Insider Approach to Muslim Ministry: A Latino Perspective

by Carlos Diaz

Latino missionaries hold new perspectives related to relationships with Muslim neighbors, methods of communicating and developing church-planting movements, and a unique viewpoint of possible problems.

Teaching in the humid warmth of a tropical climate in the Brazilian hill country of the Minas Gerais province, north of Brazil’s largest and capital city, Sao Paulo, I saw the expressions on my students’ faces register uncertainty and objection to what I was presenting.  

I was a visiting professor teaching a course on “Islam and Approaches to Muslim Ministry” to over seventy students at an evangelical training institute near Belo Horizonte. The students came from various backgrounds and ministry experiences. Some had been working among Muslims in Brazil and elsewhere; others were in the process of training and raising support to enter into full-time mission work among Muslims. A few were working on degrees, but already had vast experience in cross-cultural work, having spent lengthy periods working with the indigenous cultures in the jungles of Brazil or the deserts of Argentina.

Hands shot up and, typical to the Latin culture, questions and conversations sprang up among the students. The objections and arguments began when I introduced my presentation on approaches to church planting using the model of the levels of contextualization, C1-C5, as described by John Travis (1998, 407-408).

The problem was not the model: the levels were clear. These students understood the problems with creating churches that reflected the missionary’s own culture and forsook the local customs (a C1 or C2 model). They had personally experienced the consequences of this culture clash in their own country and were anxious to avoid such problems in their own approach to church planting. No, what they were so strongly reacting to was the discussion of the insider movement, an approach to Muslim ministry advocating and practicing a C5 approach to such a degree as to encourage a convert to remain a practicing Muslim.

Concerns regarding the insider approach to church planting are not limited to a small group of Latinos in one location in the world. For years, I have been involved in the Latino missionary movement, teaching and training hundreds of Latino student courses on Muslim ministry and participating with Latinos, mission leaders, and active missionaries in a number of conferences concerning approaches to Muslim ministry. I have seen and heard the concerns of many.       

The insider movement has been, in general, developed and practiced by North Americans and Europeans, while Christian laborers from Majority World nations who question such practices have been overlooked. It is imperative that the concerns and questions of those in Majority World countries be heard, and their views be taken into consideration. This is especially important in the face of the changes we are seeing, with the main missionary force now built in Majority World nations, including Latin American countries.

Thousands of Latino missionaries are serving in foreign missions today. A number of church-planting teams once exclusively made up of North Americans and Europeans now have at least one or two Latino members. When I first went to South Asia twenty years ago, I was the only Latino missionary in the country. Today there are twenty. These Latinos will not only have to learn to work with other missionaries, but will be fully involved in the development of their team’s strategy and approach to church planting. However, the impact of Majority World workers will not only be felt locally in small church-planting teams around the world. As more enter missions from Majority World countries, Majority World workers will have an increasing role in research and strategy in fruitful practices in Muslim ministry.

While my views and the views shared by many Latino missionaries and church leaders may not reflect the opinions of all Latinos, I hope that, in raising a number of questions and concerns regarding the insider movement in Muslim ministry, I will shed some light on the different views in this debate. I also hope to remind readers that the debate is not limited to Western workers and that the opinions of others, especially those already working on these fields, should be taken into consideration.    

Positive Aspects of the Insider Movement
Before we look at some of the concerns of Latino workers, I would first like to reflect upon some of the positive developments we see in more contextual approaches. These contributions have challenged our thinking and practices, and have caused us to re-evaluate our approach in seeking lasting fruit.

First, the insider movement has helped us all in the enhanced awareness and appreciation of the Muslim person and his or her culture. Islam is not simply a religion filled with prescribed regulations and practices, but the religious expression of many millions of Muslims around the world. It is a culture that is expressed in different shapes and colors in individual nations. The insider movement has also shown a great willingness to examine each culture from within rather than from outside.

The practitioner is viewing the world through the eyes of Islam and its different cultures. There is concern and sensitivity for the individual’s beliefs and culture. In particular, this means showing understanding of the problems of those who become disconnected to families and society because of their new faith. It also means caring for those relationships so Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) can remain with loved ones in the hope that they can communicate God’s salvation to their lost family and friends. The day I left the Catholic Church my family did not really see it as an abandonment of our faith but of our family and culture.  

Second, the insider movement has called us to become better students and practitioners—something the Latino missionary movement is at the very early stages of developing. We have been motivated to learn and study the heart languages of the people we are reaching, and create understandable translations of the Bible and training materials for those in these cultures. It has also caused us to become more insightful students of Islam, not only in its basic principles, popular beliefs, and practices, but its history and current trends. In addition, it has encouraged study of past and present writers from Muslim cultures, allowing us to enter into levels of communication and debate with Muslims on a more equal basis. While the debate of the insider movement continues, much research, questioning, and information has resulted, helping us to reflect upon our own practices.  

Third, the insider movement has taught us to hold to good practices within each culture to express devotion, worship, and communication with God. The good practices once ignored can be sanctified for the worship and glory of the true God. This has helped smooth the transition of each new believer into the new faith without forcing him or her into worship that is offensive and foreign to those in his or her community. For many years, Latino churches were confined by a Western style of worship and the use of Western musical instruments. Early missionaries, knowing that many of the local instruments were used for pagan, indigenous, religious practices, would not allow new converts to use them. Even today in various seminaries and Bible colleges established by Western missionaries in South and Central America, only Western instruments are used and taught.

Today, younger Christian Latino leaders are introducing local musical instruments and style of music in their churches. Worship and praise have taken on a wonderful and exciting form. In my own Cuban community, Latino Caribbean style of music has been introduced by various new Christian performers, allowing us to worship God within our culture and opening the message of the gospel to those outside the church.        

These are but a few observations that we, those who have been on the receiving end of evangelism and church planting, have been able to make. We have been fortunate that, while reflecting upon our own history, we have been able to make changes that have led to more contextualized forms of ministry and worship in our churches and in outreach to our communities. These forms have allowed us to express our own culture while not forsaking biblical doctrine or norms.

Concerns with the Insider Movement
Some of the concerns raised by Latinos with regard to the insider movement are based upon their reflections of their own Christian history. Early missionaries, coming mainly from Catholic churches in Europe, brought teaching from the scriptures, church traditions, and a message of a Savior to the indigenous people of the land. However, in the early years of the development of the Church, Catholic priests allowed indigenous beliefs to co-mingle with the teachings of the Church. Today, in many areas of Latin America, Catholicism is a mixture of Bible teaching and local beliefs and practices. Much of the biblical doctrine has been compromised, and the true nature of Christianity has lost its power.

With this in mind, the insider movement raises many concerns. First, if MBBs remain insiders—continuing belief in both Islamic orthodoxy as well as popular folk Islam—will not the mistake of early Catholic missionaries in Latin America be made in the development of the Church in Muslim lands? One of the beliefs that has dominated those in the Catholic Church in Latin America has been the adoration of the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is highly esteemed, and great devotion is given to her. Beautiful statues are decorated with robes of satin and crowns of gold. While the Roman Catholic Church recognizes Mary as a “Holy Queen,” “Mother of God,” and “Mother of all believers,” to many Catholics in Latin America she is revered as a member of the divine triune Godhead and a mediator between God and humanity.

Folkloric traditions tell us that divine powers have been given to her; she is credited with miraculous appearances and healings. The introduction of another person into the Godhead has taken away much of the greatness and worship that Christ alone deserves. Many have been led astray from the truth and salvation in Christ.     

As we reflect upon the problem of attaching equality of any person to Christ as is seen in the Latin American Catholic worship of Mary, the question that must be asked is this: are those Muslim-background followers of Isa Masih (Jesus Christ) in the insider movement in danger of perpetuating the importance of Muhammad, giving him greater importance than he deserves? Most Muslims discourage the worship of Muhammad and teach his prophethood, attributing only a few miracles to him, such as the introduction of the Qur’an and his journey to heaven. Yet there remain those in Islam who follow traditional practices, popular Islamic beliefs, or Sufi teachings that lift Muhammad to greater highs, crediting him with miracles of healing and even raising the dead. By remaining in traditional beliefs and practices concerning Muhammad, is it not easily conceivable that Muslim-background followers of Isa might fall into the trap of giving worship and reverence to someone other than Christ?

Second, we must look at the problem of contextualization leading to syncretism. This combining of past unbiblical beliefs and practices with new faith in Isa may result in continual bondage to the spirit world, as well as a lack of biblical truth, thereby stunting new believers’ growth in Christ and eventually leading new believers away from the truth itself.   

As a former Catholic growing up in a Cuban home, I can look back and see that many of the religious traditions practiced in my home were far from biblical. Most Cuban Catholics practice, in one form or another, a mixture of Christian teaching and a folk religion called Santeria. These pagan beliefs and practices were introduced into the newfound colonies by early African slaves.

After the Africans were converted to Christianity, they continued in these beliefs and practices, learning to combine them with their new faith. They slowly penetrated the Cuban society and through the years became commonplace for many Cuban Catholics. Even today, it is common to see glasses filled with water and a bowl of fruit sitting next to a picture of a dead relative in Cuban homes.

I have observed similar practices in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and other countries that had great numbers of African slaves. But this view of the spirit world goes beyond the appeasement of dead relatives. Similar practices are necessary for other aspects of daily life, such as protection from enemies and physical healing. Rituals are performed with the help of a mediator or shaman who knows how to incite powers from the spirit world.

When I was a teenager, I developed a bad case of shingles. My mother quickly called a local Cuban spiritualist who came to our home and began to chant names of popular spirit deities and spells. The spiritist then applied a silver spoon to my back in the area affected by the shingles and said that I would be cured.  

Such beliefs and practices are not uncommon. Those in ministry in Latin America often find themselves confronting such beliefs in new believers and opposing dark forces. Can the beliefs and practices that have found such a strong place in Latin American Christianity possibly be compared to those followers of Isa who remain steeped in their own popular beliefs while embracing their new faith in Christ?         

Much of the Muslim world is clouded with popular beliefs outside the basic orthodox teaching of Islam. According to Rick Love, “Folk Muslims confess Allah but worship spirits and are more concerned with magic than with Muhammad” (2003, 2). While some orthodox Muslim teachers discourage people from following such practices, more than three-fourths of Muslims adhere to some form of belief or practice pertaining to popular beliefs (2003, 2). Examples of popular Islam are amulets on animals and children to protect them from evil, and shrines to saints believed to have held special powers (Barakat) or performed various miracles. These shrines are constantly visited by Muslim worshipers.

While living in Central Asia, I often saw amulets holding Qur’anic verses around the necks of sick children or sewn on their clothing. Parents would visit the local shrines or mosques for healing before coming to a medical clinic. On Thursdays, women would go to local shrines where a Muslim saint was buried. Those who were troubled by evil spirits would seek a religious person, whether it be a mullah, Muslim priest, or Sufi, to conduct a special reading of verses from the Qur’an and blow in their ears in hopes of removing the troubling spirit.   

The insider movement promotes Muslims who are believers in Jesus Christ. They remain in the mosque and in the spiritual community of the mosque. Is it not possible to see these people holding on to the same belief system they once had and, while choosing to follow Isa, find ways of blending popular Islamic beliefs with Christ’s teaching? This has become quite evident in Latin America—those who believe in Christ but have held onto a worldview opposed to biblical teaching.

The syncretism has continued to such an extent that the worlds are not easily separated. Not only has this led many astray, but it continues to cause them to be held in the bondage from which Christ has freed them. This is a serious problem that we must prevent from happening to those in the Muslim world who are seeking truth and grace in Isa.

There are many other doctrinal and cultural issues concerning the insider movement that have been raised by Latino field workers. They have pointed out many possible pitfalls and have cautioned against the dangers of such a radical contextualization approach. However, one main issue remains: the insider movement is an almost exclusively Western approach to Muslim ministry. Many of the courses given on the insider approach to Muslim ministry are held in the United States by Western organizations and, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, many of the writings and debates are from North American missiologists. The issue expands to this: Are Western missionaries to Muslims promoting this approach as the one and only correct method?    

While the Latino Church is greatly indebted to European and North American Christian missionaries because of their sacrifice in bringing us the truth of the whole gospel, planting communities of believers, and establishing Christian institutions to train pastors and Christian leaders, many of the approaches to evangelism, church development, and education were modeled after Western practices and methods. Although the Latino Church has matured, especially in the expansion of Christian missionary efforts, Western Christian leaders continue to expect Latino churches to follow Western styles of leadership, church governance and finance, approaches to evangelism, and methods of training and education.

While many of these have been successful in Latin America, we are seeing that as Latinos take greater responsibility in Christian leadership in their countries, as well as in the world, they bring different styles and methods more suited to their culture and not totally compatible to Western models. This demonstrates the importance of being sensitive to the needs of those on the receiving end of ministry. Those with experience and power need to be cautious and sensitive to the ideas and desires of those seeking guidance.  

My wife and I, and the teams with whom we worked, were blessed to have had the opportunity to see many Muslims come to Christ. Several communities of MBBs were established in two major cities in South Asia. For the most part, our approach to evangelism was a contextualized level of C4.

We lived in a Muslim community and dressed like our Muslim neighbors. When sharing concepts of God and his kingdom, we used Islamic vocabulary and terms. Prayers and some religious practices we emulated from our surrounding culture. When we began to see fruit, we encouraged the new followers to study the scriptures, pray, and remain in their families and communities. The person of Muhammad and the authority of the Qur’an were not issues to many of them as they themselves had come to the conclusion that Muhammad was a false prophet and the Qur’an was not the word of God.

However, more difficult questions began to arise from the new believers, such as: Should they go to the mosque, do the Namaz and Muslim prayers, and fast during Ramadan? We felt it was not our place to tell them what they should do. Instead, we encouraged them to seek answers by prayer, reading their Bibles, and fasting. In our ministry, we discovered that over ninety-five percent of the MBBs felt they should not continue in their former Islamic practices. While we showed concern about such a decision, we supported them. Today, we are excited as they continue to grow in the knowledge of the scripture, walk in faith, and develop indigenous forms and symbols of worship and their unique way of interpreting scripture.      

The mission fields of the world are no longer two-dimensional (the culture of the land and that of those who have come to make disciples of Christ). Today, mission fields have become multi-dimensional. The Great Commission is being heard and obeyed by those from countries that were, not long ago, unreached fields. As these fields continue to send out workers, the discussion of approaches to Muslim ministry and expression of field experience needs to be open to all who are involved. While the new Latino missionary movement has a great deal to learn, its Christian history and its recent evangelical church movement have a lot to offer in the development of approaches to Muslim work. Latino missionaries hold new perspectives related to relationships with our Muslim neighbors, methods of communicating and developing church-planting movements, and a unique viewpoint of possible problems.

Above all, we need to offer loving concern to all people, especially those now in the family of Christ. We cannot let the zeal of having them come into the Kingdom of God prevent us from the striving for truth. As Paul writes in Colossians 2:2, “…attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself.” We seek after those approaches that will not keep them in bondage, but will set them free in Christ.

The obvious challenge that lies ahead of us is bringing together all those from various nations and cultures, including MBBs, who work among Muslims, and patiently learning to discuss the pros and cons of approaches to Muslim ministries, not holding any one nationality as superior or wiser than another, but humbly debating and considering these issues in light of the wisdom of God.             


Love, Rick. 2003. Muslims, Magic and the Kingdom of God. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Travis, John. 1998. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4): 407-408.


Carlos Diaz (pseudonym) serves with TEAM, where he trains and coaches Latino missionaries working among Muslims. He and his wife have worked with Muslims for over twenty years in Central Asia and Europe. Previously, Diaz was academic director of IIbET (Iberoamerican Institute of Cross-Culture Studies) in southern Spain.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 312-319. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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