There is a reality in Sydney that we need to be aware of: we are home to many people from the Asian subcontinent! First generation migrants and second-generation children of migrants, these are people who have been educated in various systems, from different countries, practicing a variety of religions and surviving in different socioeconomic conditions. Our subcontinental neighbours are the fastest-growing migrant population in Sydney. With such a smorgasbord of tribes, tongues and nations in our suburbs, Christians should be asking how we can reach these friends with the salvation and assurance that comes only through our Lord and Saviour. For if we genuinely understand the assurance we have in Christ, and truly take stock of our Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations, and hold to the ecclesiological understanding that those in our churches should reflect the geographical demographic of our parishes, then dare I say that evangelising those from the subcontinent should be high in our priorities and in our strategies.
On the one hand, it is obvious that reaching subcontinental people is no different to reaching anyone from anywhere – we preach the gospel. As the Apostle Paul reflects:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:14-15)
However, I do think there is wisdom in reflecting on the way we communicate which can help us as we speak to those we hope to reach with the gospel. For instance, by building bridges, we break down some of the false and often negative assumptions that especially first-generation subcontinentals have about Christianity. It can help to show that being a follower of Jesus does not mean the same thing as adopting Western values.
The idea of building bridges comes from a place of good communication as it understands both the context in which someone is communicating and how to build credibility as a communicator. Paul articulates this principle in his address at the Areopagus:
People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22b-23)
Paul starts with something that is already familiar to his audience, agrees that there is something of value in their thinking, and then shows how truth can be found through looking at a culture with a Jesus-shaped lens. When speaking the gospel to subcontinentals, building a bridge would be to take a religious or cultural practice, look at the underlying reason for that practice, and see how Jesus is the ultimate answer they are looking for. And an opportunity to build such a bridge is coming with Diwali.
Saturday 14 November 2020 is the day of Diwali (sometimes known as Deepavali), the Hindu festival of lights. It is a very popular celebration in Hinduism as well as a popular cultural festival celebrated by a plethora of subcontinental peoples. Although the festival is muddled in a complicated tapestry of tradition, it is basically the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and often the triumph of knowledge over ignorance. So the question is: how might we utilise Diwali to build a bridge to speak about our Lord Jesus Christ?
In John 8:12, Jesus spoke these radical words: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.” Jesus is saying that he is the light of the world. The true light of the world who brings light to the darkness. And the only true way to celebrate light over darkness and good over evil is to truly know Jesus, who brings salvation. For John himself tells us in his prologue to his gospel that not only is Jesus the one with light, but the darkness of this world is no match for his light (1:4-5). And further, John shows us the sorry state of humanity, that not only are all of us in darkness, but we love the darkness! (3:19-21).
The reality is that celebrating light over darkness is a good and appropriate thing to do. But you can only truly celebrate light over darkness if you know and believe and have a genuine relationship with the one who has the power to turn darkness into light, that is, to bring people from death to life. When you know Jesus, you can truly celebrate the victory of light, for you can receive the light and therefore have everlasting life with God, in whom there is no darkness. So, this Diwali, why not build a bridge to your subcontinental neighbour? Why not attend a Diwali celebration and try speaking to people about Jesus, the light worth celebrating?
If you would like to learn more about this topic, this is the ‘chat’ I had in an elective for Campus Bible Study’s 2020 LIFT conference on sharing Jesus with people from the subcontinent: https://youtu.be/Y9MvnadciWc