Does Insider Movement Contextualization Produce Biblically Faithful Churches or a Mere Mosquerade?

In 2013, my family and I were living in Alexandria, Egypt, along with a small team of expats. We had been in North Africa and the Middle East for two years and had experienced a wide variety of responses to the Gospel among the people we met. However, most perplexing to us was a conversation that took place in a McDonald’s overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Sitting across from us eating a Big Mac and fries was a bearded man who introduced himself as Sheikh Ahmad. He wore the traditional attire of one who had taken the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and he informed us that he was a regular Friday preacher in a local mosque. However, Sheikh Ahmad also told us that he was a Muslim follower of ‘Isa—the Qur’an’s name for its Jesus character—and that when he preached, he only focused on the parts of the Qur’an that taught about ‘Isa. While we had studied theoretical missiological strategies that have come to be known as the Insider Movement (IM), Sheikh Ahmed provided us with our first encounter with an actual Insider.

Sheikh Ahmed also provoked a number of questions from our team. How does one preach Jesus from the Qur’an? How does one avoid syncretism when leading people to worship in Islamic fashion while internally hoping to lead them to Christ? And finally, how much of the practice of Islam can be reconfigured and reimagined so as to provide a suitable cultural vehicle for Christ-centered worship while remaining identifiably Islamic? As it so happens, our team is not alone in asking such questions about the feasibility of IM methodology and theology. 1

A difficulty that presents itself as one pursues answers to these questions is that Insider Movements are by no means monolithic. Having been observed and promoted among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, IM is difficult to fairly and fully define. 2 In fact, several proponents of IM admit that critics may be able to find expressions of IM that exhibit the flaws identified by their critiques while denying that such examples are necessarily representative of IM. 3

Despite the breadth of expression of IM, Rebecca Lewis offers a broadly appropriate description of the ethos common among various Insider Movements as she writes, “Insider movements can be defined as movements to obedient faith in Christ that remain integrated with or inside their natural community.” 4Lewis goes on to further define this integration by highlighting the importance of maintaining one’s socio-religious identity. Pervasive among these approaches is the understanding that Christ completes non-Christian religious desires and teachings and thus validates them. 5 In order to limit the scope and focus of this paper, we will adopt Lewis’ definition as we consider IM strategies among Arabic-speaking Muslim people.

It should be noted from the outset that all criticism is directed towards IM as a missiological strategy rather than as an attack or commentary on the soteriological status of those who participate as Insiders. 6 In other words, the phenomenon of IM is not my concern. Rather, my particular concern is the ecclesiological impact of IM strategies that prescribe the retention of a socio-religious Islamic identity. I will focus on those strategies that include the reading of the Qur’an as a component of gathered worship, the use of Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT) of the Bible, and the intentional separation of IM gatherings from those of non-Muslim believers.

Despite a long history of development within Christian missiological discussions, 7 the ecclesiology produced by such movements has received insufficient attention. 8 Most of the discussion surrounding IM strategies focuses on soteriology, hermeneutics, and mission, even when purporting to discuss IM ecclesiology. 9Yet if IM is the biblically valid missiological method it claims to be, it must be able to account for the biblical teaching about the church.

In an effort to assess whether or not IM strategies are likely to produce biblically faithful churches, this paper will consider four aspects of what might be considered a mere biblical ecclesiology: (1) the declaration of Jesus as the Son of God (Matthew 16:13–20); (2) the identifiable, gathered, and responsible body of local believers (Matthew 18:15–20); (3) the role of upholding the truth of the Gospel (1 Timothy 3:14–16); (4) and the inclusion of believers from various socio-religious backgrounds (Galatians 2:11–21).

While a robust biblical ecclesiology would require attention to many more aspects of the church, these four passages highlight aspects of the essential biblical nature of the church that confront several of the core elements of IM strategies. Thus, this paper will argue that if these four components are not encouraged by IM methodology, it is unlikely that IM strategies can produce biblically faithful churches. 10

Watch for Part 2 coming soon!

Originally published on Training Leaders International. View the original article here.

Notes:

  1. For example, one might consider the questions posed by more than thirty authors who recently contributed chapters to Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham, eds., Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts (New York: Peter Lang, 2018). See also the compilation of articles written in support of IM and included in Harley Talman and John Jay Travis, eds., Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2015).
  2. Highlighting the various religious contexts in which IMs are occurring, see William Dyrness, Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016).
  3. Kevin Higgins, Richard Jameson, and Harley Talman, “Myths and Misunderstandings about Insider Movements,” in Understanding Insider Movements, 41, who compare critiques of IM to a Chinese proverb that says, “Whatever you have heard about China is true somewhere in China.” In other words, since IM is not practiced universally, some expressions may be susceptible to critique while the critiques fall far afield from the actual practice of other IMs. While certain critiques may not be representative of each individual IM, such rebuttals fail to address the other substantive critiques leveled against IM writ large. For example, in the article cited in this footnote, the authors “counter” the claim that IM introduces syncretism by saying that Insiders “hold to a wide range of views on Islam, the Qur’an and Muhammad… . However, empirical research has shown that as [Muslim Followers of Christ] study the Bible together and apply its truths to their lives and community, progressive transformation of character happens and biblical perspectives and behaviors develop” (46). This response does not address what mixture of Islamic perspectives and theology remains a part of the movement, and thus side-steps the issue of syncretism. Also, as will be seen by Jan Prenger’s research cited throughout this article, progress towards biblical theology is not a given. Prenger includes problematic examples of several IM leaders who persist in denying Christ’s divinity, substitutionary atonement, and even crucifixion based on Islamic theology.
  4. Rebecca Lewis, “Insider Movements: Retaining Identity and Preserving Community,” 673–76 in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 4th ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 673. 
  5. See the self-identifier “completed Muslim” as referenced in Jan Hendrik Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers: Their Theological and Missional Frames (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2017), 257. This concept of Christ as the completion of Islam also derives from the statement of an Insider referred to as Paxton in Prenger’s book, as he says, “Anything that has led me to Christ has a function like you find in the Old Testament, as a mentor who guides you along until you are educated, and after that its function is finished.”
  6. This is contrary to the claims of some IM proponents that criticism of IM is implicit criticism of the faith of genuine believers in Jesus. See Higgins, Jameson, and Talman, “Myths and Misunderstandings,” 41, who view the criticism of IM methods to be direct criticism of the faith of believers, writing, “In the last few years some have attempted to systematically discredit these followers of Christ.”
  7. The term Insider Movement is relatively recent, though the contextualization conversation that gave birth to it traces its roots back at least to Charles Kraft and Eugene Nida who developed the idea of receptor-oriented translation theories in the mid-1970s. See Georges Houssney, “Watching the Insider Movement Unfold,” 397–408 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds.Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 398.
  8. For example, see Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, xix. Prenger’s book is a compilation of research on Insider Movements that adds the voices of actual IM participants to the broader missiological discussion. In explaining his approach to the interviews that provide the backbone of his book, Prenger states, “I interviewed 26 insider movement leaders and asked them to share their views on what we could call theology-proper topics such as God, man, the cross, Jesus, election, salvation, heaven, hell, the gospel, and our mandate.” Curiously absent from this list is any question seeking an Insider’s view on the gathered church. This is not to say that no IM advocates have written on IM ecclesiology, but rather, when they have, the focus tends to be on the outward activities of the gathering rather than a robust biblical understanding of the essence of the church. Cf. Leonard Bartlotti, “Seeing Inside Insider Missiology,” in Understanding Insider Movements, 57–58.
  9. See especially the disappointingly titled article by Herbert Hoefer, “Church in Context,” in Understanding Insider Movements, 281-87. The title would lead the reader to assume that the church would be discussed, when in fact Hoefer repeatedly places the church in the category of extra-biblical adiaphora based upon his observation of supposedly churchless Christianity.
  10. Having noted the tendency within IM responses to deny that a particular criticism is characteristic of their particular approach, the conditional statement of this thesis is intended to function as a rubric by which to assess a given IM strategy rather than an attempt to define any and all IM approaches and undermine them. That said, the four aspects of IM that are investigated here are pervasive throughout the literature and might be considered to be at least broadly representative of most Muslim Insider Movements across the board.

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