Inside out

"Inside out" Continued...

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

Proponents of insider movement efforts hold up Bangladesh as the paragon of the approach, and say it has brought thousands of Muslims (in a country that is nearly 90 percent Muslim) into saving faith. But critics say these efforts have confused Bangladeshis."If I have to continue to live and obey the same culture-if I have to pray like a Muslim, if I have to keep the fast, if I have to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, then there is no difference, and why did I accept Jesus then?" said a Bangladeshi believer in a documentary on the Asian church called Unheralded released last year.

That sort of cultural and religious confusion angers Joshua Lingel, the director of i2 Ministries, which trains missionaries for Muslim evangelism. "The worst thing you can possibly do is take the very best Christians in the world who are willing to lay blood on the altar and make them Muslims and Islamicize them in the process," he said.

Labib Madanat, the team coordinator for the Arab Israeli Bible Society, the Bible Society in Israel, and the Palestinian Bible Society, said he believes some of the "imams who are Christ followers" are "sincere" believers. But he noted that insider movement efforts have been less effective in Arab Muslim countries, and said he is pessimistic about long-term success: "I am concerned that a genuine desire to cause many Muslims to come to faith in Christ would become a trap eventually leading generations to steer away from the truth. I call for dynamic relationships with Muslims applying courageous humility and positive confrontation. We need to change-not the Bible."

Muslim-background believers are perhaps the stoutest critics of both the Muslim-friendly translations and the insider movement admonition for Muslim converts to maintain their Muslim identities. At the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization last year in Cape Town, South Africa, where 4,000 Christian leaders selected as delegates from around the world gathered, Pastor Sasan Tavassoli, an Iranian American and a Muslim-background believer, met with other Muslim-background believers from across the Middle East to discuss the insider movement's effects on their ministries and on the Congress itself.

Tavassoli penned a letter on their behalf to Lausanne's program directors: "Many of us [Muslim-background believers] feel hurt and betrayed by the lack of freedom that we have sensed in various contexts of this congress to express our views or to report adequately about our experiences of ministry among our own Muslim people groups. We feel that our voices are not heard," they wrote. "We believe that much of the intellectual support and zeal for the promotion of the 'insider movement' among evangelicals, are coming from the West or at least Eastern non-MBBs [Muslim-background believers] who are mostly speaking from an outsider perspective about an 'insider movement.'" Other prominent Muslim-background believers who have become vocal critics of the insider movement include Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund and Georges Houssney of Horizons International.

Churches are just beginning to address the issue head-on. Seaton is now pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Va. In late March, the Potomac Presbytery, a regional governing body in the PCA, passed an overture at Seaton's urging titled "A Call to Faithful Witness." It states that translations replacing the words "Son of God" and "God the Father" with non-familial language are "harmful . . . bringing confusion to people in need of Christ." It urges Presbyterian churches "to assess whether the missionaries and agencies they support use or promote Bible translations that remove familial language in reference to persons of the Trinity, and if so, to withdraw their support." Seaton wanted the overture to be more than a "we don't like this" statement, so it also states that churches should "support biblically sound and appropriately contextualized efforts to see Christ's church established among resistant peoples."

In Minneapolis, Bethlehem Baptist Church, where John Piper is senior pastor, raised the issue in a letter last year to its global partners, posing questions about the extent of cultural contextualization in evangelization.

Frontiers, a mission agency for the Muslim world that has Bethlehem as one of its prominent sending churches, also is wrestling with the issue. Its top fundraiser, David Harriman, left the organization last fall after working there 18 years because he believed insider thinking had crept into the organization, and he couldn't "sell the product" to donors any longer. "I became increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which we were framing a lot of stuff," he told me. "At the very least, there was profound confusion."


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