I recently attended a conference on missions to Muslims. At supper I sat down with a man from a certain country in South East Asia. I asked him what church he attended. He paused, then shook his head with a smile, and replied, “I am a Muslim.” I then paused, because this conference was for missionaries and MBBs (Muslim Background Believers). I thought we were all Christians. He went on to explain that though he called himself a Muslim, and even thought of himself as a Muslim, he followed Jesus and studied Scripture every evening with his family. Sometime after he had converted to Christianity, he had chosen to return to the Mosque and live in the Muslim community as a Muslim.
The topic of the insider movement is one of the most heated controversies in the area of ministry to Muslims. An insider is a Muslim who converts to Christianity, but who remains in the Mosque for a period of time. For some this period is short, for others, this period is a lifetime, and could extend to the second and third generation.
Many insiders stay in the Mosque purposefully because they feel comfortable in that setting and are better able to reach their extended families and friends for Christ. This is seen to be much more effective than the traditional strategy of leaving behind families, community and culture and transitioning to a western looking and feeling church setting.
However, others criticize this method, for being deceptive, or for not putting enough emphasis on the historic role of the church in advancing the kingdom of God. Others raise questions. Are insider movements just an expression of western pragmatism? Is it a result of our frustration with the historic lack of response among Muslims to the gospel? Does this strategy reflect an overreaction to our colonial past where western culture was imposed on foreign believers?
Despite the many misgivings in the mission community, there are examples where insider movements have arisen spontaneously, without the intervention of western missionaries. Insider movements in many cases reflect the desire of Muslim converts to maintain their Muslim identity as they take on a new identity in Christ. The challenge of being an insider is to continue to grow in faith and fellowship with other believers, especially as this often has to happen in clandestine ways.
It is important to differentiate between those who are cultural insiders and those who are religious insiders. While it makes sense for people to respect and practice their local culture, the more perplexing part of this is the retention of religious practices, especially ones that seem at odds with Christianity. Can Christians worship in a mosque? Can they adapt some of the forms (such as the Shahada) to a Christian confession? (There is no God but Allah and Jesus is his Messiah.) Such changes usually lead to the expulsion of the believer, but in some cases there is tolerance. I am personally more comfortable with cultural insiders as opposed to those who we would call religious insiders. But ultimately, we have to give space to those who are following the Holy Spirit and who discern God’s leading to remain in their cultural and religious community.
We won’t really know how effective this strategy is until the second and third generation. Will these movements strengthen with time or will they die out? Whatever the future holds, God is working in the world today through the many movements to Jesus that are taking place around the world — some more traditional, some more insider. God is doing a new thing. He is asking his people to discern what is truly of him and how we can be God’s instrument of grace in the world. God is calling us to pray for our brothers and sisters who are following Jesus but remain in their socio-religious settings. We want to support those brothers and sisters from Muslim backgrounds who follow Christ, as they follow the Holy Spirit down new and challenging paths.