Insider Movements: Concerns Abound but Mission Does Not
It is odd to me that the subject of contextualization in cross-cultural missions – particularly that amongst Muslims and (to lesser extent) Hindus – has become something of a hot topic among evangelical leaders. It seems now that everyone who is anyone is required to have an opinion about the so-called “insider movements” and that, by and large, their opinion is supposed to be negative. We are told again and again to beware of the dangers of The Insider Movement lest we all become swept away in this sinister wave of missionary heresy.
Recent Contributions to the Controversy over Insider Movements
Last year, much of the controversy surrounding insider movements was being fueled by an anti-insider documentary entitled “Half-Devil, Half Child” [check out our review here] which pulled no punches in its opposition to contextualization efforts among Muslims. In recent weeks, the debate has been stirred up again by the January 2013 issue of Christianity Today, especially with its much-tweeted and poorly titled cover article, “Worship in the Mosque”. The article is a fantastic read for many reasons, not the least of which is the interviewee’s obvious passion for bringing the good news of the Lord Jesus to Muslim peoples - perhaps the most seldom expressed sentiment in all this insider v. outsider movement flap.
The article has, of course, received its share of criticism. Among those raising their concerns is KevinDeYoung, a pastor and author who holds considerable influence over the young, restless and reformed crowd (of which I’m basically a part, though the “young” part is becoming less and less true). DeYoung, blogging over at the popular Gospel Coalition website, responded to the CT article with three questions and three concerns. And since, I've been watching people “like” and “tweet” his article around since it went live, I’m guessing his thoughts have found some significant resonance among many of the young, restless and (in this case) uninformed reformed.
So, that in mind [while fully aware that the odds of DeYoung reading this post are slim to none], I wanted to take a stab at responding to his questions. As I do, I acknowledge that DeYoung is no missiologist. So, I want to extend some degree of grace, similar to my response to John Piper on the same issue, recognizing that this debate is a fundamentally missiological one and thus a bit outside DeYoung’s wheelhouse.
The Questions of Kevin DeYoung
Pastor DeYoung’s post raises three questions regarding insider movements in general and the CT article in particular. Let’s take a look at them one by one:
1. What is the role of the church?
While DeYoung acknowledges that insider movement believers oftentimes see themselves as belonging to the universal Church, he is still concerned about their essential ecclesiology. But let me say this once again -- something I've said again and again. Pastor DeYoung, there is no Insider Movement! Whenever I hear someone use the phrase "The Insider Movement", I fully expect a sucker punch. It is the chief tactic of Outsider Movement proponents to attempt to portray insider movements as a single, monolithic and dangerous movement sharing common beliefs, practices and values. The strategy is to essentially paint all pursuers of contextualization with the same brush and then to highlight the "worst" elements of particular insider movements, claiming that such beliefs or practices are shared by everyone who is a "part of the Insider movement". Of course, this is ridiculous. The Insider Movement does not exist as a single, unified thing with secret handshakes and membership cards. One cannot be for it or against it because IT doesn't exist. In actual fact, there are many, many different insider movements among many different people groups. We do not all share a common set of values or agreed upon practices and (to address DeYoung's specific question) certainly do not have a common ecclesiology.
Indeed if you ask a bunch of insider Christ-followers about the “role of the church” I would guess you’d find nearly as much variety of opinion as you would at any large, American evangelical gathering. My point is that when DeYoung asks, “What about church officers, weekly preaching, the administration of the sacraments, membership and church discipline?” he seems to be suggesting that these are pretty much settled issues for all non-insider movement Christians. I think we all know better than that.
Now, are these important issues? Absolutely. Are insider movement Christ-followers working through these issues in their context? Yes. Is there a degree of uncertainty and disagreement about these things among the wide variety of insider movements in the world? Of course. Is this struggle at all unique to insider movements? Not on your life! Now, I certainly don’t begrudge DeYoung the right to espouse his own Reformed Church of America ecclesiology and even to be passionate enough to teach and advocate for it in the broader body of Christ. But I think he fails to see that being a part of an insider movement doesn’t make one any more likely to disagree with him on those things than does being a Southern Baptist, a charismatic, or and Anglican. The bottom line is that most insider movements consist of local bodies of Christ-followers who are a part of the larger body of Christ and who take a variety of approaches to the sacraments, leadership, discipleship, and worship. You know, just like every other church and denomination on the planet.
2. Why not try to form a more culturally sensitive expression of the Christian church?
Pastor DeYoung's second question is difficult for me to understand and my hope is that he will do us a favor and explain exactly what he means by this. According to my reading of the CT article, the particular insider movement in focus (i.e. “The People of the Gospel”), did exactly what DeYoung's question seems to imply that they didn't do. Indeed that seems to be the driving point of the article. I’m not sure in what sense the group in question is, in DeYoung’s view, not a church. Unless, DeYoung is saying that contextualization efforts should consist solely of adapting already existing churches. If that is the case, DeYoung should simply give this a bit more consideration. I’m sure he can attest from his own experiences that this is easier said than done. By and large, I observe that precisely what insider movements do is create “church” (i.e. Christ-centered bodies of disciples) within a given context. I suppose it could be the case that DeYoung feels it is necessary to use the actual English word “church” in every context. I hope he doesn’t mean that, because that would be kind of silly. Slightly less silly would be for DeYoung to advocate that all new churches always use the word for “church” (translated, of course) that the majority of Christians use in that region. But this would wrongly assume that the most popularly used word is the best translation of the New Testament concept of a church. In many cases, it isn't the best word at all. DeYoung says that he would encourage insider movement leaders to “dream of a church that embraces some familiar cultural styles without jettisoning the idea of church altogether”. In my view, the CT article featured a man who did exactly that. So, I don’t really understand the problem here.
3. Shouldn’t some things be strange when we are called out of darkness into light?
Of course this is a very popular notion among outsider movement advocates. Again and again we are told that the Bible calls us to be a peculiar people, to be separate, to shine brightly in contrast to a dark world. But this is mostly empty rhetoric used to justify the clear separatist mentality so common among outsider movement advocates. In actual fact, such scriptures have nothing to do with language, clothing styles, music, art, liturgical forms, and the like. DeYoung, who is a gifted Bible teacher, certainly knows this to be true. Indeed to use these Biblical concepts in this way actually undermines the high calling of holiness we've received. These scriptures speak of the kind of holy character and transformed hearts that followers of Christ should manifest in the world. DeYoung asks if the rituals and vocabulary and general feel of the church should be strange to new believers. The answer is a resounding “NO!”. These should be absolutely as familiar as possible and not foreign. The extent to which we fail to fully contextualize worship, evangelism and discipleship is the extent to which we inadvertently communicate that the locus of transformation for the new creation in Christ is somewhere other than in that person’s new heart, new mind, new life, and new Lord. The most powerful contrast is the disciple of Jesus who seems in every way to be fully a member of the Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist community and yet exhibits an unmistakable divine life within his or herself. Such a person shines so powerfully and so mysteriously that onlookers cannot help but to ask as to the meaning of that light – “You are clearly one of us, and yet . . .” (think, Incarnation). But for the extracted new believer, almost no degree of character change can overcome the non-believer’s assumption that all evident changes are due to that forsaking of the person’s birth community and culture and are therefore necessarily bad.
The Concerns of and for Kevin DeYoung
DeYoung ends his article by raising three concerns about insider movements. In particular:
- There seems to be a naïve view of culture.
- There seems to be an overly casual attitude toward theological truth.
- There seems to be an implicit understanding that the Holy Spirit will do what human teachers don’t.
Personally, I don’t believe the CT article provides enough information for us to make any particular judgments about these issues as they relate to the particular insider movement in question. Having personally been working among insider movement believers, leaders, and cross-cultural missionaries for a number of years I can’t say that I've noticed any dangerous trends related to the concerns DeYoung offers. On the contrary, I find that insiders tend to have a fairly advanced understanding of culture which easily surpasses the typical, in-the-pew Christian. Beyond that, I have found that attitudes toward theological truth and the Holy Spirit's activity exhibit the same level of diversity that one finds in the broader Church. So, it isn’t that DeYoung raises unimportant concerns, it is just that they don’t seem to have anything in particular to do with contextualization or insider movements. It is a fallacy to assume that because a particular insider movement exhibits a certain problem or weakness that all insider movements should therefore be characterized as being prone to the same.
Before leaving off, I think it is important to raise a very important concern about Pastor DeYoung's post -- namely, that he says nothing at all about how critical it is to reach Muslims with the gospel. Does DeYoung assume that his readers will already believe this? This is, of course, where I began today's post. I'm concerned about the fact that we have all these concerned people stating their concerns about the methods employed in reaching the least-reached peoples in the world and yet so few of them seem concerned that we actually obey the Great Commission among them. Now that's something to be concerned about, Pastor DeYoung!