by Jonathan McNeil and Kevin Higgins
Point: A Muslim-born Pastor’s Response to a 2009 Insider’s Conference by Jonathan McNeil. Counterpoint: Asking Questions: A Response to Jonathan McNeil by Kevin Higgins
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the “C1 to C6 Spectrum” was first introduced in EMQ’s pages in October 1998, we have published articles advocating a variety of perspectives about contextualized practices in Muslim settings. Most are written by missionaries, so when we received Jonathan McNeil’s interview of Dr. Ali, a Muslim-Background Believer (MBB), we knew that it brought to the table one of the voices that has been noticeably absent from the print discussion available outside of Muslim settings. At the same time, we knew that Dr. Ali’s is only one of the many MBB voices. Thus, we invited Kevin Higgins to respond in a way that represented a different voice. It is our expectation that you will read these two articles together, seeing in them a point/counterpoint approach that will give you a broader perspective on the many issues involved. Together, they illustrate where the sides agree—and where ongoing clarification and discussion are needed.
A Muslim-born Pastor’s Response
to a 2009 Insider’s Conference
In March 2009, Common Grounds Consultants (CGC) organized a conference in Islamistan*. The theme of the conference was “An Insider View—Initiating Incarnational Movements within Islamic Communities.” The content included the study of four cross-cultural subject areas presented through the study of biblical texts, insights from Muslim Background Believers (MBBs), and a study of the Kingdom of God.
CGC is one example of C5 contextualization as an insider movement. Some typical aspects of C5 contextualization are as follows: believers remain legally and socially within the community of Islam; aspects of Islamic theology which are incompatible with the Bible are rejected, or reinterpreted if possible; and believers are viewed as Muslims by the Muslim community and refer to themselves as Muslims who follow Isa Al Messih (adapted from Parshall 1998).
While I recognize great variation in insider movements, in this article I have in mind the characteristics Gary Corwin articulated in a discussion with Ralph Winter. Corwin states that such contextualization
…includes not only accommodation to language and culture but to actual religious practice….Advocates of this view argue that continuing to call oneself a Muslim, and long-term participation in mosque worship, including recitation of the creed (shahada) and performance of the ritual prayers (salat), are appropriate. (Winter 2006, 19)
Although there have been attempts to start C5 communities in Islamistan as early as 2001, the 2009 conference brought insider movements to the center of attention in the Christian community. It sparked such strong reactions among MBBs that I wanted to discover what these believers perceived to be most problematic and to present this to the international mission community. To this end, I interviewed Dr. Ali**. Since the interview was conducted nearly a year after the conference, this should not be characterized as a knee-jerk reaction.
Dr. Ali is from a village in Islamistan and is the son of an imam. During undergraduate studies in the capital city, he became a follower of Jesus. Since that time, multiple members of his father’s oikos have become believers as well. Dr. Ali has been the pastor of a church in the capital since 1994. His church is now involved in multiple church plants, including one near the area of his birth. Dr. Ali holds a doctoral degree in literature. He is in his 40s, one of the oldest believers in the country, and is a leader of the National Council of Churches.
After providing the transcript of parts of the interview, I summarize Dr. Ali’s comments and conclude by offering my own suggestions for insider strategists.
An Interview with Dr. Ali (January 18, 2010, Capital of Islamistan)
Q. Based on your experience, what do you believe will be the future of believers in Islamistan who do not leave Islam?
A. What kind of Christian, what kind of people, what kind of gospel is it when you are not asking people to leave Islam? This is no gospel. I know some missionaries, maybe some in Islamistan and neighboring countries…who have this platform. I am totally against it, and I don’t think it will produce any results. We [in Islamistan] have a kind of a religion that is something between Islam and Christianity, meaning…no church, no Christianity, no Christ, no cross.
Q. You reacted strongly against the Common Grounds conference in 2009. What do you believe was most problematic about it for Christians in Islamistan?
A. I’ll be very clear. I don’t support this denomination, platform, or organization….The problem is this: they use a new paradigm and extreme contextualization. This means that when they speak of the gospel to Muslims, they speak in a new paradigm.
They say that Jesus Christ has not made the Church and that he has not invited anyone to be a Christian. Instead, they use a new paradigm. Instead of “Jesus,” they will only say Isa Mesia; they adopt this name from the Muslims. They say Isa Mesia came to establish the Kingdom of God. They are avoiding using the terms “churches” and “Christians.”
They don’t give the real call of the gospel…that people should hear the gospel, leave their old lives, leave false religions, and be a new person in Jesus and part of his body. They break the Body of Christ and you cannot unite it.
People give the gospel to Muslims and ask them to continue going to mosques, living as Muslims, and reading the Qur’an. In our context, this is something that will destroy the identity of the Body of Christ.
Q: One insider premise is that Muslim forms such as the salat prayers, mosque attendance, and the Ramadan fast, when used with transformed meaning, are not necessarily incongruent with Jesus’ commands (Travis 2005). Do you believe that a follower of Jesus in Islamistan can live out Jesus’ commands while doing these things?
A. I don’t believe this. You can ask, talk to, and meet many kinds of different people who say this is fine…but this is not right…praying as a Muslim, and calling yourself a follower of Isa, and not Jesus. From what I know in [Islamistan], what I assume is this would destroy churches and Christians. I pray this will not happen in my country.
Q. Common Grounds teaches that new believers, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, are given the freedom to come to their own conclusions concerning the role that Muhammad plays in their lives (Smith 2009). Do you agree or disagree?
A. Darkness and light have nothing to do together. Muhammad has nothing to do with Jesus, nothing to do with the gospel, and nothing to do with the light….If this idea that he has something to do with the light is correct, then the conclusion should be that each person can make a decision. I just can’t agree. He is not a prophet. We don’t owe anything to him.
Being a Christian means we should love Muslims. But I always tell them that I don’t believe Muhammad is a prophet.
Q: Do you have any other comments based on your experience with followers of Jesus who have tried to continue to remain a part of the Muslim religion in Islamistan?
A. “Followers of Jesus”…is a Common Grounds expression to refer to the Christians. We in [Islamistan] and in [a neighboring Muslim country] don’t refer to this expression. We call ourselves “Christians,” not “followers of Jesus.”
But to the question, do we have believers who are a part of the Common Grounds movement? Yes, maybe there could be one, two, or three persons.
For these seventeen years, many people—young people, politicians, writers—have wanted to have both religions mix. Christian and Islam. You should be a true Christian or Muslim. We say in [our language] that you should be bread and stone. You should not mix it. There is no bread-stone.
Why Is Dr. Ali Opposed to Insider Movements?
To provide an answer to this question, I will illustrate some of his concerns by using my own experiences in Islamistan. His concerns are grouped into three categories: a lack of clarity, a lack of resolution, and a lack of unity.
Lack of clarity: “They don’t give the real call of the gospel.” Many leaders in insider movements would disagree with this accusation. John Travis unequivocally states, “Jesus is Lord and Savior: there is no salvation outside of him” (1998). I am convinced that the local organizers of the CGC conference would also uphold this creed.
However, we must examine not only what insider movements say on significant issues, but also what MBBs hear. When I first heard a presentation on C5 contextualization as an undergraduate at Wheaton College in 1998, there were a few head nods and some questions. When Dr. Ali listens to a similar presentation, he hears, “This threatens to compromise the gospel message in Islamistan.” Why?
John Travis and Anna Travis write that people from mainline Protestant denominations, as well as from Islam, may “highly esteem the religion or denomination of their birth, yet have also given full allegiance to the Jesus of the Bible” (2005, 412). In Dr. Ali’s thinking, one cannot highly esteem Islam and at the same time give full allegiance to Jesus. This is a contradiction in terms. The call of the gospel, which requires giving full allegiance to Jesus, intrinsically involves rejecting all false religions, including the religion of one’s birth.
While CGC representatives would agree that unbiblical Islamic theology should be rejected, what about Islamic practices?
Lack of resolution: “Muhammad has nothing to do with Jesus.” Who determines which Islamic practices are edifying and which are unedifying for believers? Aren’t MBBs such as Dr. Ali in a better position to discern these matters than a guest from the West?
Dr. Ali’s quotation of the proverb “you should be stone or bread” reflects the worldview of his people group. My observation is that people inIslamistan view everything from a good meal to ethnic conflicts to God much more in terms of black or white than the average westerner, who may see a lot of gray. Dr. Ali believes that turning from darkness to light involves rejecting religious Islamic practices such as mosque attendance and salat prayers.
To be fair, Dr. Ali recognizes that there are some traditions in which Islamistani believers can participate with a clear conscience. Last year, believers in his church had a lengthy discussion concerning their participation in Eud Il Fitr. Although none of these believers could attend the mosque with a clear conscience, some concluded that they should eat the meal with their families while others chose not to return home for this holiday. Dr. Ali felt that believers should have the freedom to draw their own conclusions about eating the meal and the traditional greetings that accompany it.
However, when a CGC missionary does not discourage new believers from salat prayers and mosque attendance, but in fact prays these prayers and goes to the mosque him or herself, Dr. Ali perceives this as a lack of commitment. He issues a strong warning to his brothers and sisters in Christ in groups such as CGC: their presence in Islamistan could hurt the Islamistani Church.
Lack of unity: “They break the Body of Christ and you cannot unite it.” Consider Dr. Ali’s testimony and what unifies believers in Islamistan. As a boy, he learned Arabic prayers and sayings about Isa Al Messih. Following a dream, he turned to Jesus. That night, he prayed his first prayer entirely in the Islamistani language. Since the mother tongue in Islamistan is not Arabic, in general, he and other Christians do not use the name Isa Al Messih in prayer, but instead use Jezusi.
In 2005, a national association of churches was developed to strengthen unity; today, most of the churches in the country are a part of this association. While there are many differences among these churches, at least two practices give them a common identity: (1) they identify themselves as Christians and (2) they pray to Jesus, Jezusi, in the Islamistani language.
Dr. Ali recognizes that it is natural for Middle Eastern believers to refer to Jesus in Arabic as Isa Al Messih. However, in the minds of believersin Islamistan, using the Qur’anic name Isa Al Messih when Jezusi has been used in their language for nearly two thousand years is to choose to refer to another “Jesus” of Islam who is not the Son of God.
When CGC insists on using the Arabic name Isa Al Messih in Islamistan, it appears to the average Islamistani Christian that they are rejecting Jezusi as revealed in the Bible. This is why Dr. Ali compares CGC to a syncretistic Islamic movement that has existed in Islamistan for centuries. This age-old sect contains “Christian” elements, but clearly denies that Jesus is the Son of God. Clearly, Dr. Ali does not believe CGC is edifying, but asks, “How could they break the Body of Christ?”
In 2005, Hussein**, a young man in Islamistan, was placed under discipline by his local pastor for continuing to teach the youth at the church not to embrace the doctrine of the deity of Christ. Three years later, this same young man started his own “fellowship.” He quickly attracted many young people from other local churches. As a result, one ministry closed its doors. If young Islamistani believers left their churches to unite with another group when there was a major theological problem, what would prevent them from leaving existing churches for a community started by CGC?
I have already acknowledged that CGC affirms the deity of Christ and the example above is not meant to put that into question. However, Dr. Ali and other pastors believe they threaten the unity of the national Church. One local leader has two different groups that meet in his home. One meets on Sundays and calls itself Christian. The other group meets on Saturdays and continues to call itself Muslim. If they did not, “they would lose their jobs,” says the leader. When a new believer in Dr. Ali’s church faces imminent rejection from family members, wouldn’t the logical choice be to join this “Saturday” group?
How Should We Respond to Dr. Ali’s Answers?
Before proposing three questions, I recognize that my conclusions are limited to the insights of those who are a part of a C3-C4 community in Islamistan. While I approached some of the local CGC proponents, none consented to be interviewed for this article.
1. Effective in Islamabad or Islamistan? Let us not assume that because an approach seems advantageous in a radical Muslim context such as Pakistan or the Middle East that it will also be helpful in more nominal Muslim contexts. Consider an American who moves from the Middle East to Islamistan. He fasts during the month of Ramadan and attends the mosque. He soon becomes a highly-respected guest because most people believe he is Muslim, devoted to the Qur’an just as they are.
Some assert that such an approach edifies MBBs in some contexts. However, leaders such as Dr. Ali believe it sends a different message to those in Islamistan. It threatens to hinder national unity and causes stumbling blocks for younger believers.
2. Reject the advice of mature national church leaders? I emailed a draft of this article to a missionary who has spent over twenty years in a Middle Eastern country. Concerning insider movements, he wrote, “I don’t know of a single leader among the national believers who would be in favor.” If the mature national leaders in any given country give a strong warning to insider movements, are these movements wise to push forward in that country?
3. Permissible or beneficial? Many articles by proponents and opponents of insider movements have analyzed these movements from a biblical framework asking the question of permissibility: “Is this strategy or paradigm right or wrong?” (Hesselgrave 2007; Parshall 1998; Smith 2009; Travis 1998). This question deserves the attention it has been given. However, the question, “Is it beneficial?” is not asked often enough.
We must ask, “Is it beneficial to the national Church?” Let’s suppose that the organizing of conferences such as the one described in this article and the sending of missionaries that advocate an insider paradigm to Islamistan lead to division in national churches such as what Dr. Ali forecasts. Is such a movement beneficial to believers in Islamistan?
* pseudonym of a nominal Muslim majority country
Hesselgrave, David. 2007. “Brian McLaren’s Contextualization of the Gospel.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(1):92-100.
Parshall, Phil. 1998. “Danger! New Directions in Contextualization.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4):404-406, 409-410.
Smith, Jay. 2009. “Jay Smith’s Assessment of Insider Movements, C5 Missions Strategies: An Assessment of The Insider’s Principle Paradigms.” I2 Ministries.
Accessed February 22, 2010 from www.i2ministries.org/indexphp?option=com_ content&view=article&id=68:jay-smiths-assessment-of-insider-movements-c5-missions-strategies&catid=3:current-news&Itemid=13.
Travis, John. 1998. “Must All Muslims Leave Islam to Follow Jesus?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34(4):411-415.
Travis, John and Anna Travis. 2005. “Appropriate Approaches in Muslim Contexts.” In Appropriate Christianity. Ed. Charles H. Kraft, 397-414. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library Publishers.
Winter, Ralph. 2006. “An Extended Conversation about Insider Movements: Responses to the September-October 2005 Mission Frontiers.” Mission Frontiers 28(1):16-23.
Jonathan McNeil (pseudonym) has worked as a church planter in two nominal Muslim countries for most of the last decade. The author wishes to thank Steve Hawthorne for his insightful comments on early drafts of this article.
Asking the Right Questions:
A Response to Jonathan McNeil
I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response to Jonathan McNeil’s article. I also appreciate his opening comments recognizing the variety of opinions held by advocates of the so-called “insider” paradigm and his willingness to acknowledge where key proponents do in fact hold views with which he would agree. I sense he has tried to understand the authors he has cited and desires to accurately portray what they in fact think and believe. This attitude and approach to the discussion of contextualization issues is much needed.
There are several elements, however, where I would suggest that misunderstandings remain. I am following the structure of McNeil’s own piece: Introduction, Questions and Answers, Dr. Ali’s Conclusions, and Mr. McNeil’s Three Questions. In a final section I will offer a conclusion in which I seek to raise a different line of questioning for the future.
Introduction: Terminology Clarification
In McNeil’s introductory section he refers to “C5 contextualization as an insider movement.” I would like to make several clarifications regarding terminology.
First, in recent literature there has been a decided process of distinguishing between C5 and “insider” terminology. The two are not synonymous. As John Travis himself has recognized, the earlier C5 articles were attempts to begin to describe what he observed as a variety of forms churches among Muslims had taken. There was no attempt to prescribe which was better—only to describe what was there. Those early observations gave way to an ongoing attempt to clarify what missiologists and practitioners were observing. In that process, the old distinctions between C4 and C5 came to be seen as what I would suggest to be a false dichotomy.
One result was that some of us began to experiment with the term “insider movement.” There have been various attempts to define this, but again the key is that these attempts were descriptive, not prescriptive: what IS, not necessarily what OUGHT to be.
However, in the last twelve months the term “insider” has come under question from Muslim followers of Jesus themselves, and many of us who advocate for such leaders and movements have attempted to refine our language in accordance with this. Such leaders have asked that we not use “insider” in as much as it smacks of a false distinction between insider and outsider, and promotes the kind of disunity in the body that also rightly concerns McNeil.
Instead of referring to such movements as C5 or “insider,” more and more of us are trying to articulate what we see using terminology such as “Kingdom Movements,” or “Kingdom Movements to Jesus,” or “Biblically Faithful Kingdom Movements.”
It is clear that McNeil and Dr. Ali have both received the impression that (whatever we may call them) these movements represent a strategy on the part of missiologists or practitioners, especially Western missionaries. I do not blame McNeil or Dr. Ali for this impression, as I am sure they have come across people who speak and write in just that way. Neither I nor the advocates of such movements with whom I am in connection would suggest that this is primarily about strategy. We would certainly distance ourselves from any claim that this is a human strategy that could be taught, planned, and implemented.
Instead, we are attempting to describe and understand something which we have come to believe is PART of what God is doing in our world today. We sincerely believe God is at work in these movements and our hope and concern is both that the movements themselves will remain rooted in a thoroughly biblically process of discipleship, and that other brothers and sisters will patiently give them room and space to grow and reform under the Word as the Spirit directs.
Questions and Answers with Dr. Ali
I will take the questions posed to Dr. Ali in order. This is in no way a comprehensive response and is admittedly selective.
Missionaries and the C5/insider paradigm. Dr. Ali: “I know missionaries who have this platform.” Most advocates of the so-called insider paradigm would join McNeil and Dr. Ali in questioning the wisdom and value of such approaches by outside missionaries. The discussion is not about what a missionary ought to do, but about what a Muslim who comes to saving faith in Jesus might be led by God to do within his or her own context and under the authority of the Bible as he or she seeks to apply it.
Jesus and various terms. Dr. Ali suggests that missionaries who advocate such movements are saying, “Jesus did not make the church,” and that he “did not invite anyone to become a Christian.” I begin with the second claim.
Advocates of these movements whom I know in fact affirm that Jesus did not ask anyone to be a Christian; they therefore draw the conclusion that the use of the TERM is not a prerequisite for authentic discipleship or conversion. Total obedience to Jesus is the measure of discipleship, not use of terminology.
Regarding the other two claims, I know of no one who advocates these positions. I am honored to be part of a circle of men and women who regularly interact around these issues and who write most frequently on these issues from a pro-Kingdom Movement viewpoint. What Dr. Ali suggests is certainly not the position held by Common Ground (the focus of his comments, it would seem).
The confession of Jesus as Lord and the call to responsible membership in his body, the Church, are central. It is likely that were we to meet face to face, Dr. Ali and I might well have differing views regarding the nature and polity of the Church that Jesus made. But this is true not only in discussions about “insider movements,” but also between Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others.
Follower of Isa or Jesus? Dr. Ali is concerned that believers in such movements refer to themselves as followers of Isa, and do not use the word “Jesus.” It seems as though Dr. Ali is worried that believers are using Islamic-Arabic terminology rather than English. He explains that use of the Islamic term can create confusion and division. I will address this later.
The Role of Muhammad. Dr. Ali articulates why he feels there can be no ongoing role for Muhammad for a Muslim believer. However, he does not answer the question about who decides, nor is the question framed to allow discussion about how such decisions get made in a movement.
This begs a larger issue about how any movement is to develop its teaching and theology. Some who critique the insider approach suggest that believers need to be taught the creeds and confessions of the historic Church. Presumably, the only way to do this is via outside influence from either missionaries or national leaders who have been trained by such missionaries (most of whom would have been westerners).
I believe and trust that the Spirit of God will use the word of God to teach and correct the people of God. I do not ignore or avoid discussion of the creeds, but the development of such statements of faith took generations and the process was carried on in specific contexts far removed from the world of Islam today.
What is needed for authentic discipleship is a thorough wrestling with biblical material in the grist of specific contexts today. Just as the creedal process took generations, so should we be patient as well. We should have faith that the Spirit of God can and will use the word to continually reform the people of God—not only “insiders,” but outside missionaries and national leaders as well.
Mixing Islam and Christianity? Dr. Ali suggests that Common Ground and other pro-“insider” advocates are promoting a mix of Christianity and Islam. In fact, what we promote is the very simple (but not easy) process by which the leaven of the kingdom transforms the dough of a culture and society. This is not a mixing or a combining, but rather the internal process of kingdom transformation.
As several advocates of such movements have articulated, movements among Muslims go through a process by which, under the word, some things are retained, some are rejected, some are redefined/re-interpreted, and some are re-valued. Such a process is no different than what any disciple, in any context, will go through if his or her discipleship is to be truly biblical, fully personal, and ultimately lasting.
Dr. Ali’s Three Conclusions
McNeil summarizes Dr. Ali’s viewpoints regarding why he sees “insider” movements as defective or misguided approaches.
Lack of clarity. Dr. Ali clearly equates accepting Christ with accepting Christianity and rejecting Islam. As such, he logically critiques insider movements and advocates because they do not outright reject Islam in totality.
However, I would suggest that we probably differ more in terminology than in actual practice. I would fully endorse a position that is committed to rejecting whatever is false in ANY religious context or religion, as judged by biblical standards. This would include particular expressions of both Islam, and Christianity.
Having said that, I am aware that it is likely Dr. Ali is using the term “Christianity” differently than I am, but this highlights an important point. When mainstream advocates of what have been called insider movements suggest that we are not seeking to advance Christianity, we use the term in a way more akin to “Christendom.”
I presume Dr. Ali is using the term in a sense more akin to what I might mean by the kingdom. As such, this is a case in which sometimes we use the same words to mean different things and end up talking past each other, and thus seeming to disagree when in fact we might not be as far apart as it may seem.
Lack of resolution. Here Dr. Ali reaffirms his earlier concern about the sole place of Jesus and a worry that giving any role to Muhammad and to Islamic practices might diminish the unique and particular place of Jesus. He adds the point that a national MBB is in a better position to advise believers in a Muslim context than is a Western outsider. Three points:
1. If we are asked to compare only “outside/westerner” and “national MBB,” I would suggest we have created a false choice. The choice is better framed this way: who is ultimately responsible before God for the theological, practical, and spiritual decisions made within any movement? I suggest the answer is: those within that movement.
2. Dr. Ali himself seems to agree with this, in part. He says that he believes every believer should follow his or her own conscience relative to whether or not he or she takes part in Eidh festivities. I would go on to ask why this same principle does not (apparently) apply to all similar decisions, including how best to understand Muhammad.
3. I go back to what I stated above, that the Spirit of God can and will use the word of God to instruct and correct the people of God. I have seen this take place around questions such as polygamy, Hajj, Eidh, and Muhammad’s role. I have seen the leaders of a movement continue to process in community and under the word what they felt they should and should not do, teach, or believe. I have seen thinking change over time as more of the word, more experience, and more reflection gained root in their lives as a group.
Lack of unity. Dr. Ali sees so-called insider movements as divisive and cites, in particular, the issue of religious vocabulary. In so doing, he returns to the matter of the name of Jesus.
If, as Dr. Ali seems to suggest, unity depends upon all believers using the same name for Jesus (or rather, the same transliteration of that name), then we would be driven to a position of using h