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(De)Franchising Missions: A Critique and Affirmation of Insider Movements

Author: Kyle Holton
Published: August 2013

MD 4.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

Missionaries debate the legitimacy of so-called insider movements. Insiders are people who confess Jesus as Lord yet pray in a mosque or temple. Insiders may retain many religious practices yet pray in the name of Jesus. The debate is couched in a classification system devised by John Travis. This article suggests that the classification system limits the debate, constrains self-theologizing, and supports an institutional model of Christianity. The system reifies the legitimacy of Western missionary institutions and safeguards prepackaged dogma. The debate over insider movements is the Achilles’ heel of the system and presents an opportunity for indigenous people to overcome hegemonic theological and philosophical frameworks, revolt into new theological spectrums, and open new forms of organization not centered in the West.

“Insider” Movements and the C1–C6 Framework

Years ago, I sat with a few Muslim friends who spoke a language called Chiyao. Dressed in whatever garments resembled prayer robes, many of the men wore lacy, Victoria’s Secret negligees purchased at the local market—a last stop for used clothing from the West. At the time, we were sharing a meal after a Friday prayer service. My language teacher, a respected imam, had preached and then requested for me to say a few words. After the liturgy, we had retired to a member’s home for food and conversation. Since my sermon had referenced the prophet Isa, the discussion evolved into a comparison of Christianity and Islam as understood by my friends. They discussed scriptural references and one imam remembered a text found in the New Testament that discussed how God was one. From the vaguely remembered Scripture, the man suggested that since God held the world together, surely the two sacred scriptures represented paths that approached the great mystery of God. This was no relativistic gesture to all religious forms but an admission to a perceived overlap among the two texts of Qur’an and Injil (gospel).

These same imams who orally sift the rationality of textual theology also live in a world that is deeply bioregionally biased. The fears and hopes of their neighbors further define the context of their religiosity. Many Yao imams push the limits of orthodox Islam and use Arabic scripts as objects imbued with spiritual power. I’ve seen Arabic texts soaked in water and drunk as a tea to ward off insanity. I’ve been offered textual firebreaks, in which Arabic prayers of protection inscribed on paper are put in a perimeter around residential spaces.

The comical scene of discussing the relationship between Islam and Christianity with men dressed in Victoria’s Secret gowns is made more strange for Westerners when the narrative turns away from talk of religious doctrine and is directed to the daily ministerial needs of people. The situation is conceptually ineffable to Western taxonomic systems. What religion is this? What are the central beliefs? For many missiologists, these situations are labeled syncretistic or folk. This missiological label has always been a dumping ground for people who do not fit within traditional religious groups.1

My initial dialogue and relationship with the mosque was not without consequence. Many people discussed my religious identity. I distinctly remember one day when I sat with a good neighbor who introduced me to a family member as “one of us, a Muslim.” The statement took me by surprise. It is always an interesting experience to be introduced. What will people say? How do they view me? Is the description accurate? What did my neighbor actually mean by labeling me as a Muslim? How would you have responded?

Recent dialogue concerning these issues of religious identity has circulated through evangelical magazines.2 However, a framework for classifying the situation has been developed and refined within evangelical mission organizations such as Frontiers—a missionary society targeting Muslims. In 1998, the pseudonymous author John Travis, a missionary among Muslims, wrote an article for the Evangelical Missions Quarterly that has continued to frame the discussion about contextualization and so-called insider movements to this day.3 Travis suggested six different categories to organize the response converts have to the gospel and the way the church is structured as the movement grows. Coming from a strictly Islamic context, Travis’s framework is rooted in regions where Muslims live within a society that is saturated with not only the religion of Islam but the culture of Islam as well.4 Travis labels his categories from C1 to C6 in which the ‘C’ denotes “Christ-centered communities.”

Essentially, Travis differentiates each group by separating religious belief and practice from supposedly secular culture and by categorizing believers along a gradient of ecclesiological structure. Assent to the core elements of the gospel is static through all six categories.5 A comparison between C4 and C5 reveals how insider movements are classified.

C4 communities actually incorporate religious elements into cultic practices. Consequently in Muslim contexts, C4 adherents may avoid pork, pray in an Islamic posture or use certain Islamic theological terms. Members of C4 communities will not be viewed as Muslims within the larger context but will call themselves “Followers of Isa.” For example, among some Muslim Yaos in Malawi, missionaries would organize all day events in which the Injil (gospel) would be read publicly, imitating the Islamic way of reading the Qur’an.

C5 communities differ from C4 in one key respect. These communities dissolve back into the local religious and social structure. In Islamic contexts, adherents maintain a Muslim identity, can attend the mosque, and critically practice other aspects of the local cultural-religious context. These members reject or reinterpret beliefs and practices that do not align with Christianity and actively share their faith with others. Other Muslims accept their presence but often view them as a bit “odd.” C5 communities describe what missionaries now call “insider movements,” in which members work within the religious structures of the mosque or temple.6

Proponents of insider movements suggest faith in Jesus can be expressed and contextualized in multiple ways.7 Again, as long as orthodox faith is attested by consistency of the core elements of the gospel, then faith can find fruition within the walls of a mosque.8

In 2000, Travis more fully explained the C5 model.9 The article focused entirely on the Islamic context and debated issues such as whether believers could say the shahada, whether they could attend the mosque, and whether missionaries could claim to be Muslims. In the article, Travis suggested that the majority of Muslims will never switch religions since “even nominal Muslims tend to see Islam as a single fabric weaving together tradition, culture, and customs related to dress, diet, family life, morality, worship, and in some contexts, even economics and politics.”10 Travis assured the reader that Muslim Christ-followers have a true evangelical faith but refrain from being called Christian.11

Additionally, Kevin Higgins tried to further refine the insider movement by looking at examples in the Bible to develop key points that differentiate these movements from syncretistic movements.12 Higgins suggested that missiology could redefine insider movements as:

A growing number of families, individuals, clans, and/or friendship-webs becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including their religious culture. This faithful discipleship will express itself in culturally appropriate communities of believers who will also continue to live within as much of their culture, including the religious life of the culture, as is biblically faithful.13

From this definition, Higgins declared a healthy, orthodox insider movement could be ascertained by key spiritual indicators including prayer, breaking bread, and promulgating the apostolic truth. Further, Higgins believed the four “selves” should also be used to indicate a fully functioning movement.14

Fifteen years after Travis’s landmark article, insider movements continue to be debated. In a recent Christianity Today article, Timothy Tennant suggests the current debate over the validity of C5 communities centers around five questions: (1) Is there biblical precedence for C5 groups? (2) How does personal salvation relate to public identification of conversion? (3) Is it ethical to encourage followers to retain a Muslim self-identity? (4) Is this a new phenomenon or rooted in the Protestant Reformation? (5) Are C5 groups transitional or permanent communities?15


Critics and proponents of insider movements accept Travis’s taxonomy and do not consider folk religionists, who make up a large portion of all the world religions. However, even most Muslim authorities would scoff at the leaders and followers of Islam in northern Mozambique. Adherents of the world’s religions, such as Christianity and Islam, tend to marginalize the syncretist, and snub the overt mixture of religious systems, the lack of doctrinal knowledge, and the general illiterate, magical consciousness found in folk religion. The ritual speech acts such as the shahada, or “Jesus is Lord,” are foundational components of official religion that values doctrinal knowledge. Though a magical consciousness may undergird these verbalizations,16 they are embedded within a coherent, institutional system. But the performative, participatory world of the folk religionist is charged with magical ignorance. Travis’s classification cannot work with a non-systematic aggregation of practices and beliefs. Though I find the phenomenological description of insider adherents to be worthy of reflection, more critical assessments of classification models such as Travis’s framework must develop. Though open to self-theologizing, proponents of insider movements refuse to allow foreign adherents to meddle with the basic recipe of Christianity that has been franchised by Evangelicalism. A proponent of insider movements, Rick Brown, assumes all biblical interpretation leads a person to a singular conclusion: “When Muslims come to understand biblical truth, it is usually because they have been enlightened by God’s Word and been led by God’s Spirit, not because they have learned a body of doctrine. So it takes time for them to reach orthodox understanding.”17

In other words, true conversion is an unavoidable process that funnels people to a specific orthodoxy defined by the West. However, orthodoxy is far from homogenous, and evangelical dogma is founded on questionable bedrock.

Negatively stated, the current debate among missiologists about insider movements reveals a Western obsession with taxonomy that categorizes disputable concepts such as religion, Christology, and ecclesiology. Undergirding all discussion among evangelicals concerning insider movements, the discussion is based on an assumption that the world can be carved into religions, that assent to ontological doctrinal statements about Jesus—found in documents such as the Nicene Creed—are a sign of salvation, and that an ecclesiology is understood in mainly institutional form.

Positively stated, the syncretic process in which Jesus is adapted into new contexts, such as insider movements, represents a deconstruction of religious institutionalization, offering the West a chance to witness a Christology that is not obsessed with ontological pronouncements of being but a Christology that is postured to an oral, phenomenological way of being. The nomenclature of insider provides a helpful lens to review the nature of God’s kingdom, thereby flattening institutional religion and cultivating a people who do Christology in the way of faith instead of mimicking ontological belief statements shaped in the tradition of Western Christology.

Critique: Religion is not real

Ultimately, the heuristic device devised by Travis is laden with Western bias. Assumed within his framework, Christianity is a kind of institutional religion that can be divided into a separate sphere away from other religious ideas. From such a perspective, Jesus is the founder of religion. For this reason, C5 communities are debated since insider adherents blend two religions. The insider movement raises a fundamental question: what is the relationship of Jesus to religion? Instead of locating Christianity in opposition to other religions, insiders bring Jesus to pray in the mosque.

Religion is neither a useful concept, nor a practical reality; Christianity as a religion is a modern construction that confuses the role of Jesus as the Messiah. Many historians suggest Jesus was merely a revolutionary; Paul was the builder of the religion. We are so comfortable with the idea of religion, we assume the natural result of Jesus’ ministry was a new religion. However, recent scholarship has questioned not only the legitimacy of the concept of religion, but also the absence of a religious framework in Paul’s theology.

William Cavanaugh persuasively reveals the historic roots of religion as a concept that originated during the wars of the late Medieval era.18 By blaming war on “religion,” the political state managed to overthrow the power of the Roman church and create a secular space. Cavanaugh suggests:

What is at issue behind these wars is the creation of “religion” as a set of beliefs which is defined as personal conviction and which can exist separately from one’s public loyalty to the State. The creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the Church, is correlative to the rise of the State.19

Consequently, the concept of religion was created by the State to disenfranchise the authority of Christendom. Before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religion only referred to the practices of monastic orders. Cavanaugh cites Thomas Acquinas’s view that as a virtue, “religio is a habit, knowledge embodied in the disciplined actions of the Christian.”20

Religion as a modern concept was given a twofold meaning. First, by universalizing historical manifestations of religio, religion became a specific interior posture. Second, religio, as an interiorized disposition, could be categorized as a system of beliefs. With the rise of the secular State, the evolution of religion was defined as an interior assent to a system of beliefs that must be sufficiently benign not to challenge State authority. Religion was privatized. Referencing Thomas Hobbes, Cavanaugh suggests the Church was swallowed up by the State, thereby causing martyrdom to be impossible.21

I wish to dwell on Hobbes’ idea of martyrdom as it pertains to our present discussion. The Travis framework sits on a foundation that characterizes modern religion as a system of beliefs. All the various “C” groups can be called “Christ-centered communities” since they have “accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.”22 Hobbes denies the possibility of martyrdom because simple doctrinal statements such as “Jesus is Lord and Savior” are without content. As a pronouncement of a privatized belief, it does not give the State a need to kill. Martyrdom is reserved only for individuals who hold practices and beliefs subversive to State authority. Ironically, it is Islam that befuddles Western missiologists with a seamless unity between mosque and State. In many Islamic countries, the idea of a distinction between State and religion, or culture and religion, is absurd and confusing. Is it any wonder Travis’s framework was developed in the Islamic context? A system of classification was needed to understand how Christianity could be franchised23 into the Muslim world. C1–C6 communities only work if we accept the validity of a concept called “religion.” If religion exists, then we can divide the world into religious and secular values, religious traditions, and cultural practices. Only with religion can we differentiate C4 and C5 communities.

Further, the system only gives lip service to the self-theologizing principle. As a religion, the recipe (system of beliefs) used in the franchised kitchen of evangelical Christianity must be maintained and protected. It is upsetting to me that the doctrinal recipe maintained is like a fast-food menu devoid of nutrition. Like a McDonald’s hamburger that tastes the same in New York City or Moscow, so formulaic doctrinal religion cultivates a global network of homogeny. Upholding the ontological Christology of Jesus as the cornerstone element of a system of beliefs, Western Christianity can remain without performative content and works to serve a way of life that is private—subservient to existing institutions of worldly power.

Critique: The church is not an institution

With the advent of Christendom via the great councils, the seeds of modern religion germinated long before the Medieval period. Though a secular state was not created until the seventeenth century, the church was infected with worldly, institutional power during the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, which in turn cultivated a demand for the secular. Since these councils, the Christian tradition has maintained a dominant thread of religious institutionalization. The advent of timeless creedal formulations was authorized by a Christological ontology.

Mary Douglas defines institutions as conventions that categorize the world by an ontological legitimation.24 First, conventions are groups that agree to rules for consistent coordination. Conventions offer the gears for momentum in production and social structure by creating stable boundaries and laws. As a form of differentiation, conventions require boundaries for regulation and outsider identification. Second, conventions are institutionalized by ontological legitimation. Ultimately, conventions become institutions by rationalizing a framework through abstraction to the ontic; the institutional culture is universalized. Practically speaking, the institution grounds its beliefs, values, and behaviors (i.e., conventions) into an explanation of the way the world is at bottom. Moreover, the authority of the institution is unified with this ontological essence and is universalized for all cultures and perspectives.

For centuries, the church has functioned as an institution. In fact, many may wonder why this is an issue to discuss. The church-as-institution runs counter to a kingdom ethic performed and announced by the wisdom of Jesus. However, in the current stage of the argument, the issue is how institutions—such as the church—classify the world around them. Institutions classify the world and funnel thought into specific categories. Again citing Mary Douglas, the institution squeezes “ideas into a common shape so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent” and “systematically direct individual memory and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize.”25 The act of classifying is akin to brand creation within the world of marketing. By dividing the world into ontologically grounded labels,26 institutions hide their dominating presence. Citing Ian Hacking, Douglas describes how the process of classification runs “from people making institutions to institutions making classifications, to classifications entailing actions, to actions calling for names, and to people and other living creatures responding to the naming.”27 Consequently, institutions create a universe through taxonomy:

The instituted community blocks personal curiosity, organizes public memory, and heroically imposes certainty on uncertainty. In marking its own boundaries it affects all lower level thinking, so that persons realize their own identities and classify each other through community affiliation.28

Douglas provides a concrete taxonomic example that we can use analogously for our current discussion.29 The French classification of wines is a bioregional system. Wine is bottled as Bordeaux or Medoc, indicating a region. Without going into detail, the French system begins with a general region and divides down to the level of Chateau. The regions—defined as categories of geography—encapsulate grape varietals, winemaking traditions, and blends. More importantly, the taxonomy hides an institutional structure based on the small chateau. The system serves and protects local, historical institutions within the bioregion. In contrast, California wines are classified according to the varietal type. With the lack of local regulation and the advent of free trade, the wine industry in California is marked by the process of production and its quantification. Consequently, these large-scale industries do not wish to confine classification to local custom. Rather, classification is divided into types of grape: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. Again, the system of taxonomy hides the institution; in this case, the institution is structured along free-market, large-scale industry. The California-based institution classifies by varietal, and thereby maintains an industry that does not support local production but modes of production that overcomes geography. Though the French institution maintains taxonomy, it cannot universalize since the institution is limited by a bioregional boundary. The California system, via ontological classification (i.e., varietals), provides an unbounded institution that is universalizing.

Many missiologists think we have overcome the institutional injustice of colonialism, which had more to do with state power than the gospel. However, when converts are organized into a classification system such as Travis’s, the colonial institution is hidden behind the taxonomy. By relying on false categories such as secular and religious, Travis’s categories rely on an institutional framework that pushes the way of Jesus into the private world by calling it religion. Furthermore, missiologists that support the institution of evangelicalism promulgate a type of taxonomy that reifies a system of quantification and levels all fields of theological diversity. Adherents must be defined, like wine varietals, as ontological types and not according to the local, bioregional systems already existing. In this sense, Travis’s framework provides a classification that stabilizes a non-indigenous church institution. The framework does not accept the inherent bioregional diversity of people but forces a world of quantification based upon a grid of evangelical theology. Similarly, the C5 category is nervously debated not because the adherent’s theology is wrong, but because the American missiological institution funded by evangelicalism finds difficulty in quantifying hidden believers. In essence, evangelical missiologists are like the large-scale, industrial-size California wineries; cultivation of adherents must be categorized by the varietal of believer or type of adherent for easier quantification and marketing. With a magical slight of hand, the C1–C6 paradigm redirects a dialogue away from self-theologizing. In so doing, modern evangelical missions resembles a franchising process in which the theological recipe is universalized, consistency of organization and taste are maintained, and choices are limited to marginal decisions that create an impression of freedom. By allowing clients to choose which type of condiment they want with their Christian Big Mac, the institution is reified and maintains authority.

A Constructive Response

I have spent most of my space critiquing the Western parameters of the insider movement. Briefly, I wish to affirm aspects of the insider movement that will lead to a way of Jesus that cuts across institutional religion. These comments are meant to be a proposal for further reflection. Put succinctly, insider movements represent creative spaces for reimagining traditional Christianity not as a religion but as people shaped by performative Christology and centered on the celebration of the kingdom of God uniquely symbolized in the act of hospitality.

Not a religion, but a people

Many theologians in the postliberal camp have suggested that a proper understanding of missions should be centered not on religion but on the formation of a people.30 For my purposes, I merely want to allude to Douglas Harink’s work in Paul among the Postliberals.31 Harink develops two key issues for our discussion. First, the Reformation doctrine of “faith in Jesus” needs to be, ironically, reformed. Gathering current scholarship, Harink suggests a better translation of pistis Christou as the “faith of Jesus” which makes sense of Paul’s larger theological paradigm.32 In this light, Jesus’ faith or loyalty to a way of life, to the bitter end, has soteriological significance. Said differently, the way of Jesus—his parabolic words of wisdom and shape of life—is justified via resurrection by his loyalty to the kingdom’s impossibility. Jesus’ loyalty revealed a Way of Life. Consequently, the modern soteriology of confessional assent to a rigid doctrinal statement is skewed; an anthropological reading of “faith in Christ” cultivates a human-centered focus on the person of Jesus and the human’s ability to “accept” him. Rather, soteriology must be reformatted away from a non-localized, abstract confession to a life pattern that is analogous to the way of Christ.

Second, Harink suggests Paul’s own mission of converting the Roman world did not include an understanding of religion. In other words, Paul did not see his work as converting people from one religion to another new one. Rather, Paul’s task was to form a people out of the local context. The cultivated people bears witness to Jesus by the “shape of its life.” Harink suggests the shape of this life is a culture formed, “in which social order and material goods are redescribed by being reinscribed within another, scriptural narrative and another cruciform, social practice.”33 In contrast, “faith in Jesus” works as synecdoche for a whole religious system of beliefs that effectively cognitivize the way of Jesus and maintain a religion instead of a skill-based discipline that forms people in the local context.

Not a human institution, but the kingdom of God

Is the above description still a kind of institution? During institutional periods of transformation, translation, and growth, authorities often attempt to disseminate a body of material that identifies the institution. For example, franchising a restaurant is ultimately concerned with strict adherence to the sacred recipes guarded in the ancestral center located and replicated through structures of authority. Likewise, religious institutions such as churches, mosques, and temples work to promulgate a consistent cosmos across diverse regions. From a human institutional perspective, insider movements represent two possible functions. First, such movements use guerrilla tactics for conversion and competition by disrupting another religious institution from the inside. This perspective hopes a fresh Christian movement will disrupt and destabilize the mosque or temple. Though there may be room for marginal contextualization, adherents assume the insider movement is a step towards proper ecclesial being34 and organization. Accordingly, the insider movement is risky. Members must maintain a strict, orthodox dogma with a veneer of foreign religiosity giving time for the movement to gain momentum. Nevertheless, there is the fear that unorthodox ideas and practices will infect the emerging movement and slow the momentum towards outward ecclesial being. The second perspective assumes the borders of the institution are interior to the believer. As long as a rigid confessional faith is maintained, then the borders remain within the heart. The adherent can still be counted as a type of Christian as long as orthodoxy is given assent.

Both views of insider movements are based on maintaining proper religious boundaries. However, a people shaped by the way of Jesus have a kind of anti-institutional ethic that runs within them. Beyond this essay there are rich resources for deinstitutionalizing Jesus, though for now I refer to my favorite source for uncovering a deconstructive ethic in Jesus. John Caputo asks, “Does the kingdom of God have borders or a border patrol?”35 Indeed, the parabolic word of Jesus upturns or turns inside out the institutional borders we create. Caputo suggests the hospitality of Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:12 exemplifies the genus of parables in which the “borders of the kingdom become porous, wavering in a kind of ‘holy undecidability’ ” by dissolving our categories such as Christian, Jew, and Muslim.36 The hospitality of the kingdom is like what I experienced among my Yao friends as we ate together; invitation of outsiders as insiders upturns our sense of institutional membership. In fact, membership to the anti-institutional framework of the kingdom requires a performance of hospitality that moves beyond cultural and religious boundaries.

In this light, insider movements reveal the possibility of kingdom upheaval. Religious taxonomists endanger the movement by classifying it and trying to control it. Much like a dead animal that is lifelike in the hands of a taxidermist, the taxonomist endangers adherents by forcing a classification on them that will suck out their lifeblood leaving only a lifeless form to quantify and nail onto the wall of the Western missiological hunting lodge. Christianity has much to learn from Islam. If we allow insider movements to self-germinate without the overshadowing theological dogma that is couched in abstract, religious language, then we may perhaps hear the kingdom of God come out of the mosque and rebuke our insider hubris.

Not ontological Christology, but performative Christology

The last ingredient I would suggest is rooted in orality. I would like to briefly sketch key areas for missiological reflection in scholarship on the divergent worldviews of orality versus literacy and on how the oral universe of many Folk Religionists may approach Christology. Though global, literate society is quickly overtaking oral culture, I still believe a majority of Folk Religionists operates in a non-textual worldview that literate society can learn.

First, the work of Walter Ong is well known and wide in scope. The characteristics of oral people provided in Orality and Literacy are helpful to gauge and uncover the cognitive difference between oral and literate people.37 Two aspects of orality interest me here. First, people who depend on the spoken word, and do not depend on the written word, live much closer to the “human lifeworld”38 and show a more situational, less abstract perspective.39 Powers of rationality are directed towards the concrete problems of life without the need of abstract classification systems. Without abstract analytical categories, knowledge is maintained via apprenticeship and not stripped from its locality. Further, knowledge professed is rooted in experience. Oral people are great phenomenologists.

Second, oral people have a more participatory framework, and this is exemplified in communication that is agonistically toned.40 As I write this essay, I am afforded a peace with my own thoughts. Able to work out my argument free from attack, I must only occasionally direct my writing towards counterarguments that I am consciously aware of. In the oral universe, communication is strongly participatory. Consequently, proverbs, sayings, and parables operate as counterstatements to a message that has already been pronounced. My own preaching in the mosque was most readily celebrated and accepted when I structured riddles and arguments into my oration. In effect, people would spill out of the mosque still debating the words spoken. There are clear connections here to Jesus’ way of communication in which he spoke to goad people into participation instead of preaching for audience assent.

These two aspects of orality are integrated in Ong’s basic premise—spoken words are sounds that “are not things, but events.”41 For a literate mind, this is most unusual. We are used to viewing our words as they are typed on a screen. We have so thoroughly ingrained chirography into our logic, we often visualize our thoughts as written words. Moreover, when we view our words as things, we can objectify them. From this one move, a process of objectification occurs and induces an ontologizing bias of ideas. For the oral mind, words are an event of participation. The event opens up a nonrepetitive moment when thoughts collide and the world becomes. As sounds, words fade off the echoing cliffs of our ears. Words happen in time, not space. In this light, orality foster a phenomenology of becoming, while literacy is one of being; words perform while texts exist as objects. It does not take much of a conceptual leap to see how a Christology of text focuses on the being of Jesus, while a Christology of sound performs Jesus. If the Word marked the beginning of the world, then the Word is first a spoken word, not a written word. We cannot objectify the Word by inscribing the sound and gazing at the naked scratches we have created on paper.42 In my mind, a concrete place to reimagine missiology is to develop a Christology that is centered on performance instead of abstract objectification of the written word. The oral folk religionists of the globe who do not fit into Western taxonomies are surely capable of helping us with such a task as they perform the Way within their own landscapes.


The way of Jesus not only deconstructs the ideological fences, doctrinal barbed wire, and institutional cattle guards of franchised Christianity—like the toppled Temple of the first century—but also rebuilds a technique of living that cuts through Western classifications by turning them inside out. Those who take the parabolic Word of hospitality into the mosque are practicing Christology by opening up Jesus’ wisdom, which cuts across the human institution. If the Word of God is a spoken word, then it is an event—not a doctrine nor an abstract thesis of the divine. Analogically, those who speak the Word of God in the mosque, temple, or church will invite the narrative of Jesus into their experience. Consequently, the C5 community is not a static state of being, but a becoming. The Word as event shows the inability to institutionalize, grab, ground, or inherit the kingdom. Does Jesus not show a christology instead of defining one? Does Jesus not embody the kingdom of God that refuses to maintain the boundaries of our limited religious imaginations?

In reflection on my own experience, I wonder: am I a Christian missionary who converted to Islam? Can I accept the label “Muslim” given to me? Perhaps I am one of those disciples that went to the mission field and lost my faith in Christianity but deepened my loyalty to the Way of Jesus. Named Muslim in Yao, I discovered a place where a people could be formed and inscribed with the sacred event of hospitality. All attempts to classify the event of the kingdom of God are crumbling towers of Babel. Perhaps now we may begin to postulate an insider movement within Christianity.

Kyle Holton worked for nine years in northern Mozambique among the Yao helping initiate a natural resource community center called Malo Ga Kujilana. In 2012 he and his family returned to the States. Kyle is a high school teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. He has an MA in Intercultural Studies and an MS in Environmental Science, and his research interests involve interreligious dialogue, orality, and cultural ecology.


Abram, David. Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Caputo, John D. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington: Indiana Unviersity Press, 2006.

Cavanaugh, William T. “ ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State.” Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (October 1995): 397–420.

Clapp, Rodney. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.

Corwin, Gary. “A Humble Appeal to C5/Insider Movement Muslim Ministry Advocates to Consider Ten Questions.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 5–20.

Daniels, Gene. “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22,

Douglas, Mary. How Institutions Think. Frank W. Abrams Lectures. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Harink, Douglas. Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.

Higgins, Kevin. “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 155–165.

Kelber, Werner H. The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q. Voices in Performance and Text. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Posliberal Age. Louisville: Westinster John Knox, 1984.

Ong, Walter J. “Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation.” Oral Tradition 3, no. 3 (October 1988): 259–69.

Ong, Walter J., with John Hartley. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. 30th Anniversary ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Parshall, Phil. “How Much Muslim Context Is Too Much for the Gospel?” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 31,

PewResearchCenter. “Folk Religionists.” In The Global Religious Landscape (December 18, 2012). Demographic Study. Publications. Religion.

Tennant, Timothy. “The Hidden History of Insider Movements.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28,

Travis, John. “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34, no. 4 (October 1998): 407–8.

________. “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 53–59.

________. “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 30,

1 Though a report from the Pew Research Center suggests only 5.9% of the world are folk religionists, it is a subjective assessment to decide when an adherent has effectively blended beliefs to be defined as a folk religionist. Further, folk religionists often belong to other religions such as Islam or Christianity. Consequently, such a low percentage underestimates vast populations within the world’s religions. Even Pew Research admits to the difficulty. “Folk religions are challenging to measure. Less institutionalized and more diffuse than many other faiths, folk religions often are omitted as a category in surveys even in countries where they are widely practiced.” PewResearchCenter, “Folk Religionists,” in The Global Religious Landscape (December 18, 2012), Demographic Study, Publications, Religion,

2 See, e.g., Timothy C. Tennant, “The Hidden History of Insider Movements,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28, and other articles in the same issue.

3 John Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34, no. 4 (October, 1998): 407–8.

4 In contrast, descriptive anthropologists, such as Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), and post-liberal theologians such as George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Posliberal Age (Louisville: Westinster John Knox, 1984), argue that all religions function as cultures.

5 “The C1–C6 Spectrum compares and contrasts types of ‘Christ-centered communities’ (groups of believers in Christ) found in the Muslim world. The six types in the spectrum are differentiated by language, culture, worship forms, degree of freedom to worship with others, and religious identity. All worship Jesus as Lord and core elements of the gospel are the same from group to group.” Travis, “The C1 to C6 Spectrum,” 407.

6 I will use C5 and insider movements interchangeably throughout the rest of the article.

7 See Gene Daniels, “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22,; Tennant, 28; John J. Travis, “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 30,; Phil Parshall, “How Much Muslim Context Is Too Much for the Gospel?,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 31,; Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 155–65.

8 Many proponents take the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 as suggesting how the early church made various accommodations to people of different religious background.

9 John Travis, “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 53–9.

10 Ibid., 53.

11 Travis states:

C5 believers are Muslims who have been drawn to faith in Christ by the Spirit of God, often through reading the Bible on their own, hearing a radio broadcast, receiving a dream or vision, experiencing a miraculous healing in the name of Isa, or seeing the loving, patient, incarnational witness of a believing friend. C5 believers understand that good works and religious observance cannot remove sin; that the sacrifice of the Word made flesh, the Messiah, is God’s only provision for salvation (Ibid., 54).

12 Higgins, 156.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 159–60. Like other missiologists, Higgins lists the four selves as self-propagating, self-governing, self-supporting, self-theologizing. Such independent skills have often been used to show authentic, indigenous movements that have internalized the gospel and the responsibility to witness to it.

15 Tennant, 28. Critics of insider movements question the permissibility of overt foreign religious practice being used within Christianity. Further, many critics do not accept the instances of interaction with Judaism such as the Jerusalem council or Cornelius’s experience as normative and parallel to other religions. For many, Judaism holds a special place in salvation history and cannot be grouped with other religions. For a more thorough reading of key concerns from critics, see Gary Corwin, “A Humble Appeal to C5/Insider Movement Muslim Ministry Advocates to Consider Ten Questions,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 5–20.

16 David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1996), 10, defines the magical perspective as: “Magic is participatory in a world of multiple intelligences with the intuition that every form one perceives…is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations that are very different from our own.”

17 Gary Corwin, “A Humble Appeal,”16.

18 William T. Cavanaugh, “ ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (October 1995): 397–420.

19 Ibid., 403.

20 Ibid., 404.

21 Ibid., 406.

22 The phrase “Jesus as Lord and Savior” evokes the unique Christian shahadah in which assent to a specific doctrinal description of Jesus and justification is verbally confessed.

23 I use the language of “franchise” to demonstrate the behavior and organization of many Western Christian missionary structures. The word franchise is used in two senses. First, a franchise is an institution that operates behind a concept that markets a series of products that can be consistently identified with the franchise. Second, a franchise can be given as a kind of legal slip of permission that allows the concept to be promulgated by others while also extending the institution that operates behind the label.

24 Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, Frank W. Abrams Lectures (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press,1986), 46.

25 Ibid., 91–2.

26 Ontological labels attempt to move beyond the task of Adam and the act of naming—a fundamentally linguistic act. Ontological labels classify the world into essences that cannot be translated. Ontological categories are as far down as possible since the description ultimately hits the wall of being. Consequently, when institutions label the world, they calcify a rigid system of essences.

27 Ibid., 101–2.

28 Ibid., 102.

29 Ibid., 105–9.

30 For a popular description focusing on the missional nature of the church, see Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

31 Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology beyond Christendom and Modernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003).

32 Ibid., 25–30.

33 Ibid., 213.

34 I use the term ecclesial being as a way to refer both to the external organization of Christian religion as well as the assumed internal structure of faith.

35 John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana Unviersity Press, 2006).

36 Ibid., 268. The host rejects the insiders and drags the outsider into the feast.

37 Walter J. Ong, with John Hartley, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002).

38 Ibid., 42.

39 Ibid., 49 ff.

40 Ibid., 43 ff.

41 Walter J. Ong, “Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation,” Oral Tradition 3, no. 3 (October 1988): 265.

42 Taking cues from Ong, Werner Kelber suggests that the tension of orality and literacy is present in our earliest gospel—Mark. Kelber hypothesizes that the various christological heresies of the fourth century were communities that adapted the oral wisdom sayings of Jesus. There is a tantalizing idea that Christian heresy originated out of the oral-literate division. Regardless, my sense is that the Word-as-event helps Western Christianity move beyond certain dualisms such as object/subject and pre-Easter Jesus/post-Easter Christ. Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q, Voices in Performance and Text (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).

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