Seeing “Inside” the Insider Movement: 9 Theological Lenses

by Leonard N. Bartlotti

On closer examination, insider missiology and movements (IM) are like a fiberoptic cable: Multiple theological threads are bundled together to present a singular case for retaining Muslim identity. This complicates the theological assessment of what IM advocates “say.”


NEW MOVEMENTS TO JESUS are springing up across the Islamic world—a cultural sphere historically impervious to biblical faith. Some Muslims are encouraged to remain “inside” their socio-religious communities as “Muslim Followers of Christ” (MFCs). I find myself joyous about these reports, but also cautious about the missiological rationale behind them.1

I am no stranger to the challenges of gospel contextualization. My family and I lived many years in a sensitive Islamic context. I understand the issues and dangers Muslim background believers face. Nevertheless, insider missiology raises unsettling questions. When I began to really consider this, I realized that I wasn’t just reacting to one thing, but to many things.

On closer examination, insider missiology and movements (IM) are like a fiberoptic cable: Multiple theological threads are bundled together to present a singular case for retaining Muslim identity. This complicates the theological assessment of what IM advocates “say.”

Similarly, our own presuppositions and beliefs function like ocular “lenses” or photographic “filters.” This affects the clarity of what we “see.” Following that line, I have identified nine theological lenses by which to see inside insider missiology. The lenses help us understand and evaluate IM along a spectrum of evangelical faith (see the Nine Theological Lenses chart on pages 422-423 for a helpful synopsis). Admittedly, the nine topics are broad and this treatment brief. Sincere believers hold a range of positions on each issue.  


Lens 1: Church

A major underpinning of IM theory and practice involves conceptions of what it means to be and do “church.” 

At the minimalist end, IM advocates emphasize the spiritual and ecclesial DNA within the smallest communal structure: “two or three gathered together in my name” (Matt. 18:20). In this view, believers who gather around the word, Lordship, and Spirit of Christ essentially have all they need to develop in faith and practice, Christlikeness, and witness. This side of the spectrum values simplicity, freedom, and informality. The movements are carried forward by small voluntary groups, meetings in houses, low-level leaders, and vibrant inner faith rather than superimposed concepts, structures, and organization. 

At the other end of the spectrum, a traditional view values the word rightly preached and ordinances rightly administered. Additional criteria include church order, discipline, and leadership, among others.  

Many historical precedents link gospel breakthrough with tensions over church structures, polity, doctrine, spirituality, practice, and engagement with society. Today, Muslim background churches in Iran and Algeria follow patterns that Western and Middle Eastern churches would recognize. Among insider believers in Indonesia and Bangladesh, the house church model predominates. 

Lens 2: Authority

A second lens involves the related concept of authority. How are decisions made about doctrine and practice? In a pioneer context, who decides? Theoretically, the answer is local believers. Early literature on contextualization was faulted for overemphasizing the missionary’s role. Today, there is welcome sensitivity to issues of power and process.

IM situates the processes of biblical reflection and theologizing in the new faith communities, based on the latter’s own understanding—however limited at a given point in time—of the word of God: “Give them the Bible and the Spirit, and leave them alone (with or without a little coaching)—they’ll work it out”

Across the spectrum, no one denies the “priesthood of all believers.” All recognize local assemblies are growing toward maturity. Similarly, scripture is the final authority for faith and practice. 

But IM tends to emphasize the local discovery and application of biblical truth, while the other side adds the discernment and impartation of biblical truth (and warnings about error) by those who embody the Church’s teaching ministry. 

This is not about pedagogy. Both utilize “discovery” methods. The question is the manner by which the broader Church, through its mission to the nations, functions today as a faithful “steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). 

One side draws energy and its very identity from apostolic mandates to “command and teach these things” (Col. 4:11) and “…admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present every one perfect in Christ” (Col. 1:28-29). Outside resources are considered assets for growth and local decisions about contextual issues.

To what degree should the wisdom and representatives of the historic and Global Church inform insider theologizing and decision-making?

Lens 3: Culture  

A third lens involves the relationship between the gospel and culture. Richard Niebuhr set out five positions: the Christ “of” culture, “against” culture, “over” or “in paradox with” culture, and “transforming” culture (1956). Niebuhr’s schema provides another useful way to view IM. Jesus followers wearing a “Muslim” social identity follow a Christ “of” culture, whose followers “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Cor. 7:20). IM advocates the continuity of socio-religious identity. Acts 15 is a hermeneutical guide and paradigm; Gentiles need not be “circumcised” and become Jews.

These “Jesus movements” are viewed hopefully as “salt and light” transforming culture—including socio-religious structures and social networks—from within. Gospel meaning can be ascribed to almost any form, including religious forms, except those that specifically contradict scripture. 

Critics of IM represent alternative views of engagement with culture. Christ’s Lordship leads to a radical break with the past, not the retention of a system tainted by sin and darkness. Salvation “rescue(s) us from the dominion of darkness” and brings us “into the Kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:13-14).

Importantly, this “rescue” has visible relational consequences beyond inner conversion or ethical change. Identity in Christ involves a new social identity among Jews and Gentiles, and vis-à-vis the world. Most markers of identity with the Muslim ummah (community) are eschewed, in favor of a new identity in Christ and with his people. This identity is visible, if not always socially viable without persecution (cf. 1 Pet. 5:16). 

Our understanding of the complex relation between “Christ and culture” affects our openness to Jesus movements embedded, to one degree or another, within Muslim cultures. We need not choose one model. The church needs multiple responses, shaped by “the concrete historical circumstances in which Christians find themselves” (Carson 2008, 65). 

Lens 4: Holy Spirit

A fourth theological presupposition involves the Holy Spirit. Advocates defend IM as a sovereign work of the Spirit in our day, leading Muslims to Christ through signs, dreams, visions, and unusual means. 

The wind “blows where it wills.” Yes, it’s messy, and may appear chaotic. But give it time and trust his Lordship and things will (surely and eventually) work out. 

In this, we hear echoes of the compulsion that took the Apostle Peter across cultural frontiers. “The Spirit bade me go” (Acts 11:12). Indeed, insider missiology represents a call to the Church to discern, embrace, and rejoice in the out-of-the-box work of God’s Spirit among Muslim “cousins” now following Christ.

Detractors or doubters have been likened to Judaizers of Acts, and charged with hindering Gentiles (Muslims) from coming to Christ by faith alone, apart from religious markers associated with Christianity. If the Spirit is moving, we should not hamper innovation or field initiatives. Nor do we have the right to impose our views on them. 

Critics point out, however, that appointed leadership, ministries, the Church’s accumulated wisdom, and insights from Global Christianity are likewise works of the Holy Spirit in and for the Body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12). To minimize these spiritual channels also risks “quenching” the Spirit. 

All along the spectrum, then, believers are open, but to different dimensions of the Spirit’s work. The challenge is for everyone to have “ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” today (Rev. 2:7).

Lens 5: History

IM advocates emphasize the activity of the Spirit in the eschatological now. IM represents a kairos moment in two ways: (1) at the macro level, in the 1,400-year history of the Muslim-Christian encounter, and (2) at the micro level of gospel breakthroughs in specific contexts. Both are contrasted with years of unfruitfulness or resistance. 

Advocates compare IM to the gospel’s breakout from Jewish soil into the Hellenistic cultural sphere. Again, Acts 15 (esp. v. 19) is used as a template and “globalizing hermeneutic” (Strong and Strong 2006): Muslim followers of Christ should have the freedom to retain their socio-religious identity with minimal cultural imposition. 

But history is a two-edged sword. Observers argue that we must honor the Spirit’s activity in the Church historic. Even notoriously independent evangelicals retain the Nicene Creed as a “plumb line” of orthodoxy. 

Note that both sides use history, but in different ways. IM advocates argue that diversity of belief and practice, and the danger of syncretism, are normal—a natural consequence of the messy-but-mighty historical expansion of the faith. The fact of theological heterodoxy and its cultural roots are justification for tolerance today. 

The other side uses history to defend orthodoxy and truth as normative—in order to resist the slippery slope of syncretism, cultural relativism, and even heresy.

Lens 6: Doing Theology

The center of gravity of Christian faith today is in the Global South, where the majority of Christians live. This demographic shift has theological implications.

Accordingly, this lens involves how we conceive of “doing theology” in the twenty-first century. As Timothy Tennent observes, not only is Global Christianity “influencing what constitutes normative Christianity,” but “the universal truths of the gospel are being revisited and retold in new, global contexts” (2007, xviii, 2 ). 

Those leaning toward IM encourage local (or contextual) theologies. However, beginning with context, rather than text, makes those schooled in the traditional curriculum of today’s seminaries nervous. These voices decry a kind of “anthropological captivity of missiology” and reaffirm doctrine, propositional truth, and the “transcendent message” of the gospel.2 

Situating IM within Global Christianities and post-colonial theologizing puts tensions in perspective. Tennent advises us to find a “proper balance,” affirming the universal truths of the gospel for all peoples in all places and times, while remaining open to new insights into gospel truth as the word takes root and bears fruit in new soil (2007, 13).

Lens 7: Other Religions

Christians who affirm the uniqueness of Christ have different attitudes and approaches toward non-Christian religions, and the continuity or discontinuity between them. On one side of the spectrum, Christian faith is regarded as the fulfillment of the highest aspirations of other traditions. Elements of culture and religion function as a divine “preparation for the gospel” preceding the arrival of missionaries (cf. Sanneh 2009, 191ff). It has been said, “Christ does not arrive as a stranger to any culture.” 

For IM proponents, this theological lens includes three sociological corollaries, related to boundaries, religion, and identity. First, IM tends to reject the “boundaries” commonly associated with faith communities. Second, “religion” is considered a human construct, and contrasted with “kingdom.” 

This then allows for the reframing of “identity”: A “Jesus follower” can remain inside his or her former religion and socio-religious community, as both are transcended by kingdom identity. For some IM advocates, the goal is broader still: not “inculturation,” but “inreligionization”—the transformation of other religions from within. 

In contrast, critics assert radical (if not total) discontinuity, and a clear line of distinction between Christianity and other religions (Singh 2010, 234). Following Christ provides a collective “memory” and common “adoptive past” transcending a local or cultural sphere (Walls 1996, 9). 

E. Stanley Jones (1925, 59) confidently predicted, “Christianity is actually breaking out beyond the borders of the Christian Church and is being seen in most unexpected places.” That is certainly true in the Muslim world. To what degree can the Church function as the moral and spiritual center of this “overflowing Christianity” (1925, 69)? 

Lens 8: Islam

Understandings of Islam (and Muslims) appear to address the heart of the divide. Martin Accad contends, “Your view of Islam will affect your attitude to Muslims. Your attitude will, in turn, influence your approach to Christian-Muslim interaction, and that approach will affect the ultimate outcome of your presence as a witness among Muslims” (2012, 31).  

One dichotomy is represented by the contrast between Islam as a unifying essence across diverse social, intellectual, and historical realities and Islam as social phenomenon uniquely embedded in local contexts. Traditional approaches tend to be textual (Qur’an, Hadith). Islam is studied developmentally as a historical and theological tradition. 

The anthropological approach to Islam emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, utilizing social science methodologies to explore “everyday Islam,” “lived Islam,” and “Islam in local contexts.” There are many “islams” with a small “i”; the emphasis is on unique regional and local expressions. 

Phrased another way, the dichotomy is between “Muslims”—with a core tradition, way of believing, thinking, behaving, etc. despite disparities of culture—and “muslims” (lower case), including “cultural muslims,” whose religious identity is locally, ethnically, and culturally constructed. The latter is favored by IM activists. Theoretically, this leaves room for newly-constructed expressions of Muslimness such as “Muslim Followers of Christ.” 

Since Islam is presented through different voices and groups, John Esposito (1998, xx) urges us to ask, “Which Islam?” and “Whose Islam?” 

In reality, the “universalistic and particularistic strains” of Islam are “in dynamic tension with each other” (Eickelman 1995, 342). At the extremes, one side smoothes out ethnographic particularities, and the other sacralizes the local. Scholar-practitioners must learn to move beyond stereotypes and rigid positions to appreciate this “dynamic tension.” 

Lens 9: Conversion-Initiation

The final theological lens is conversion or the “conversion-initiation” process (Dunn 1970). In the social sciences, “conversion” refers to a complex of cognitive-emotional-religious meanings associated with personal change. “Initiation” involves elements and behaviors related to recruitment, participation, and belonging to a new social group or movement. At issue is the process of how Muslims come to faith and begin to follow Christ as members of his people.

Traditionally, conversion-initiation has clear markers of faith and belonging. In Acts, this includes repentance, faith, water baptism, Spirit baptism, and incorporation into the church (Dunn 1970).

In IM, external markers are de-emphasized. Paul Hiebert’s (1994) analogy from set theory is often cited. Viewed as a bounded set, the church has boundaries; people know who is “in” or “out.” Hiebert proposed seeing the believing community as a centered set, focusing not on boundaries, but on the center, namely, Christ. The direction of the arrow is critical—toward or away from Jesus, not distance from or relation to a boundary. Thus, for IM, process and faith as a journey are central. 

The conversion-initiation lens highlights a related theological issue. In the New Testament, spiritual union and reconciliation in Christ have intrinsic social implications (see Constantineanu 2010). 

Can one argue for the liberty of MFC’s to retain “Muslim” identity (cf. Acts 15:7-11), but find it inconvenient for them to identify publicly with “Christians”— due to the consequences or social stigma in the eyes of their own people? Peter tried it (cf. Gal. 2:11-14) and was rebuked by Paul. Relationships potentially reveal, or veil, the reality of a redeemed humanity. Andrew Walls states it this way: “The shared table was the acid test” (1996, 78). 


Multiple theological presuppositions lie at the heart of insider missiology. The nine background beliefs discussed here comprise an array of “talking points” for further dialogue and critique.

How we view one or another element in this set of interrelated issues influences what we see when we look inside insider movements, and affects our judgment of what is true, right, acceptable, and biblical about this contentious subject.

My aim is not to argue for or against IM. I have risked over-simplification and false dichotomies in order to encourage more nuanced analysis and acceptance of others with positions across the evangelical spectrum. 

Regrettably, alertness to nuance and a willingness to test one’s position against other evidence are difficult qualities to cultivate in the world of missions, where pragmatics (“What works?”) can trump diagnostics (“What’s really going on here?”), and biblical hermeneutics can become the handmaiden of our own cherished presumptions. 

To bridge the divide on Muslim contextualization, we must think biblically and critically, even as we make space for new believers from a Muslim heritage who join us in singing a “new song” to the Lamb of God.

1. A fuller version of this article is available in the International Journal for Frontier Missiology (forthcoming, 

2. See e.g., and

Accad, Martin. 2012. “Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach.” Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of
J. Dudley Woodberry
. Ed. Evelyn A. Reisacher, 29-47. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Carson, D.A. 2008. Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Constantineanu, Corneliu. 2010. The Social Significance of Reconciliation in Paul’s Theology: Narrative Readings in Romans. London: T&T Clark.

Dunn, J.D.G. 1970. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press.

Eickelman, Dale F. 1995. “Popular Religion in the Middle East and North Africa.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Ed. John L. Esposito, 339-343. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Esposito, John. 1998. Islam and Politics. 4th ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1994. Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Jones, E. Stanley. 1925. The Christ of the Indian Road. New York: Abingdon Press. 

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1956. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2009. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Mary-knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Singh, David E. 2010. “Hundred Years of Christian-Muslim Relations.”  Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies 27(4): 225-238. 

Strong, David K. and Cynthia A. Strong. 2006. “The Globalizing Hermeneutic of the Jerusalem Council.” In Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Eds. Craig Ott and Herold Netland, 127-139. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic. 

Tennent, Timothy. 2007. Doing Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. 

Walls, Andrew. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.


Leonard N. Bartlotti, PhD, worked for fourteen years in Central Asia and is an intercultural trainer and consultant. Len taught at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and Biola University and is currently adjunct professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University.

EMQ Oct 2014, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 420-430. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use please visit our STORE (here).

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