As we continue to see history unfolding, one significant question is whether or not Christian organizations, whether local or international, are going to remain relevant in the postmodern era. This series of blog posts will identify a number of issues surrounding this topic and ideas about how to overcome these issues.
One major topic within the Christ-following community is the discussion about “insider movements.” The insider concept, which when boiled down is a way of describing how people contextualize the Gospel, can be summarized as follows: an outsider (like a Western expatriate) moves to another country that has little or no history of Christ followers. Instead of telling local believers how to develop churches based on Western Evangelical traditions, that person chooses to walk alongside them and encourages them to study the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament as guidelines and models for how to develop expressions of faith and spiritual practices that are biblical and appropriate to their own culture. Such an approach recognizes that culture is intimately linked to the expression of the Kingdom of God in a particular place and time, rather than adopting traditions that are considered “normal” in another culture.
In the first Jerusalem council described in Acts 15, the Jewish church leaders decided to give the Gentile church maximum latitude when deciding which traditions were necessary for Gentile churches. This significant event allowed “Christianity” to develop and flourish in the West as a distinctly different religious tradition from the Jewish-background congregations. Today, many of us working among unreached people groups (especially Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists) also believe that Christ-followers from these socio-religious groups should have the same freedom in determining how to develop unique expressions of faith for each of their own Kingdom communities.
Worldviews today significantly influence Christ-followers’ perspectives on the concept of “insider movements.” For most of the 20th century, the most popular Western worldview focused on “Modernity,” which emphasized scientific progress, individuality, and black-and-white thinking. Proponents of this worldview often believed that there was only one right way to do things. This perspective also influenced how believers perceived religious traditions, and the general consensus in the West was that there were “right” and “wrong” ways of worshipping God and living in obedience to Christ.
Today in the Postmodern era, the way people think is dramatically changing. Postmodernism is far more flexible, and the general consensus is that there are many ways to do things, though some may seem better than others. Many postmoderns assume that tomorrow may be different than today, which means there might be new factors and new solutions to problems. Rather than trying to “get things right,” postmoderns just want to “get it right for today.” When postmoderns view cultures different than their own, they are less likely to deem certain aspects as “good” or “bad” but rather “different.” Postmoderns are far more likely to embrace the insider approach because they inherently believe that there are multiple perspectives and possibilities for how things can be; what is “right” is expressed in shades of gray, not black and white. At its worst, postmodernity is relativistic and doesn’t believe in absolute truth; at its best, it allows the Gospel to flow and grow in new ways that are adapted to the culture it is in.
One example of how modern thinking has influenced the Christian faith can be observed in the Korean culture. Following the Korean War, many Christian missionaries moved to Korea, and it wasn’t long before the Evangelical church dramatically grew there and adopted many Western cultural norms. Koreans were able to take a Western Gospel and integrate it into their culture; in fact, many Americans visiting Korean churches today would feel very much at home there! This is an example of church growth that has used largely foreign church forms. The same could be said of the rapidly growing Western-styled churches in sub-Saharan Africa.
On the other hand, Japan has proved to be a far more resistant culture to the Gospel, though it was similarly impacted by Western “Christian” nations following World War II, and also had an influx of Christian workers. One reason for this contrast is because the Japanese are very proud of their cultural heritage and resistant to what is perceived as contrary to Japanese ways. Some would argue that there has been very little contextualization of the Gospel message to the Japanese in a way that honors and adapts to their culture in the same way that Paul adapted his message to the Gentiles and was approved by the Jewish council in Acts 15….
…we will continue with Part 2 of this essay in next week’s post. Until then, feel free to comment and share your thoughts!