“‘I’m coming to your house. When is a good time?’ I told her.”
“Really? You said that?” I asked. “I don’t think I could do that.”
“Why not? That’s the right thing to do,” she told me in her matter of fact way.
My friend Charlotte is from India. But today she lives in Atlanta while she completes her doctorate of ministry degree. She was explaining to me how she reaches out to the often guarded south Asian people in their community.
“Yeah, but could a white guy like me be that direct?”
“Of course. That’s their custom. It’s what’s expected.”
I talked to Charlotte for about an hour. She gave me a breakdown how to reach out to South Asians (people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries in this region).
Here are the 5 steps you need to follow to successfully reach out to South Asians:
1. Create a regular interaction
This is just saying hi and other basic social things. Small talk. Easy stuff that we can all do. But this is where it begins.
For Charlotte there is a group who drops their kids off at the church daycare every day. “I don’t work in the daycare, I’m in the office, but I make a point every day to be there when they arrive so that I can say hi.”
This period of regular interaction can last a short or long time. What matters is that you develop a rapport. This is the first step.
2. Ask directly to visit their house
The very next step is a leap I would never have made on my own.
Their custom dictates that you invite yourself into their home. For them, that’s saying: I value you and care enough to want to be more involved in your life.
If you recall, Jesus–in a very eastern context–did this same thing with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ sin was not enough to keep him from God. Jesus communicated his great value when He invited himself over to eat.
The reason this works is because in the West, we are individualists. We are focused on our own thoughts and how those uniquely fit into our larger communities and societies. However, the mindset of easterners is community-first. They think of themselves in context of their community, not apart from it.
So, what do you actually say in this self-invitation? Pick something (“I’ve heard Indian tea is great,” or “There’s no substitute for an authentic Pakistani kabab”) something that’s previously come up in small talk, and then: “When will you invite me to your house to have some?” It’s really that simple.
3. Bring a pastor
If you’ve at all familiar with my writings, you know that I am big on every member in the church playing an active and (spiritually) equal role.
But here it’s different.
If you can bring along a pastor or someone who holds a significant position in your church, it’ll mean more to a South Asians. The reason is (and for Indians in particular) a priest or priestess holds a very high place in society.
“It’s like God is entering their home.” To them this is very honorable.
By doing this, you are communicating the significance of your visit.
4. Talk about life more than anything else
Now that you’re there, what do you talk about?
Pretty much anything that makes sense: “how are you adjusting?” You may be able to provide some insider-information into American culture that they’re struggling with. Or, “tell me about [some facet] of life in your home country?” At this point, you’re just being a human.
But how much (and when) do you start talking about God?
There are two camps here: those who says never lead with God (“it’s offensive” is the argument); and then there are those who feel they’ve squandered an opportunity if they don’t find a way to beeline straight to God.
But Charlotte–a devout sister who cannot stop talking about God–tells me talking about the normal parts of life is enough right now. You’re developing a relationship. If you’ve brought along a church staff member, or if at any time, you’ve laid that foundation of being a part of the church, then they know who you are. It’s not necessary to go straight into a speak about God.
5. Pray with them out loud before you leave
In the Indian pantheon there are 33 million gods. What Indians do not have a problem with is more gods.
“Before we leave, would you mind if we pray to Jesus for you?”
Charlotte says an Indian will be honored that you are praying to your God for them. This is how she ends all of her visits.
Charlotte tells me one story about the power of prayer.
“It had been a few months, but we finally had a chance to re-visit one family my pastor’s wife and I had been developing a relationship with. The husband wasn’t there this time because he had to work.
“Shortly after we arrived, the wife began to cry.
“The wife told me, ‘you prayed for peace for our house last time. I didn’t tell you how much my husband I had been fighting–so much the neighbors could hear–but since you prayed for us two months ago, we haven’t had a single fight.'”
Prayer is one of the most serious tools we have to communicating God across cultures. When we combine that with genuine human care, we have a powerful combination.
How to follow up
By now you have a relationship. The goal is to keep that relationship open. In time it will become a vehicle to help them understand the gospel. Discipleship begins at this stage.
If you’re church gathering doesn’t make sense (culturally) to those you’re trying to reach out to, make sure you’re partnering with churches that do. Think about the long game. Non-christian immigrants are making two major transitions here: spiritually and culturally. Both take time. And both take a support team.
If you can be that team, then everything else will take care of itself.