Indian Churches Need Culturally Relevant Training - Radical

Indian Churches Need Culturally Relevant Training

Our professor put an image on the screen with pictures of a cow, a chicken, and grass. Our task was to identify what goes together with the cow: the chicken or the grass. It was a Theology course in New Delhi, and all the students were Indians from different backgrounds. 

The entire class grouped the cow and the grass—the chicken was considered to be the odd one out. When Lian-Hwang Chiu, a developmental psychologist, showed this image to non-Asians, they would inevitably group the cow and chicken as a category as they were both animals.

However, for all of us in the class from India, the associations moved far beyond neatly defined categories to the relationships between the different objects. The point of the exercise was to display the differences in thinking between the East and the West. For Asians, relationships trump categories. 

That was a defining moment for me when it came to realizing the importance of culturally relevant theological training for Indian churches.

Understanding the Dynamics

Too often, theological education and training in India is from a Western perspective. Most of the literature is written by Western scholars, thinkers, and practitioners, using their literary style and pedagogy and addressing issues relevant to their context. This is then form-fitted and applied to local contexts, often without considering the cultural implications and nuances. It can lead to the perpetuation of the view of Christianity as a Western religion.

While the West lives in a post-Christian secular world, India is deeply religious.

While the West lives in a post-Christian secular world, India is deeply religious. Nearly 97% percent of Indians say that they believe in God, and most of the world’s Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains live in India, as well as one of the largest populations of Muslims and millions of Christians and Buddhists. The questions being asked in India are very different from the questions being asked in other contexts. 

The issues we wrestle with in Indian society often relate to applying theological truths in the context of family dynamics and pluralistic worldviews. Equipping and theological training of Christians in India must address the unique conditions, challenges, and thought patterns prevalent in India.

Worlds Within Worlds

There is no question that theology is firmly rooted in biblical truth that is universal and true for all times and all people. However, the application of the truth of God’s word is to a particular people in a particular place within a particular context. 

We see this modeled in the New Testament in Paul’s ministry. Paul says he became different things to different kinds of people in different contexts in his mission to proclaim the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:20–22). This is important in an Indian context because of the diversity of our country.

I was born in Tamil Nadu in South India and live and serve in New Delhi in North India. I speak Tamil at home, Hindi in most daily interactions, and English in all my work and ministry interactions. Within these worlds I inhabit daily, there are differences in language, customs, traditions, and cultures. There is no one India, and most of my brothers and sisters in Christ inhabit different cultural worlds within India. 

Each context necessitates a faithful integration of theology and the specific culture to minister in a way that is sensitive to the context because of our love for the gospel and the people we serve. It requires what Varughese John would term the calling of an Asian theologian—faithful cultural exegesis along with faithful biblical exegesis.

There is a dire need for sound biblical theology in India to counter the false gospels and confront the aspects of culture that stand opposed to biblical truth. There is a growing prevalence of the prosperity gospel that taps into the Indian fascination with money and religion. India is grappling with issues of poverty, inequality, caste discrimination, gender-based discrimination, sectarian violence, and intolerance that the church needs to engage with theologically to shape its praxis and witness in the country.

Thinking and Training in Community

The church in India has an opportunity to push back against the individualization and privatization of the Christian faith and the reduction of theology to academics.

Indians are a community and family-oriented culture. Historically, education and training occurred within the context of a community. Considering the rich tradition of community learning and engagement, the church in India has an opportunity to push back against the individualization and privatization of the Christian faith and the reduction of theology to academics. Theology is not a task to be relegated to the confines of a library or academia.

The church community has an integral part to play in developing theological thinking and training in India. Theology needs to be a community act, as the church community together critically reflects and engages biblically with the issues facing Christians in India today. Theology is to be done by and for the church, faithfully integrating theory and practice.

I am deeply thankful for the many Indian Christians and those in the global church doing the much-needed crucial work of developing culturally relevant theological training. I pray that God would raise up Christians committed to robust theological thinking that flows into faithful gospel service in their contexts and communities.

Shobana Vetrivel

Shobana Vetrivel serves with Delhi School of Theology (DST), which equips Christians theologically for ministry in an Indian context. Shobana has an educational background in social development and theology and is currently pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology. She is a co-founder and editor at IndiAanya, a blog by Christian women in India. She lives in Delhi, a city she loves, and she worships with Redeemer Delhi.

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