Matthew Irvine from New Life Suwarta Sangat told us how his church used Discovering Jesus Through Asian Eyes.
How did New Life Suwarta Sangat start?
A little over ten years ago a small group of Jesus followers (some South Asian, some not) began to pray about ways we could share the good news of Jesus in our largely Asian neighbourhood. We had a joint sense of calling to explore forms of church that were culturally understandable to people from an Asian background. We want to be faithful to following Christ and the Bible and to worshipping Jesus in a way that embraces Asian culture so that people can realise you can follow Christ and you don’t have to leave your cultural identity. NLSS was birthed out of that background.
Suwarta means ‘good news’ in Gujarati. Most of the Asian people in our area of Harrow are from a Gujarati background. Sangat is a word for group or community so even in the name it reflects that we’re a multicultural group. That was around 2004 that we started meeting in someone’s home and things developed over the years.
When did you first use Discovering Jesus through Asian Eyes?
When the course was being developed we were one of the groups asked to pilot it. We ran the course two years ago and I was involved a little bit in giving feedback to the authors. Now it’s published in its final form we’re intending to run it again in our church as well.
Most people are running the course primarily as an outreach, but you did something slightly different. Tell us about that.
We were forming a men’s group to encourage each other to be better men, fathers, husbands and sons. We were going to study to see what Jesus taught. Some of us were coming as followers of Christ, while others were invited who, though not followers of Jesus, were interested in connecting with other guys and were willing to look at what Jesus said about how to grow as a man. It was a group we were praying about forming and starting just as that pilot was offered to us so we used that curriculum as the first content for our discussions.
Going forward we’re thinking about doing it with people who are followers of Jesus to help them understand the questions that others who don’t know Christ as their Lord would ask about him. That might help to build bridges of better understanding. That’s one of the blessings of the course – not every church has used Discovering Jesus through Asian Eyes in the same way.
From a leader’s perspective, what’s it like running the course?
The Leader’s Guide does a fantastic job of concisely summarising most of the main points I would want to communicate. I’m astounded at how well articulated, concise and accessible it is.
It covers common topics that people from Asian backgrounds and people from other faiths have. The authors, Robin and Clive, have so many years of experience and the course reflects naturally what they’ve learned over the years. It’s really nicely packaged and organised so it’s in a ‘plug-in-and-play’ format which is very useful for busy people. To have all those topics nicely packaged into a course that’s very accessible and well thought out was very useful.
How have you dealt with cultural issues when working with South Asians?
Sometimes there’s a tendency to think the cultural stuff is not that big a deal especially in England. Dietary issues are not small. They are massive to some people. Maybe it means if you’re having a meal you go vegetarian just because it’s easier.
When it comes to identity and faith those are deeply held things and there’s a lot of differences under the surface. If you’re South Asian you have an identity from another faith whether it be Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Sikh and your association with that faith is part and parcel of belonging in your family. Your culture and religion is all intertwined and Jesus is viewed as Western. Christianity is a Western institution and so there’s a gap where Jesus is not seen to be wrong or false but really just not my path. Almost an irrelevance.
A lot of the initial course material is trying to cross over that and show that Jesus was Middle Eastern. Followers of Jesus were in India before they were in the UK. Anyone can follow Jesus, because he intended His gospel to be relevant to people from every nation. These are things coming from a Christian background you think ‘of course’ but it’s a much bigger hurdle to jump over for people from an Asian background.
How would you recommend followers of Jesus go about inviting Asians to participate in the course?
Nobody wants to be a project. So I’d say ‘we’re doing this, would you like to come join us?’ as opposed to, ‘We’re providing this for you, would you like to come?’ It’s a more natural invite to say ‘we have some friends some of them are from Asian backgrounds and we’re all interested in learning more about Jesus, what he said, what he taught and how it can change and impact our everyday life. Would you like to check this out together?’ That approach puts the follower of Christ and the friend on the same level. That keeps things real and honest.
In a lot of cases churches have used Discovering Jesus through Asian Eyes where there’s already been effort to build relationships and share life and show hospitality between a follower of Christ and a group of people from other faith backgrounds. There will come a point where there may be an invite but there’s already a relational foundation.
I would encourage people to get in touch with South Asian Concern or someone else with experience of working with Asian friends to have practical discussions about their specific context and access the wisdom that’s out there. When I was starting out that’s what I did. Having conversations, sharing ideas and potential pitfalls, and a lot of praying and asking the Lord to guide.
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