What is an elephant like?
As part of my BA in Hindi and Linguistics I spent eight months in Jaipur, India, learning the Hindi language. The purpose of my visit, therefore, was educational rather than mission-related; the idea was to be immersed in the language and culture. God amazingly provided me with a wonderful Christian family to live with, through whom I was able to experience life as an Indian Christian would.
India is very diverse. I do not know how my experience of being a Christian in Jaipur might compare with that of someone elsewhere in India. Furthermore, I was mostly involved with only one church denomination, so I am perhaps like the blind man in the story who, feeling an elephant’s foot, declared: ‘An elephant is like a tree’.
‘Mosquito on the wall’ of an Indian church
Our church was a small pioneering work among poor people and had less than twenty regular attendees, including children. Indian church services differ primarily in that women occupy one side of the room and men the other. Women cover their heads but are as involved as men in reading scripture, praying and giving testimonies.
Usually where reference was given to scripture in the sermon, anyone from the congregation could read it aloud. Prayer too was generally open and time was regularly given for testimonies, although these latter two activities are perhaps more restricted in bigger congregations than our own.
Visiting is an important part of pastoral ministry in India. Our pastor regularly went to the homes of the congregation to meet with and pray for people. There were also habitual prayer meetings with others involved in Christian work.
Although the dedication to prayer perhaps seemed more for show, the sincerity of others in prayer and faith challenges us – how reverent, trusting and committed are we in coming before God who holds the universe in his hands?
Christian living in India forbids all pre-marital relationships, even boy-girl romantic friendships (marriages are normally arranged), alcohol and the cinema. The pastor’s authority is strong in India. He may exclude from the church those who do not abstain from the above.
While this may seem extreme to some of us, their reasons are clear – we are to be examples both in the world and church. We need to be thinking carefully about the application of this principle in our own culture where the church is less and less differentiated from the world.
Being a Christian in India – an uphill rickshaw cycle?
It seems that many western Christians immediately associate India with persecution. However, we worshipped freely, even singing and clapping our way round church attendees’ houses at Christmas and holding an event for children of a nearby village on Christmas Eve.
Many churches have their own building. There are Christian schools with a Christian ethos where school assembly includes Christian worship despite many of the students and staff being Hindu.
Even so, there is opposition from non-Christians, from complaints about Christian weddings to stories that Christians are only greedy for money. The latter caused the family of an enthusiastic convert to stop her meeting with us.
A couple of years ago a pastor had been attacked in Jaipur. This has occurred elsewhere; churches have been burned and people imprisoned for distributing Bibles. Many people have seen worse, for example, in Orissa. But while there certainly is persecution in India, it is not the whole story and in peace or persecution we see God constantly at work.
For those considering serving God in India, be sure it is the Lord’s will. His presence and blessing is vital. Listen to the advice of reliable Indian Christians and feel your way around gradually from there.
Understand and respect the culture and make a good impression. As much as you feel able, become ‘Indian’, and if possible learn the language. It is difficult to overstate how people appreciate it and how valuable a help it is in relationships.