Insider Movements: Understanding the Issues

“Over the past fifteen years missiologists have produced a massive amount of literature related to the contextualization debate surrounding the proposals of Insider Movement proponents.” So begins J. Henry Wolfe in his article, “The Development of the Insider Movement Paradigm” (published July 2015, http://www.GlobalMissiology.org). I have tried to digest a good portion of that material over the last few months and add my testimony to the truth of Ecclesiastes 12:12 – “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

The definition of Insider Movements

John Jay Travis defines an “insider” as “a person from a non-Christian background who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior but retains the socioreligious [sic] identity of his or her birth.” (Understanding Insider Movements, kindle loc. 827).  His working definition of Insider Movements (IM) then is:

Multiplying networks of Jesus Followers in insider-led fellowships where the Bible is obeyed as the word of God, spiritual transformation occurs, and insiders remain part of the families and socioreligious [sic] communities of their birth, bearing witness to Jesus, their risen Lord and Savior. Travis, UIM, kindle loc. 857.

Fred Farrokh identifies two indispensable elements for defining Insider Movements:

“i.) permanent retention of Muslim identity, and

ii.) remaining inside the Islamic socio-religious communities, which is centered on the mosque.”

(“Evaluating the Viability of Insider Movements in Muslim Contexts” Occasional Bulletin, Vol.30 No. 2, Spring 2016, 21).

The Insider Movement phenomenon

The Insider approach is a response to the resistance to the gospel from the major religions. John and Anna Travis observe; “Historically, very few from the world’s mega-religions of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism have ever become followers of Jesus.” (From Seed to Fruit, kindle loc. 3872). IM is an approach that seeks to reduce resistance by allowing the follower of Jesus to remain within the socio-religious community. Some see IM as an application of the “Homogeneous Unit Principle”. IM emphasizes a transformation model of engagement rather than an extraction model. Group evangelism/discipleship rather than individual evangelism/discipleship is practiced. The focus on community is a definite strength of IM and an improvement over individualistic approaches. But many critics of IM would also stress a community approach.

Insider Movements are most prominent in Muslim contexts. Using the C scale (see John Jay Travis, “The C1-C6 Spectrum After Fifteen Years.” EMQ Vol 51 No. 4, October 2015, 358-365 for a description), John and Anna Travis report from the 2007 Global Trends Fruitful Practices Consultation that,

C1 was the primary type of fellowship for 1 percent of participants, C2 for 5 percent, C3 for 28 percent, C4 for 37 percent, C5 for 21 percent, and C6 8 percent (percentages are rounded up to the nearest whole number). – From Seed to Fruit, kindle loc. 3902

Insider Movements are most often identified with C5 on the C scale, though some include the C4 category as well. The main difference between C4 and C5 is that C5 retains the religious identity of their birth while C4 retains only their cultural identity. From the definitions above, it would appear that most of the literature on IM would limit it to C5. If we limit IM to C5, then one fifth of the participants of the Global Trends Fruitful Practices Consultation were involved in an insider fellowship. That is a significant number but not a majority.

In Muslim contexts, culture and religion are closely tied together and are difficult or impossible to separate. Leaving Islam to follow Christ has traditionally cut one off from family and community. Loss of job, divorce, and persecution can result. Most IM advocates stress the importance of retaining relationships for the purpose of sharing the gospel rather than avoiding persecution.

While most of the literature focuses on Islam, Insider Movements are present in other resistant religious contexts, including American Indian religions.

Advocates of Insider Movements do not agree on the extent of identifying with the socio-religious context. There are both moderate and radical models. For some, identifying with the religion of birth may be a transitional phase, but for others the identity is permanent. One’s religion of birth is often seen as God-given.

The issues

The distance between advocates and critics of Insider Movements is great. Since 2011, Bridging the Divide Network has been providing a setting for face to face discussions. Reports of these consultations, as well as a blog, can be viewed at btdnetwork.org. While understanding and respect has grown, there appears to be little substantive agreement.

Significant issues debated in the literature are:

  1. The nature of non-Christian religions. Is “religion” a valid category?
  2. The hermeneutics of the biblical passages used to support IM.
  3. The relationship of the Kingdom of God and the Church.
  4. The religious identity that converts choose. Is this identity transitional or permanent?
  5. The status of the Qur’an in terms of revelation. Can we call Mohammad a prophet in some sense?
  6. “Christianity” versus “following Jesus.”  What is the essential theological understanding necessary for salvation?
  7. Reinterpretation of the term “Muslim” and passages of the Qur’an. Is this permissible?
  8. Translation of divine familial terminology in the Bible. Do we need to limit ourselves to using “Son” and “Father”?

While I applaud the heart and motivation for reaching Muslims and adherents of other religions, there are serious concerns that prevent me from jumping on the bandwagon. In future blog posts I will enter into the debate in light of Scripture, our mission values and doctrinal statement.

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3 thoughts on “Insider Movements: Understanding the Issues

  1. Judith Ellen Severns

    Thanks for delving into this, Gary. I am on the Philadelphia area coordinating team for Perspectives in World Missions, and there is information on the IM presented in various sessions. I think it is such an important and relevant issue to understand as we seek to reach those still in need of the Gospel. I look forward to learning more.

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  2. Larry Blair

    Looking forward to hearing (reading) your thoughts as you navigate a sticky and sometimes divisive issue. I think the reason this can be a polemical subject is because of its seriousness. Getting it wrong could have significant Kingdom implications. Good luck, my friend.

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  3. You mention the “extraction model.” I don’t think most converts and missionaries actually choose this model. It Is what we get by default in Bangladesh (where I grew up) as a result of the heavy-handed community policing done by the Muslim villagers. They are just too serious about their religion, or are afraid of those who are and there is no freedom to leave Islam. They have locked everyone into the system with the honor code. The result is the extraction model. The light is put under a bushel, the yeast is kicked out of the dough. So it has been happening for generations of missions work. There seems to be no development of a minority community or of tolerance for such a thing. So in desperation we consider something so awkward as pretending to be Muslim in order to reach the Muslims. I look forward to some interesting discussions.

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