He crafted them into an elaborate garden over a number of years.


Grant working with an Indian brother to wash dishes in preparation for Sunday’s satsang.

Ways to get around in India

In a motorized rickshaw

In a man-powered rickshaw

On the back of a motorcycle. The women often ride side-saddle

In a horse-drawn cart

Packed into the back of a truck

On the metro

In an old British-style taxi. These are all over the place; remnants of British influence in India.

On a camel

On an elephant

Things to beware of when driving in India:

As in Great Britain, everyone drives on the left side of the road, and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car.

Because cows are sacred to Hindus, they are allowed to wander wherever the want, including on busy streets.

India, Day 2–April 18

Today was a busy day as we met with five different workers here in India. We met with 3 Indian nationals and 2 Americans. They were good meetings and very informative, as we got different perspectives on where the greatest need is in India and how Westerners may be able to fit into God’s kingdom work here. We’re fairly tired, but having a good trip.

Tomorrow morning we catch a 7:30 train to Chandigarh, where we plan to stay for a day and a half and hope to meet with a couple more workers. It’s about a 3.5 hour train ride north of Delhi.

Here are a few photos from today:

Today we had a couple of meetings in south Delhi. The south side of town has miles of several-story condos packed together.

The swastika, it turns out, is a symbol of prosperity in India, so you see it all over the place.

The standard toilet in India is the squatty potty. If you haven’t used one before, they’re good fun.

The national currency of India is the rupee. The current exchange rate is about 40 rupees to 1 U.S. dollar. Mohatma Ghandi’s picture is on the front of all the bills.

I figured I’d better get a photo of myself on here sometime. Behind me are a couple of camels and elephants that were walking down the highway this evening.

I don’t know what our internet situation will be in Chandigarh, but I’ll post again whenever I can. Later from India…

7 initial impressions and observations of India

  1. There are men everywhere! I notice this because in many places where we live in southern Mexico it’s hard to find a lot of men. Many villages have fully 50%-70% of the working age men living outside of the village somewhere working. Here, though, on the streets and in the Old Delhi market area, we see many more men than women.
  2. Everywhere we’ve been in Delhi so far has a very distinct smell. I don’t know yet exactly what it is. We haven’t been to any slums, which are supposed to have their own (unpleasant) distinct smell. This smell is different–something like flowers or perfume or spices.
  3. Delhi is not quite as poor as I expected. This surprised me a bit because I visited Nepal about 10 years ago. I remember Kathmandu as a fair bit poorer than the parts of Delhi I have seen appear to be. The city is a little cleaner and the larger streets are in better condition and not quite as cramped as I expected. Don’t get me wrong, the streets and market areas are quite crowded, and there are definitely dirty parts, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be based on what I’ve heard from others.
  4. English is not quite as prevalent as I expected. Signs in English are everywhere, and a lot of people do speak a decent bit of English, but we have run into plenty of people who don’t speak any English. My expectations of English speakers also came from my visit to Nepal. There, I found that a great number of people (at least in the more touristy areas) spoke English quite well. Here, English speaking doesn’t seem to be as widespread. The amount of English influence that does exist is owed in large part to the fact that India was a British colony until 1947.
  5. I’m surprised at how much Delhi reminds me of Mexico. I’ll probably write more about this later.
  6. I’m surprised at how many Sikhs we see. Sikhism is a religion that is very prominent on the northwestern border of India, right by Pakistan. I don’t know much about it, but I understand that it’s interesting because it’s similar to Hinduism, except monotheistic. Sikh men are easy to spot because of the distinct style of turban they wear. Overall, they are a small minority in India, but we have been seeing a lot of them here in Delhi.
  7. Modesty is important in Indian cultures. (I say cultures–plural–because India is a melting pot of them, rather than being one homogenous culture.) The range of clothing choices is pretty narrow, and all are quite modest. Women’s clothing that I saw ranged from Muslims with only their eyes showing at one extreme to a handful of women in Western-style blouses and jeans at the other, and I didn’t see a single woman dressed what I would consider immodestly. Although ads of scantily-clad Western women are not difficult to find, there don’t seem to be as prevalent as in the United States or Mexico.

India, Day 1–April 17

Today was our first full day in India. One meeting we were going to have this afternoon had to be rescheduled, so our day consisted of going to a travel agency and then a train station to buy train tickets for several legs of our trip, spending a couple of free hours having lunch and checking out a market area in Old Delhi, and then going out to dinner at a restaurant with our hosts and their family. Tomorrow will be a busy day as it looks like we will have about four meetings with various workers here in Delhi.

Below are a few photos I shot today.

In a separate post I will share a few initial impressions.

The view off the balcony of our hosts’ second-floor apartment.

Trains are an important mode of transportation here. The station was jam packed with people sitting all over the floor waiting.

There was a strong police presence in the center of town today, because the Olympic torch was scheduled to pass through this afternoon.

The market streets in Old Delhi have a lot of character. In many places they were crowded and quite narrow.

A large Muslim mosque in Old Delhi.

We had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall that seemed to be a place where lots of roughly middle class types eat. India has lots of dishes that are comprised of vegetables and sauces and often spicy. Lunch for the 3 of us was the equivalent of just over US$5. That’s our friend and church planting coach, Rob.

A typical street in Delhi, lined with shops.

Made it to India

A fourteen hour flight from Newark later, we made it to India. It’s now Thursday morning here–India is about 12 hours ahead of U.S. time, depending on what time zone you’re in. We’re planning to stay in Delhi, the capitol of India, for the next couple of days with a couple from California named B. and E.

We’re scheduled to meet with a couple of other workers in the next couple of days who are doing ministry here.

So far, the weather is really nice. I expected it to be really hot, but when we got in at 10pm last night it was really comfortable, and so far this morning is fairly cool. It should be getting hotter, though.

I had my first cup of Indian chai tea this morning. Chai tea is very common here and is often offered to one’s household guests. It was really good! When I was growing up, my mom always drank her tea different than about anyone I’ve seen. She put a ton of milk and sugar in it, so that by the time it was prepared it was a milky light brown color. I always liked it a lot. Well, it turns out that that’s exactly what the chai tea I had tasted like. Not bad!

Well, that’s all I have to report for now, but I’ll continue to update my blog as I’m able to.

Until next time…

Off to India!

Well, this is it! I’m sitting in the Newark airport, less than two hours from boarding the plane for our 8:30pm departure to Delhi, India. Grant should be meeting me anytime, and Rob Thiessen, our missionary friend and church planting coach, is already in India and should be meeting us at the airport when we arrive tomorrow night.

We plan on spending a few days in Delhi and a few days in Chandigarh, and beyond that we’ll follow leads and go wherever it sounds like there is someone we should meet with. I’ll keep my blog updated as best I can, as long as I can find an occasional internet connection over there.

Thanks for your prayers!

Interesting cultural distinctives of India

As I’ve been preparing for my trip to India, I have been reading up on India’s culture and trying to learn some dos and don’ts. Here are some of the more interesting things I have read about India’s culture:

  • The feet are considered the lowest part of the body. Showing the bottom of your foot, moving something with your foot, pointing at someone with your foot, or placing your feet on furniture is a sign of bad manners. Be careful when you cross your legs and never walk over someone or the Bible, other religious books, musical instruments, etc. Keep feet tucked underneath you as much as possible when sitting on the floor.
  • The left hand is considered unclean because it is used for unclean things. Avoid giving anything to others with the left hand, especially food. When eating without utensils use the right hand only.
  • Because Indians live in a ‘collective’ culture, honor and saving face are very important – often the guiding factor behind relationships. This is often the reason an Indian will not admit a mistake – even when the mistake is obvious to everyone. It is very important to avoid causing others to lose face or even to lose face yourself. To help others save face, do not ask questions that will require the other person to admit a mistake. Do not set up competitions. The one losing will undoubtedly be embarrassed – and lose face. Do not ask questions implying the other is in need.
  • Men’s Clothing: What you wear expresses not only your own social position, but more importantly, is a reflection of the social position you perceive of your host or guest. By wearing neat, clean clothes, you express honor and esteem for your host or guest. Indians even in the slums rarely leave the house without a pressed shirt. Never wear shorts in public. Pants and nice shirts are acceptable. A Kurta Pajama is good to wear, also.
  • Women’s Clothing: A typical Indian suit is called a salwar camise. It consists of baggy drawstring pants called salwars, long tops called kurtas, and scarf-like thing that covers the chest called a dupatta. The sari is the traditional dress for a married woman. In most village areas, after a woman is married she only wears a sari. When foreigners wear saris, they generally win great appreciation from their Indian friends. There is more to wearing a sari than just wrapping it properly. A female writer of a newspaper article expressed that what a woman wears affects how she should behave. She wrote that she wears certain clothes for sports and a salwar camise for other activities as well. But, when she wears the sari, she is quiet and sedate. The sari calls forth a certain mental attitude and a specific type of demeanor. This is often the reason we look unattractive to Indians when we wear a sari. The sari is a very feminine, graceful garment. But we are not always feminine or graceful when we are talking and/or laughing loudly, shouting, walking fast or in a heavy, masculine manner, acting in a very dominant or authoritative manner, etc. These would be inappropriate behaviors when wearing the sari!
  • A man should NEVER touch a woman’s dupatta. A dupatta is considered a woman’s virtue.
  • A woman should never brush her hair in public, especially in smaller cities. This can possibly lead people to think you are a prostitute.
  • People of the opposite sex do not show affection in public. It is very common for men to hold hands and hang on other men in public. Women do the same thing, but is not seen as much.
  • Indians do not typically date. Marriages are usually arranged through their parents. A man and a woman seen alone together are assumed to be married.

I’m going to India

I’ll be taking a trip to India with Grant the last half of April. This will be a scouting/networking trip as we look at the possibility of expanding to work there in the next 3-5 years. This proposed expansion is part of our THUMBs Up vision, where we are seeking to have works going among all five major religious groups of the least-reached world – the Tribals, Hindus, Unreligious/Chinese, Muslims, and Buddhists. Though GFM currently just works in southern Mexico, our heart has always been for the least-reached all around the world. The vast majority of the least-reached are found in the region of the world known as the 10/40 Window. Good work is already being done among all the major religious groups, but there remains a tremendous amount to be done. Over 2.5 billion people in the world today live in ethnic groups with no indigenous church capable of evangelizing the rest of the population, and an estimated 1.7 billion people have never heard the name of Jesus. Because GFM has a huge heart for mobilizing new laborers, we want to be working in all five major religious groups so that we can offer more specialized training and apprenticeships for people planning to work in each of those groups.

India is the proposed location for our Hindu plant, though we could also have the opportunity to work with Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs there. If we find a suitable location there, we think we will most likely end up working somewhere in northern India. We do not yet have any idea who would be moving to India, when they would be going, or exactly where they would work. We are still in the early stages of this, but we are trusting God to make this vision a reality within the next five years.

The need in India is staggering. Consider these statistics:

  • India has 310 ethnic groups (own language, customs, etc. – for North Americans compare it to something like a Native American tribe – it’s not going to get reached unless someone makes a conscious, concerted effort) of over 100,000 people that are unreached with the gospel and have no mission work going on among them.
  • India has 54 distinct ethnic groups of over 1 million people that do not have a single Christian in the entire group. Think about that for a minute – a missionary could start work among one of these tribes and have a group of between 1 and 10 million people to reach with the gospel, starting with not a single believer among them.
  • The current population of India is over 1.1 billion people. According to the Joshua Project, India has 2,567 distinct ethnic groups, 2,274 of which are unreached with the gospel.

You can get detailed statistics on India, including a state-by-state breakdown, on Operation World’s India page.

To sum up why we feel a burden to go to India, in light of the statistics above, I leave you with a couple of verses:

2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

1 Timothy 2:1-4
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.