Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements by William A. Dyrness (IVP Academic, 2016) is a significant book. It received Christianity Today’s 2017 Book of the Year Award of Merit, which signifies a couple of things. First, it means that the book was recognized for merit (we will look more carefully into whether such recognition was deserved). Second, and equally as important, the award says something about what Christianity Today values—something that should be of great interest to any evangelical. Christianity Today has spent most of its existence as evangelicalism’s periodical of record. Therefore, to reward Dyrness’s effort may tell us something of the current state of evangelicalism. I think it does, and that makes “insider movements” significant to all evangelicals, not simply those who delve into the depths of missions. [An “insider,” according to Dyrness, is a person “from a non-Christian background who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior but retained the socioreligious identity of his or her birth.”—Ed.]
The book is also important because it marks a departure from most other books that endorse insider movements. It is different because it attempts a focused theological defense of the practice. It incorporates the opinions of theologians, not simply missiologists. In other words, advocacy for insider movements has typically been addressed by missiologists and missionaries, not by theologians. When it was addressed by theologians, it was generally in criticism of the practice. Dyrness changes the pattern by proposing theological support for insider movements.
Third, it is important because Dyrness attempts a broad-based support of insider movements by working in the contributions of anthropology, history, hermeneutics, and systematic theology. He weaves a web of support for this family of ideas. These form the front end for the second major section of the book dealing with anecdotal stories. Most prior treatments started with phenomena and then attempted to find biblical or other justification for them. Dyrness is different, and those of us concerned about missions should take special note of that. The implications of this are immense and historic. Insider movements are not simply presented as acceptable applications of conventional evangelical beliefs or expressions of great successes bubbling up all over the world (contra Greeson, Garrison, and so on). Rather, Dyrness leads with an unconventional, unorthodox theological framework for supporting insider movements. The stakes are enormous if that is the case. If adopted, it means the substitution of evangelical orthodoxy with a counterfeit.
The author introduces us to what he intends by the descriptor “insider.” As he states on page 1, “I have in mind movements among people in Islam who call themselves Muslim believers in Isa al Masih” (the Islamic equivalent of “Jesus the Messiah”). He places this phenomenon in a larger context, citing Scott Moreau’s definition of insider movements as “movements to obedient faith in Christ that remain integrated with or inside their natural community” (133). Missiology is alive with euphemisms. Natural communities or birth cultures generally work out to mean one’s original birth religion. So a “natural community” equates to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or another faith system.
In books such as these, social sciences pull a lot of freight. The underlying issue concerns one of identity. Who are you? Who is anyone? And who decides? Insider movements deal with the issue of identity far more than anything else. People who present insider movements as contextual decisions or as missions pragmatics, for example, do not understand what is at stake. As he progresses through his argument, Dyrness demonstrates that his understanding of identity is one that is overwhelmingly formed culturally and decided on individually.
He begins his work by addressing the role of contextualization and its rise to prominence in Christianity. The key to understanding these changes is the Reformation. According to Dyrness, the influences that determined and shaped identity shrank under Protestantism from a holistic shaping of personhood (elements that engaged the whole person) under the influence of liturgical elements such as rosaries, icons, and processions, to the Reformation’s attempt to shape personhood by focusing on the written and spoken word expressed in preaching, the use of catechisms, and reading Scripture and prayer books. The author sums up the changes by stating that a focus on the whole person shifted to one more exclusively of head and heart. In his view, the external was replaced by the internal. The result was the reduction of religion to “an inward and personal . . . affair” (7).
In an interesting history of intellectual development, Dyrness traces changes from the Reformation’s “blowing up” the world that was, to a growing understanding of cultural influence that led step by step from embracing contextualization to local theology and intercultural theory. The changes were breathtaking, and so is the author’s embrace of them. Along the way, we quickly move through the search for a “supracultural” gospel core that could be isolated from the cultural baggage within the New Testament, to rethinking our own faith system through a study of other faith systems, and finally “intercultural theology” that equates missions to hermeneutics. Religious dogma is recontextualized in the “free space” between missionary and listener (18). The Holy Spirit superintends the process as two faith systems (religions) listen to and become open to one another. Missions, then, becomes an interpretive process that brings two different faith systems together in order to see what the Spirit does in their midst. This is a key feature, not simply of Dyrness’s approach, but of the entire insider movement approach. The Spirit stands at the intersection of peoples and religion. The Spirit serves as a fundamental change agent.
Building on this theology of the Holy Spirit, Dyrness shapes his case for insider movements by changing the entire missions dynamic from confrontation by the gospel to mutual change and mutual learning, from message to mutual metamorphosis. One is not left with an inviolable, eternal truth but with relationships that can be shared and that change everyone. It is an ongoing work of creation and renewal. He supports this idea by claiming that Jesus’ own attitudes toward Judaism were unclear. They were? Anyone with a modicum of understanding of the covenantal framework of Old Testament Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles would understand what Jesus thought. Dyrness’s end-game emerges. He, unlike Timothy Tennent and others, does not see an imperative for believers to separate themselves from their previous pagan identity. Now he shows his hand. The cultural analysis, historical reconstruction, hermeneutics, and the like all serve to enforce this point crucial to the heart of the insider enterprise.
Dyrness replaces the clarity of Christ with the muddle that requires constant local reinterpretation of the gospel. There is therefore no clear message. The author stops long enough to assure the reader that he has not ignored the Fall and sin, but he is equally quick to assert that the Fall is not at the center of the human story. It is, therefore, a fact, but not an essential one. He goes further. All major religions deal with the consequences of human sin, and their responses are all incomplete, to include Christianity. Once again, it is the Spirit who comes to the fore, working in all religions and cultures to call people to Christ. Obviously, we have moved a great distance from the idea of one unique, objective truth for the world to something akin to process thinking that concentrates significance in an interpretive community. In general, Dyrness adopts a particular anthropological gloss on his interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. That places him in good company with Ralph Winter and other lesser luminaries of the insider approach.
It is the modernist-postmodernist phenomenon of disciplinary fragmentation that leverages his ideas. Anthropology, for example, moves from being a descriptive discipline that focuses on the lives of communities into a definer of theology, as missiologists often live entirely isolated from the perspectives of history and theology. In other words, it is the fragmentation that enables the social scientist to “create theology and meld it to practice.” As these fielded theologies become commonplace, they are then presented back to the academies as fact. The entire practice of traditional theological checks and balances are thereby bypassed. Through the new detours and redirection of traffic, evangelical theology changes.
Here are some of the most significant assertions from Dyrness:
- He disagrees with the distinctiveness of Jewish religion as opposed to the religions of the nations.
- “Christian witness is, among other things, an interpretive process in which each side becomes open and explores the proposals of the other” (18).
- Scripture does not function as a valid criterion for evaluating other religions if their texts and teachings are not also consulted.
- Christ never required a definition of the Christian faith. He only urged the disciples to make disciples (22).
- “We need to move beyond contextualization to the celebration of the diverse places where the gospel is being interpreted and lived out, and where we can begin to learn from and correct one another in love. This involves . . . a change of focus from the ‘message’ that we carry . . . to the presence and activity of God in these places” (27).
- “If it is true that religious traditions reflect a response, however incomplete (or even misguided), to God’s call, they must be in some way capable of being included in God’s project of renewing and restoring the earth” (39).
- Every religion has a struggle between good and evil going on, and every religion has something to celebrate.
- “It is the Spirit that works in human cultures (and religions) to move people to call Jesus Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3) (41).
- Believers are not extracted from their religious settings to become members of the church.
- The religious clean break with the past is a legacy of the Reformation.
- A new birth theology owes as much to its American setting as it did to its assumption of Western cultural superiority.
- The emerging church is as much a goal as it is a reality.
- Muslims’ dhimmi context is an insurmountable barrier to conversion.
- “At his deepest being and self, God hears the call of the minaret, Temple chants, Buddhist prayers as human aspirations for relationship with the divine. The Christian message is that Jesus is the human face of God welcoming all true religious aspirations” (143).
This is obviously not your mother and father’s evangelicalism.
That leads to a final observation. Books such as this gain traction within the Western evangelical world owing to a certain naivete. We buy the books based on an assertion that the “insider movement” works. We are told that by adopting this approach, missionaries are able to convert many more people to Christ. This simply is not true. In my fifteen years of field experience, I have met painfully few nationals who even took the concepts seriously. In fact, I submit that Muslims, Hindus, and the like are not those being evangelized at all by those who embrace the insider movement. It becomes increasingly obvious that the target group—the people who need conversion—is you and me. According to the labors of Dyrness and those on whom he relies for his argument, normal conservative evangelicals from a variety of Protestant traditions need to change and get in step with the ongoing advance of postmodern thinking.
Christianity is beset by a unified front of postmodern pied pipers, each of whom vies to convince us that there are no authorities more credible than the individual: we are our own interpreters; we decide who we are and to whom we belong. There is a deep dishonesty in this practice. Dyrness, under the cover of anti-rationalist community identity, replaces objective Christianity with a customized identity that resides ultimately in us alone. We decide who we are. We decide what we are. We decide where we belong.
Make no mistake, there is an active onslaught against traditional Christianity, and it is focused on Christianity’s weakest link—evangelicalism. The guts, the machinery of evangelicalism, have rotted away and are being replaced, piece by piece, by a belief system hostile to the entire reformational enterprise. The church therefore has two choices that may lead to survival. It can either confront and reject these new practices as being, at heart, non-Christian, or it can reject evangelicalism. Insider movements represent the subversion of traditional Christianity, and evangelicals must repudiate them or die.
Basil Grafas is the pen name for an American missionary working overseas.