The South Asian peninsula (or Indian subcontinent) is one of the most religiously conflicted and densely populated parts of the world. Dominated by India, the peninsula also includes Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and parts of Pakistan.

While less than 3 percent of the population in India identify as Christian, according to official census data, the Indian church is growing at an enormous pace. And Dr. Jacob Cherian, vice president of Southern Asia Bible College, is working to get Bible study resources into their hands. “In many American churches, pastors have at least one theological degree. Here in South Asia, God is raising up churches. We have many churches where pastors have not received any formal training.” 

Need for Education

With little or no training available for many of these grass-root level workers, teaching that doesn’t line up with Scripture can spread easily. Despite a lack of pastoral resources, Cherian says there’s remarkably easy access to television evangelists, who sometimes preach biblically but many times do not. “Sometimes American evangelistic conglomerates seem to be looking for franchises in the majority world rather than genuine partners. Many seem to want a little outpost here, which further muddles the theological waters. There are also Indian television preachers mimicking Western preachers, who tend to spread a prosperity gospel. We even have a few people teaching that God wants us to be immortal—that we don’t need to die. It’s amazing.”

Language is another major hurdle the church faces. Although English and Hindi are widely spoken, India has more than 20 other official languages and many regional dialects. Many communities in India are still waiting for the New Testament to be translated into their language. Cherian says that because of India’s large population, “We probably have more English speakers than America. However, while many people are multilingual, they often are not literate in all the languages they speak. I am fortunate that English is my best language. For many others, English may be their second or third language. This means we need to create or translate resources for readers of other major languages.”

The biggest need is for study resources in Hindi, Cherian says, since there is so little Christian influence in the region of the country where that language is prevalent. “Tamil received its first Bible translation about 300 years ago. It was completed by two German missionaries, the first Protestant missionaries to India. William Carey came at the end of the 18th century and worked on several languages. There are far more Bible resources in Tamil and Malayalam and other south Indian languages than those in the north, so our first priority is to create resources in Hindi, and then perhaps Nepali.” 

Need for Cultural Relevance

Cherian notes that, historically, the presentation of the gospel and its effect on the existing body of believers can change when it comes into contact with a different culture. “Diversity of how the gospel is received is something that began in the very, very initial part of the church. In the New Testament, Peter takes the gospel to the Jewish-majority people, and then Paul starts taking it to the Gentiles. The moment the church becomes both Gentile and Jewish, they have to have a church council to figure out how to handle this diversity.”

“India’s history goes back at least 5,000 years, and it’s not a single culture. There are so many cultures that it’s quite a challenge to appeal broadly. Caste is still a huge challenge in India. The religious pluralism of so many different coexisting people groups sometimes creates tension and violence, often politically motivated. Another cultural challenge for Christians in India is being a minority faith. The Luke 6 Beatitudes take on a new sense here. ‘Blessed are the poor’—what does this mean in a country with so many poor people? It’s not that there isn’t poverty in the West, but some of these issues are more pronounced in a place like India.”

At times, Christians in rural areas of India face persecution for their faith. “Following Christ is a whole new ball game if your relatives are conservative Muslims or radical Hindus. Choosing to follow Christ in a Western context, where there are so many Christians, is very different than living in a tight-knit community of one religion, where none of your friends or relatives follow Christ. It could be risky in some situations. Paul writes to the New Testament Christians in First Thessalonians, ‘You are going through persecution like the Jewish believers went through in Jerusalem.’ Again, if you are in Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore—in city churches—you’re probably more comfortable. You’re not looking around over your shoulder to see if anybody is coming to beat you up. But in smaller towns and villages, these are common fears for Christians.”

Addressing Cultural Challenges

Christians in India face unique challenges as they integrate a minority religion into the dominant Hindu culture. “There is a big need for biblically balanced teaching of identity issues. How should Christians present themselves? How should we present our faith? Most of the time, a particular group of Christians maintains their denominational culture. A Methodist church in India, for example, looks very much like a Methodist church in the U.S. Churches often sing Western worship songs that have been translated into the local language, but music is a large part of culture and varies across cultures. Many people feel that the way the gospel is being presented in India is too Western—that we should be Hindu culturally while being disciples of Christ.” 

But it’s not easy deciding which elements are religious and which are merely cultural. Some Yeshu bhakta groups (Jesus devotees) prefer to hold a service that may resemble a Hindu religious service, using indigenous music forms and even some Sanskrit, rather than something that looks very much like a Western Christian service. “How do we present the gospel and not make Jesus look like he’s a white American? It’s a challenge that affects every area of gospel liturgy.”

The Relevancy of Scripture in an Indian Context

Most Western Bible study material is naturally geared toward Christians from a Western background. But Cherian is part of a growing group of scholars dedicated to providing resources for Christians in South Asian cultures. They have unique insight into the relevancy of Scripture in this context. “Proverbs are ancient wisdom. India also has traditions of proverbs. In Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, there was a famous poet, and there are people who follow the teachings of that poet as a religion. So commentators or scholars in south India writing on the book of Proverbs must compare and interact with this poet.”

“There are many other passages or biblical themes that have a unique context in India. Millions of Indians go to sacred rivers to wash their sins away, so if you are writing something on baptism, you are going to address how Christian baptism differs from the religious bathing that millions of Hindus do, and how that would relate to them. We cannot let that topic go without saying something about the idea of purity and pollution in Old Testament texts. In the rural areas, some caste groups consider others impure. So discussions of purity and pollution can resonate with people differently.”

Cherian is part of a team of scholars and editors producing the South Asia Bible Commentary. Modeled after the Africa Bible Commentary published by Zondervan in 2006, the single-volume South Asia Bible Commentary is aimed at laypeople  and rural pastors in India who don’t have access to Bible reference resources. “The writers are all South Asian—scholars from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka contributed to the volume. The editors are from all over the world—India, the U.S., England, and Australia. The production team includes people from the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. It’s a beautiful example of Christians coming together. We go passage by passage, making sure people understand the gist of the section and drawing parallels from a South Asian perspective.” 

The English edition is expected to be released in October 2015 and work on the Hindi translation has already begun. The commentary is a milestone. But Cherian says there are so many ne eds for resources in different languages: “We  need Bible translations, study tools, missiological tools, and discipleship tools. We want this project to be a plank in a firm platform of resources that we can supply to Indian Christians in the future.”

“The biblical text is neither American nor Indian. The application is different for Indian Christians. A person reading about the deity of Christ in a Hindu culture, where there are many gods, differs from a person in an Islamic context, who already believes in monotheism. Some Hindus have no problem accepting Jesus as one of the gods, so how do we address that challenge? In application, we must approach the biblical text as conditioned by our culture and environment.”      

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

For his Ph.D. studies at Princeton Seminary, Dr. Cherian received support and assistance from Langham Partnership International and ScholarsLeaders International, ministries that encourage and enable Christian theological leaders from the Majority World. To learn more, visit Langham.org and ScholarsLeaders.org.