Reviewing the September-October Mission Frontiers
Editor’s note: our September-October cover theme, “Can We Trust Insider Movements?”, prompted a lot of response, and in these pages we give you a sampler of the subsequent conversation. The September-October issue included an article by John and Anna Travis, who said, “As we have seen the resistance toward changing religions and the huge gap between the Muslim and Christian communities, we feel that fighting the religion-changing battle is the wrong battle. We have little hope in our lifetime to believe for a major enough cultural, political and religious change to occur in our context such that Muslims would become open to entering Christianity on a wide scale.” That comment, and others like it, prompted John Piper, Gary Corwin, and others to write responses. Listen in on the conversation.
Corwin: As a long-time reader of MF who has always looked forward to its arrival, I have to express my disappointment with your September-October 2005 issue. Some of the content seemed highly misleading or clearly wrong on the subject of Insider Movements.
Winter: I have read with care your two-page letter on our Insider Movement issue. I can honestly say that I completely agree with your concerns. But at the same time I honestly don’t believe we intended them to arise from the text.
Corwin: [Your own commentary] seems clearly intended to leave the impression that only inexperienced or ignorant mission leaders have a problem with this concept as it is currently being advocated….While most would acknowledge that a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist might come to faith in Christ yet remain in their religious context for a time of sorting things out and sharing their new-found faith, the vast majority of highly experienced mission leaders today would reject the idea that remaining in one’s worship context as a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist is a viable response for true followers of Christ.
Winter: Include me. I also reject, totally, “the idea that remaining in one’s worship context” is viable. I don’t think anyone in our issue said anything like that!
Corwin: Believing Gentiles of Paul’s day hardly represented an Insider Movement within a competing faith system. Rather, they represented new believers whose continuing cultural practices were hard for many believing Jews to swallow.
Winter: Again, I completely agree. Insider Movements are by definition not “within a competing faith system” but represent merely, as you say, “cultural practices … hard for (the source faith) to swallow.”
Corwin: Most troubling of all, however, is the admission by Charles Kraft that the primary task of contextualization teaching (and by implication, cross-cultural ministry teaching more generally) will need to be on how to change the Christianity we find around the world rather than how to introduce the Gospel among the peoples where it doesn’t currently have root. On page nine we read, “Any discussion of this topic needs to take into account the fact that the situations most cross-cultural workers are working in nowadays are seldom pioneer situations. Thus, we who teach contextualization are dealing primarily with those whose major concern will have to be on how to bring about change in already existing situations rather than on how to plant culturally appropriate churches.”
Corwin: At one level this radically changes the focus from least-reached peoples, contrary to all that MF has always stood for. On an even sadder level, it advocates – in the name of cultural appropriateness (as the writer envisions it) – a new form of western missiological imperialism into contexts where local believers are already believing, living, and applying the Gospel!
Winter: Please don’t let this trouble you. Kraft is not de-emphasizing unreached peoples. He is merely noting that most of the current discussions about contextualization are occurring in and among national church movements. What he might better have said is that, say in Japan, without troubling the existing Japanese churches it is urgent and important to develop churches that are far more Japanese. I visited one there recently that had been meeting in a missionary’s living room for 46 years and still had only 12 members. They could only sing psalms, and no piano, although before the service they practiced singing with the help of a piano – but not in the church service that followed. It was the precise image of its US counterpart….
Winter: Actually, speaking of a focus on unreached peoples, you may be interested to know that as far back as the Singapore 2002 consultation on unreached peoples I presented a paper (not well understood, I’m afraid) to the effect that countries like Japan still lack a completely indigenous form of our faith. My paper was thus entitled “From Mission to Evangelism to Mission”, meaning that we settled too soon for a cessation of mission in Japan and went to evangelism from a highly Westernized base, and that we need to begin again in pioneer-mission thinking if we are ever going to win Japan.
Corwin: There are other things that could be mentioned, such as John and Anna Travis’ sad comment that “We have little hope in our lifetime to believe for a major enough cultural, political and religious change to occur in our contexts such that Muslims would become open to entering Christianity on a wide scale.” I would encourage them and others to look closely on the remarkable things the Spirit of God is doing in our day to build His church in the dynamic cultural, political, and religious contexts of places like Algeria, Iran, and Iraq, before concluding that such change is unlikely in their own context.
Winter: I think they are saying that if we expect a billion Muslims to begin calling themselves Christians, there is “little hope in our lifetime” of winning masses of Muslims. If that is what they were saying, then it would be like the situation in Japan. We are not going to win Japan in our lifetime with a Western-form church.
Corwin: In response to the assertion that “today’s proponents of either insider movements or church-planting movements are building on foundations laid by pioneers such as Keysser, McGavran, and others in the first half of the twentieth century”, I would simply remind each of us that any strategy that advocated remaining in the religion of one’s birth while embracing Christ is one which all these pioneers would never have endorsed.
Winter: Again, I am puzzled. No one I know is saying people are to remain in the religion of their birth but merely in the language and culture of their birth. If they want to become accepted as British in culture (lots of luck), that is their freedom in Christ to seek. If they want to be Western Christian (as apparently many Dalits would gladly be), fine. I don’t recall Paul saying that Greeks could not become Jews (lots of luck) if they chose to. But he vehemently opposed that as an expectation or requirement. The current stress on Insider Movements is very Pauline in its insistence that Muslims and Hindus do not need to divest themselves of their language or culture in order to be believers in Jesus Christ with equal standing to any Western believer. To require themselves to do that as a condition of following Christ is exactly what Paul so vehemently opposed in Galatians.
Corwin: Thank you, Ralph, for your expeditious and thoughtful response…. Our primary difference appears to be regarding what the term “insider movement” conveys, and on whether the MF issue has included material which reinforces the definition with which we both apparently take issue. My own acquaintance with the term comes primarily from the sphere of discussions of Islamic contextualization. In that context it is used pretty much as a synonym for C5 contextualization, which includes not only accommodation to language and culture but to actual religious practice (which, of course, is so intertwined with culture in most Islamic contexts). Advocates of this view argue that continuing to call oneself a Muslim, and long-term participation in mosque worship, including recitation of the creed (shahada) and performance of the ritual prayers (salat), are appropriate. It is this kind of thinking with which I strongly disagree.
Corwin: While I am greatly pleased and relieved that this is not your own understanding of insider movements, I do believe that this is a common understanding. I also believe that there are sections in the MF issue which are clearly written with this view in mind. You say, “Again, I am puzzled. No one I know is saying people are to remain in the religion of their birth but merely in the language and culture of their birth.” This, I find puzzling. For example, John and Anna Travis are asking “From a biblical perspective, can a person be truly saved and continue to be a Muslim?” And again, “Can a Muslim follower of Christ retain all Muslim practices, in particular praying in the mosque toward Mecca and continuing to repeat the Muslim creed?” They go on to articulate ten premises in support of answering those questions yes.
Corwin: Further on, John and Anna Travis write, “If Bosch had it right that faith in Christ wasn’t meant to be a religion, could it be that we are witnessing some of the first fruits of vast movements where Jesus is causing the Gospel to break out of “Christianity”? Where those who know Jesus remain as a sweet fragrance inside the religion of their birth, and eventually the number of adherents grows so large that a reform movement from inside that religion is birthed?” [Emphasis mine.]
Corwin: Two more items, this time from Frank Decker, will suffice to make the point. While the statements here may simply reflect a loose usage of language rather than intent (as the actual practice of the individuals is not discussed in any detail), what is said is still what is said. Of Salina, a recent believer, we read, “She told us that in order to share Christ with her family, she now identifies herself as a Muslim rather than a Christian.” And again, of Asif and other Muslim-Background Believers it is written, “These are Muslims who walk with Jesus and openly share with their Muslim friends about the Lord....” [Emphasis mine.] Whether these individuals are simply making appropriate cultural accommodations here, and the language being used in the article is simply too loose, or they continue to actually practice the religion of their birth in addition to believing in Jesus, I don’t know. But coupled with the final two paragraphs of admonition in the article, it certainly looks like an endorsement of what is being said.
Winter: Once again, I have to say that you have brought out a blind spot in my reply to you, and I agree with your concern. Let me give one example. You are concerned by someone continuing to call himself a Muslim, fearing what this could mean. I on the other hand, recognize that concern but at the same time feel strongly that the use of the word is in itself not necessarily a bad thing. The Muslim cultural tradition, including much of the religious aspects of their culture, constitute a sturdy and in many ways fine tradition, as human social traditions go. However, I will admit that calling one’s self a Muslim could cloak a good deal of syncretism. I just don’t feel that to quarrel over the word is central to the dangers you (and I) fear.
Winter: The main thing with Muslims (as with people who call themselves Christians) is to know Jesus Christ more intimately, and to continue to love and respect their own people and to respect at least their cultural (as opposed to faith) traditions. After all, it is not whether calling oneself a Muslim or a Christian could cloak syncretism, since both words are all too capable of that. It is the fact that neither the word Muslim nor the word Christian necessarily hides syncretism. Paul himself, in a voluntary case took a Greek, Timothy, through circumcision – which in Galatians he had so strongly declared unnecessary. Note also, that while to us the label Muslim may fearfully imply a jungle of objectionable religious rituals, the daily reality may in many cases be quite otherwise. Perhaps 30% of the people in Turkey pay no attention to at least the first four of the five pillars of Islam and yet insist they are Muslims.
Corwin: Thanks for the feedback once again on this, Ralph. A believer calling him/her/self a Muslim may indeed be less troubling in many ways than some of the other practices being approved, simply because it can be, and perhaps often is, nuanced with accompanying explanations – “Muslim follower of Isa,” for example. But even this potentially mitigating factor is not mentioned in the article sections I pointed out.
Beyond that, though, are the more serious issues of continuing to perform Muslim ritual worship: things like reciting the creed, and lining up to say the required prayers in the mosque. It is a significant disservice to the Christian public, I believe, to give the many advocates of this more radical view a free pass, including it under the banner of a more benign definition of “insider movements.” Whether this was the intention of MF’s editors, or not, its readers should be made aware of the difference. Thank you, MF editors, for making that possible.
Winter: We truly believe it is in fact a service to our readers to know what earnest and faithful Evangelical missionaries are discussing, whether or not they have reached a common perspective.