How does Christianity keep people from Jesus? That’s the radical question this book considers as it examines the factors that keep Indian people from becoming disciples of Jesus.
The book considers 9 different barriers; the first three: cultural separation, “Christian” and Church being the most fundamental. The separation that comes from believers seeking to withdraw from Hindu society and instead develop a ‘Christian’ identity shaped by foreign traditions (mostly western flavoured) that are most clearly seen in the way that the church functions.
Other chapters then go on to look at particular elements; evangelism, conversion, baptism, worship, financial dependency and benevolence. Elements which pose a particular challenge to people from a Hindu background for reasons of religious and/or cultural background and continuing sense of national pride.
Pennington’s argument is not that the Scriptural commands are unimportant (for example about Baptism) but that barriers have been created around the way that the church and Christians have practiced them. He is very sympathetic to Yesu Bhaktas, those who have intentionally decided to follow Jesus as their Lord, Saviour and God but continue within their Hindu family, culture and community (I’m aware not everyone would agree with him on this point).
I am no expert on Hindu faith and culture and am not able to critique the book from knowledge and understanding of the context in India. However, there is no doubt that India is an important country. It is one part of the world where the church hasn’t grown strongly (parts of it still count as ‘unreached’) and in recent years it has grown economically as well as numerically. It is also one of the parts of the world where the mission through ‘Discipleship Making Movements’ and Church planting is seen as the way forward.
There are several ways Pennington’s argument is pertinent to a wider mission context. First, I am aware of the ways that Christianity in Peru has been shaped by US Baptist practices since the 1950s and that this continues to influence how churches organise and operate even though the indigenous culture is very different. The issues may be more sharply drawn in the Indian context but they are not fundamentally different. They create barriers. Second, in modern Britain the church seems an entirely alien thing to many; its beliefs, practices and expectations feel at odds with the prevailing culture. In every culture we need to ask what the core elements of our faith are, and how we are to incarnate them in our specific cultural context.
I would like to have seen more consideration given to the historic theological understandings of the Christian faith. Most of Pennington’s descriptions of Christian belief and Biblical underpinnings represent a particular evangelical understanding; whereas locating them within some broader historical theological understanding would assist in answering questions about how the faith is incarnated today and what are the key elements of faith and practice that remain essential in every context.
This book challenges us to refine our biblical worldview and invites us to ask some deeper questions about what is essential for following Jesus, questions that may help us address things that potentially alienate millions of people. This book is worth reading whatever peoples and cultures of the world you are concerned about.
Full disclosure: Paul Pennington is one of the members of the Transformation Collaborative group I have been part of in the US. He gave me a copy of his book.
J Paul Pennington Christian Barriers to Jesus: conversations and questions from the Indian context (William Carey Library, 2017)