In the recent discussion about Bible translation (here, here and here), several people have contacted me with questions and thoughts that are strictly not about the translation issue but about another issue that is often referred to as the “Insider Movement”. It is important to divide this away from the translation questions because there is no necessary connection between the two – see “Clarifying some misconceptions”.
Any of us involved in evangelism and church planting will be aware of the range of issues that confront us when a person begins to follow Jesus. How much of their existing life and culture needs to be immediately changed? Do they need to dress differently, speak differently, socialise differently? Some British and American Christians of earlier generations tended to insist on a much more holistic change when a person began to follow Jesus, encouraging a total rejection of all kinds of ‘worldly’ culture and friendships, but now we tend to encourage new believers to retain much of their existing lifestyle and social circle.
These issues did not seem so pressing in previous generations of the European and American cultures because the boundaries between ‘church’ and ‘world’ might have seemed more easily understood. However, nowadays we find that we are having to go back to basics and think about British culture as an example of front-line cross-cultural mission whereby becoming a Christian has complex cultural implications.
These issues of cultural and religious boundaries have been much more obvious in ‘foreign missionary’ situations for decades. How does a person move from being a Hindu, with all the dress, food, family traditions and cultural markers that go with that, to being a member of a Church community as a follower of Jesus? What needs to change and what is retained? What is transformed by the LORD Jesus and what simply needs to be rejected?
For many years we have become familiar with the idea of “contextualisation” whereby the teaching of the Bible is expressed in forms that are meaningful and relevant to a target group. This does not mean that the teaching needs to be made any easier to deal with or more acceptable, but that the true meaning of the Bible’s teaching is made clear by speaking it in a specific local context. So, Tim Keller spends so much time making sure that the secular, metropolitan New Yorkers feel and understand the hard-hitting nature of the Way of the LORD Jesus. He contextualises the gospel in that he tries to make sure it is clearly heard, but he does not try to make it more acceptable by compromising the message. In that same way, we are all aware how, when we speak to our Muslim friends, we try to make sure to clearly explain how Jesus was not conceived through sexual union between the Father and Mary; how the Trinity is one God; how following Jesus is a holistic life of discipleship; how Abraham and the ancient prophets were all trusting in the Promised Messiah; how the Cross is the centre of our salvation etc etc. Our goal is not to make these truths ‘acceptable’ or ‘credible’ to our Muslim friends but to make sure that we have clearly, lovingly and faithfully explained the truth in Jesus.
Throughout the Islamic world there are local churches teaching the Bible and bearing witness to the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; explaining the Trinity, the Cross and the Way of Jesus. At the moment the Holy Spirit is doing an amazing work as the local churches in these places are being heard as never before. In one sense all the Western missiological agencies and theorists are mere spectators as the Holy Spirit works through His living church on the ground across the world. If we are able to supply any needs that the local churches ask for then it is a great privilege for us, but we all, whether we see ourselves as specialists or not, need to remember that the churches throughout the Islamic world have centuries of experience and wisdom. Our brothers and sisters in these local churches know better than any of us what the key issues are and how to set these in the proper context.
However, what if the principles of contextualisation are extended further and further until the issues of faith, worship and discipleship are happening within the Muslim community? Could these realities be so grasped by a Muslim that they could remain inside the Islamic community and also be faithful to the truth in Jesus? Is it possible to be a member of a local church whilst remaining a Muslim inside the Muslim community? Or is it even necessary to be part of anything other than the Muslim community? Is it even necessary to hold onto the whole idea of a distinctive, visible community of Christ’s followers, with appointed leaders meeting for Bible teaching and the Lord’s Supper?
These are the sorts of questions the “Insider Movement” seeks to raise and address.