Bangladesh has carved a unique identity from the surrounding cultures and landscapes of South Asia. Bordered on three sides by India, it boasts its own melting pot of people, languages and food (see our recipe page for Bengali curry!). It’s one of the most densely populated nations on Earth – about half the size of the UK and with 100 million more people – and is subjected to harsh monsoon flooding each year. Yet it has incredible beauty which often goes unnoticed. Rice paddies, tropical fruit trees and mangroves grow in the lush green countryside. In the lively cities you’ll find warm Bengalis with a love of poetry, art and music who welcome visitors with sincere hospitality.
Bangladesh was once part of British India until independence in 1947. At that time Pakistan partitioned from India to form a separate Muslim state from India’s Hindu-majority population. Bangladesh was incorporated into Pakistan for the same religious reason, becoming East Pakistan. In 1971, it split from Pakistan after a savage war over Pakistan’s governance and its decision to make Urdu the national language of Bangladesh instead of Bengali. Bangladesh has since been an independent state, influenced by its history but forging a new existence for itself.
The Bengali evangelical church was started by William Carey at the beginning of the 19th Century. As Carey focussed his efforts on the Hindu population the church took on many characteristics of Hindu culture. The wedge that already existed between Hindus and Muslims was then also driven between Muslims and the church. To Muslims, the Christian church was associated with the same religious and idolatrous practices as Hinduism.
In the 1970s and 80s foreign gospel workers attempted to train and equip the Hindu-convert church to start reaching out to their Muslim neighbours. However, the cultural grievances between Muslims and the church as well as resistance to the Hindu culture of the church led to a lack of fruitful ministry. As a result these workers continued to reach out to Muslims without the Hindu background church. They soon found openness to the gospel but Muslims who came to faith were met with hostility and struggled to be accepted when they joined the church.
In the 90s some churches in Bangladesh saw the potential for receiving funding from foreign organisations when they focussed on evangelising Muslims. Many therefore shifted their attention for economic gain by concentrating on numbers of conversions rather than on making disciples. Some believers within the church felt a true call to make disciples and they continue to do valuable work amongst their Muslim neighbours. However their culturally-sensitive approach is often frowned on by the church, and they receive very little help and support.
Bangladesh is now home to between 100,000 and 400,000 people who call themselves believers. Although this may seem large it is estimated that only about 10% are actively following Jesus. There is some understanding of the need for evangelism but it seems little appreciation of the need for discipleship. There are also a staggering 158 million Muslims making up the vast majority of the population. They are largely without any access to the gospel and, if they do hear and respond, are often left without fellowship.
Long term workers in Bangladesh report openness and fruitfulness amongst the Bengali Muslims but there is great need for more ministry there. So many live without access to the good news, particularly in the rural areas, and the local church remains culturally divided from them. It’s such a crucial time to be going to Bangladesh; barriers between people groups need to be broken down, local believers need training and equipping and the lost need to be reached with the good news of Jesus.