All Christians understand that a commitment to presenting the gospel to others is an essential part of living out God’s will for our lives. Fewer understand that presenting the gospel well requires understanding others’ perspectives. (Presenting the gospel in an intelligible way depends on knowing how our words are interpreted by our audience.)
Even fewer Christians realize that, from the perspective of a faithful evangelist, we must identify aspects of otherness in our own lives. We possess an inner division of cultural practices and values (which we should not transmit alongside the gospel) alongside biblical teachings and faithful beliefs (which we are called to teach others).
Specifically, with Hindu friends, neighbors, and coworkers, three guiding principles can help us maintain genuine friendships and remain faithful to our calling as disciplers (Matthew 28:19).
A commitment to friendship regardless of disagreement is an excellent way to develop a relationship with Hindu friends. Hinduism is a diverse belief system that often presents all religions as leading to the same God. Therefore, the idea of conversion to or from Hinduism is a point of disagreement with Christianity.
Conversion, we should note, is a biblical teaching, not a “Western” concept. First Peter 2:9–10 teaches that conversion is an identity change: God calls a people for his own out of our earthly cultures, presents them with a new role and relationship, and gives them his mercy. This new core identity supersedes any national or cultural identity and ought to reorder our priorities as we continue living within our same national and cultural setting.
A commitment to friendship is also a wise approach since the worldviews of Hinduism and Christianity are different on many other levels. (Ex: Creator/creation distinction, the existence of karma vs. sins committed against a holy God, scriptures in Sanskrit or the Bhagavad Gita vs. the Bible in translated form, etc.)
In the process of inviting our Hindu friends to read the Bible with us, to attend small group meetings, or to visit our church, we ought to also give time to learning their story, the story of their family, their beliefs, and the story of their culture. If opportunity presents itself, having a cultural exchange is an excellent way to gain insight about our friends’ culture and beliefs.
It is possible to learn about another religion without taking part in non-Christian worship. Asking questions and maintaining the posture of a learner is a good idea. Furthermore, learning how our friend sees the world permits us to present the gospel with more clarity.
We ought to identify the elements of our own United States culture and church culture that exist alongside biblical teachings. These types of cultural/religious questions can uncover major barriers to the gospel that we’ve never seen as we hold up our lives to biblical teachings. Admittedly, this is best done in the context of a community of believers, since it involves heart work and is more of an inward journey than the first two commitments.
Missions history is filled with well-meaning believers who transplanted their own church culture into their mission field, when teaching the gospel and practicing biblical discipleship was all that was necessary. An element of self-awareness on their part might have led to a more indigenous church culture. Some modern missionaries have learned from the experience of those who came before us and thus promote a healthy transmission of the gospel to Hindus within an Indian cultural context. Recognizing which parts of our own lives look like Jesus and which are only culturally-conditioned results in an ability to point others to Christ and not merely to ourselves.
We ought to remember that for someone who has never read the Bible, we are all they know about what it means to be a Christian. How would a diasporic Hindu perceive us? Are we materialistic? Are we morally permissive? Are we hospitable? Do we live like Jesus?
Sometimes our prior experience can lead us astray. I remember a time in college when I brought some Indian friends to my local Baptist church and a well-meaning church member wrongly identified their ethnicity. He began speaking in Spanish! It was an honest mistake but illustrates the need to understand first, especially in a cross-cultural setting, in order to be hospitable and to communicate a genuine interest. We should pray for wisdom and power from God so that we can be more faithful witnesses. Likewise, we should pray for the Spirit to illuminate and apply the gospel to the hearts of our Hindu friends.
The kind of approach to cross-cultural evangelism outlined above requires a commitment of time, a genuine interest in our friends’ lives coupled with a desire for their conversion through the gospel, and an identity that is more aligned with God and his kingdom than the prevailing tendencies of our culture.
Arvind Sharma, “Hinduism: Adherent Essay,” in Handbook of Religion: A Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings, and Practices, ed. Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland, and Gerald R. McDermott (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 76.