What Does a Fish Head and Harmonium Have to Do With Evangelism?
Culture influences much of how we think and what we do. Even in our churches, we have our own cultural ways of representing Jesus. We have our own cultural expressions of what it means to be His followers. Often these things obscure Jesus from people of different cultures. They are unable to see Him as anything other than “foreign.” Cross-cultural disciple-makers must minimize our own cultural representation of Jesus. We want to discover how to meaningfully represent Him to those we hope to reach.
It was with issues like these I tried to help my Hindu-background friend Krishna*. He came to Jesus a few years before we met. He and some others from the same background started a fellowship. Each of them had been members of other churches in the city. Now they wanted something especially relevant for their people. English is one of the dominant languages in this city so most church services are in English. They also have a strong Western cultural flavor.
When I first went along with Krishna to the fellowship, I was a bit surprised. Like so many of the local churches, their meeting was also in English and had that strong Western cultural flavor. They were reproducing what was modeled for them. Even so, they loved Jesus and had a vision to reach more of their people. My hope was that I could do my little part to help—from the sidelines. That was also my prayer.
Krishna called to invite me to lunch. He told me he had some exciting news about the fellowship.
My friend is a Sindhi. I was remembering when we met a year earlier. He told me his family originated in the Sindh province of Pakistan. When Pakistan and India separated in 1947, the Sindhi Hindus and Sikhs were forced out of Pakistan and into India. Sindhi Muslims stayed in Pakistan. Having lost nearly everything, Krishna’s father tried to make a living selling clothing on the streets of Mumbai. “We Sindhis are very good businessmen,” he told me with a glowing smile. As they prospered, Sindhi Hindu people relocated to other major cities in Asia. There is a large Sindhi Hindu community in the Southeast Asian city where he and I lived.
Three Fears in Our Community
Krishna told me, “We are a proud people with a rich heritage. Scattered across so many countries, there are three things our community elders fear for our people. We’ll lose our language. We’ll lose our culture. We’ll lose our religion.”
The Sindhi fellowship formed with the hope and dream of reaching their people with the gospel. A concern of mine was that these gatherings didn’t seem to be very Sindhi. For example, we sat in chairs, someone played the guitar, and we sang the same songs as in my home church in California. A lot of what the community elders feared seemed to be evident in this fellowship—language, culture, religion—all “foreign”. I wondered how they might discover ways to become more welcoming to the Sindhi Hindu community. It would certainly need to be their discovery. I could never know the Sindhi culture well enough to do it.
Today’s Special: Fish-Head Curry & Cultural Relevance
On the day of our luncheon, I rode the bus through the busy city, looking forward to hearing the news. We happily greeted each other and soon the meal Krishna ordered arrived at the table. As I looked down at the big fish-head soaked in steaming curry gravy, its left eye seemed to be staring up at me. I’m thinking, “Mom never served this back home.” We thanked the Lord for the meal and continued our conversation.
How happy I was when Krishna got to his exciting news.
“A young man named Ajay* recently moved here from Pakistan. He is a Sindhi believer. Ajay wants to visit our fellowship. What is really great is that he has written songs in Urdu and Sindhi and wants to lead us in worship next week!” Could this be an answer to my prayer? Krishna invited me to his house for the next week’s fellowship.
Ajay and His Harmonium
While I did enjoy meeting Ajay, more joy came when the gathering got underway. Ajay laid a small carpet on the floor and placed his harmonium gently upon it. He sat down on the floor next to his harmonium. Everyone else got off their chairs and sat on the floor in a circle. He began to play and sing. Others joined immediately singing new songs to Jesus in their heart-language. Beautiful Hindustani melodies sounded forth from his musical instrument. What a wonderfully different atmosphere emerged. One of his songs is going through my mind even now as I write.
Ajay seemed to love the gathering as much as anyone, feeling right at home with his new brothers and sisters. Eagerly he agreed to lead worship the next week.
A Turning Point
When I arrived the following week, I bent down to take off my shoes at the door and looked up into the room. There were many Sindhi people I’d never met before. As I introduced myself to each person, I realized a new desire had arisen among my Sindhi friends. They brought along their Hindu friends and family members. Soon, with smiles on their faces, even the Hindu guests sang along in praises to Jesus! Already, this was no longer as foreign, this was becoming Sindhi! I sensed they’d reached a turning point for the Gospel to spread among Krishna’s beloved people.
This worship style was a step closer. Another step: use the Bible in their language. An audio version of the New Testament is available for free in the Sindhi language. (https://www.faithcomesbyhearing.com) Another important step: help everyone learn and apply what they hear by doing Discovery Bible Studies.
Step by step simple changes like these can help a fellowship reduce “the foreign flavor and add local spices” that draw more people to Jesus. It becomes easier to make more disciples and reproduce new fellowships. There is potential for Sindhi fellowships to multiply in this city and beyond. Millions of Sindhi Hindus await.
If you are a cross-cultural disciple-maker, what can you do to “de-culturalize” your representation of Jesus?
If you are making disciples among your own people, how can you best present Jesus in ways they can understand?
*Not his real name