A City Under a Hill

Five Problems with Insider Movements

Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Planting churches among the world’s remaining unreached peoples will mean engaging seriously in larger socio-cultural contexts permeated by one of these three major systems of belief and practice.

From a human perspective, such traditional and cohesive societies, with their deeply embedded and communal identity from another religion, pose a host of difficult questions about what it means for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in such contexts to become faithful, mature Christians who themselves are evangelistic and discipling others.

Birth of Insiders

Rebecca Lewis has offered perhaps the most commonly used and recognized definition for an approach to pioneer missions that aims to instigate “insider movements” to Christ among such populations. She says,

An “insider movement” is any movement to faith in Christ where (a) the gospel flows through pre-existing communities and social networks and where (b) believing families, as valid expressions of the Body of Christ, remain inside their socio-religious communities, retaining their identity as members of that community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. (“Promoting Movements to Christ Within Natural Communities”)

Kevin Higgins, another proponent of insider movements, defines them as

A growing number of families, individuals, clans, and/or friendship-webs becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including their religious culture. This faithful discipleship will express itself in culturally appropriate communities of believers who will also continue to live within as much of their culture, including the religious life of the culture, as is biblically faithful. The Holy Spirit, through the Word and through His people will also begin to transform His people and their culture, religious life and worldview.

To be clear, such an approach emphasizes that those who want to follow Jesus can do so without leaving the previous, native “socio-religious” identity and community into which they were born. They don’t have to change their religion, so goes the argument (which appears a few times even in the much loved Perspectives Reader); just start “following Jesus.”

In fact, Lewis recently has argued that to require a change of religious identity in order to follow Christ is to commit the Judaizing heresy rejected by Paul in his letter to the Galatian church. For her, insider movements (IM) are not optional. They are what biblical contextualization looks like. (Other passages of Scripture that commonly serve as proof texts for IM are 2 Kings 5:15–19; John 4:1–44; Acts 15:1–21; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24; 9:19–22;.)

In Higgins’s definition above can be discerned the aim for a non-Christian religion to be eventually transformed from the inside out into something biblical and God-honoring. Fulfillment theology, the idea that Jesus can be presented to unbelievers, followed by converts, and worshiped as the fulfilment of a particular non-Christian religion that he gradually reshapes, has been around for at least a hundred years (for instance, J.N. Farquhar’s The Crown of Hinduism, 1913). The appearance of more accessible books promoting insider movements is now slowly starting to catch up with twenty years or so of experimental missionary practice and academic publishing in journals. It’s likely that more and more missions-interested church members and Christian young people will be reading or hearing about it.

When the Gospel Hides

Proponents and practitioners of the IM strategy have developed a multi-faceted argument which includes appeals to Scripture, sociology, and Islamic studies (besides articles by Lewis and Higgins is the book Understanding Insider Movements, edited by Harley Talman and John Travis). In fact, because this approach is paradigmatically different from historic, biblical Christian church planting endeavors, it is perhaps more fitting to name such a thorough reconstruction as a full-blown ideology rather than a mere strategy. Ideologies are mental fortresses that won’t be overturned by the rational rebuttal of merely one facet or point. So, a multi-faceted response is warranted.

The range of voices responding well to IM is wide and growing. Missionaries and theologians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Brethren, Assemblies of God, and Southern Baptist circles have sounded the alarm and are proffering their critiques. IM is, admittedly, a minority view and practice. But it is something that leaders in churches and missions agencies should proactively engage and prepare their people to think about correctly.

What follows is an attempt to systematically and succinctly address the dangerous IM ideology. I argue that the insider-movement approach to missions is inherently wrong for the following five reasons (that make up the acronym H.I.D.E.S.).

1. Hermeneutics

IM is predicated on the misguided idea that faith in Jesus as Lord of one’s life can “complete” and be the apex of any religious tradition or religious identity. Jesus is the Yes and Amen to God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures particularly (2 Corinthians 1:20); he is the point of the Old Testament law, writings, and prophets, uniquely fulfilling Old Testament Judaism (Luke 24:44–45) and bringing the Jewish religious identity to terminus (Romans 10:4) by affiliation with Christ and his multi-cultural church, the “one new man” (Ephesians 2:14–17).

It is fallacious logic, and contrary to the teaching of Scripture, to claim that because Gentiles in the New Testament weren’t required to become Jews in order to follow Jesus, Muslims today don’t need to reject Islam and become “Christians” to follow Jesus. This, however, is an argument commonly made by IM proponents.

The refrain “one doesn’t need to change his or her religion; just start following Jesus” is misguided. That is true regarding conversion but not regarding biblical discipleship. That refrain is a product of the still largely nominal Christian context of many Western societies where believers sometimes, with good intent, simplistically posit that genuine Christian faith “isn’t about religion but relationship.” But that’s a false dichotomy. Muslims who believe “Christian” means Western need an explanation of the difference between true and false Christian faith. IM can be a tragic capitulation to the Islamic misperception of what it means to be a “Christian.”

2. Integrity and Identity

Core Islamic doctrine explicitly denies biblical doctrines that are central, and essential, to Christian faith. True faith in the Jesus of the Bible cannot be posited as fulfilling a religion that indoctrinates adherents in the assertions that Jesus was only a prophet and not “the Son of God”; that it’s blasphemy to say, “God is three”; that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, or rise from the dead, for our justification; and that God doesn’t make covenants by which a person can find eternal security and assurance of God’s mercy, redemption, and eternal life in glory.

Anecdotal evidence posits that some Muslims who eventually realized the biblical beliefs of “insiders” felt those “followers of Jesus” who remained in the mosque had been deceiving the rest of the mosque community by still calling themselves Muslim and saying Islamic prayers. While recognizing a great diversity among Muslims in belief and practice, we should reject the IM proposal to redefine and maintain Islamic identity based on the erroneous refutation of “essentialism” regarding Islam (meaning, there really is no singular essence of what Islam is and ought to be according to Muslims themselves, and therefore it can be defined as anything, including a socio-religious shell to house orthodox Christian beliefs).

3. Discipleship

The IM approach stunts Christian discipleship and spiritual growth. Studies have shown (for example, as early as Phil Parshall in 1998 and as recently as Jan Prenger in 2017) that insiders, who remain steeped in Islamic teaching and habits that reinforce it, often continue thinking that Muhammad was a prophet, Jesus wasn’t God, and the Quran is God’s revelation, a holy book, even on par with the Bible. Our Great Commission is to disciple the nations, teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. This includes faithful participation in a fellowship with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, a “church” (or “gathering,” or “large-group meeting,” or “family time,” or whatever one may want to call it).

New believers should form congregations that strive to be faithful to the New Testament patterns of being a church, who prioritize loving relationships with one another in Christ, and who are growing in their understanding of the “good deposit” (2 Timothy 1:14) as they are shepherded and taught by gifted and godly elders. Missionaries must steward the Scriptures, and the great salvation revealed therein, by communicating robustly and equipping converts to interpret, understand, and teach the Bible correctly themselves.

4. Ecclesiology

One’s identification with Christ should entail identification with all of Christ’s people in the world today and throughout time. That is more fundamental, ultimate, and significant than ethnic, cultural, linguistic, family, or local identity (Galatians 3:28). Despite what some IM proponents claim, “churches” do not exist as natural social networks in a place before the gospel enters. Churches are not natural social networks just waiting for the gospel to be added to them. The New Testament pattern is that local congregations emerge as new aggregate fellowships comprised of converts who join with one another from various backgrounds and pre-conversion networks.

The universal church, comprised of Jew and Gentile — and, one day, some believers from “every tribe and tongue” — is together a new race, as it were (the term “new race” has been used throughout church history by theologians to describe the “one new man,” Ephesians 2:14, comprised of both Jewish and Gentile background believers). Following Jesus cannot faithfully be cast as something thoroughly “indigenous” and local but as the joining of a global and diverse new family that includes even U.S. American and Israeli believers (which would be, understandably, a difficult reality for Muslim persons to naturally embrace). IM is a “hyper-local” approach to discipleship and contextualization in a world that is increasingly globalized and interconnected.

5. Soils and Strategy

Though admittedly difficult in many contexts, religious identity and ethno-cultural identity can and should indeed be differentiated. The former must be given up for Jesus and the church. We should reject the conflation of social and religious identity. The hard work of contextualization entails rejecting, maintaining, and repurposing specific aspects of one’s culture, perhaps including certain religious practices, for the sake of serving biblical ends and without compromising biblical meaning. That said, IM should not be considered “C–5” on the contextualization spectrum. One can be C–5 without being IM (the propriety of the C–5 approach in general is another matter). Labelling IM as “C–5” to supposedly provide it safe cover as controversial but merely “high contextualization” is dubious.

We should object to the framing of IM as the antidote to “extractionism” as a supposed way of doing missions. That argument for IM posits a false dichotomy and the use of a strawman. A significant proportion of Western, Protestant missionaries for generations have pursued indigenous expressions of Christian faith to one degree or another.

Some soils may be extremely rocky, dry, and difficult for gospel seed and Christian identity. That is no legitimization for pursuing the IM approach. Missionaries should indeed counsel and coach both seekers and converts to remain in their families, villages, and other social circles for the sake of their faithful gospel witness to others. But hostilities against them for their new faith, and other factors, may mean that a convert wants or needs to remove themselves to another location and situation. This is not necessarily wrong or a failure of missions.

Decisions should be prayerfully made on a case-by-case basis. We should not allow the missionary goal of a “movement” to Christ among any people group to subvert and contradict what is best for individual converts, sacrificing his or her spiritual growth — and perhaps their physical safety — for the sake of a misguided, over-reaching but underachieving strategy.

Light for All Peoples

Do you know what the agencies you (and your church) support are teaching their “workers” as valid options for disciple-making strategies in frontier missions? To remain faithful to the Great Commission as missionary-sending churches and individuals, let us not be complicit in supporting the IM ideology and its counter-productive practices.

Though proponents and practitioners of it doubtless have good intentions, the Insider Movement actually hides under the bushel of errant missiology the Christ-light of vibrant faith and the Spirit-fructified life of newly planted, healthy churches pursuing together all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 5:15; Philippians 2:15).