High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel
David B. Garner
David Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
In June 2011, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) passed an overture entitled, “A Call to Faithful Witness.”1 This overture, while sounding alarms on biblical translations that render the familial terms for God (Son, Father) with less offensive terms in the target language, also brought ecclesiastical attention to increasingly popular approaches to missions described as Insider Movements (IM).2 Called now Jesus Movements by some,3 these controversial methods have gained traction in regions where the Christian gospel has historically encountered harsh opposition. Motivated by the perceived scarcity of measurable fruit in places like Bangladesh and other predominately Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu countries,4 evangelical missionaries have employed IM techniques since the 1980s. In the 1990’s, IM popularity expanded around the globe as many missionary practitioners became enamored with its tactics.5 Since these two formative decades, various forms of IM practice have entered the mainstream, crossed organizational and denominational boundaries, and now shape much of evangelical missions.
To their credit, IM-ers have sought to address certain missiological blind spots and have implemented greater methodological self-consciousness, seeking to halt unwittingly importing Western culture under the banner of Christianity.6 Measuring the success of that rectification to cultural imperialism is not our present concern. Rather we attend here to the more controversial facets of IM thinking. Many IM proponents insist that Muslims who convert to Christ should hold fast to various Islamic practices and avoid the identity of “Christian” altogether. This avoidance exceeds the realm of labels, as converts are called to remain inside Islamic religion and retain their Islamic cultural and religious identity. It is fair to say that most IM advocates intend that these remaining and retaining insiders not simply carry on their cultural and religious practices unthinkingly, but do so with an eye toward recasting these religious traditions and exposing their fellow Muslims to Isa-Masih (Jesus the Messiah).7 Some IM-ers assert that Christian missionaries should get “inside” the social and religious boundaries by public conversion to Islam, and some western missionaries have become practicing Muslims to deliver the message of Jesus.8 Still others assert that genuine Islamic perspective affirms that the “religion revealed by all the prophets (e.g., Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad) was originally the same . . . ‘true Islam’ is what real Christians believe.”9
How have such paradigmatic changes in missions gained traction? Though causes surely vary, ultimately IM practice prevails because of conviction. Affirming their commitment to Scripture, many have grown to believe IM methods alone honorthe gospel’sintegrity,that these movements alone follow the Spirit of God today. In fact, IM advocates view their missiological methods as not only within the scope of biblical permissibility, but rather as mandated by how Scripture portrays apostolic patterns. Is this so? Has IM unearthed the buried jewel of historic missions, recapitulating the first-century successes recorded in Acts? Is IM’s interpretation and application of the interface of apostolic method and first-century religion rich rediscovery or radical redefinition?
Piloting IM thinking is a set of determinative hermeneutical commitments, and it is these hermeneutical features that will serve as the focus of our analysis. Professing converts and missionary practitioners could surely be found to defend IM practice and proclaim evidence of its fruit. However, neither a battle of anecdotes nor listings of alleged successes and failures adequately reckon with IM practice. IM thinking needs addressing according to Scripture, and IM-ers themselves have discerned this need. As criticism has mounted, IM advocates have openly defended IM practices, producing not only anecdotes and statistics, but also arguing from Scripture itself. Such defenses have come primarily from missiologists and missionary practitioners, most with strong ties to Fuller Seminary’s renowned innovative missiologists, such as Donald McGavran. So integral to IM is this Fuller foundation that before we can adequately address its hermeneutical contours, we must understand the historical and conceptual impetus for these contours—that is, the cultural anthropology and missiology of McGavran and his colleagues.
1.2. A New Map for Missions
At the end of his influential life, McGavran cried out, with all of his missiological gravitas, for a “giant step” of prayerful deployment of frontier missionary societies to “focus on the unfinished task of world evangelization!”10 In this forceful plea, McGavran claimed that missiological zeal for the unreached masses would succeed only if combined with deliberate, tactical mobilization. Emotion without strategy is empty, and as he assessed his contemporary landscape, existing missions structures appeared woefully deficient to the monumental task. “Unless here in America literally thousands of new frontier missionary societies are founded, in thousands of local churches in most Churches (denominations), the ‘unreached peoples’ will not be reached.”11 Notwithstanding the exaggerated American-centric dependence for worldwide evangelistic success, one can only appreciate McGavran’s vision and zeal.
McGavran proved himself a fearless maverick and strategist, a perpetual advocate for creative cultural analysis and attendant missiological corrections. In a fashion similar to and openly sympathetic to the controversial formulations of fellow Fuller professor Charles Kraft, McGavran paradigmatically relied upon cultural anthropological and sociological research.12 Assessing his ardor and analysis, one should also note here his foreboding definition of unreached peoples. Tucked neatly in the rallying call to mobilization lies a striking distinction between reached and unreached peoples, an underlying sociological concept that has birthed a powerful impetus for IM. McGavran asserts,
An “unreached” ethnos or segment of society is one in which individuals who are Christ’s followers are perceived by their fellows to have “ left their own people and traitorously gone off to join another people.” Putting it positively, a people is to be considered reached when its members who become Christians are perceived by their fellows as “still our people who are pointing the way to what they believe as a good path for us all to follow.”13
The so-called traitorous departure of Christians, which McGavran bemoaned as early as The Bridges of God in 1955, 14 generated early rationale for missiological recalibration. Taking aim at the “problem” of converts leaving their families and their social identities, and marching in step with McGavran’s vision for the world and angst over measured missions failures in resistant cultures, missiologists such as Charles Kraft, Ralph Winter, Kevin Higgins, John and Anna Travis, Dudley Woodberry, and Rebecca Lewis have drawn the IM map. By extending the boundaries of McGavran’s “people groups,” they have found ways to affirm a broader range of religious and cultural neutrality.15 McGavran consistently opposed missiology shaped by Western individualism,16 and IM proponents have elevated such “people groups” and “people movements” into a decisive paradigm, asserting broader acceptability of their non-Christian religious identity and practices, and encouraging “believing families . . . [to] remain inside their socioreligious communities.”17Capitalizing on McGavran‘s categories IM advocates have advanced extant socio-religious identity to a place of functional stasis and prominence,18 so that following Jesus means appropriating him within the boundaries of existing religions.
Thus, according to IM missiological cartography, the best route toward creating a growing body of Jesus followers is to insist they (1) remain in existing cultural, social, familial, and religious networks and (2) retain their unique religious identity and practices. Asserting that much of what Westerners discern as church are truly “man-made ecclesiastical structures,”19 IM strategists call us to accept and promote such non-Christian communities of those who follow Jesus. All roads may not lead to Jesus, but the Spirit of Jesus surely blazes redemptive trails in non-conventional, non-Christian, ways.20
1.3. God and the Apostles: The First Insiders?
The conviction of the IM promoters, self-consciously evangelical, is resolute: “What is truly at the heart of the insider movement paradigm is the God Who is at work directly among the nations, including their religions, to make in each a people for Himself. These are His movements, and He is the true Insider.”21 To IM theorists and practitioners, proclaiming the gospel to the unreached peoples of this age requires these correcting methods, methods that, they argue, emulate the behavior of the apostles. IM missiologists effectively see themselves as restoring biblical missions. With an eye to emulating courageous apostolic method, IM advocates ask, what did Jesus really do? What did the apostles do? What did the early church do? And what would they do today to reach peoples whose cultural and religious identities are thoroughly non-Christian? What would they do to reach people whose identities, relationships, and existence center in and survive only in these non-Christian, even anti-Christian contexts?
Reflecting on Paul’s missionary-zealous “I would become” words in 1 Cor 9, J. Dudley Woodberry, Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, raises the question about twenty-first-century emulation/application of apostolic method:
If Paul were retracing his missionary journeys today, would he add, “To the Muslim, I became a Muslim”? . . . Would he and the Jerusalem Council endorse Muslims being free to follow Jesus while retaining, to the extent this commitment allows, Muslim identity and practices, just as these Jerusalem leaders endorsed Jews being free to follow Jesus while retaining, to the extent that commitment allowed, Judaic identity and practices? 22
With such questions ringing in our ears, we turn now to Rebecca Lewis, the daughter of another Fuller missiologist, Ralph D. Winter. In her writings, Lewis has attempted to rigorously defend IM and to define its legitimate parameters. In what sense can or should religious and cultural identity remain unchanged when trusting Jesus Christ? In what sense can we properly “assert that Christ calls people to change their hearts, not their religions”?24 Not only a theorist, but a seasoned practitioner among the Berbers of North Africa, Lewis self-consciously reflects upon her own mission undertakings. Her growing corpus of publications, most of which is accessible on the Internet, has also elevated her influence for promoting and practicing IM.
Before addressing her thought directly, let me commend Lewis for her clear writing, general hermeneutical consistency, and energetic presentation. Her McGavran-esque vision for worldwide evangelism combined with a refusal to accept humanly constructed boundaries for kingdom work is at a formal level commendable. “We’ve never done it that way before” is an unconscionable, disastrous posture, one that finds no turf in Lewis’s thought. In addition, though it is an all too common practice to isolate the gospel message from the method of its proclamation, Lewis rightfully asserts the indivisibility of the two.
Employing a hermeneutical and methodological approach typical of the prevailing IM thinking, Lewis’s crystallized defense of IM appears in an article entitled, “The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements.”25This particular article will henceforth serve as our primary, though not exclusive, point of reference for analysis since it usefully distills key theological and missiological arguments that expose prevailing IM hermeneutics. Those either curious or concerned about IM will find here an accessible exposition of its interpretive and theological underpinnings, as well as a window into its practical implications. Attuned to IM critics, Lewis appeals that we revisit both how we understand the Christian gospel and assess IM. While her article renders nothing fundamentally new to IM discussions, its numerous engagements with Scripture, its compr