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Samir asks the question, how do we make the gospel relevant to our nation? He recognises that he has made many mistakes in this area, as has his nation and as have Christians throughout history. But we are always learning.
Contextualisation means to weave together. The gospel story is weaved into mankind in Jesus, and we weave the story of Jesus into people’s lives. As the Father sent Jesus, we are sent. We must be incarnational.
India is a very diverse country: it is a nation of nations. It is made up of twenty nine states, each of which have their own language, food, dress and culture. Even the languages have multiple dialects and different scripts. Indian scholar Shashi Tharoor says that ‘the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in plural.’ It is too diverse to speak about as just India.
The Anthropological Survey of India project says that there are 4693 communities in India, and that Indian diversity is marked by linguistic heterogeneity, ecological diversity, biological variation and cultural pluralism. The call is to weave the gospel story into this complex nation.
There is also diversity of religion. Hinduism is the largest religion in the nation, but Hinduism is diverse too, with different philosophical views and gods. There are also a large number of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians.
In the midst of this diversity is the caste system. When you are born into a family, you belong to a particular caste. These castes have different statuses in the nation. This is so deep rooted that people of other faiths are embracing it, despite some of the contradictions.
B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution, was born an outcast. He wanted to liberate himself and others from his caste from discrimination. The teachings of Jesus had an impact on him, and he wanted his followers to embrace Christ. However when he visited churches and found Christians, he found that the caste system was still present there.
In the midst of this context, there have now been three generations who have sacrificed much in order to come to India with the gospel. Many people have come to faith and followed Christ as a result, and we must be grateful for those western missionaries who genuinely came and served with love. Some may have come with vested interests or colonialism, but the gospel came into India. However they probably didn’t understand contextualisation. They brought things of the West along with the gospel, and they can be difficult to separate. Even today the gospel in India can have a Western wrapping, something which is alien to the culture, and sadly some have taken the wrapping without the gospel. At the same time others have taken both, so are followers of Christ but have simultaneously taken on Western culture.
We can see this in that in India the English language is viewed as superior to the local languages. Rings and white wedding dresses have become symbols at Indian weddings, whereas other Indian symbols of marriage are not considered legitimate or as biblical, despite the Bible’s silence on these issues. Another example is men and women sitting separately at meetings. In the West this seems so strange, but in the context of a meeting in the local culture, it is the way that some people in the villages and towns of India will feel more comfortable. We have made these things into major issues.
There is also the issue of systematic theology and the way that the West thinks. The Bible has been brought and made into systems, and people are trained with this methodology. But the majority of Indians are oral learners and do not learn in the same way. In biblical training, we can become theologically sound without importing the systematic method of theology.
When someone from another faith comes to Christ in India, they get asked questions: will you start wearing western clothes? Will you change your name? Have you just been given money to change? Historically many people have put their faith in Jesus and have changed their names and dress. Faith gets so linked to the culture, and Indians have reacted to this. Samir feels that most Indians would love Jesus and his teachings, but they are reacting not to Jesus but to Christians who have embraced Westernism instead of embracing their own culture when following Jesus.
Christians have often focused on the minor things, like getting caught up with denominations. Samir recently met a senior church leader in the city and asked him for his advice. He said that he and other Christians had spent so much time trying to figure out the differences between the denominations, and this time could have been used instead to understand different faiths and their culture in order to make the gospel relevant.
In the Indian city of Madurai there was once a big evangelistic effort and a desire to make Jesus relevant. Someone wrote on a wall ‘Jesus is the answer’. The following day a perceptive Hindu wrote underneath ‘but what is the question?’ Let’s listen to understand how people are thinking.
The Bible is clear that we expect all tribes, languages and cultures to be worshipping the lamb, as seen in Revelation 7:9. This is a motivation to love the people who may not be like us. But when we go with this message of hope, we often go with superiority. When you have the gospel, you have something beautiful, but you are not superior. Do we genuinely have a heart of love?
Another challenge is uniformity. Samir found that he could go to any nation and experience the same thing: the same church meeting pattern, the same songs, the same language. We are living in a globalised time when global cities are closer to one another than the cultures of their own countries, but it is amazing that we have not been able to see the differences when we are in different cultures.
Samir shares how the decision was taken for one congregation in India to sit on the floor during meetings, to use Indian instruments, sing pujas, do story telling and bring the gospel in a way that is understandable. Some Indians could go to a Western style meeting and think that they have gone to a rock concert, not thinking that it is anything spiritual. However seeing Jesus glorified in that culture with familiar and local forms will help people feel that it is more spiritual.
We must be willing to listen, change and rectify. We must be vulnerable and dare to offer the gospel without the wrapping. It may be inspected, accepted or rejected, but we must believe that the gospel itself can bring transformation within people’s own culture. We need to keep the main thing central. Love is our motivation and the main thing that we must be doing in whatever context we are reaching (John 13:34). Sometimes we make cultures barriers to loving, but the time has come not just to be tolerant but to be accepting of different cultures. We must understand that contextualisation is unavoidable, and it is good. It is not for comfort, but for clarity. The gospel itself is not for comfort: it is a stumbling block to some. But we must not allow our own ways and cultures to be the stumbling block, only the cross. This will still be offensive for sinful man; the Bible draws the line here, and so do we.
Let us be those who will listen, engage, and not make the culture a barrier to bringing the gospel into the lives of people.