Bridging the Gap between Western

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India: Debating Global Missiological Flashpoints
Bridging the Gap between Western Workers
and India’s Hindus
by Ryan Stevens

                                               Learning from Others’ Experience

                                                          cardiac surgeon doesn’t begin her career by grabbing a scalpel and
                                                          starting to cut. Complex initiatives require knowledge built upon
                                                          the experience of others. Having led cross-cultural teams since 1986,
                                               I began focusing on bringing teams to India eleven years ago. For the most
                                               part, these teams were comprised of senior leaders of churches and potential
                                               long-term workers. We visited cities like Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad,
Editor’s Note: This paper was                  Jaipur, Agra, etc. Primarily, though, most trips were to North India concen-
originally presented at the 2007               trating in the Ganges Plain and cities like Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi,
meeting of the International Society           Patna and Calcutta.
for Frontier Missiology in Dallas,
Texas, September 15–17, 2007.                  Whether leading teams from my own churches or from others, trips were
                                               designed around vision, exploration, increasing understanding and prayer.
Ryan Stevens’ ministry efforts are             Initial trips with senior leaders were primarily for vision, culminating with a
focused on cross-cultural and domestic         challenge to consider long-term involvement. Subsequent trips with the same
church planting and mobilization.
With a concentration on unreached              church involved greater exploration for potential long-term workers and the
peoples and strategic methods for              investigation of viable platforms and ministry strategies. In both cases, after
reaching them, he has been leading             getting some brief exposure to India’s history and complexity, we would spend
cross-cultural teams of senior church
leaders and full-time missionary               much of our time meeting with others. Over the years we’ve talked with
candidates for more than twenty years.         hundreds of indigenous and foreign workers. A small percentage of those we
These initiatives include regions such         met with remained in North India long-term. With that in mind I favored
as Central Asia, South East Asia and
Eastern Europe.                                meetings with those who were able to sustain a lengthy presence. They gave us
Since 1996, Ryan has been leading              insights into how they were able to remain on the field, what platform options
teams and churches to South Asia. He           made sense and worked well, and what they had learned about how to engage
serves churches and workers, addressing        India’s peoples. We also met with workers who were more recent arrivals and
areas from mobilization and initial
involvement to ongoing long-term roles         others who may not have been new but were new to us. I endeavored to show
among the unreached. Ryan has also             teams the wide range of thinking and approaches present from both Indian and
played instrumental roles in planting          Western perspectives. Their insights were valuable beyond measure and time
several churches in the U.S. He currently
serves as an elder in his local fellowship     spent with them moved us further along than any “ministry” we might have
and oversees local and global outreach.        undertaken while in India short-term.

International Journal of Frontier Missiology                                                                24:4 Winter 2007•179
180 Bridging the Gap between Western Workers and India’s Hindus

Who Will Complete the                          indigenous effort (Operation World,       movement but eventually it will need
Task? Is There Room                            1993, pp. 273–291; The Church is          to move beyond them.
                                               Bigger than You Think, 1998, p. 223).
for Western Involvement?                       The Indian sub-continent with its
                                                                                         Having said that, of the workers I
Discussions with workers covered                                                         have seen, Westerners often seem
                                               vast mosaic of peoples among whom         more sensitized and generally more
many topics. From time to time
                                               the gospel has traveled either exten-     open, in my estimation, toward
controversial subjects would arise.
                                               sively or barely at all can hardly be     contextualization than many of their
One major debate we were exposed
                                               evaluated in a brief glance. Johnstone    traditional Indian Christian broth-
to revolved around two areas: roles
                                               helps us understand that when             ers. If well prepared, Westerners are
and finances. While Indian Christian
                                               it comes to evangelism there are          cognizant of needing to separate the
workers emphasized their strategic
                                               radically different levels of exposure    seed of the gospel from the kind of
positions and cost-effectiveness over
                                               and success within India. Given           fruit in which it’s wrapped. Outsiders
their Western counterparts, Western
                                               the number of workers being raised        should have the benefit of knowing
workers cautioned against outsiders
                                               up in the Northeast and South,            that certain components of what they
funding Indian ministries, warning
                                               there are numerous opportunities          bring in are essentially spiritual while
of dependency, false reporting and
undermining local authority structures.                                                  many others are cultural and matters
Without exception these issues were                                                      of preference and often need to be
raised in every church considering any                                                   abandoned. Distinctions between the
involvement in India and were further
raised during every trip. Given the
                                                   Without exception                     gospel and the Western or traditional
                                                                                         understanding and implementation of
complex, and in some ways unfor-                 these issues were raised                the gospel need to be made.
tunate, history of missions in India
along with the disparity in economic                 in every church                     India’s Christian community is
                                                                                         largely comprised of backward castes,
resources between our country and                    considering any                     dalits and tribals. It is significantly
theirs, this is to be expected. The                                                      Westernized and comprises an iden-
debates need to take place.                      involvement in India.                   tifiable subculture. For thousands of
However, the arguments were full                                                         years, being Hindu has been a matter
of oversimplifications which painted                                                     of identity and community as much
a big picture that was inaccurate.                                                       as a system of belief. Those from
Most notable were broad-sweep-                 to come across something related          Hindu society who converted not only
ing comments about the indigenous              to indigenous Christian efforts in        changed their focus of worship but in
mission force needing only financial           India. Churches in America hear of        converting to Christianity rejected one
resources to see the rest of the country       many opportunities to get involved.       community and culture for another. All
evangelized. Resources are no doubt            However, a clear picture of what has      manner of values, forms, and rituals
an issue. However, comments like               been accomplished and what remains        were exchanged but more importantly a
these were spoken irrespective of the          is often absent, as are forthright        transfer of group and personal identity
linguistic, cultural and caste bound-          discussions about the real issues that    also transpired. They have been brought
aries that hinder expansion, not to            separate traditional Christian culture    into Christ which is glorious, but they
mention the geographic and ethnic              from mainstream Hindu culture.            have also been brought into Western
distance between India’s reached and                                                     culture, perhaps unaware. Separating
unreached. These issues, along with            A Role for Westerners                     the two after generations of established
a lack of reproducible models for              The truth, I believe, is that India       church tradition must be overwhelm-
upper-caste Hindu society within the           ultimately must be reached by Indians.    ing to consider. This may not have been
traditional Indian church, are easily          People movements happen when the          what missionaries intended but it is
just as significant, but no mention was        gospel is wrapped in culturally unique    what happened nonetheless.
made of them.                                  expressions. India has seen some of
                                               that but it is largely overshadowed by    The ways things are done today in
Patrick Johnstone has written about            the traditional church in the Northeast   the Indian church are not necessarily
the massive lack of exposure India             and South and largely unknown in the      reflective of Biblical requirements or
has to the gospel while at the same            North. The goal is a uniquely Indian      cultural relevance among the broader
time spelling out that states in the           expression(s) of following Christ.        audience. Rather, they are often
Northeast are the most evangelized             Foreign workers can do their best         reflective of foreign forms and values
in the world and that states in South          to contribute in facilitating a people    that carry different meanings in the
India continue to benefit from much                                                      Indian context. At this point they

International Journal of Frontier Missiology
                                                                                                              Ryan Stevens 181

are also deeply established expres-
sions of Indian church culture. The
                                                f people in vocational ministry are viewed as
depth of these established expres-              religious propagandists, do Hindu devotees of Christ
sions is illustrated by the tension
caused in considering a move back
                                                compromise their testimony by following suit?
into mainstream Hindu (cultur-
ally) society. To Indian Christians it
                                           sion that Christianity is the religion of    Regarding Platforms
                                           outcastes and foreigners.                    The area of platform addresses more
feels like this is a compromise, not
                                           When it comes to the consumer                than visa issues. Most Western workers
only spiritually, but also in terms of
                                           mentality in America, there is hardly        I’ve met struggle with the issue of iden-
community identity. Perhaps they
                                           a better deal available than what is         tity that platforms attempt to address.
will continue to make the most
                                           promoted by some indigenous mis-             Helping others make sense of their
impact within their current context.
                                           sions. The terms as stated allow people      presence creates enough of a challenge.
However, being “Christian” isolates
                                           to feel that they’re making a significant    When thoughts of setting precedents
them from the larger target group.
                                           impact among unreached India by              arise, it becomes even more difficult.
Continuing to remain outside of
                                           increasing exposure to Christ all by         The idea of someone being paid to do
Hindu society minimizes any poten-
                                           giving up the cost of cable TV every         spiritual work is suspect within the
tial impact for the gospel. This is the
                                           month. For churches who feel over-           minds of caste Hindus. Carrying a
major problem in further evangeliza-
                                           whelmed by sending their own people          viable role in society and relating to
tion because without expressions of
                                           it’s an easy alternative. When Western       people from inside that framework is far
Christ within the larger group, how
                                           workers raise support they are doing         more acceptable.
will it be reached? Westerners can’t
fully represent those expressions but      so against an economically-driven,           Life in India is much different and the
in certain cases, particularly among       outsourcing paradigm. In the global          demands are significant. Most things
caste Hindus, they are positioned to       economy we’re used to sending jobs           take more time than Westerners are
help bridge the gap.                       overseas and missions is cast in the         used to. It’s easier to do ministry with-
                                           same light. If finances are the criterion    out losing time spent at a job. Foreign
Building a “Better” Mousetrap—             Western workers can’t compete. I have        workers are in a tough situation. It’s
The Debate over Funding                    seen this issue come to a head many          unlikely that most will be able to
Finances also greatly complicate mat-      times when American workers are              sustain themselves solely on what they
ters. If the landscape were as simple as   compared dollar-for-dollar with what is      are paid in India. However, the greater
India having scores of indigenous mis-     being presented.                             question is, Does being on support
sionaries ready to spread the gospel to    India’s traditional indigenous work-         present a model that can be followed?
its countrymen the only thing lacking      ers are doing great things, mostly           If people in vocational ministry are
being financial resources, then money      among nominal Christians, tribals            viewed as religious propagandists, do
might perhaps be the answer. The           and dalits and their influence looks to      Hindu devotees of Christ compromise
remaining issue left to deal with would    remain primarily among those groups.         their testimony by following suit?
be the monumental problem of depen-        Western workers have ethnic, linguis-        Creative solutions to this issue are still
dency and how it can undermine local       tic and cultural barriers to overcome,       very much needed. However, there are
God-given authority. Unfortunately,        but so do Indian missionaries if they        examples of Westerners being invited
the issue is far more complex. Hindu       are going to the unreached and not           in and paid both by the government
society distrusts any paid person          remaining in their traditional areas of      and private enterprise. As India grows
claiming spiritual insight or authority.   ministry. Westerners also have a real-       economically more opportunities like
Further, India’s mission force, of         istic opportunity of influencing caste       this will arise. Western workers can
which 80% comes from backward              Hindus who overwhelmingly represent          also partner with entrepreneurs look-
castes, tribal and dalit backgrounds, is   the task remaining. Will it cost more        ing to outsource work to India. People
as yet unprepared to take the Gospel       to send them? Of course, but should          with skill in business, management,
to the upper castes. At best outside       that prevent the gospel from going to        education and technology can consider
finances assist in allowing indigenous     the hundreds of millions of Indians          using their knowledge and experience
workers to spend their time doing          who still need to hear it? If we are to      in ways that were previously less viable.
ministry among nominal Christians,         see India’s unparalleled gathering of
dalits and tribals which have his-         peoples before the Lamb’s throne it          Searching for Unique Indian
torically been receptive. At worst it      will take the full efforts of both India’s   Expressions of Following Christ
                                           indigenous mission force and those of        While the debate over roles and
continues to perpetuate questionable
                                           sensitive foreign workers who also have      finances was front and center, the
reporting and un-reproducible minis-
                                           a role to play.                              thing I was increasingly bothered by
try models and solidifies the impres-
                                                                                                                24:4 Winter 2007
182 Bridging the Gap between Western Workers and India’s Hindus
was the similarity between Indian              economy and environment. They do             them a sense of security and peace.
Churches and those back in the U.S.            tremendous marketing. They’re not            They know what to expect and they
From very early on I wondered how              sticklers for distribution methods.          now the rules of how things work.
life and worship expressions were              Store owners and vendors don’t have          After all, it is an American restaurant.
so similar to our own. In visiting             to follow rigid guidelines to qualify        There are some parallels between these
churches both in the South, Northeast          as re-sellers, etc. My teammates have        approaches and Kingdom efforts, and
and North I was struck by how much             also appreciated Coke’s success in           some lessons we can learn. McDonald’s
English was used in worship, by the            reaching far-away places. If a first-        menus can be found in Hindi and other
fact that I knew the songs and the             time traveler to India is experiencing       Indian languages. Customers pay in
order of service, and that architecture        some stomach distress and I bring            rupees. They have some unique menu
was familiar to me but seemed out of           them a Coke they’re often surprised          items only found in India. Yet, in spite
place alongside other buildings, etc. Is       and begin feeling better in minutes.         of all this, they are not seen as truly
it that time spent in Christ conforms          McDonald’s provides us a different           Indian. Coming into the country, they
us to a universal culture and identity         example; its presence in India can help      have fit a few pieces of India into their
that supersedes all other earthly forms        us understand some things. When              restaurant instead of fitting themselves
of the same? Is this to be expected,                                                        into India. In many ways Christianity
that Christians should look, act and                                                        in India has traveled the same path.
live very much the same even on                                                             Westerners brought the gospel in and
opposite sides of the globe?                          Even the most                         in some cases attempted to make their
Consider the differences. Westerners,
and Americans in particular, come
                                                    basic positive and                      churches Indian but for the most part
                                                                                            what is presently there feels much
from a few-hundred-year-old,                          neutral forms                         more like what we’re used to back
modern, industrialized, culture with                                                        home. Seeing the gospel wrapped in
Judeo-Christian monotheistic roots,                  of Hindu society                       Indian culture means much more than
a primary language, and an instant-                 are overlooked in                       translating a sermon from English to
gratification, independent mindset.                                                         Tamil or even speaking it directly into
India represents an unparalleled mosaic              India’s churches.                      Bengali or Hindi, etc., while standing
of peoples, languages, and religions                                                        behind a pulpit in a church. Even the
in one of the world’s most ancient                                                          most basic positive and neutral forms of
societies that embraces community and                                                       Hindu society are overlooked in India’s
                                               McDonald’s sought permission from
interdependence and a far more com-                                                         churches resulting in an identity that
                                               India’s government to open restaurants
plex system of thought than that found                                                      remains foreign to mainstream society
                                               there they made some concessions.
in the West. I thought the disparity                                                        even after hundreds of years.
                                               No beef would be sold. Big Macs and
between cultures would be greater than                                                      Coke has gone in a better direction.
                                               Quarter Pounders were absent from
what I saw between my own church                                                            They recognize that what is inside the
                                               the menu. In their place were several
culture and what I observed in many                                                         bottle is really what matters, and every-
                                               unique items such as the Maharajah
Indian churches.                                                                            thing else is flexible. We would do well
                                               Mac and some vegetarian selections
                                               along with their universal staples of        to learn from this principle.
The Vision of Coca-Cola
                                               French fries, soft drinks and ice cream.
and the Short-Sightedness                      While many things are the same in            The Yeshu-Bhakta
of McDonald’s—A Glimpse                        all their restaurants around the globe,      Movement—Christ in the
into Contextualization                         it looks as though McDonald’s made           Hindu Context
I’m a die-hard Pepsi drinker, but              some effort into contextualizing their       India is not without its own unique
I must say that I love the vision of           restaurants in India.                        expressions of following Christ; there
Coca-Cola. It’s succinctly stated,                                                          are expressions that may look odd
                                               However, when U.S. policy makes
“A can of Coke in the hand of every                                                         to outsiders, but are also intimately
                                               waves, McDonald’s is often targeted
person on earth.” They’re doing a                                                           reflective of Indian culture. These
                                               for vandalism. This demonstrates that
great job of bringing that into reality.                                                    expressions are a growing phenom-
                                               in spite of their attempts, no one thinks
They have a few non-negotiables that                                                        enon but not a recent one. Rather than
                                               of McDonald’s as an Indian restaurant.
are maintained internationally—a                                                            exchanging Hindu culture and identity
                                               The American teams I’ve taken to
purified water supply, their unique                                                         for Christian culture and identity
                                               India recognize this, too, as they would
recipe including carbonated water,                                                          when coming to Christ, Yeshu-Bhaktas
                                               often prefer to eat every meal there. It’s
sugar, caramel coloring, caffeine,                                                          (devotees of Christ) live out devotion
                                               not exactly the same as McDonald’s
etc. The rest is adapted to the local                                                       and discipleship to Jesus within their
                                               back home but, it’s close enough to give
International Journal of Frontier Missiology
                                                                                                                Ryan Stevens 183

natural context. This allows them
to maintain levels of credibility and
                                                   f misunderstanding is something we totally wish to
influence among those who still need               avoid we’re without much hope in the Hindu world,
to hear rather than being extracted
and isolated from them.
                                                   or anywhere else.
A teammate of mine on meeting an              For some, that means that this model         Kingdom expansion in India is related
Indian woman following a worship ser-         should be abandoned altogether.              to caste. The more common obstacles
vice asked her, “When did you become          However, if misunderstanding is              of ethnicity and language are over-
a Christian?” The woman explained             something we totally wish to avoid           whelmingly present but it appears that
that she was a follower of Jesus but a        we’re without much hope in the Hindu         caste or jati (caste in its practical and
“Hindu” rather than a “Christian.” “To        world, or anywhere else. To caste            extensive form resulting in thousands
be a Christian would mean that I was          Hindus, converting to Christianity           of groups) is even more critical and
born in a Christian home. My family is        means a rejection of community,              may override linguistic and ethnic
Hindu as am I.” Without question, this        family, personal identity, and tradi-        boundaries. Observable markers
woman was a true follower of Christ.          tion; a throwing off of the things that      within society stress the preeminence
By maintaining her cultural and family        bond peoples. There must be ways to          of caste. For example, insofar as it
identity and by demonstrating her life        preserve these elements while commu-         relates to marriage, caste takes prec-
in Christ in a manner that could be           nicating truth accurately.                   edent in marriage over ethnicity and
understood she kept the door open             Personally, I believe that when it comes     language. Similar boundaries exist
to influencing her family rather than         to Biblical revelation it’s unrealistic to   among some high-caste groups when
slamming it shut.                             conceive of an approach that would elim-     it comes to eating and the prepara-
                                              inate every possible angle of misunder-      tion of food. These are not trivial
Satsangs                                      standing. Unregenerate people attend our     matters in the minds of caste Hindus
One of the most powerful cultural                                                          and they demonstrate that the gospel
                                              churches week after week, and year after
expressions of Christ-focused cor-                                                         might travel most freely within caste
                                              year. In spite of our thinking that truth
porate worship I’ve observed in the                                                        constructs. It would seem beneficial
                                              is always communicated accurately they
Hindu context has been in the form                                                         then to consider caste distinction and
                                              remain either confused or unyielded. Are
of satsangs. A “satsang” or “gathering of                                                  work within caste paradigms when
                                              we ready to abandon our own method-
truth” is a common Hindu model of                                                          introducing the gospel.
                                              ologies? We should endeavor to teach
spiritual worship and instruction. As
                                              truth in ways that it can be grasped and     Spiritual Lasik
such it addresses the two trouble-areas
                                              not compromised. At the same time we         India has its share of spiritual, social
that current evangelistic methods are
                                              must recognize that the truth of Christ      and economic negatives. Often in
yet to overcome—forms and identity.
                                              ultimately comes through revelation and      mobilization I have emphasized
Typical Hindu worship elements such as
                                              we must strive to live within the ten-       these. People need to be convinced
flowers, fruit and incense are included.
                                              sion of how people encounter and come        that something is wrong before they
Bhajans (hymns) are sung to Yeshu
                                              to follow Him. Furthermore, Hindu            will participate in offering a solution.
(Jesus). Teaching comes by way of a
                                              expressions of life in Christ should and     Having the landscape dotted with
swami or guru who follows Yeshu. At
                                              do look different than those from the        temples, mosques, gurdwaras, and
times Hindu topics or well-known sto-
                                              West. The Holy Spirit must be trusted in     shrines in addition to the component
ries are used as introductions of spiritual
                                              both environments to lead people as He       of visible idolatry, underscores India’s
concepts and then bridged to Biblical
                                              sees fit.                                    spiritual state. To be certain, she also
passages which are then elaborated. I’ve
seen Westerners have a significant role                                                    lacks the resources and infrastruc-
                                              Mobilizing for India                         ture of more industrialized nations.
in starting satsangs. As outsiders they are   In mobilizing people and churches
limited in some respects but since the                                                     Certain diseases and health concerns
                                              toward India there are many mistakes
form is indigenous it creates opportunity                                                  that have been eradicated in other
                                              I’ve made and misconceptions I’ve
for the meetings to grow and spread                                                        parts of the world continue to cause
                                              held. Some things have proven valu-
beyond them.                                                                               havoc. However, for years my eyes saw
                                              able and I’ve held onto them over the
                                                                                           only these things while failing to see
Concerns over syncretism sometimes            years including them with things I
                                                                                           many positives.
arise. I’ll grant that unregener-             continue to learn.
ate Hindus may possibly confuse or                                                         Managing Diversity
combine what they experience in this          Caste and People Group Thinking
                                                                                           India demonstrates amazing success with
context with their existing paradigm          It’s a matter of debate whether
                                                                                           a free form of government. It is both
of spirituality, especially early on.         the most significant boundary to
                                                                                           resilient and tolerant. Society maintains

                                                                                                                   24:4 Winter 2007
184 Bridging the Gap between Western Workers and India’s Hindus
a relative level of peace that is unimagi-     is evident. Tolerance is of high value.    wrapped around the seed of the gospel
nable given the diversity of its peoples,      Complex social structures and informal     could help them as they continue to
worldviews, languages and cultures.            task structures are common. All of         play a role in seeing India’s peoples
                                               these represent components of Indian       move into Christ. IJFM
Worship and Devotion                           society that we can appreciate.
Propensity for worship and a lifestyle
of devotion are easily seen. We may            India’s unreached peoples comprise
be burdened with the focus of devo-            one of the most significant chal-
tion but the Hindu ability to worship          lenges to the remaining task of global
seems to far exceed what we typically          evangelization. They also represent
see in the West. Countless times,              an unparalleled concentration of
while in Indian cities, I’ve seen people       peoples, unmatched in diversity, offer-
pull over at roadside shrines to devote        ing a uniquely complex expression of
themselves to worship. Often, this hap-        God’s glory. After hundreds of years
pens in addition to daily pujas at home        of modern mission efforts, believers
and temple visits. I’ve thought of the         remain primarily in two remote geo-
amount of light we enjoy in Christ and         graphic regions and are further isolated
have hoped for that to be combined             by more significant elements includ-
with the level of devotion I have seen in      ing foreign identity, caste, ethnicity,
the Hindu context.                             language, etc. By and large, Western
                                               workers operate outside most of these
Value of Relationship                          paradigms. Incorporating an apprecia-
The importance of family and commu-            tion of Indian values and culture and
nity are paramount. Respect for elders         learning to see appropriate elements

International Journal of Frontier Missiology

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