Five Major Religion Blocks

There was a time when conversations with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus were the job of the foreign missionary and they were presumably more prepared for such encounters. However, the twenty-first century does not afford us the luxury of such excuses or isolation.”  - Dr. Timothy Tennent

As we think about being Christians in the 21st century, the world has gotten much smaller. No matter where you work or live, you will work next to a Hindu and live down the street from a Buddhist. Therefore we need to have a base understanding of the world-views of others in order to continue an educated dialogue with people God has brought near to us. Below you will find a very basic intro to the five major religious and social blocs of the world. Use this as a launching point to begin your discovery of how others see things like sin, God, divine revelation, and salvation.



One night, in the year A.D. 610, a vision came to Muhammad: "0 Muhammad, thou art the Messenger of God." Thus the religion of Islam was born.

The word "Islam" means "submission," and "Muslim" means "one who is submitted to God (Allah)." To be a Muslim, one must say with conviction at some point in his life the creed "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet." Upholding the five "pillars of Islam" is also expected. These are:

  1. Recite the creed.
  2. Pray five times daily at specified times.
  3. Fast for the lunar month of Ramadan. (The fast includes abstaining from food and drink during the day. After sundown one is able to eat and drink).
  4. Give alms. (Alms constitute 2.5% of one's income and are given for the upkeep of the mosque and to help the needy).
  5. Make the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, at least once in one's life. (The more times one makes the hajj, the more spiritual he is considered).

Muslims consider their religion to be an extension of Christianity and Judaism, but they believe the Christian Trinity to be blasphemous and they deny the deity of Jesus. Although the Qur'an instructs Muslims to "listen to the people of the Book," (referring to the Bible), Muslims believe that Christians have corrupted the Holy Injil (the Gospels of the New Testament), so the Bible today is not accurate.

Whenever a crowd of Western Christians is asked whether they've heard that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, hands shoot up to acknowledge this awareness. It is true that Islam is the fastest-growing major religion in the world, growing at 2.9% annually-beating Christianity as a whole, whose growth is 2.3% Yet if we were to break down Christianity into various groups, the evangelicals and Pentecostals are the fastest-growing major religious grouping in the world-evangelicals growing at 5.4% and Pentecostals at 8.1% annually.

Although Islam is a growing religion, a high birthrate among Muslims is responsible for most of the growth. Nevertheless, says Chicago-area writer Deb Conklin, Islam is claiming many new converts because:

  1. Islam is an uncomplicated religion. The only thing one needs to do to convert to Islam is to wholeheartedly recite the creed. There are only six major doctrines: belief in one God; in angels; in the Holy Books-including parts of both Testaments as well as the Qur'an; in the prophets-among whom are Jesus and Muhammad; in a day of judgment; and in predestination. The five practices (pillars) of Islam are external and equally simple to learn.
  2. Islam is an adaptable religion. It has contextualized itself into hundreds of cultures. Since there is nothing in Islam contradicting the existence of a spirit world, it easily absorbs the animistic worldviews and practices of peoples to whom it is brought. In fact, even today, the vast majority of Muslims embrace such "folk Islam."
  3. Islam is a zealously "evangelistic" religion. The purpose of Muslims is to win the Western world to Islam. If you think that can't happen, think again. Some areas evangelized by Paul are now firmly under the sway of Islam. So are the cities of Istanbul (once Constantinople) and Alexandria, both once thriving centers of Christianity.

One out of every five persons living on the earth is a Muslim. Perhaps more significantly, about 35% of all unreached people groups are dominantly Muslim.

With evangelistic zeal backed by oil dollars, Muslims are willing to go anywhere and spend whatever it takes to win the world to Islam. In North Africa, the governments of Muslim countries in one recent year spent more to promote missionary activity in eight North African countries than the total Western missionary expenditure for the entire world. In countries with a Christian population, plans are to exterminate Christianity.


Hinduism is nearly impossible to explain simply since it is actually a conglomeration of ideas, practices, beliefs, and convictions. Hinduism is therefore often puzzling to Westerners; it revolves around a totally different center than does Christianity, asking fundamentally different questions and supplying different answers:

  1. As a philosophy Hinduism states: There is a spark of divinity in every human. To call a human a sinner, then, is virtually blasphemy and there is, of course, no need of a Savior. The writing of Vivekananda says, "lt is sin to call anyone a sinner." Good and evil are only illusions. And illusions are dispelled by knowledge. "Salvation," then, is being freed from ignorance, not from our sense of biblical sin. Probably a typical Hindu definition of sin would be "causing grief." Each soul - a "drop of God"-is reborn over and over in higher or lower incarnations of humans, animals, or vegetables according to that soul's karma. Karma is the sum of a person's good deeds. These deeds are in a ceremonial sense, not so much in the Western sense of moral good deeds. These good deeds accumulate to allow a person to reincarnate to a higher position in life-for example from a woman to a man-while bad deeds demand a person become a lower form in the next life cycle.
  2. As a world religion, Hinduism teaches that people are free to choose their own god from among about 330 million. Ultimate salvation is gained through (1) the way of knowledge, (2) the way of devotion, or (3) the way of good ways. This salvation is a release (Moksha) of the soul from the cycle of rebirth to reunite with the Absolute-as a drop of water falls into the ocean.
  3. As a popular religion, Hindus believe that Hinduism is a mixture of ancestral tradition, animal worship, temple cults, magic, exorcism, astrology, and the teachings of gurus (avatars or incarnations of gods). General beliefs include: regard of the cow as a goddess; the material world is just an illusion; the world is growing progressively worse; the old is better than the new; and what will be will be regardless of man's efforts to promote or hinder it.

The West has seen a glimpse of Hindu philosophy in many New Age Movement teachings, in the Transcendental Meditation practices of Mahesh Yogi, and in the Hare Krishna converts asking for donations in airports. These mostly negative impressions unfortunately color Western perceptions of the individuals caught in Hinduism-individuals whose relentless quest for peace (shanti) can be God's way of bringing them to himself. Yet most Hindus have no access to the true Gospel; All they know of Christianity is what they have seen in the lives of "Christians."

Today nearly 24% of Asia's three billion people are Hindus. Most live in India, Nepal, and Bali in Indonesia, with large numbers in Bhutan, Fiji, Mauritius, and Suriname and Guyana in South America.

To the Hindu, God is not personal: "It moves. It moves not. It is far and it is near. It is within all this and it is without all this" is a common statement about the god-force of the universe called Brahma. God-the Absolute-neither loves nor hates human beings, neither helps nor hinders them.

God is to be worshipped in the forms one's ancestors worshipped - in the forms of trees, animals, images, persons, and millions of gods. Two gods are prominent: Vishnu, preserver of the world, and Shiva, the destroyer. Vishnu is usually worshipped through one of his incarnations - Rama or Krishna. Many Hindus live in deep fear that they will invoke the wrath of the Kula Devata - the family god - on themselves and their families if they, become too interested in Jesus Christ.

Hinduism generally fosters a sense of despair and pessimism, since it is never clear whether one is offending some god, or whether one is effectively progressing or falling behind in the pursuit of salvation. Poverty also easily pervades a Hindu community, since, to the Hindu, holiness and affluence are incompatible. Also, the sacredness of all forms of life - since ancestors may have reincarnated into animals - paradoxically fosters poverty. In India, for example, 30% of each year's grain crop is destroyed by rats, which must be allowed to live, and the sacred cattle that wander the streets of India could feed the entire country for five years if used for food.

Hinduism, with its caste system, is a form of social security - everyone knows where they belong. With Christianity's insistence on abolishing the caste distinctions, Hindu converts would lose their standing in society - their privileges, employment, and wealth. Hindu students who convert to Christianity regularly lose their government-sponsored financial aid. Conversion to Christianity often leads to excommunication from the community, damage to the entire family's reputation, termination of marital prospects, and even physical persecution. A recent poll suggested that fully 20% of Hindus would consider becoming followers of Jesus Christ if they didn't have to be cut off from their families and their society in order to do so.

Hindus in general are very open to all sorts of new religious ideas. In Hinduism, all roads lead to God, so all religions are basically good. Generally, any form of worship is right if one's ancestors or one's caste have practiced it. Hindus will often "accept" Jesus as one of their many gods. Because of this eclectic acceptance of all gods, it is difficult to reach out to Hindus. They may readily bow in prayer to receive Christ into their life, but they are simply adding "one more god" to be worshipped.


Every morning in Sri Lanka, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, and dozens of other Buddhist countries, orange saffron-robed monks move quietly from house to house collecting food. The priests do not say thank you for the offerings, since they feel they are allowing the people a favor, which gains them merit to achieve higher status in the next reincarnation.

Buddhism is based on the sixth-century B.C. teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha. His focus was on man, not on gods. He taught that life is basically a pattern of pain and suffering that results from desire. The ceasing of all human desires, then, would signal the end of suffering. The goal of life is to move as rapidly as possible toward the absence of desire, known as nirvana.

By the third century B.C., Buddhist teachings had been crystallized in written form in a language called Pali (related to Sanskrit) on the island of what is now Sri Lanka.

The nonreligious, philosophical aspects of Buddhism - that it has nothing to do with a Deity - is obvious in the doctrine of anatta. This teaching asserts that a person has no soul - no personal center exists. A human, rather, is composed of five khandas, or "aggregates," that give the illusion of identity. That illusion can be swept away only when the tensions of suffering and desire are erased through discipline. Discipline eventually leads to nirvana ("emptiness" or "nakedness"), the state in which the lack of desire allows perfection and pure peace.

In common practice, Buddhism usually takes the form of merit-making acts and Buddhist festivals and ceremonies. Throughout Buddhist countries, citizens invite monks to chant the Sutras, protective formulas for blessing and protection, in all household ceremonies and in funeral and memorial services for the benefit of the cremated deceased.

For the layperson, the principles of Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path consist of five don'ts: Don't steal, lie, take a life, engage in illicit sex, or drink liquor.

Most Buddhists also reduce their religious commitment to a simple pattern of gaining merits for good karma, the sum of the positive and negative actions in a person's life. Buddhism, as practiced by common folk, is generally an outward activity of doing good to the monks who can give merit, of participating in ceremonies and rituals, and of contributing toward the construction and maintenance of the local Buddhist temple.

Although Buddhism teaches that people are caught in samsara, an eternal cycle of birth and death by which a person's karma moves perpetually on to rebirth, or reincarnation, few typical Buddhists place much emphasis on these cycles and levels of future existence or on gaining nirvana because their life is occupied with the simple struggle to survive. Their interest in gaining merit has more to do with an improved life now.

Many laypersons following Buddhism simply feel that no one can protect himself from the eternally linked laws of karma because a previous form of life has dictated one's level of suffering. This fatalism leads most people to practice the forms of Buddhism, while still believing in the existence of various spirits. Beneath Buddhism's philosophy - in which there is no God and man has no individual soul - most Buddhists harbor a deep, ancient belief in spirits, which they fear.


Depending on how a researcher defines "people group," there are from 3,000 to 6,000 unreached groups of Tribals worldwide. They are found in places you would expect, such as Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon Basin, and in parts of the African continent. But they are also found in virtually every country of the world, according to Dave Sitton, director of the Institute of Tribal Studies, headquartered in Los Fresnos, Texas. Most of the world's 2,000,000 nomads are actually tribals.

The typical remoteness of tribal groups enforces their distrust of outsiders. Fear of unknown spirits inhibits their exploration of new territories as well as new ideas. But often the toughest problem missionaries to tribals must overcome is "cargoism"-the appeal of outsiders', particularly white men's, gadgets and wealth.

In order to find out more about the Tribal peoples of the world, check out the following resources:

  • Don Richardson, Peace Child (Regal Books/Gospel, 1974). 
  • Don Richardson, Lords of the Earth (Regal Books/Gospel, 1977). 
  • Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Regal Books/Gospel, 1981).


The only major unreached people block less defined by religion than by political boundary is the Chinese peoples. What makes it difficult to adequately characterize this block is that the Chinese government and, to some extent, the people of China have pursued the idea of the "Great Tradition"-that the Chinese are one people, sharing culture, communication, and ways of conducting affairs. In the light of this view, the Chinese government recognizes one majority people, the Han, and only 55 minority peoples within the borders of the People's Republic of China.

In spite of the diversity, some generalizations may be made about Chinese block of unreached peoples. For example, this block reflects two influences, ancient Confucianism and modern communism.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) emphasized the order necessary to society. His teachings urged the Chinese to value social relationships, to live properly in courtesy and common respect, and to admire self-denial as the key means of benefitting all. Confucianism teaches that humans are basically good, although a person's goodness can be weakened and distorted by greed, selfish ambition, or corrupt leadership.

The fact that communism eased into Chinese society on the coat-tails of Confucianism is no surprise. Although hundreds of millions of Chinese don't really think of themselves as communists, their cultural thought patterns do reflect the communist ideals of (1) submission of the individual to the good of the whole, (2) the evils of a society based on economic classes, and (3) the eventual workers' paradise.

Chinese communistic/Confucianistic thought holds that:

  • Humankind determines its own destiny.
  • Religion is a dangerous fantasy - "the opiate of the people." 
  • Rational thinking - science - leads to truth.

With this mind-set, many of the people groups of China reject Christianity. That rejection is especially acrid when merged with the anger that many Chinese still feel at the historic blunders of "Christian" countries that meddled in China's affairs.

Classifying more than a billion Chinese citizens is anything but simple. And yet these basic characteristics help explain that, while in the midst of the greatest church growth on earth, scores of Chinese people groups comprising hundreds of millions of individuals are still very much unreached.

By Bob Sjogren and Bill and Amy Stearns