Letting the Gospel Thrive on the Inside: A Note on Insider Movements

There’s been a lot of discussion about what some have called “insider movements.” A number of papers and perspectives have been shared, many of them documented in the International Journal for Frontier Missiology (IJFM) and Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ).

The idea seems to have grown from frontier field missionaries and missiologists reflecting on and evaluating the failures and successes observed in approaches within the frontier mission movement.1 While some believe that the failure to see significant progress in these people groups has prompted the movement, I believe it comes more from a desire to see people coming to faith in ways that can spread more readily and deeply into family and clans.2 In other words, it comes from the desire we all have to see movements of people into the kingdom, and out of the dominion of Satan.

Naturally, Christian approaches to unreached people groups—especially Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist ones—have come from various directions, as have their approaches to us. Each of these religions is imbedded in the culture—some aspects are religious, some are cultural, many are neutral. Therefore, it is difficult to separate these aspects when contextualizing the gospel.

Understanding “Insider” Movements
However, in reality, “insider” approaches are not new, as Ralph Winter noted recently at the first ever meeting of the Asian Society for Missiology in Bangkok, Thailand3. His presentation addressed mistakes Western missionaries have made which, hopefully, Asians can avoid. One mistake he noted was that missionaries insisted that devout followers of Jesus call themselves “Christians” and identify with the Western Church. Winter said,

“The Bible talks of our conveying a treasure in earthen vessels. The earthen vessels are not the important thing, but the treasure is. The new vessel will be another very different earthen vessel. This is what happened when the faith of the Bible was first conveyed to Greeks. In that case, the treasure of biblical faith in an earthen Jewish vessel became contained in a Greek earthen vessel. Later, it went to Latin vessels and to Germanic vessels and to English vessels, and is now contained in Muslim vessels, Hindu vessels and Buddhist vessels.

It is just as unreasonable for a Hindu to be dragged completely out of his culture in the process of becoming a follower of Christ as it would have been if Paul the Apostle had insisted that a Greek become a Jew in the process of following Christ…In the New Testament there was no law against a Greek becoming a Jew. However, Paul was very insistent that that kind of a cultural conversion was not necessary in becoming a follower of Christ.”

Earlier this year, the IJFM sponsored a face-to-face discussion, during which several supporters of the “insider movement” idea drafted a definition4:

An “insider movement” is any movement to faith in Christ where (a) the gospel flows through pre-existing communities and social networks and where (b) believing families, as valid expressions of the Body of Christ, remain inside their socio-religious communities, retaining their identity as members of that community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible.

Developing a Non-Western Movement to Christ
It goes on to suggest that “insider movements” are distinctive of the C-Scale (which is also written up in the IJFM and EMQ) because the C-Scale is considering how new fellowships and practices were compared to Western churches and how much of their religious identity was retained. Insider movements seek to allow “insiders” to decide which adjustments to their thinking and lives are required by scripture.

This is one way to keep the spread of the gospel from being Western and it allows new believers to remain in their families, castes and cultures rather than being pulled into something foreign. Certainly, any movement like this has characteristics that differ from place to place. Some of these different situations may cause more concern for those of us observing them, for good and not-so-good reasons. Insider movements will no doubt continue to be discussed and evaluated.

I should also note here an interesting occurrence: an article was released in the October 2007 issue of Christianity Today in which Dudley Woodbury and others shared a recent study of 750 Muslims who have followed Christ. The study reported that “respondents ranked the lifestyle of Christians as the most important influence in their decision to follow Christ.” At the same time, in an October 2007 article in EMQ, Todd Johnson and Charles Tieszen noted that more than eighty-six percent of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not know a Christian. No matter what our view is of how to best share with them, we first must engage with them as we live out our faith.


1. Frontier mission refers to mission work among people groups that do not have a viable, evangelizing church movement. Many trace its modern day expression back to Ralph D. Winter’s presentation at the first Lausanne Congress in 1974. That presentation was entitled, “Cross-Cultural Evangelism: The Task of Highest Priority.”

2. The English word “clan” is a translation of the Hebrew word used in Genesis 12:1-3, where Abram is commanded to be a blessing to the “families” or “clans” of the earth.

3. Winter’s speech, “To the New ASM: Greetings from the West,” can be found at: http://asianmissiology.com.

4. The full version, “Insider Movement: The Conversation Continues: Promoting Movement to Christ within Natural Communities” by Rebecca Lewis, is in the IJFM 24:2, Summer 2007, p. 75-76.

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.