A recent Christianity Today article by Timothy Tennant profiles the growing number of "insider Christians" in Hindu and Muslim nations. These disciples worship Jesus while remaining engaged with their religious communities.
The piece joins an ongoing debate regarding these believers… and, tangentially, others who for one reason or another practice a form of "churchless Christianity." At one point in the article, Tennant touches the heart of the argument by asking, "Can someone say ‘yes' to Jesus and ‘no' to the existing local expressions of the church?"
In tandem with Tennant's piece, CT published a 2011 interview with "Abu Jaz," a leader among a significant insider movement in eastern Africa that calls itself People of the Gospel. His testimony includes a powerful personal encounter with Christ, and is a compelling story of finding and following Jesus among the mosques and minarets of his culture.
These believers are understandably hesitant to call themselves "Christians"—a term often associated with cultural imperialism and historical conflict. Many would risk persecution if outed as "Christian," and are reluctant to give up cultural and relational identities that are deeply enmeshed with their dominant culture's faith.
Much of this seems to be only a matter of words. To butcher Shakespeare, a rose by any other name is still a rose, right? But there's more than semantics involved here. Our theological and relational posture toward such insider movements will profoundly impact our thoughts and practice related to mission and the church, both globally and at home.
It is clear from scripture that local assembly of (apparently) confessing Christians is a high value for believers. We're enjoined not to "neglect the gathering of believers" in Hebrews (10:25). The NT epistles and the Revelation assume local church involvement as a normative Christian behavior—regardless of possible persecution. It must be acknowledged that church involvement seems to be a universal expectation for believers.
But that's not the end of the story. While local church engagement seems to be normative in Scripture and church history, Christ's parables about the Kingdom suggest other interesting possibilities. The kingdom, we're told, is small (a mustard seed), almost imperceptible, and spreads in surprising ways. It's a vision that seems spiritually compatible with the "weakness" and incarnational nature of insider movements. In Luke 13, the kingdom is like a "little bit of yeast," that when tossed into the dough, leavens the whole loaf. It's like the "smallest of seeds," that when it is grown, will host the birds of the air. In Matthew 13, it's a treasure hidden in a field.
While it could be easy to bend these images farther than the text allows, the sense of hiddenness, surprise, and divine subversion is certainly present in Christ's words. In Colossians and Ephesians Paul refers to the gospel of Christ as a "mystery," a term heavy in the original Greek with joyous secrecy, and hidden expectation. The book of Acts bears witness that the first generation of Christians were themselves an "insider" movement to Judaism, seeking to incarnate the gospel of Christ in their synagogues and temples, according to the forms of worship their culture embraced.
I don't have an easy answer, only these two theological polarities.
1. We should embrace our local church.
2. Christ likes secrets, and it's just like him to reap "where he has not planted."
The tension between those points is where I suspect we need to land.