The scene was so disorienting, it felt like it must be from a Hollywood (or Bollywood) movie. We are in a bustling bazaar in a large city in Northern India. A white dude in skinny jeans rides up on a mini-motorcycle to meet us. He guides us through narrow “gullies” (alleyways) into the small and crowded neighborhood in which he lives and works. We hear about the ministry that he and his friend are engaged in here.
Their goal—to win a particular people group to Christ. But they don’t want to work alongside the established national church. They want to win people groups to Christ, but they don’t want to teach these people what it looks like to be followers of Christ. Rather, they want people to be able to follow Christ “from within their own cultures.” Yet in many cases, what results is a hodge-podge mix of religion that has virtually no resemblance to biblical Christianity.
“Yet in many cases, what results is a hodge-podge mix of religion that has virtually no resemblance to biblical Christianity.”
There are more than a few such foreign workers laboring in India.
In previous posts, I addressed two major issues plaguing missions work in India: the craze for numbers and the West’s fascination with “supernatural” testimonies. Here, I wish to address another issue that is quickly gaining traction and causing problems in India, much like it has in the Muslim world: extreme forms of “contextualization.”
What Do I Mean By Contextualization?
“Contextualization” is the word used in mission’s scholarship to describe how the gospel should be fleshed out in varying cultures. Am I opposed to contextualization? Of course not! In my years of ministry in India, I’ve never worn a tie to preach. I often preach barefoot, and the congregations are dressed in Indian attire and seated on the floor. When I preach in the West, I am almost always in suit and tie. The tone of my preaching is different, the illustrations I use are different, and the matters to which I apply the Scriptures are different, all depending on context…and yes, my wife wore a saree (and not a dress) on our wedding day. And certainly, I am thankful for the many Western missionaries who contextualize the Bible’s message in ways that are biblically warranted, helpful, and appropriate to the culture.
My purpose here is not to criticize contextualization. Neither do I wish to get into nuanced discussions about the spectrum of contextualization and how much contextualization is legitimate. Rather, I wish to raise awareness about certain illegitimate forms of contextualization that are taking root in missions in India. These forms of contextualization receive their impetus from Western missionaries who refuse to cooperate with the established national churches, believing that they understand more about Indian culture than anyone else. And much like the “Insider Movements” of the Islamic world, most of these teachings result in false and heretical movements in India, far removed from biblical Christianity. It is my prayer that what I share here would challenge brothers and sisters in the West to cease supporting missionaries who propagate false teachings and practice harmful methods of ministry.
“Hindu Followers of Christ”?
Some of my encounters with Western Christian workers in India leave me feeling deeply disturbed. Last summer, I was visiting India when my ministry team bumped into one of these guys—an American who has spent almost the last decade in India. He considers us Indian Christians too “Westernized.” He thinks that he’s more attuned to Indian culture, for he celebrates Indian festivals and practices several Indian / Hindu customs—customs that Indian believers such as myself have rejected. This Westerner believes that the things he does will help remove barriers to belief among the high caste Hindus he’s seeking to reach.
There are others like him who dot the missions landscape in India…They come from many varied backgrounds in the West, but a lot of them are latte-sipping, skinny-jeans-wearing Christian Hipsters from the West coast or Canada, who for whatever reason, seem to have grown bored or disillusioned with traditional Christianity. They’re looking for something new. They’ve read the latest and greatest books on missions, contextualization, and culture (and perhaps a smattering of emergent church literature and post-modern philosophy). And so they come to India and try to form communities of “Yeshu-Baktha Hindus” or “Hindu disciples of Jesus.” They don’t want to be identified as “Christians” because they consider this “too Western” (never mind Acts 11:26!).
In these communities, a puja or Hindu initiation ritual performed in Jesus’s Name takes the place of Christian baptism. The “Lord’s Supper” consists in the breaking of a coconut and drinking of coconut water. Bhajans (Hindu devotional songs) are sung in Jesus’ Name instead of Christian hymns. The place of worship is lit up by little diyas (Indian oil lamps typically used in Hindu religious ceremonies). Preaching finds no place in these communities, for “monologue” is considered a Western idea. These groups are led by “gurus” instead of “pastors.” And the storyline of Scripture is replaced by a storyline borrowed from the indigenous culture: Jesus is understood in terms of Hindu mythology and Jesus’s sacrifice is interpreted in light of the Vedas.
Many who propagate such teachings typically do it from good motives. They are wary of a colonialist form of missions that imposes Western culture on indigenous Christians. They truly want to see an indigenous Christian movement established. They’ve bought into the latest “missions research” which says that that removing cultural barriers to belief is the best way to achieve church growth. And so they dress up Christianity in the garb of specific cultural groups hoping that these groups would accept the Christian faith while retaining their culture.
My Response: Shall We Provoke the Lord to Jealousy?
Sadly, these well-meaning proponents of “contextualized” Christianity do not realize that they are presenting a garbled gospel and forming sub-Christian communities. I will respond here by identifying four serious problems with these “contextualization” movements.
i. Syncretism and a Biblical Worldview.
First, the natural result of such kinds of “contextualization” is syncretism of the worst kinds—a dangerous and damning mix of the Hindu and Christian worldviews. In more serious cases, I do not hesitate to call the movements heretical. The eager proponents of “contextualization” think that they are preserving Indian culture, but they do not realize that for Indians (unlike in the West), culture, worldview, and religion are inextricably intertwined. Most Indians, including “Westernized Christians” such as myself, as well as former Hindus who have trusted in Christ, recognize this fact.
The close link between culture and religion in the Indian mind is the reason that most Indians have a negative impression of Christianity, for they assume that all Western cultures are “Christian cultures.” However, Christianity is not a product of “Western” culture. Rather, the Christian message is a worldview that transforms all cultures, both East and West. The Gospel demands a renunciation of secular thinking, immorality, and profligate living in the West, just as it demands a renunciation of idolatry and superstition in the East. We must proclaim the transcultural lordship and glory of Jesus, rather than hyper-orienting our message and praxis around specific cultural groups.
The Apostles never permitted pagan cultures to influence the biblical message or the form of Christian worship. Rather, even in a pagan culture like Corinth, Paul gives the Scriptures pre-eminence. Writing to a predominantly Gentile congregation in Corinth, Paul calls these believers to see their identity in terms of the biblical storyline (1 Cor 10). Paul prescribes what should happen in their worship services and even dictates to them how they should take the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11–14). Paul proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ in “accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–4), and not some cultural metanarrative from Corinth. Scripture forms the people of God, not vice versa. I have often wondered if a connection exists between contextualization movements and the influence of post-modernism. The authority is shifted from the revealed Word to the community of readers.
Proponents of “contextualized” movements disregard the biblical principle that darkness has no fellowship with light, and Christ has no part with Belial (2 Cor 6:14–15). And Christ’s Word is mutilated in the name of “contextualization.”
When Indian national believers advance these criticisms, we are labeled as being “Westernized.” In fact, Indian “Christian background” believers are told that we have no right to speak on such issues at all, for we are the root cause of the problem. But even when “Hindu background” believers voice their concerns—and I know several who do—they are sidelined as having already been “Westernized.” The irony is astonishing: These are Westerners claiming that they know more about Indian culture than Indians who have been born and raised in India!
ii. Christ Commands Us to “Teach”
Some of the more moderate “contextualization” advocates with whom I’ve interacted tell me that they do not want Western understandings of Christianity to be imposed on people in India. Therefore, instead of teaching Indians what Christian life and worship looks like, they ask them to read the Bible and come to their own conclusions. Sounds good doesn’t it?
Except that Christ has commanded us otherwise. The Great Commission includes the call to make disciples, teaching them to obey all of Christ’s commands (Matt 28:18–20). And Christ’s commands are revealed in the apostolic Word—the Bible. The Bible sets the agenda. The Bible forms Christian identity. The Bible shows us what Christian life and worship looks like. And the Bible tells us that Jesus equips his people through teachers (Eph 4:11). This means that we must interpret and apply the Word of God across ethnic and cultural lines—much like Paul the former Jew did in the congregations that he formed in Gentile and pagan cultures. The notion that communities should read and come to their own conclusions is actually rooted in the post-modern mindset that places authority in the community rather than in the text.
iii. “Insider Movements” and “Secret Believers”
Another result of “contextualization” movements is the emergence of Hindu “insider movements.” Proponents of “insider movements” teach people to remain as “secret believers” or as “Hindu devotees of Jesus” (Yeshu-Bakhta Hindus) so that they will not be excluded from their families and communities but can instead stay on the inside in order to “eventually win more converts to Christ.” Furthermore, those who advocate these forms of contextualization—in direct violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 (cf. also 1 Cor. 7:39)—teach people to prefer marriage to unbelievers from their same backgrounds and ethnic / caste group over marriage to believers of other groups. They also insist that “Hindu followers of Jesus” should never intermarry with “Christian background believers.”
The pragmatic desires to maintain cultures and grow the church result in a dilution of the gospel message, and a casting aside of the call to follow Christ at the cost of persecution and exclusion from one’s kin (Matt 10:34–38; Mark 8:31–38; John 15:18–25; 16:33; 2 Tim 3:12).
This testimony of a sister in Christ from a Hindu background illustrates the point:
When I became a Christian, there were some people in my area who started teaching me that I should remain a “secret believer” and not inform anybody of my faith. They did not want me to be excluded from my family. Therefore they encouraged me to live as a “secret believer” so that I could remain within my family, hoping that eventually my family and community would also come to Christ. When I moved to a different area to start a job, I learned that this teaching was seriously wrong. I found great freedom in finally expressing my faith in Christ openly and boldly told my parents and community. I told them about Jesus and the work he has done in my life. Though I was rejected and ostracized at first, after ten years, my family finally began to respect my decision to follow Christ. They even attended my wedding to a Christian believer in the church!
Indian church leaders like myself and my Indian co-laborers call people to be open and committed followers of Christ and to come under the authority and discipleship of the local church. In response, proponents of “contextualization” condemn us for practicing “extraction evangelism” (taking individuals out of their families / communities) and not “stimulating the growth of people movements.” But if I remember correctly, it was Jesus who declared that those who follow him would be hated by all for his name’s sake, and that a person would find enemies among those of his own household, yet one must embrace and follow Jesus at the cost of all these (Matt 10:34–39). The New Testament tells us that Christians are “sojourners and exiles” who have been “rejected by men” but are “chosen and precious in the sight of God” (1 Pet 2:4–11). Believers are called to bear the reproach of Christ, going with him “outside the camp” (Heb 13:12–13).
iv. What They Do When It Doesn’t Work.
The irony of it all is that when it comes to truly winning people to Christ in India, “contextualization” proponents fail dramatically! Virtually no one is won to Christ, for when the gospel is not clearly proclaimed, there is no power to draw people from darkness to light. In fact, very few Indians are interested in joining a movement that looks in every way the same as their own religion but simply has a new god tacked on. One of the Westerners I mentioned above has lived in India for several years and has adopted all these Indian customs, but no one seems interested in his teaching.
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And so, desperate for some kind of success, some of these groups resort to shameful and underhanded tactics. They begin to enter the established Indian churches that they once spurned. They give some impression of reaching out for fellowship, and try to gain the trust of national church leaders. And after making their way into the established church, they begin to target new believers who have recently embraced Christ from Hindu backgrounds—those who are weak and facing imminent persecution and rejection, those who are learning what it costs to follow Christ. The “contextualization” proponents then begin to brainwash these weak and fledgling believers, teaching them that they are being “Westernized.” They are told not to give up their Hindu identity: “You don’t need to be a Christian—instead, be a ‘Hindu follower of Jesus.’” This is how many “contextualization” proponents find their “converts.” I know, because I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve known struggling baby believers who have fallen into these traps. When things like this happen, I pray that the Lord would obliterate such “ministries.”
So What Can You Do?
Okay, so maybe by reading this post, you’ve been stirred to take this issue more seriously—what now? How can you help prevent the growth of these kinds of false and destructive teachings?
(1) Please be very careful whom you support. Most of these Western workers on the field have been funded by orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing churches who would be utterly horrified to learn of what those they support are doing on the field. Please be cautious. Hold all your supported missionaries to rigorous doctrinal accountability, and periodically check in on them to ensure that they are teaching the truth.
(2) Always be careful to review the values and distinctives of mission agencies and refuse to support any mission agency that advocates these extreme forms of contextualization. Contextualization is necessary in every cross-cultural endeavor, but beware the forms of contextualization that fall short of biblical Christianity.
(3) If you’re seeking to be a missionary, resolve that you will not ignore the established national church! Wherever possible, partner with faithful national church leaders, so that you better understand the culture and how the gospel should take shape in that culture. I know this can be challenging, and in many cases national churches are corrupt, unhealthy, or non-existent! But if at all possible, strive to find faithful and doctrinally sound national brothers with whom you can partner. I assure you—they exist. If you are in a pioneer endeavor where no national church exists, be careful to understand the culture well. Make a distinction between those forms of culture that are religious and those that are not. Do not shrink back from teaching the “whole counsel of God”—which means teaching people to embrace Christianity as an entire worldview. Teach them to reject cultural practices where the Scripture demands it, and be certain that all your “contextualization” is biblically warranted.
 For a quick glimpse into “Insider Movements” in the Islamic world, see this insightful interview with a Bangladeshi pastor: http://www.wts.edu/stayinformed/view.html?id=1579