Am I Keeping People from Jesus?
by Rob Weingartner
The most respected man in Eta, an outcaste village that I visited a decade ago in the Uttar Pradesh state of India, was the village elder. For years he let people worship, but he refused to allow the 500 people of the village to be baptized. Everyone respected his order. The Presbyterian pastors faithfully visited and held services each week. One night, the elder dreamed that he was responsible for preventing the salvation of his people. His heart had been hardened against the Christian faith. In his dream he heard Jesus say, “Why are you keeping your people from me?”
Now, as an elderly man near the end of his life, the dream helped Sadhu Maharaj to realize the wrong that he had done. In a panic upon awakening from his dream, he traveled quickly to where church leaders were to request that a pastor come immediately to baptize all his people.
One of the pastors, Santosh Rajpatras, declared he thought that his arm would fall off before he completed all the baptisms!
There are different kinds of barriers that stand in the way of people coming to faith. Years ago George Hunter wrote that the majority of people in the U.S. who were asked what kept them and people like them from considering the Christian faith referred to cultural barriers. They expressed this in different ways, but Hunter stated the essence of what they were saying in one sentence: “They resist becoming Christians because they ‘don’t want to become like church people.’” Donald McGavran observed that the barriers that keep most people from faith and discipleship are more cultural and sociological than theological or religious.
This is not new. Since the early years of the church believers, who always experience the Gospel and express the Gospel in cultural forms, have struggled (or not!) to discern the difference between the Gospel and their culture. People laugh when someone who loves traditional church music says, “If the pipe organ was good enough for Jesus it is good enough for me,” but the hard truth behind the humor is that we all tend to “baptize” our cultural preferences. We assume that they should be normative for all.
While anthropologists are newly discovering the tremendous gift that many missionaries gave the world in preserving indigenous cultures and languages, it is also the case that some missionaries taught that preachers in tropical zones should wear black robes, that drums have no place in Christian worship and the non-Western cultures are inherently inferior. Scottish mission historian Andrew Walls and other mission leaders have helped us to see that every culture is fit for expressing the Gospel. And at the same time, every culture stands under the Gospel’s critique.
For my part, being with Christians in other cultures has deepened my faith and helped me to see how I sometimes confuse my own culture with the Gospel. Experiencing how God’s love and a witness to Christ is fleshed out in other cultures helps me to follow Jesus better.
Seeing God’s glory and grace expressed in the lives of faithful, dynamic believers in contexts very different than my own—people of faith who have much to teach me—helps me to be humble about the quality of my culture. That is good and welcome because the last thing I want to do is keep people away from Jesus by suggesting that in order to follow him they have to become like me.