Insider Movements: A New Phrase for an Old Idea

People come to faith in many ways and from many backgrounds. As Christians, we seek to see the gospel penetrate and influence the remaining cultures around the world. Many years ago the Apostle Paul and those in Jerusalem struggled with the issues related to having people from different backgrounds coming to faith in a variety of ways. Acts 15 was the decisive moment where the question “Do these Gentiles need to become like Jews in order to follow Jesus?” was addressed. Today, we might ask a similar question: “Do these Hindus (for example) need to become like me in the way I practice my faith as a Christian?”

Insider Movements Today
The idea of “insider movement” is following that pattern by seeking to allow those coming to faith to decide how to live out their faith in their culture and context; seeing the gospel spread through existing networks (like communities or families) is the focus. According to Rebecca Lewis this means “letting the gospel grow up in whatever form those networks choose under the authority of scripture and the Holy Spirit.”1 She goes on to point out that this has been a part of how the gospel spread in history: “Insider movements are as old as James of the Jews and Cornelius of the Gentiles. This is not a new phenomenon but a reaffirming of a New Testament pattern, explained clearly as the use of 'open networks' by Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity (1997, Harper: San Francisco).”

While we might want others to believe and act exactly like we do, it often takes time for new believers from traditionally unreached peoples to fully understand what Christians have studied and written about for centuries. John and Ann Travis noted in a recent article on this subject, “Yet in spite of concerns that some may have on this issue, the fact remains that in a number of countries today there are groups of Muslims who have genuinely come to faith in Jesus Christ, yet have remained legally and socio-religiously within the local Muslim community.”2 Part of this relates to how these new believers relate to the established system we call Christianity. What might they choose—using the scriptures—in order to live out their faith in Jesus?

Certainly there are advantages and disadvantages in the history of each “religious” system—Christianity is no exception. When we talk about “historic Christianity” we usually mean the core doctrine that all Christians believe. Yet many (e.g. in the Muslim world) will “hear” the historic failures when they think about Christianity.

To be sure, error can come in. There are several movements around the world which have aspects that are extra-biblical and/or heretical. We must be clear that the scriptures are the source for faith and its outworking in life. Since it took Christians hundreds of years to agree on basic doctrines, perhaps we should let those from other faiths have more room to process their new found faith. By pointing to the scriptures, we will see people transforming their communities and family from the inside out.

1. See then click on Jan-Feb 2006 for the article “An Extended Conversation about Insider Movements.”

 2. See then click on Sept-Oct 2005 for the article “Contextualization among Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, A Focus on Insider Movements.” 

Greg H. Parsons is global strategist for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He is also general director of the U.S. Center for World Mission.